This is a post about something I suffer from; you, too?
Disclaimer: I wrote most of this about a year ago, but it hasn’t grown old yet, or even if it has, everything old is new again. Isn’t it always? Or maybe I should say, new age again. That’s what I mean by, and is the real source of, my “spirituallergies,” which is essentially what happens every time I get obsessed with an intriguing framework because it carries within it some grain of wisdom, only to find it’s just a vehicle for the people spearheading it to, I guess, feel/act superior to others. O esoterica, what hell hath thou wrought??
Unfortunately I have to admit this is sort of a regular happening—perhaps you can relate—but it was most recently spurred on by one of the more, or so I thought, innocuous Instagram (I know) accounts of which I am now a former follower that criticizes black-and-white thinking and encourages people to seek a higher perspective. Especially in the context of personal growth and/or cultural upheaval. And it’s not a bad idea to promote that, really; I’m not fond of black-and-white thinking myself, and I prefer to think there is always a more big-picture perspective to be found in a given fraught situation.
The curious thing about memes about how we (whoever “we” are…) need nuanced thought is that they ultimately lack nuance themselves, for the most part. The problem with being a “source” of wisdom instead of just being the channel for it means you can easily create as much of an echo chamber as anyone else does, and that chamber is ultimately all about—you guessed it—you.
Which makes me wonder if it’s even possible to just be a channel for knowledge and wisdom and concepts in an age when everything externally-facing about a person is supposed to be branded content. I have no damned clue.
I’m not going to name names regarding this most recent occasion of disillusionment, though reasonably I could, because I’m sure it wouldn’t make a dent. What’s more interesting to me is that he seems to have morphed his corporate sales and branding background into sales of neo-spiritual books.
And I mean… I’ve been in marketing. I get marketing. I like branding; I like archetypes and figuring out how people relate to them. None of it’s bad in and of itself. Nor is there anything wrong with selling books in and of itself, obviously. Books are quite a large segment of my budget.
But the pithy, boutique-y spirituality that his books and their ilk propagate is a real turn-off, same as pithy phrases from any other spiritual path. Namely because it’s pretending it’s Not That. Anything But That. It’s posing as something cooler and lighter and less judgmental, dude.
This example dips a bit into conspirituality, which should be easy enough to spot, but I didn’t know it was a larger trend until recently. Still, you can usually learn to expect where you’re going to see conspirituality. Problematically, though, it lives in other spaces — not just New Age Land. Less boutique-y and more earthy (or seemingly earthy) models of spirituality seem to have this same problem in spades. So too, actually, do religious paradigms. I mean, that’s obvious enough, though if you’re interested in delving deeper, Jules Evans had what I thought was a solid, cogent take on the subject.
The thesis of it is, no one is immune to spiritual bypassing. Spiritual bypassing being, at least according to John Welwood, who coined the term, the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”
Simple, straightforward, and visible enough. And easy enough to walk into by mistake.
After starting this post, I faced a handful of encounters that re-solidified just how strange and, beyond that, mildly terrible this phenomenon can get.
Notably, this was while traveling and staying at work exchanges abroad, which to me, highlighted how this isn’t limited to the United States. And it was an opportunity to meet several interesting and unique people, including people who were very spiritual in some senses. But some of them used spirituality as a front. As a means of not connecting with others, as a shield that allowed them to think others were too materialistic and shallow to even speak to. These others were pretty normal yoga-practicing people, mind — not, like, billionaires. Or even what you’d call “well-heeled.” It rang like a mindset you might have when you’re 14 and realizing how much bigger the world is than your suburban neighborhood, which I’d think would be a mindset you grow out of.
All of this only became bothersome when I realized what was actually happening.
Meaning, around the time of my departure, it hit me that, to them, I too was one of Those People. Maybe not considered shallow—I don’t know for sure, I won’t presume that much—but considered not “with it” enough to try and relate to.
It did not feel great. Nor did it feel remotely spiritual.
