Spiritual Practice or Spiritual Bypassing?

in the early 1980s, psychologist John Welwood coined the phrase spiritual bypassing to refer to the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings, unresolved wounds, and fundamental emotional and psychological needs.  When I first came across this term, I didn’t think it applied to me, but when I looked at my reaction – or lack of it – to the verbal abuse I witnessed while in Rigpa, I realised that I had certainly been bypassing my discomfort – and in a very active way.

Active repression

I had been taught to bypass any feelings of discomfort or disgust in response to anything Sogyal did. Remember being told not to think too much, to let our feelings just rise and fall away without paying them any attention, to not ‘go there’, to see our reactions to the verbal abuse we all witnesses as just our ‘judgemental mind’? Any kind of normal reaction, like horror, disgust or even concern, were seen as a lack of a stable mind – an attitude I’ve unfortunately also seen in the response of some lamas to those who speak out about abuse or show any kind of emotion due to the abuse.

Of course, we’re not supposed to repress our emotions, but that’s what I did, and I suspect that a whole lot of others did as well. Why else (apart from the brainswashing discourse of, ‘Oh he’s a crazy wisdom master, what you’re seeing is love, not anger’) did we sit unreacting and with blank faces?

Jeff Brown: Spiritual Graffiti

Meditation isn’t the answer to everything

My daughter used to say to me, ‘Oh, Mum, you think everything can be solved through meditation.’ I don’t think that way now, not now that I’ve seen it used to make people pliable so they can be more easily controlled and manipulated, and not now that I know that even with the right kind of instructions, it can be used to set aside issues that we really do need to face and deal with.

I also used to think that Buddhism was the answer to everything, and perhaps if we could hear the Buddha himself speak to us it might be, but not the way some teach it–especially in Tibetan Buddhism. Teachers talk about our emotions as ‘poisons’ and ‘enemies’ and refer to psychological methods of examining our problems as some kind of inferior activity, while teaching us to simply ignore our problems under the guise of ‘watering the seeds of joy’. But pretending issues don’t exist doesn’t make them go away. Look at Rigpa’s track record with Sogyal’s abuse. If we hadn’t tried so hard to ignore our feelings – the ones that were sending us a very valid message that something was seriously wrong – Sogyal would have been stopped a long time ago.

I think we need a more balanced approach. We need to be able to look at our issues, and sort them out without getting stuck in them. We need to honour the wisdom in our emotions – like physical pain, negative emotions are, after all, telling us something is wrong – but that doesn’t mean that we’ll roll around in our emotions ad nauseum or deny the role our own thoughts, beliefs and perceptions play in our happiness and suffering. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. We can choose the middle way.

‘To me, spiritual bypassing is fundamentally about taking a so-called absolute truth — such as “everything is okay” — and using it to ignore or deny relative truths — such as the grief we feel when we lose a loved one, or the shame that arises when we fail at something important. On the personal and interpersonal level, sometimes everything isn’t okay. And that’s okay.’


Let’s not delude ourselves

When I discovered Tibetan Buddhism, I found it all so wonderful, inspiring, and heart-warming, and the practice made me feel so calm and just plain goooood. But if all we’re doing by buying into any religion is spiritually distracting ourselves from our feelings while thinking that we’re walking a healthy spiritual path, then we’re just deluding ourselves.

So what to do about it? Ask questions of any teacher who seems to be straying into this area in their instruction, and take control of your own path by tuning into your body and feeling what’s there to be felt. Your body doesn’t lie. It knows what you might be unwilling to feel.

‘We need to remember that spiritual practice and emotional growth are not about achieving a particular quality of feeling (“good”). Being a human being on a spiritual journey isn’t about getting cash and prizes all the time, it is about being in the present moment, whatever it happens to look like. What are you experiencing right now? And how about now? Can you be present to all of your feelings without any one of them defining you? ‘

I filmed this a while ago, so I don’t remember exactly what’s in it, but it includes my experience of spiritual bypassing in the Rigpa context and a method for avoiding spiritual bypassing in our meditation.

What about you? What’s your experience? Do you think you might have used Tibetan Buddhist practices to spiritually bypass some issues? And what does knowledge of spiritual bypassing mean for our spiritual path going forward?

If you’d like a more private place to chat, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group for discussions not about abuse but about your ongoing spiritual path, or if you need to talk about your experiences of and healing from guru abuse or about Rigpa’s ongoing bungling, ex-Rigpa students can join the secret What Now? group, (apply via the contact form here, and tell us about yourself and why you want to join the group). And if you’re not a Rigpa or ex-Rigpa person and need support related to abuse in Vajrayana you can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and their Allies group.  Note that you will not be added to these groups if you don’t answer the questions.

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6 Replies to “Spiritual Practice or Spiritual Bypassing?”

  1. Out here on the perimeter there are no stars …
    I’m out here outside the mandala that insults the greater reality, folding back on itself. Guardians of the 4 gates animal headed avatars of spiritual weaponry defending confused gurus who fight to be king of the hill. Like a teenager giving meditation instructions based on McDonald’s golden arches. Branding, inhaling their own farts to recycle an ever more smelly vajrayana aspirational always on hold.
    Fight past the bypassing traps and really experience freedom. Without honesty there is no real groundlessness and one falls back into the inside where another mandala traps the mind in soft false positives and negates love and kindness. Solitary realizers are truly on the path doing those best making haste slowly.
    Offered on my 50th birthday with love to you and your work dear friends.

    1. Happy birthday, dear Sangye. I love the image of a teenager giving meditation instructions based on McDonald’s golden arches! What an image.

  2. This was a good discussion, and reminds me of a saying that I’ve personally found helpful when considering the kinds of abuses we’ve been talking about here: “Sometimes, things really are as bad as they seem.”

    1. Yeah. Only looking on the bright side is only half the picture. I think we have to embrace the darkeness, recognise that it’s there before we can shine a light on it. If we don’t see and acknowledge it, how can we heal?

  3. “Without honesty there is no real groundlessness and one falls back into the inside where another mandala traps the mind in soft false positives and negates love and kindness.”

    Since I left that fellowship called Rigpa, do I keep on saying to myself that everything around Dharma is not worth anything as long honesty is not involved.

    But, as my wife replied to me: What do you think a good cone artist as Sogyal is could manage to make abuse out of the word “honesty”.

    Loudspeaker announcement in the temple and the tents: “Girl1 and girl3 appear this evening for a honesty training blowjob practice in the dark room.
    Girl 4 and girl 6 receive a honest beating, together with that stupid attentants of today morning.”

    Honestly yours Adamo

    1. Yes, everything can be distorted and used by people for their own ends. Honesty and openess are vital to a genuine spiritual path, and being honest with ourselves is probably the hardest. Do we want to admit, for instance, that our motivations aren’t as noble as we like to think they are? Sogyal is certainly sticking to his ‘everything I did was for your benefit’ story, and yet when considering the way he treated women, it seems highly likely that the truth, if he could truly be honest with himself, is that his motivation for asking for a blow job was merely to have a bit of carnal pleasure.

      I constantly check my motivation and it’s amazing what I see slipping in sometimes that I’d rather not see, but if I see it, then I can circumvent it – and only then, only if I see it and acknowledge it first. If you don’t look honestly, without fear for your dark places, you don’t see, and then you’re trapped in the clutches of your unrecognised ego-driven urges, and they can take you over, all while you think your motivation is completely pure – but’s that’s a delusion, and all because you weren’t prepared to be honest enough to actually see what was truly driving you and brave enough to face it.

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