Spiritual seeking versus spiritual bypassing

I’ve been OD-ing on reading about healing trauma and the psychology of spiritual seeking all weekend. Partly as a last minute dash as I gear up for exam week starting today! and partly also for my own curiosity and intellectual stimulation.

So, some (half-baked, spontaneous, very, very prone-to-change) thoughts (that I am sure I’ll return to with V2, in the future).

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the deeper my relationship with myself gets, the more spiritual the journey has become. Because it recently occurred to me that this is not what I was aiming for when I set off. I didn’t set out seeking spirituality. But I was looking to understand the root of my constant dissatisfaction, restlessness and confusion. And today I realise they’re kind of the same thing.

I’ve also been wondering about why I didn’t make this discovery earlier, and why I didn’t just turn to the kind of spirituality I have been fed and have have grown up seeing for all my life. The truth is I have always remained somewhat unconvinced about it and of late it has become even less and less appealing to me. It always felt a bit lofty to the point of being unrealistic and unattainable for regular human beings with real, powerful emotions. I think I’m beginning to understand what my discomfort really was about. Because, today I watch the pontificating kind of spiritually inclined adults in my surroundings, fascinated, as I see them so rapt in a spiritual realm and yet so disconnected from themselves, their emotions and their surroundings. I didn’t understand it for many, many years until recently, I learned recently that there’s a term for this. Spiritual Bypassing. A term that was coined in the 1980s to refer to the human tendency to turn to spiritual (often mainstream religion) practices or teachings as a way to avoid looking at the festering pain and discomfort of unresolved trauma and incomplete psychological development. These conditions often manifest in life as stuckness, ill-health, disconnection, disinterest and dissatisfaction with life and serious mental health issues. And the I get now, why the idea that all of this can be somewhat placated with feel-good spiritual practices and teachings that are peddled as quick fixes, appeal like a wonderful short cut to avoid all that discomfort entirely.

Let me also clarify here that I have nothing against the kind of mainstream, religious brand of spirituality that I have grown up with. I believe in it as a legitimate means for seeking spiritual growth. But of late, I have been questioning the need to also examine closely the purpose of any path one may choose. Any path is a means to an end, whether you choose journaling, therapy, meditation, tai-chi, chant the Gayatri Mantra, Vipassana, any other yogic kriya, or combinations of these; but having a purpose, even if a vaguely defined end-point, in mind matters.

I see the need for this because it makes all the difference in whether one chooses a path that takes one closer to reality or away from it. If one sets off on a spiritual path to understand the truth, as most “religion” ostensibly claims to do, it sometimes means traversing difficult and very uncomfortable truths. But if the motivation is to escape those difficult truths, then it is quite futile.

Whatever be the practice one chooses towards spiritual seeking, the former approach leads one to develop a deeper relationship with emotional reality and oneself, while the latter will definitely lead one away from reality, causing further disconnection and confusion.

I see this a lot in spiritual seeking adults of the generation just before me and in my immediate environment, perhaps because I have started to observe the differences between them and us quite keenly of late, in trying to understand what I’m doing differently and why it feels so wholesome and good for me. Even while the tools and practices they’ve often offered promised the same results, but weren’t nearly as convincing. And the few I’ve tried felt alien to me.

I’m kind of baffled at how many of them who have cleaved to spiritual practices early on in life, and have continued to dedicatedly make all the right motions and actions, but currently face an array of debilitating difficulties ranging from disconnection with themselves, confusion and directionlessness, minor to serious physical and mental ill-health. They’re all the same people who I have heard speaking about concepts like finding flow, surrender, acceptance and the like. They’re the ones with the zen demeanour, happy faces and the serene outward beings, while just beneath the surface it’s quite a different story altogether. I have really begun to wonder how much this is spirituality and how much is spiritual bypassing. And how much of this is over-intellectualisation of what is otherwise just a very basic, human approach.

I’m fairly convinced now that wholesome spiritual growth that brings about fullness rather than fragmentation (which pretty much all of us battle at some point in our lives) is impossible without acknowledging and owning up to every aspect of one’s whole being. And that often includes the parts that are difficult to face. Parts that lie in the shadow. Parts that are shrouded in guilt, shame, fear. And this should be the role of any spiritual practice — whether yoga, meditation, therapy or an ayahuasca trip — to gently help us navigate these extremely scary spaces of our psyche. If a spiritual practice is taking one away from this, and promising a direct route to a zen state of mind, I’m not sure how sustainable it is, and how long it will last before the same old demons crop up again.

One year ago: Some we want to stay, but we can’t find peace while sitting

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