I just finished a very challenging and insightful book. Spiritual Bypassing : When Spirituality Disconnects us from what Really Matters by Robert Augustus Masters I had purchased the book after a retreat I attended with my sweetie. At one point in this retreat all the participants engaged in a very powerful exercise. For the exercise each person wrote down the facts of a situation in which they had had a strong emotional response. For example, someone shared that she had just had to tell her 20 year old son that she would not pay for his car loan. Next each person partnered with someone and told them the facts of the situation. The partner then responded by saying, “ I imagine you would feel . . . “ it was a powerful exercise because it unearthed feelings people didn’t even know they had, and because just the simple act of someone listening and trying to place themselves in the shoes of another changes both. We then exchanged partners and interactions several times.
The situations I chose were happy. I chose the fact that my sweetie and little one had treated me royally during my birthday week. I also shared with partners that I had gotten a wonderful card from my parents that had made me cry. After the group as a whole debriefed it was clear that very few people chose happy situations. I talked with my sweetie and told her what I chose, and how I found it difficult to come up with something that had evoked a strong emotional response that had been negative. Her insightful response was “ interesting – I am surprised you did not raise – and then she proceeded to name two things that evoke in me a low-grade but very deep disappointment and sadness. In fact I do not think that I am generally aware of the pain.
It was then that I knew that I had some interesting material to work with. Somehow I was failing to look at some important things in the interest of appearing “together” or “spiritual” or to simply avoid pain.
That’s when I began to revisit the idea of Spiritual Bypassing. According to Robert Augustus Masters
Spiritual bypassing is the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs. It is much more common than we might think and, in fact, is so pervasive as to go largely unnoticed, except in its more obvious extremes.
Aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, lopsided development (cognitive intelligence often being far ahead of emotional and moral intelligence), debilitating judgment about one's negativity or shadow side, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.
Essentially spiritual bypassing is a run around of life. Because pain is, well, painful, we seek to avoid it or numb it or falsely transcend it. This is not much different than how most people operate most of the time. From thrill seekers to drug addicts, to anorexics, to workaholics we know there are numerous ways to cover or get away from pain. In fact the Buddha identified similar challenges over 2,500 years ago when he pointed out grasping and aversion at the root of our problems. However with spiritual bypassing our false refuge is spirituality itself.
Interestingly, one of my sweetie’s biggest challenges around my burgeoning spirituality of the last several years was her perception of a certain flatness in me. She would frequently remark that where she might get too angry and loud – I was not angry enough or loud enough. When we would need to discipline our little one we often struggled because to her I seemed so incredibly non-reactive. From my perspective it was hard earned and cultivated non-reactivity.
What if she had been right though? What if there was truth in what she said? To what extent might I use my spirituality to avoid conflict? What if the flatness she experienced was really a false detachment – a way of stepping over my connection to a situation or issue or person rather than a way to go more deeply into the conflict and discover who I truly am and who others are. Goodness knows I had always avoided conflict during many other years. What if this had just given me another excuse but with a more acceptable mechanism?
I knew it was true at least to some degree. I had been invested in improving some me that had made gains and was now in a different place. I had so quietly created a new narrative for myself. Knowing that “I “ did not quite have it altogether was painful. I struggled. It was also however, incredibly instructive, since it allowed me to see a blindspot where my ego existed powerfully and strongly and before then, unnoticed. It showed me how incredibly subtle my ego could be. I had crafted a new “me,” a “more spiritual me”, even while touting notions of “no – self” Evidence that I had identified with this new me existed in the fact that when I realized that I used spiritual bypassing, I felt defensive, resistant, and like at some level I had failed. I even felt defensive of authors I loved who may or may not have bypassed spiritually. All that ,is the ego in operation. Does your true self care? Your true self is able to hold with compassion that which is driven to get it right while at the same time knowing in advance that it already is. What cared was this movement of mind that wanted a story that said” I used to act this way but now that I have found spirituality I am improved this way”. And it wanted that story because it believed it would help predict the future. It wanted that story because it wanted to prove to the world that is healthy, sane and safe. It wanted that story to cover the pain of not being enough.
One’s true self is not interested in the future. One’s true self is not invested in whether it gets anywhere else. One’s true self can look at the way spiritual bypassing happens and rather than feel let down because one has failed – feels compassion for that which needs to behave in these ways to seemingly protect itself. As I have said before, love claims all, our true self does not worry if “we got it right” and knows that only an ego worries about that. It then embraces that very ego in a blanket of compassion that recognizes the ego’s, (in this case gentle , but ultimately misguided) attempt to protect, defend, and safeguard. We put up our guards but does truth need to be defended? Does love need defenses?
At first when I realized that I had been spiritually bypassing I felt upset and paralyzed. I did not know what to do. But really the key to working with spiritual bypassing is similar to much of our other spiritual practice. Deepening our awareness is key. We are already more than halfway there if we can realize when it is happening. We might then ask ourselves why? – not in an accusatory way but gently, in a curious and attentive way. The answer need not be intellectual in fact perhaps it should not be. The question is to get you to inhabit the feeling of what it is that you are afraid of or in pain about. The question is to bring you closer to what is at the heart of that contraction or knot. What is it in me that could use some tenderness? What is it that feels like it needs to be protected? What does it need to be protected from? How did it come to those beliefs? The point is not to cast blame , or say so and so acted this way and now I need to act this way to be vindicated but to probe the origin of the conditioning that is generating the painful belief. The point isn’t even to get rid of the pain or problem (for that could be the very spiritual bypassing about which we are speaking ) but to understand how that pain or problem takes place within the much larger truth of who you are. Your pain is real but it is only a small part of you.
Spiritual Bypassing makes avoiding your pain a fixation and thus seem more solid and monolithic. By avoiding pain it is given more substance and weight than if the pain is acknowledged and explored and ultimately seen as happening within something infinitely more vast. Engaging in spiritual bypassing is like saying that your fingernail is you. Your fingernail is part of you but it’s not the whole thing.
Why then might we continue to do it even when we recognize that it may not be helpful? Because some part of us still holds out for a time or state that is pain free. We believe we might get “there” - some place without pain. But here is an interesting question to think about deeply for a moment - in truth would you really even want that? What of life would be missing if there were no pain? Why is pain synonymous with “bad. Isn’t pain a part of the unfathomable beauty of existence, at once personal and universal? This is not to embrace masochism but to point out the degree to which pain (whatever it is) is a part of life’s palette of colors with which we are painted. Furthermore that pain frequently is the catalyst for great compassion. When seen and acknowledged it can link us to the recognition that each of us experiences different flavors of a basic and primordial yearning for wholeness. Pain unifies us in the recognition that we will all face sickness, sorrow and death. That is not meant morbidly, it is meant to help us realize how incredibly precious we are and life is. Feeling pain is a deep sign of caring for this life.
I am working on moving towards my pain, knowing it embracing it, cradling it, letting it exist within compassionate space. I suspect by knowing my own pain I will be more open and loving to others who are in pain – which is just about all of us. The key however will be to know that pain AND to know the vastness within which that pain is taking place. That is essentially to walk on earth and be in the kingdom of heaven at the same time.
Even though I am not a psychologist, I suspect that there is an acute rawness underneath the hidden places where we spiritually bypass to survive. I wonder if we believe that we cannot tolerate the pain? Again, without being a psychotherapist, I believe we can. If those hurt places are approached gingerly and with love they can be healed and made whole. We are all in this together. Ultimately your pain is my pain and your freedom is my freedom.
Eventually you realize that even so called spirituality (whatever that is) is itself a means, a means toward an end which you already have within you.