Spiritual Escape Artists & Identity Politics
Spiritual bypassing is something that many don't discuss, but is likely far more common than you'd imagine. In short, it involves using the world of spirituality to avoid dealing with real world problems. People will basically bury their heads in the sand, deny reality and live in a fantasy world of spiritual perfection and bliss. The reasons for this can be many, but it all really comes down to trying to avoid dealing with your real-life problems.
This is something I'm very familiar with, because it's something I've done myself. I didn't even realize it until after the fact, but I can confirm that it does happen.
My own experience of spiritual bypassing came during a very difficult and painful time in my life. My long-term relationship with the mother of my daughter was falling apart, so I threw myself into hardcore meditation practice and study. I had been actively meditating and studying spirituality for 10 years by this point, so it wasn't just some new fad that I'd become obsessed by.
The Path I've walked has been wild, but spiritual bypassing wasn't something I had ever experienced before. If anything, my previous practice had brought me more and more into the world. I had never used spirituality as a way to escape my problems. It was always more about using it to confront and integrate them, but perhaps my arrogance got the better of me.
I'm simplifying the story here for convenience, but there was a period when I believed that I was “Enlightened” and also a period where I became obsessed with removing my emotions entirely. These both sound extreme because they are, but in retrospect I now see why those delusions held so much appeal.
I was in pain. I was heartbroken. My life was dissolving around me. I lay on the floor of my bathroom, sobbing like a child. Everything I had dreamt for the future was falling away from me. Anyone who's been through a divorce or the breakup of a long term relationship, especially when kids are involved, knows how hard it can be. If you throw in my existing issues with mental illness, you end up with a perfect storm of vulnerability, fear and pain.
Nobody is to blame for my spiritual bypassing. The fault lies entirely with me. Looking back on it, the whole “Actual Freedom” and the elimination of emotions was a blatant, desperate attempt to escape the suffering I was going through. The “Enlightenment” stuff was an attempt to run away from the harsh realities of life; to try to rise above it all and live this imagined life of perfect wisdom.
I clung to spirituality as a way to help me make sense of the world. Nothing else seemed to make any difference, but through meditation I felt that I could make it. It gave me hope. It gave me routine, discipline and structure where I had none. That would have been fine if I hadn't have allowed myself to fall prey to my own delusions. While the practices did and do help a lot, they also allowed me to create fantasies where I had some sort of control over the chaos of my life.
Again, the responsibility lies with me and nobody else. It took me a while to clear myself of those behaviours; to accept my mortality, fallibility and my emotional responses to the world. Since then, I've found out that I'm quite likely on the autistic spectrum, which explains quite a lot about my odd relationship with emotions and my idiosyncratic behaviours. This doesn't excuse anything though; I've managed to function reasonably well for 40 years with this condition, but it does give me a different perspective on the whole spiritual bypassing thing.
To bring this all up to the present day, I turn 40 in a couple of months and have a wonderful relationship with my daughter, who'll be 20 this year. It took me a long time to recover from the breakdown of my relationship and I walked away with literally nothing, but I gained much more than I could have imagined. My time spent spiritually bypassing my problems caused a lot of complications that have taken me several years to unravel, so it's not something I would recommend.
GEEKIN' ON BUDDHA
The reason I titled this piece in the way I have is actually due to seeing Vince Horn, of Buddhist Geeks fame, tweeting about it. He used the phrase “spiritual escape artists”, which I thought was a really good way of describing this phenomenon. Part of me felt, perhaps arrogantly, that he had read my last blog post about judgmental teachers and had misunderstood. To my over-active mind, he might have interpreted what I said as being a suggestion to not engage in real-world issues, which wasn't what I meant at all. I can understand how it could have been taken that way, and so I decided to write this.
As someone who, as you've seen, has been guilty of spiritual bypassing and is very open about the fact, I warn against it constantly. I always tell people to test their beliefs in reality and see whether or not they stand up to scrutiny. That's what I had to do to get out of the habit of bypassing. I went through each belief and tested whether it was accurate, and it's something I continue to do.
Vince has a great point and is absolutely correct. We really don't need “spiritual escape artists”. We do need intelligent and awakened people, but...
Just because someone isn't fully on board with your own socio-political or cultural beliefs, doesn't mean they're not intelligent. It also doesn't make them a bad person. The point I was making in the blog post was about seeing self-proclaimed spiritual teachers, slinging personal judgments and acting as if their shit doesn't stink. This is just hypocritical and unnecessary.
There are problems in the world right now that meditation and spirituality aren't going to help. Situations are escalating in civilized societies that could lead to untold horrors, but do you know what else isn't going to help?
Believing that you or your 'tribe', political or otherwise, have all of the answers.
Where I believe that spirituality and meditation could help lies in understanding identity and beliefs. All I see online and in the media is identity-based politicking. We've become obsessed with grouping people into categories, based on their immutable characteristics. Individuals are ignored in favour of the group identity, which, as history has shown, doesn't typically end well.
Schisms are being created by the media and establishment. They are pitting you against people you don't even know and will never interact with. You are being force-fed a broken, poisonous vision of the world that simply isn't in accordance with reality itself. People are being taught to hate their fellow humans, and to try to hound them offline and into obscurity over an opinion. Livelihoods are being destroyed over political beliefs, and usually by people who consider themselves to be the “good guys”.
None of this is positive. None of this helps. It creates more division in an already fragmented world.
Seeing people buying into a crooked narrative is painful to me. It's just as painful as seeing someone vanish up their own arse with spirituality. Neither position is an accurate reflection of reality. There's a middle path in all things, but few seem to want to walk it.
It's not a matter of having no opinions, or not 'taking sides'. You don't need to have an opinion about everything, and when you do, you should be prepared to debate it and have it questioned. The way people behave nowadays, those discussions aren't even allowed or you could find yourself prevented from having a personal bank account. All it takes nowadays is one word out of place online and your life could be over. People are either too scared to speak up, or they're in favour of censoring others when it benefits their ideology.
Just because we've experienced some degree of awakening, doesn't mean we're not still susceptible to the same ideological mind viruses that others are. Good people are being infected with ideologies that lead to death and destruction, and all in the belief that they're doing the right thing. From their position as the imagined “good guy” who is “on the right side of history”, their actions, however heinous they might become, will always be justified for “the greater good”.
As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I see too many people being led down a very dangerous path right now. I see good intentions being exploited. I see good people who are being infected by ideas. They squirm in submission before the mob through fear; not respect or genuine concern, but utter terror because they know they could be next.
If you think that, by making the appropriate gestures, saying the right things and posting online you'll be spared, you can think again.
When it comes to spirituality, I believe that we can engage effectively with real-world issues without falling afoul of memetic infection. In seeing through identity, any attempts to cling to any perspective deserve to be dismantled and examined. We can support whichever cause we choose, but when it starts to interfere with our ability to view others as equals, then we've walked off the Path.
Not one of us are perfect.
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