Spiritual Bypassing

By Jennifer Frasher, December, 2011

Not long ago, I was given an article to read — well, an interview — in which the primary focus was the so called “pitfalls” of long-term spiritual practice. This caught my attention, for we, as yogis, take such pride in our spiritual practice, and rarely speak of the potential downfalls it may have. We see our practice — whether it’s yoga, meditation, or chanting — as a tool to open ourselves, to expand our consciousness, to let go, surrender, witness, observe, find enlightenment, and, overall, be a kind, compassionate, happy person. But what if we are using our spiritual practice as just another distraction?

John Welwood writes about the relationship between Western psychotherapy and Buddhist practice. About 30 years ago, he introduced a term known as “spiritual bypassing.” He defines this as using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks. He says, “When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to try to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we fully faced and made peace with it.”

This raises interesting questions, like, How do we detach without disconnecting? How do we develop our buddhanature without side-stepping our human nature?

Lets face it — we are not old yogis living in a cave. We are working, relating, emotional beings attempting to find balance in an, at times, crazy and hectic world. We get angry, we get upset, we want to be loved, admired, and appreciated. We are human. We have needs and wants, and this should not be ignored, pushed aside, or overlooked.

Instead, we must embrace our humanness. That is where our work is, and that is where our true buddhanature will reveal itself. The word “compassion” literally means, “feeling with.” John Welwood believes you can’t have compassion unless you are first willing to feel what you feel. This is where our spiritual practice can help! We feel our bodies on our yoga mats. We feel our breath in meditation. We feel our vibrations in our chanting. We can then take this into the rest of our lives and continue our practice by feeling our anger or sadness or frustration. Our spiritual practice is not here to transport us into another dimension, or cloud over the reality in which we live; instead it’s here to guide us in how to be present in all aspects of our lives.

We have to have relationships, we have to have the uncomfortable conversations, we have to look at the aspects of ourselves that we don’t really like, and we have to be thankful for the people who show us those parts of ourselves. We need to put our “practice” into practice. When we do this, we become whole, integrated human beings living rich and fulfilling lives.

Welwood suggests engaging in personal work in conjunction with spiritual practice. He sees relationships as the leading edge of human evolution, and believes that it is the arena where it is hardest to remain conscious and awake. “We need to speak with each other personally and honestly from present experience, instead of parroting teachings about what we think we should be experiencing.”

We need to be real. We need to make sure we’re not using our spiritual practice as some sort of bypass, as if what we are experiencing right now isn’t enough, or already perfect. We have the ability to change whatever it is we want, but first we need to have the courage to look at it.

Most of us love our yoga practices, and it’s easy to smile while we’re inside the studio. But what about when we go home? What about when we are with our children? Our spouses? Our co-workers? Do we remember to “practice” then? If we don’t integrate, then all we are doing is creating a split between the buddha and the human within us. And, as Welwood states, this leads to a conceptual, one-sided kind of spirituality where one pole of life is elevated at the expense of the other: “Absolute truth is favored over relative truth, the impersonal over the personal, emptiness over form, transcendence over embodiment, and detachment over feeling.”

Our spiritual practice is essential, yet let’s remember, it is simply one part of our lives. Yes, we feel disconnected when we don’t pursue our spiritual practice, but we also feel equally as empty when we are disconnected and ineffective with the people in our lives. And when our spiritual development evolves beyond our human development, we don’t fully ripen.

“What if our religion was each other
If our practice was our life
If prayer, our words
What if the temple was the Earth
If forests were our church
If holy water-the rivers, lakes and ocean
What if meditation was our relationships
If the teacher was life
If wisdom was self-knowledge
If love was the center of our being.”

—Ganga White

Jennifer Frasher

A student of yoga since 1999 and teacher since 2003, Jen’s classes are an artful configuration of body, breath movement, alignment, and attention. Her teacher trainings include Mark Whitwell's Heart of Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga with David Swenson, Nosara Yoga, and Kundalini Yoga KRI. Jen also holds a Shakti Kaur Khalsa “Fly like a Butterfly” children’s yoga certification.

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