“Well, I have always had the sense of you as someone living only in your upper chakras, and not really engaged in the more emotional and psychological work…There is a sense of disconnection in your heart-centered, transcendent spiritual persona, Julian.”
That stopped me dead in my tracks. We were talking about a recent break up at the end of a relationship in which two extremely idealistic spiritual seekers with a firm belief in the power of love had figuratively torn one another limb from limb in an endless cycle of unproductive bickering and passionately blissful reconciliations.
I was 25, and had built quite a reputation in my neighborhood, and amongst my friends as being a rather enlightened young man.
Present, unafraid of prolonged eye contact punctuated with twinkling-eyed enigmatic smiles, able to explain the nuances of non-dual awakening and the higher truths of spiritual realization. I had been pursuing my path since my late teens, now teaching yoga for a couple years, and reveled in the sense of creativity, creating spaces for others, and feeling admired and important for the work I had done; the study of spiritual texts, the arduous meditation and psychedelic journey work, and of course the daily intensive yoga practice, vegan diet, and impressive head of thick, long rockstar hair!
But Rick got through to me. Perhaps it was because I respected this older therapist’s opinion as a friend and professional, perhaps it was because I was really wounded and disoriented by the tumultuous and vengeful break-up. Either way, I listened. I started to ask questions. Later I would learn that the name for what he was describing was spiritual bypass.
As this new insight worked its way through my mind, I went through a lot. I probably spent a good 18 months journalling about the battle between these two belief systems as I continued to relate to my inner experience via yoga, meditation, breathwork, dance, and bodywork.
On the one hand, I had become convinced that anytime I was feeling fear, or grief, loneliness, anger, or anything else I deemed “negative” this was at bottom an expression of spiritual confusion, a kind of self-forgetting in which my true identity as an eternal, divine, limitless being having a temporary human experience was obscured by some kind of false identification with an illusory identity contracted around emotional reactions simply based on wrong-thinking.
That belief was so strongly installed in me, that anytime i had a difficult emotion, I would find my way out of it by applying those metaphysical ideas to the situation. But I was finally unable to deny how unsustainable this approach was, given that my ex-girlfriend and I had applied it with a confidence matched only by the magnificent failure it manifested in terms of our ideals in the real world arena of relationship.
On the other hand, I was discovering that this seemingly enlightened way of dealing with my emotions, with conflict, with the experience of being human was actually covering over a lot of deep trauma, painful feelings, insecurity, and fear about my life situation, that were part of my present, and had roots deep my past.
I was discovering that if I suspended he story I had been telling myself about how to overcome the illusion of separateness, limitation, and need —if I actually surrendered to the wisdom of my emotional body instead of talking myself out of my feelings, there was a simultaneous arising of great dread, helplessness, and vulnerability, but also of a surprising relief…
It was as if parts of my authentic self that I had been repressing, denying, avoiding and judging because in the past I had not known how to deal with them were finally being brought into the light of the consciousness and love I had spent the last few years cultivating. But I would quickly find myself rejecting or attacking with the ideas and beliefs about the illusory and meaningless nature of “negative” feelings.’
This continued back and forth as i struggled to integrate what had been a fragmented sense of self with some heavily overdeveloped and some completely stunted aspects.
Imagine my joy and relief at discovering Jack Kornfield‘s book A Path With Heart. This was the first spiritual text I had ever come across that was actively and directly seeking to integrate the application of meditation techniques with psychological awareness.
Via his own journey, both as a student and teacher, of discovering that deep layers of personal emotional work could be completely overlooked and in fact avoided on the spiritual quest —Kornfield had followed his years living in Buddhist monasteries with earning a Phd in Clinical psychology and working as a therapist for 10 years before publishing this book that sought to weave the wisdom of psychological work and spiritual practice.
With this book, I now had a set of tools and ideas to apply to my own struggle to overcome spiritual bypass, and integrate a psychologically honest and emotionally real sense of self into my yoga and meditation practice and teaching.
I never looked back —and the Kornfield text, along with Peter Levine‘s somatic work on trauma, and Rick Hanson‘s weaving of neuroscience into Buddhist practice, has been required reading in the Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind training from its inception.
But what did my therapist friend mean with his esoteric sounding chakra comment?
Well, the first three chakras on Tantra can be interpreted psychologically as referring to the stages of our development in which we are navigating our instinctive, familial, emotional, relational challenges —and one elegant way of describing spiritual bypass is that it is the defensive maneuver that seeks to avoid all of that, and instead transcend into the ideals of heart-centered unconditional love and higher consciousness. Left by the wayside are our survival fears, deep emotional needs, the vulnerable helplessness we feel as infants, the relational dynamics of family, betrayal, trust, longing for love, and any issues we may have around healthy self-worth or being empowered in realistic ways to move through the world effectively,
But what could be wrong with that?!
Well, nothing, as long as it is integrated and not an avoidant defense mechanism…. The thing is, those emotions, traumas, and aspects of self-development don’t disappear just because we pretend they aren’t there.
In fact what I found is that the best personal application of those more spiritual virtues and qualities was to extend their grace, compassion and expansive awareness into the most vulnerable and shadowy depths of my own trauma history, existential anxiety, and relational conflict, with a deep respect for, rather than an arrogant dismissal of, their validity.
As an aside, there was an interesting way in which I was already open to starting to debunk my New Age influenced spiritual bypass. Because I grew up in South Africa under Apartheid, I would always cringe a little when I heard privileged white Americans espouse platitudes (about divine perfection, everything happening for a reason, and there being no victims, etc.) that to me seemed to deny the realities of oppression, injustice, and their brutal manifestations that I knew I was spared by the dumb luck of being born white in a country in which blacks were treated by a dominant power structure as being subhuman.
I came to see over time that spiritual bypass functions both with regard to the sociopolitical and the emotional spheres of being human, and that the antidote is developing the resilience, compassion, critical thinking, and honesty to be-with what is painful and difficult about our world in grounded ways.
Central to what I offer in the world as a yoga and meditation teacher, retreat leader, ecstatic dance facilitator, bodyworker, and teacher training is sharing the possibilities of a more integrated perspective and approach to the spiritual territory that opens up on the other side of spiritual bypass.
Please share your thoughts, feelings, experiences and journey around these topics in the comments below, and feel free to share this blog post anywhere you like if it speaks to you, or if you feel it might be useful in any of your circles.
Yours with so much love and gratitude,
PS: it would be a couple more years before I met and started collaborating with Hala —but my one of my first exposures to her was sitting at Real Food Daily at the table beside hers as she sought to explain exactly these types of insights to the friend she was having dinner with; a really nice seeming guy who kept saying he would rather just feel love than spend any time dealing with sadness or weakness!