Frankly, the spiritual part of it was how it redeemed and validated past, similar experiences in other communities. These were scenarios wherein the people involved claimed to have certain knowledge of people’s interiority, but then used said presumed knowledge to avoid real connection and conversation. And to decide that they themselves were beyond certain things of this earth—say, actually considering the content or implications of a political policy, just for a glib example.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have to say it, but this was in less of a new age-y context and more of a Christian one. Perhaps I shouldn’t have to say it, but I would rather, especially because Christianity has become something of a breeding ground for spiritual bypassing of a different shape and color than I’ve ever seen. Tim Alberta’s recent Atlantic article covered it incredibly, beautifully, and tragically. I say tragic because, while I don’t use the word “Christian” to describe myself much anymore, for me, whatever seediness I’ve encountered in that community has been balanced out by relationships with people who really, truly care about others and want to do the right thing.
There’s something about dwelling on what looks VERY much like a fire-and-brimstone morality that steers clear of that, though. Of community-building, of connecting with others, of weaving truth and mercy together in a way that works.
And yes, I know: it’s been there for a long time. It’s exhausting. But it’s far too common to keep getting exhausted by it, isn’t it?
So it has to keep being looked at, especially because it is obvious and common. And because bypassing defeats the purpose of having a spiritual life or practice. Part of that’s just the problem of being human: it’s easier to look for an escape route than to sit in what’s obviously murky. It’s also way too easy to sit in the muck and pretend that’s all there is, and that nothing can actually break through it. And yet I can’t help but wonder if this seeming uptick in spiritual bypassing (and junk spirituality, full stop) is a side effect of most of the Western world being so much more protected from natural sublimity than ever in human history. Instead, we’re overexposed to artificial highs and horrendous lows. Everything is either bleak or brilliant. There’s no middle ground.
Where does everything fall, if there’s no middle ground?
Because it’s true that the universe is a complex organism full of incredibly fascinating contradiction, and I respect that this needs to be acknowledged, especially in A tiMe of GrEaT DiVisioN. But it is not true that you can use that truth to ignore darker, sadder, filthier realities. (I mean, you could try, but your subconscious is smarter than you and will notice what you’re doing.)
It’s true that humans create divisions between one another that filter out what everyone has in common. It’s not true that those divisions don’t point out important facts about what each person’s experience is like. And spirituality that ignores shadows and believes that the ego even can be completely left behind can go die in a very dark hole.
Spirituality that dwells only on the darkness should do the same, too. The thing is, sitting solely in aforementioned muck denies that spirituality or lightness could ever be found on earth, and clings to an old story about going to heaven being the only answer. (Insert another Rob Bell plug here; why not?) No, eternal bliss isn’t worth striving for, but it’s equally tiresome to hear people decide that there is nothing divine to be found within the shadows of real life, or even in what might appear shallow or superficial. (Spent way too much time hearing “marketers are Christians too” at my first full-time job to not speak to this part.)
I decided to start writing this last year because the influencer I mentioned above posted something about the divisions that COVID has created, and how they’re only an ~illusion~. To a degree, I got the point; people are people no matter how they respond to a major global event, and putting them in boxes isn’t always helpful.
But the thing was, that statement was missing the point. It was missing the point that it’s so easy to repaint truth, to shoehorn it into a different shape, and that’s the real problem. Institutional mistrust is egregiously high for good reason, and corporate and lobbyist influence seems nigh-impossible to overcome when it comes to governmental measures. But institutional mistrust doesn’t erase the nature of reality. Just because you hate or disagree with someone doesn’t mean they’re automatically a liar.
In turn, this is also true: just because someone can share a nugget (or, hell, several very large nuggets, even a bona fide gold mine) of wisdom doesn’t mean they’re not a liar, or not ultimately invested in their vision of how the world should be. And spiritual bypassing, common as it is, isn’t always obvious — it doesn’t always mean the extremes of, say, excusing abuse because it’s “teaching you something” or “the second coming will make this all go away.” To me, the most insidious spiritual bypassing is the kind that is just another manufacturing of self-help, the kind that stops people from pursuing ordinary, actual growth, change and reflection. It’s the kind that gets people to hide and pretend they’re safe, forever and ever amen, because something else is being the lifeguard right now. Someone else is steering the ship. Someone else has the answer.
