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Spiritual Bi-Passing

December 5 2013

The dark side of spirituality…

Repost from a great article in The Bud magazine, October 2012

Ubud is to folks of a spiritual disposition what catnip is to felines. While much of this exploration is valuable, some aspects can be problematic or even dangerous. Robert Wolf locks and loads his dream-catcher and takes a walk on the spiritual wild side.

FOR reasons that remain opaque to me, I seem to find myself sucked towards spiritual centres as surely as a jet engine sucks in passing wildfowl. Last year I spent three months in Boulder, Colorado. Since then, I’ve racked up several months in India and now, of course, Bali. Admittedly, I’m dedicated to my asana practice, and there can be few places in the world with a higher concentration of yoga teachers per square foot than Ubud. While I love my practice, however, and derive tremendous benefit from it, I find myself increasingly questioning some of the catchphrases that emerge from the yoga community and other related scenes.
Let me give you some examples.
How about, “We are all one”?
While this is undoubtedly true on a fundamental level, very few of us actually live our lives in a way that makes no differentiation between ourselves and others. If we did, we’d feel the pain and degradation of the women who beg on Ubud’s streets as surely as if it were our own. This being the case, we probably wouldn’t shake our heads at them and order another slice of raw chocolate cake. Think, too, about such gems as: “Our perception of others is merely a reflection of ourselves.”
There may be times when we project our emotions onto others, but this isn’t universally true. If it were, every psychologist responsible for the assessment of the criminally insane would themselves be criminally insane. That could get awkward.
More unsettlingly, in my view, is the extent to which this kind of approach drives the suppression of critical thinking. If I’m uncomfortable with, say, the proliferation of GM foods, is it simply because I need to attain a higher state of consciousness that rids me of discomfort, or could it be because GM foods are a technology with the potential to cause tremendous harm? Any kind of rational assessment can be thrown back on the assessor in the same manner, closing down the space in which genuine distinctions can be made. This leads to an alarming passivity, in which the remedy for any painful or challenging situation is “acceptance”.
Perhaps the most glaring example of the way in which faux-spiritual lingo has become a readily accepted part of mainstream culture is the phenomenal success of The Secret. Preaching the belief that our thoughts determine our reality, it postulates a kind of cosmic consumerism in which whatever we desire can be ours at the drop of a hat. As Stuart Davis points out, however, The Secret muddles the Self (note the capital ‘S’) with the ego. Then it paints the perfectly natural desires of the ego with a big dollop of shiny spiritual gloss.
Now, I’m with Davis when he says: “I LOVE money. I LOVE sex. I want a new house. I’ll take a shiny red bike. I want to be rich, powerful, and successful … I think the ego is good, I think its games are legitimate and should be engaged.”
I’m also with him when he says: “Authentic spirituality is not a vending machine that spits out cars, lovers, and shiny red bikes … Actual awakening increases intimacy with all suffering (and bliss), everywhere, without exception. It does not remove struggle, but increases our devotion to and stewardship of all Reality.”
The Secret mashes the ego and the Self together, and encourages us to identify wholly with the former. Not only is this a formula for narcissistic self-gratification under the umbrella of spirituality, it’s also patently ridiculous. My thoughts create reality, then thinking that someone is a murderer or a rapist makes them so. Our perceptions are undoubtedly powerful and important, but claiming that they are the only true barometer of reality is an invitation to egotism, dissociation, and delusion.
This kind of attitude is plainly visible in some Ubudian circles. A spiritual clique might seem like a contradiction in terms (what’s spirituality if not all-inclusive?), but groups which one must follow particular “rules” to be a part of undoubtedly exist. This kind of identity-level spirituality perturbs me precisely because it subverts a natural human need (belonging) and justifies elitism in the name of a higher calling.
A particular bugbear of mine is the use of the term “Goddess” to describe women (lest you think I’m being sexist, I’d feel exactly the same about the term “God” being applied to men). I’m more than happy to acknowledge the divine spark that animates all of life. Claiming to actually be a deity, however, is another matter.
Ken Wilber, renowned as the founder of Integral Theory, makes a key distinction between pre-rational and post-rational states of being, and places much New Age philosophy (including The Secret) firmly into the former category. Pre-rationality is the world of children: free, spontaneous, expressive, focussed on the present, with little care for the past or the future. Post-rationality is the world of the mystic: encompassing yet transcending thought, aware of depths which cannot possibly be fathomed by the mundane mind.
Much as Picasso mastered his craft before he reinvented it, the would-be-mystic must master the everyday affairs of life before going beyond them. The wide-eyed innocence of children can certainly be beautiful. Equating it with genuine spiritual accomplishment, however, is akin to displaying little Jimmy’s drawings of mummy and daddy in an art gallery and revering them for their bold, unselfconscious strokes.
Wilber refers to this misconception (the confusion of pre-rational and post-rational) as the pre/trans fallacy. Many of us are understandably concerned by an industrial paradigm that lionises economic growth and tramples upon human values in pursuit of profit. If we’re in the grip of the pre/trans fallacy, however, we may be unable to distinguish between genuine engagement with the challenges of a changing world and hanging out in Ubud for a bit. The latter is a perfectly acceptable activity. In and of itself, however, it doesn’t constitute spirituality.
Robert Augustus Masters, a psychotherapist based in Canada, utilises the term spiritual bypassing, first coined by psychologist John Welwood in 1984. In Masters’ words, 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.”
If you’re feeling a sense of chagrin upon reading those words, take comfort. Masters also writes that, “every one of us who has entered into the spiritual has engaged in spiritual bypassing, at least to some degree.”
I’m certainly no exception to this law. I’m the first to admit that I’ve partaken of plenty of spiritual bypassing over the years, particularly when I was vegetarian/vegan/raw vegan. I clung superciliously to the belief that I was making spiritual progress by cutting meat out of my diet, despite evidence to the contrary. The fact that I was living at home with my parents, out of work and having just impregnated a woman I hardly knew, should perhaps have been a clue that all was not well.
This is not to critique vegetarianism or veganism per se. It’s to point out that I personally was using them as a crutch to prevent me from addressing painful aspects of my existence. As long as I refrained from eating animals, I convinced myself that I was being “spiritual”, even if I was causing all kinds of havoc as soon as I vacated the dinner table.
“Most of the time,” Masters writes, “when we’re immersed in spiritual bypassing, we like the light but not the heat.”
We love the trappings that we associate with spirituality more than we love the actual work of coming to awakening. Carl Jung averred that, “there is no coming to consciousness without pain”. When we’re engaged in spiritual bypassing we want the consciousness – or at least the appearance of consciousness – without the pain.
I spoke to three local yoga teachers who I esteem highly – Daniel Aaron, Denise Payne, and Emily Kuser – about their experiences of spiritual bypassing. All three have been in Ubud much longer than I have, and I was curious to hear their perspectives on the phenomenon. Do they, for example, see Ubud as a place where spiritual bypassing is particularly prevalent?
Denise, who has travelled extensively and run yoga centres in Portland, Oregon, told me: “I feel like I’ve seen it more in Ubud than anywhere else in the world. It’s amusing to me.”

