I didn’t predict that I’d write a third part in this series, but as I continue thinking about this book (Robert Masters’ Spiritual Bypassing), more and more important awareness comes up that I want to share.
I think one of the most important points Robert makes is that we suffer a lot less in life when we stop “expecting spirituality to make us feel better.” But spirituality isn’t the only area where it’s helpful to drop that expectation, Robert says. We’ll also reduce our suffering when we release our careers, relationships, and basically everything else from the obligation to “pick us up when we’re down.”
The Painful Pursuit of Pick-Me-Ups
This way of looking at life was hard for me to wrap my mind around when I first came across it. It’s very alien to the way we live in our culture. I think most of us learned, practically from birth, that life is all about looking for “pick-me-ups.”
You “feel bad,” we’re taught, when you aren’t making enough money, you haven’t “found the one,” you haven’t “obeyed” “Rule #1 for a flat stomach,” or you don’t have some other person or thing. But if you try hard enough, the story goes, you’ll acquire the “right” people and things, and you’ll never “feel bad” again.
This isn’t true only when it comes to jobs and relationships. Most of us also think this way when it comes to “minor” pursuits. Take blogging. How many of us are in the habit of surfing blogs looking for a “pick me up” — for inspiring words, snark, or grammatically challenged kittens to “make us feel better”?
To many of us, I think, this model of “life as a perpetual quest for pick-me-ups” seems like the only possible way to live. It doesn’t occur to us that anything else is available. But what Robert, and spiritual practice at its best, offer us is a radical challenge to the conventional wisdom.
A “Veggie Connoisseur” Approach to Living
What if, instead of scouring the blogosphere for pick-me-ups whenever we’re “feeling bad” — tense, sluggish, sad, or something else — we chose to sit and get intimate with that feeling? What if we got in the habit of turning our attention toward those unwelcome sensations, rather than seeing them as a problem and frantically grasping for the mouse when they arise?
This practice, I think, is somewhat like becoming a “connoisseur” of emotions and sensations, as if they were different kinds of wine. Each feeling that comes up in the body has its own unique “bouquet” — whether it’s tart, sweet, sharp, “dusky,” or something else. Of course, it’s a little different from wine tasting, because we don’t get to choose the sensations we feel. But that’s all part of the variety.
Another good analogy would be Patricia’s story about getting random baskets of vegetables from her agriculture co-op. Sometimes, she can’t even tell what kinds of veggies they are. But being an adventurous spirit, she eats them anyway.
This sounds more fun to me than eating asparagus, or even something exotic-sounding like bok choy or jicama, every week. What if we did the same when it comes to our emotions — welcoming each of them as if it were an intriguing new veggie that just arrived on the doorstep?
When we let go of our need to “fix” our “bad feelings,” I think, and instead learn to savor every experience that comes our way, we’re doing spiritual work in its highest form. As Robert puts it, “spirituality ultimately means no escape, no need for escape, and utter freedom through limitation and every sort of difficulty.”
For a long time, I harbored a belief that came from reading and listening to spiritual teachers. The belief was that, when I feel upset, the best practice is to just “sit with the feeling” — to tune into the sensations in my body, and just let them pass away. Don’t “react” to the upset by immediately lashing out at someone.
This kind of practice has done wonders for me when I’ve used it in meditation. It’s helped me understand that, when I’m doing something solitary, I don’t need to run away from my task whenever a difficult thought or feeling comes up. However, it was actually harmful for me to practice this while talking to another person.
Why? Because my natural tendency, since long before I did any spiritual practice, has been to hold back my hurt or anger when I’m with someone, and try instead to understand what they’re going through.
I’d tell myself I was doing this out of concern for the other person, and sometimes this was true. But sometimes it wasn’t — instead, it was because I was afraid of how they’d react if I told them how I felt.
When I discovered the spiritual practice of “not reacting,” I started using it as an excuse for my habit of avoiding conflict. “Oh, it’s not because I’m afraid of hurting them or making them mad,” I’d tell myself. “I’m just ‘sitting with the feeling,’ like I would in meditation.”
In other words, spirituality — at least, in this case — actually enabled my immature way of relating to the world, instead of helping me let go of it.
Anger Can Be Compassionate
A major theme of Spiritual Bypassing is how spiritual practice can sometimes enable unhealthy behaviors, and actually retard our personal growth. The story I just told is a good example of what Robert calls “blind compassion.”
“Those of us who practice blind compassion,” writes Robert, “generally spiritualize our misguided tolerance and aversion to confrontation, confusing being loving with putting up with whatever anyone does and never judging them, no matter what.” Not only does this allow others to abuse us, but more importantly, it isn’t really compassionate toward them.
Sometimes, as Robert points out, we need our anger to get a compassionate message across. If I’m yelling at you and putting you down, for example, it may not help me for you to respond in a soft, understanding way. If you tell me “it sounds like you’re angry, and I get where you’re coming from,” I may decide — in my self-righteous rage — that I’m “winning,” and press the attack.
