A Call to an Enlarged Life

An Interview with Brian O’Donnell
By Charles Cresson Wood

CCW: How did you come to the Pathwork? What drew you in? And how has your relationship with the Pathwork evolved over time?

BO’D: I came to the Pathwork in the late 70's through the great blessing of my Bioenergetic trainer and therapist Peg Humphrey. All my life I've felt a closeness to God. I was raised Catholic and seriously considered the priesthood. In my early 20's I was delivered from the narrowness of my childhood worldview through psychedelics. This left me with a strong yearning for the mystical aspect of religion. So I began a search through the Eastern traditions, sitting with gurus and exploring Buddhist practices. Peg saw that I was a seeker and thought the Path might speak to me -- and she was correct!

The sophistication of the teachings, the blend of the psychological and the spiritual, the confluence of the ancient and modern wisdoms -- all which greatly impacted me. Also the community aspects of Pathwork thrilled me. The openness, rawness, intensity, and truth-telling all shook me up and helped crack open my tightly organized way of being. I'm less enamored of the rawness and intensity these days, and more drawn to the interior aspects of the teachings. 

Currently I feel pulled in two ways simultaneously. First, I feel called to maintain an ongoing fidelity to the basic practices outlined by the Guide. These include really sincerely doing my daily review, so as to observe my reactivity, to notice how strong my false needs currently are (especially the false god of my ISI), to witness the habitual pull of my forcing current of withdrawal from the messiness of life, and to note the depth of my negative pleasure attachments. I am humbled by how entrenched my resistance is to opening to life fully. I pray daily to strengthen my resolve to really follow this amazing course the Guide has given us to truly come Home.

The other pull is a strong desire for emptiness. This is a soul movement away from efforting, striving, and working. It is instead a letting go into the nameless -- that territory the Guide mentions that is behind and underneath all form. Interestingly, the more I touch into these spacious areas of silence, the more motivation I have to faithfully do the basic purification practices, and to live a life of integrity. I suspect that this is due to less and less identification with my "stuff," and so it is easier to approach and question it.

CCW: Given that you have a large practice as both a helper and a psychotherapist, what do you believe people are looking for deep down inside?

BO’D: I believe it was T.S. Eliot who said that: "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." This, to me, is what people are coming to therapy or Pathwork sessions for -- to bear more and more reality. This is the small r - reality of their individualized creations. They come to truly face and feel the inner divisions with a witnessing and accepting other. And then, as a result of doing their personal work, they may be fortunate to open to the capital R - Reality. They come to meet and surrender to their undivided self, and to build the strength and capacity for true joy, gratefulness, and the pleasure that has no opposite. 

CCW: I hear that you have spent considerable time studying the spiritual aspects of sexuality. Why have you focused there, and what is the opportunity of focusing there?

BO’D: I've spent so much time studying the Guide's teachings in this crucial aspect of the journey because I have felt so "unholy" in this matter. I have had such a strong split in me between God and pleasure. The Guide gives indispensable wisdom in this area that I have found lacking in all other spiritual and psychological teachings I've encountered. The Guide tells us that our sexual experience (or lack of it) is the most infallible indicator of where we are in bondage to illusion and where we are in freedom. I've seen over and over in myself, and in those I work with, those areas of the psyche that have been untouched by other forms of inquiry are opened up by the spotlight of this particular path within the path. It is not for the feint of heart, but in reality nothing in the Pathwork truly is!

CCW: As an openly gay Pathworker, were there some unique challenges you have had to deal with, challenges that heterosexual Pathworkers may not have thought about or been exposed to?

BO’D: Any gay man or lesbian who is in this work for any length of time will have to contend with the Guide's notion of homosexuality as a "fixation" or immaturity. This depiction is familiar to many of us who are gay because most of our formative lives we have had religious and psychiatric authorities telling us that we were sinners or sick. So it takes no small measure of fortitude to meet this once again. Some leave the work as this depiction is so painful. Others ignore it, as I did for years. Eventually I opened to it. The Guide recommends that if there is a tight “no” to anything than this is a call for exploration. I did feel a tight “no” and reactivity to this depiction of such a central part of my identity. I risked that the Guide may have been right. I wanted to be open to any eventuality as spelled out in the first stage of commitment. I found out that it is true that I am immature in my sexuality but it has to do with what I mentioned earlier -- my split between God and pleasure, not the gender with which I practice love.

An added benefit of this search was that I felt more of my true autonomy. No teaching should be swallowed without questioning. A mature relationship with any teaching requires not giving your authority away. So while I have immense respect and gratitude to the Guide, I also need to keep asking: "Does this truly fit for me?" Of course this can be self-serving as well, so only unswerving sincerity will keep us in touch with the truth that we all seek.

CCW: I understand that you have been a long-time meditator. Can you speak to the importance of meditation, as well as how it fits with your personal spiritual discipline and practice?

BO’D: I started meditating as a young man with a dual purpose. Consciously I felt a clear call to God and wanted a simple and direct route to the Inner Temple. Unconsciously I was drawn to meditation as an escape from the challenges of a fully engaged life, a means of false transcendence. So one of the gifts of the Pathwork has been it emphasis on finding God precisely through our challenges. What we think of as being in the way of God, is in reality THE WAY to God! So I've appreciated the Pathwork’s embodied and unifying approach to the Divine. It has helped me to be less fragmented.

Today I see my meditation practice as akin to having the best Helper available at all times. It is a summoning of the inner teacher to meet any life issue or sense of suffering. It is a re-minding of myself literally. I learn from the Guide's articulation of the active and receptive principles at play in meditation. The expression of the active is the essential tool of inquiry. The Guide tells us that the most important question we could ever ask is: "What is the truth?" This stance of questioning our basic beliefs and conditioning is fundamental. The expression of the receptive is the practice of resting in the Being state, and it occurs when we release all efforting and controlling of whatever arises.

In my own practice I find myself challenged by the receptive, the letting go, and the trusting surrendering soul movements. The Guide teaches that the very obstacles we have to spiritual practice will be the same factors that block our fulfillment in other areas of our lives. So I see the truth of this in my life. 

For example, at the gym this morning I faced a choice of running or playing volleyball. I noticed how I chose running because I know that is easier for me, as well as active and disciplined. Volleyball is harder for me because that is more spontaneous, more fun, and involves more receptivity. I'm more developed in discipline and inquiry than I am in letting go, play and abandoning myself. This is clearly my soul work and I lean into it. I am so grateful for this sublime and deeply grounded teaching of the Pathwork.  


Brian O’Donnell, PhD, has been a student, senior helper, supervisor, and teacher of the Pathwork for the past 34 years. His call and blessing has been to take the Pathwork around the world. In addition to being a helper, Brian is a psychotherapist who works with the perspective that the illness is also the medicine, and that what ails us is a call to an enlarged life. Brian is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and can be contacted at bodpath@aol.com.

Charles Cresson Wood, MBA, MSE, is an author, change management consultant, and Pathwork helper based in Mendocino, California.  He is the author of the Pathwork book entitled “Opening To Abundance: A 31-Day Process Of Self-Discovery.”  He has written a new Pathwork book that will be published in a few months entitled “Discovering Your Will To Change: Overcoming Denial, Evasion, Procrastination & Resistance.”  For more information, see www.abundantreality.com.

Louis Davis