Or as Alan Watts put it, ”Anyone who tells you he has some way of leading you to spiritual enlightenment is like somebody who picks your pocket and sells you your own watch.”
(Does it count as ironic I’m using someone else’s quote to say that? Never mind.)
So what’s the answer? Maybe there isn’t any answer except the one you seek out for yourself. The one that comes when you step out into the terrifying nada, and listen, and the truth that lives there responds in ways both subtle and sublime.
Besides, if you just listen to other people who say that everything is okay, or that everything is fucked, or beyond all of that, that they’re the only one you should trust, what is there to fight for? Because some things are worth fighting for. Like love.
Which is, interestingly enough, what junk spirituality elevates above all else but gets nowhere near. Because love is not passive. It’s not weak, or floaty. It’s fierce, and sometimes it’s furious, and yes, it fights. It doesn’t cover things up — it tells the truth. And the truth isn’t something that can even be conveyed by those who merely “tell it like it is.” It is, as I’ve heard it put well, honesty with respect. It is immersive and encompassing and it is a channel for freedom. Not of bondage to any sort of credo or dogma.
When you look at it that way, everything really can be spiritual. As long as it has the room to be.
Again: maybe this is easier said than lived out. Yet I’m only able to reflect on it here because I’ve dealt with it myself. Maybe you have, too. And maybe it’s time to stop pretending anyone is immune to the effects of this. Bypassing allows people who rely upon niceness and charm to take advantage of others. It also makes it seem like spirituality is inaccessible and requires perfection or self-loathing or both.
And it doesn’t. It’s certainly not easy to pursue, but it’s not limited by any sort of gate, except one’s own unwillingness to listen to the truth.
It is incredibly telling that the most potent spiritual message I’ve heard in awhile came from the movie Everything Everywhere All At Once, but sometimes, that’s how a message shows up: i.e., through an exuberant and absurdist story about family and the multiverse featuring everything bagels and plastic googly eyes. I will probably have to wax poetic about it more in the future, but for now, I find it curious that this heart-filled, beautiful, miraculous work — as the filmmakers put it, a “foolish prayer to a cold, indifferent universe” — has resonated with people so much. I find it especially so given that I am pretty disillusioned with what popular Stoicism and the usual nihilism have to offer. Stoicism has certainly left its mark with my generation, and I cannot fault people for finding value in its tenets. But I still think it leaves a lot to be desired. For some reason — I have no idea why — that Hemingway line about the world being “a fine place and worth the fighting for” still gets under my skin.
Certainly, or hopefully, that’s not as uncommon a sentiment as some would have you believe. Even if we live in a time, a country, a culture that subconsciously prefers the religion and ethos of proving one’s individual worth. Individual effort, of course, is worthwhile, and even necessary, and yet putting it on a pedestal can and usually does go too far. That casts a long and dark shadow — one that darkens people’s spirits when they find they no longer have a foothold in the world around them. One that seriously needs to be dealt with.
And while inner work is certainly necessary to doing anything about that problem, so is aligning that with outer work. And yes, I’m definitely telling myself this. I’m telling myself this because said inner and outer work has little to do with perfection, and everything to do with knowing perfection cannot exist, but there’s something far better than it, and it’s here and it’s ready and it’s waiting and it’s now.
Some resources on spiritual bypassing, avoidance, and conspirituality:
(1) Science and Nonduality – On Spiritual Bypassing and Relationship by John Welwood
(2) This Jungian Life, episode 150 – Facing Your Feelings: Avoidance or Encounter?
(3) Conspirituality podcast – https://conspirituality.net/
(4) “The Emergence of Conspirituality” published in the Journal of Contemporary Religion, Charlotte Ward & Prof. David Voas
Stock photos by Austin Chan and Amber Weir via Unsplash
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