But suppose, says Robert, that you instead “meet me with a force of equivalent intensity, stopping me in my tracks with a ‘Stop!’ that is as fiery as it is caring.” If you do this, “you might not appear caring,” but “I can feel it as you interrupt my neurotic ritual.”
In other words, the intensity you bring can actually help me see how much you care, and snap me out of my old habit of being mean to control my environment.
So What’s Left?
This isn’t to say that spiritual practice is always harmful. In my view, spirituality, and maybe personal development generally, are really about getting intimate with, and getting access to, all parts of ourselves – what Robert calls “the cultivation of intimacy with all that we are.”
If we’re afraid of our anger, for instance, our spiritual practices can help us to fully allow that fear and speak our truth, rather than fleeing from the fear as we usually would. Some people, on the other hand, have no trouble getting angry, but expressing affection feels “weak” or “cheesy” to them — and spiritual practice can help them to fully allow that feeling of cheesiness and give somebody a hug.
I’d definitely recommend this book, especially if you’ve wondered (as I have) how to integrate your spiritual practice into the rest of your life in a healthy way.
You may recall I wrote a while back about my recurring “critic fantasy,” which involved a man getting up while I was giving a talk, and yelling that my book had nothing to offer.
Well, last week, a man actually did approach me after a speaking engagement and tell me my work had nothing to offer! Oops — perhaps I attracted this situation by “putting it out to the universe” on my blog! (More on the law of attraction in a moment.)
I didn’t find myself freaked out by the odd synchronicity, although I did feel a mild irritation at being misunderstood. This was because the man’s rant didn’t seem to deal with what I actually said, but instead with his preconceived notions of what people who talk about “spiritual” stuff say.
Roughly, his complaints went like “all this stuff about ‘making yourself happy’ and ‘creating a Rolls-Royce by thinking about it’ and so on is garbage.” However, I didn’t talk about either of those. First of all, I only teach about manifesting Lamborghinis — if you want a Rolls, you need a different guru.
No “Magical Manifesting Mastery” Here
Just kidding — I don’t talk about “manifesting” anything. In fact, I later realized I was, in a (limited) way, thankful to the man for helping me clarify what my work is really about. The work I do is about relating to the thoughts and sensations that are already there in our experience, not attracting or creating something to take their place.
One of my biggest inspirations in following this path has been the work of psychotherapist Robert Augustus Masters. Some might say this inspiration borders on obsession — I even flew from California to Boulder, CO to take Robert’s workshop. Robert, if you’re reading this, don’t worry — I don’t have your home address.
But here I am joking around, when I’m actually here to review Robert’s latest book, Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters (not an affiliate link).
What Is Spiritual Bypassing?
Spiritual bypassing, to Masters, means “the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.” Basically, when we learn that getting the “right” job, relationship, car, or something else isn’t going to heal our pain, we turn to spiritual practices, hoping they’ll quell our “bad feelings” at last.
Often, unfortunately, we don’t find the relief we’re looking for. For example, some people (as I used to do) think meditation is supposed to involve feeling peaceful and perhaps even blissful.
But if they get deeply into it, they discover that it isn’t like that at all — in fact, when we switch off all the noise we’re usually surrounded by, and sit quietly, the pain we’ve been shutting out often comes through loud and clear. And that’s when we start griping that meditation “doesn’t work.”
On the other hand, some of us do find tranquility in meditation and similar practices, but then we start using those practices to shut out emotions and sensations we don’t want to be with – as Masters puts it, to “find a safety from the more brutal dimensions of life that we crave.” If we feel angry, for instance, and we see anger as a “negative emotion” we “shouldn’t be having,” perhaps we’ll meditate to numb the feeling.
The trouble is that feeling angry can serve us at times in life. If we need to protect ourselves against an attacker, or say a firm “no” to someone who’s demanding a lot of our time and energy, anger can fuel us to take decisive, effective action. Thus, sedating our anger and other “bad feelings” with spirituality (or anything else) can be harmful.
What’s Spirituality Good For?
This isn’t to say that spiritual practice has no benefits. In fact, says Masters, spiritual practice can serve us by helping us get more comfortable and familiar with our pain, rather than running from it. “Contrary to what we tend to believe,” he writes, “the more intimate we are with our pain, the less we suffer.”
This kind of statement was hard for me to believe before I experienced the truth of it myself. Like many people, when I began meditating, I felt really bored, and when the boredom got intense enough I’d simply stop. Eventually, inspired by teachers like Robert, I focused my attention on the boredom and just allowed it to arise.
As I did this, the boredom became easier and easier to be with — and, as I often describe, this had practical benefits in my life, such as helping me focus on a project I was doing for a long period of time even if I felt bored.
And on that note, look at the word count! Looks like I’d best put the rest of my review of this important book into a second post. Stay tuned!
Do you ever notice yourself doing “spiritual bypassing”? What feelings do you use spiritual practice to get away from?