Daniel and Emily concur that Ubud is a hotbed of spiritual bypassing, with Emily noting the dangers of the ‘wounded healers’ – people who haven’t integrated their pain purporting to heal others.
Nonetheless, all three are quick to echo the sentiment that we’d do well to resist passing judgement on those we see as engaging in spiritual bypassing.
Firstly, we’ve all done it. In fact, we almost certainly still do. Excising all trace of it from one’s habits is a major task, perhaps a lifelong one.
Daniel speaks of a time when he used to treasure his mala beads and treat them as a kind of “spiritual blankie”.
Emily describes her early life as a fairly chaotic time, which left her somewhat vulnerable to spiritual bypassing when she discovered yoga.
Secondly, it may be a necessary phase.
“I have no disparaging words for gym yoga or Bikram yoga,” says Denise. “Every step is valuable.” She goes on to posit, however, that spiritual bypassing mechanisms, like all coping mechanisms, are doomed to fall apart sooner or later.
“At some point,” she says, “those systems will fail you. Maybe they’ll break down, and you’ll replace them with some other way of spiritual bypassing. Then that way will fail you.”
I ask Daniel what he sees as the telltale differences between spiritual bypassing and genuine attainment, and he’s quick to pinpoint experience as a key factor.
“It’s a lot easier to talk about spirituality than to delve into what that really means,” he says, somewhat hopefully.
I present my theory that, because yoga asanas work with the physical body, they tend to highlight the places in which we’re bypassing our emotions, thereby heading our tendencies towards spiritual bypassing off at the pass. Daniel, however, is having none of it.
“It’s still entirely possible to delude ourselves while practising asana,” he says.
“At its core, asana is just a way of developing strength and power. What that strength and power is used for depends entirely on the practitioner.”
Images of Darth Vader and the Dark Side of the Force dance before me.
“Some people,” Daniel continues, “believe that the whole point of an asana practice is just to stay healthy enough, and live long enough, to have a chance of reaching enlightenment.”
There goes my smug face.
The potential for development, in Daniel’s eyes, comes in how we relate to our asana practice.
“It’s like a laboratory,” he says.
“We get to ask ourselves: how do I relate to myself in the process of succeeding or not succeeding? Do we give up when it’s hard? Do we push through? Ultimately, there’s nothing that isn’t spiritual.”
This echoes Emily’s observation that, generally speaking, “there are two types of people who come to Ubud. People who are in some kind of pain, and people who seem strangely blank – almost two-dimensional.”
Oddly enough, she adds, this latter type can be the most fascinating when the mask falls away and they suddenly open up.
What, I ask Denise, does she see as the underlying cause of spiritual bypassing? Culturally, it seems to be largely a phenomenon of the Western world, which perhaps explains the appeal of another manifestation of it; pitching up in Ubud and pretending to be Balinese.
“We all have a tape playing in our heads that runs ‘I’m not good enough,’ she tells me. Where do we pick up that message? “From the wider culture, which is constantly telling us ‘you’re not good enough’. It’s coming to Bali, too. They’re starting to want posh mobile phones and other status symbols. The Balinese language is dying out and being replaced by Bahasa Indonesia.”
What does she see as the antidote?
“My number one goal as a teacher is to become unnecessary; to support my students in believing ‘you are good enough’.” Is she good enough, I wonder. “Yeah, I’m good enough. I wasn’t always, but I am now.”
In my eyes, spiritual bypassing is simply another flavour of avoidance in a world that provides us with ample opportunities to distract ourselves. If we can notice it in ourselves and others, perhaps we can, as Daniel puts it, “with compassion, with caring, call bullshit when we see bullshit.”
That might mean becoming more and more willing to sit in the transformative fire that creates spiritual heat, rather than reaching for an illusory light. Nonetheless, the potential rewards are great.
In the words of Robert Augustus Masters: “If we can outgrow spiritual bypassing, we might enter a deeper life – a life of full-blooded integrity, depth, love, and sanity; a life of authenticity on every level; a life in which the personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal are all honoured and lived to the fullest.”
Now that sounds like a journey worth taking.

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