Commusings: Grounded Spirituality in an Unfair World by Julian Walker

Oct 23, 2021

Hello Commune Community,

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. If you have spent any time perusing modern spirituality, you have likely come across some iteration of this aphorism. The notion that suffering is the phantom of our own projection is alluring.
 
We are not our thoughts. We are not our emotions. We are not the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. But, in my experience, the benefits of these perennial truths are not conferred in a moment by swallowing a magic pill with a green juice. They are hard-wrought. The memefication of spiritual work is dangerous. An aphorism won’t heal you. Liberation from our trauma most often requires gut-wrenching work — as unfair as that may be. 

Always here at [email protected] or follow my daily exhortations on IG @jeffkrasno.

In love, include me,
Jeff

• • •

Grounded Spirituality in an Unfair World

by Julian Walker

 

This was not how things were supposed to go. I slammed my fist down on the table, now hitting my peak of outrage, as our dinner party host looked on in dismay. My long-time best friend Bob was doing his best to support me and cool things down, while his new love interest smirked at me with compassionate eyes that I read as saying—this poor unenlightened fool doesn't yet know the higher truth. 
 
She had on a gorgeous mother-of-pearl necklace that was actually more like a throat and upper chest piece; flat, with slightly upward curling edges, it wrapped around her neck and then nestled just above her collarbones before extending several inches down onto her chest. The surface gleamed with little rainbows when it caught the light — smooth and with an oddly protective aura.
 
Our host had a friend there too, who had regaled us with wild tales of his tantric workshop experiences with Margot Anand, author of The Art of Sexual Ecstasy, before mother-of-pearl had jibed playfully back at me to start the current ill-fated exchange. 
 
I was there with my new girlfriend—about 4 months in, and it was the deepening intimacy of that relationship and the searing empathy I felt for her life story and recently revealed traumatic experiences that had me raising my voice and no doubt our host's heart rate.
 
In talking about tantra, we got to talking about gurus, and in talking about gurus, I had offered my perspective that the experiment of importing charismatic holy men to America had largely been a disaster. Whether these gurus were corrupt from the start or were overwhelmed by a generation of LSD-charged seekers descending on their public appearances to embrace them as living gods (and all the fame, money, and culture shock of boldly Western half-naked-seeming women making prolonged eye contact that came along with spiritual stardom)—either way, the dysfunction that emerged more as a rule than the exception within those communities was often quite damaging to the disciples.
 
I had already found that this was never a popular thing to point out in spiritual circles, but what mother-of-pearl said in response was tailor-made to get my blood boiling. She looked down her nose at me over her glass of sparkling water, with a wise little buddha smile, after washing down a bite of organic carrots and beets, to utter the fateful words, “It sounds like you still believe there are victims in the world.”
 
Did I mention my girlfriend? Well, she had recently started therapy at my urging. In getting to know one another, she had gradually revealed her history of being abused by her step-father for years as a very young child. When we met, she was still framing this to herself as having been a willing participant—with all the attendant guilt this implied. I sat at that dinner table internally swimming in a complex soup of compassion, rage, disgust, and grief that this had happened to someone with whom I was in the midst of falling in love. I wished I could have protected her. I imagined finding and hurting her stepfather. 
 
It was all quite overwhelming and confusing, but one thing I knew for sure was that she had indeed been victimized, traumatized—that a chunk of her innocence, self-love, and emotional well-being had been stolen by a very sick man. I also felt that the reality of what she had been through, her deep and complex feelings about it and herself, and my emotions in response were all not only valid but appropriate.
 
Did I understand why someone might want to cover over such pain and suffering with spiritual aphorisms and abstract beliefs that created transcendent distance and a perhaps pleasing or relieving sense of disconnection from reality? Sure. Like any young-man-yogi, I had certainly spent time myself framing my own emotional unavailability and immature selfishness as enlightened non-attachment—but something about the act of conversationally imposing this denial in a superior and shaming way felt really personal in that moment, and emblematic of a glaring problem within popular American spirituality. 
 
“Of course there are victims!” I grimaced and began talking about my experience as a white boy growing up under Apartheid in South Africa. “Due to an absolute accident of birth, I found myself in the group granted complete political and economic privilege, while innocent little black babies were born into the victimization of oppression, with none of the human rights we in this room enjoy.”
 
“But how do you know their souls didn't need to have precisely that experience for their own highest good? You're a yoga teacher—what about karma? Don't you believe in cosmic justice, and the material plane of existence as a free-will zone in which we perfectly learn the lessons our souls sign up for before birth?” She shook her head and glanced around the table as if to imply that I had missed the most basic details of spirituality 101.
 
“That’s spiritual bypass,” I blurted out, “and it’s the opposite of what healthy and compassionate spirituality should do.”
 
“Ooh,” she said quietly with a knowing look, “so you alone know better than the great yoga tradition.”
 
Now, you might recognize that one problem here is a conflict between worldviews or fundamental ways of seeing reality. You might think, well, who knows? After all, we are in the amorphous domain of spiritual philosophy, where all beliefs are equally possible. In fact, you might even think that because there is no way to disprove the metaphysical concepts my debate partner was invoking, it would be closed-minded to dismiss them. Perhaps my outrage and intense attachment to my point of view, based on both my new relationship and pre-existing background, imply an inevitably biased lens. A little more meditation would surely help me transcend that dualistic and judgmental contraction, right? Surely my reactivity is a red flag that indicates a lack of spacious objectivity.
 
Well, yes and no. In the above situation, I was obviously not acting effectively. I was a terrible dinner guest, an unpleasant conversationalist, and my reactions had a vanishingly small likelihood of changing anyone's mind. I’ve worked on this since then, and wouldn't behave that way today. But I am going to suggest something that rings true to me on the topic at hand. 
 
Speculating in abstract metaphysical terms about life's most difficult and painful realities while glossing over human suffering is not enlightened, it's not profound, it's not evidence of open-minded objectivity. It's a spiritual U-turn.
 
I know, I know, traditions that have been idealized as rooted in ancient wisdom, and then remixed to meet our particular consumer spiritual appetites are filled with this kind of speculation. In fact, we could even say that these kinds of explanations for the difficulties of human life are present in a lot of spirituality and religion. I still think we can and should do better now.
 
Let’s start by defining the term “spiritual bypass.” It was originally coined in 1984 by psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher John Welwood to describe something he and his colleagues were noticing in meditation communities. This was a common tendency to use the experience and beliefs of spirituality as a persistent way to avoid honestly facing unpleasant emotions, traumatic experiences, or facts about the world. Welwood’s theory was that people often come to spirituality with unresolved issues around personal identity, emotional needs, and psychological well-being, and believe that if they become spiritual enough, practice a lot, and have faith in certain beliefs they will eventually transcend their psychological suffering.
 
As summarized in a 2017 research paper, this leads to suppression, avoidance, and a stagnation in emotional development that actually creates greater psychological suffering. My observation is that it also creates unhealthy models of spiritual practice, community, and interpersonal relationships—especially when teachers, authors, and influencers are encouraging spiritual bypass, rather than pointing it out as a pitfall.
 
In his 2010 book, Spiritual Bypassing, Robert Masters wrote that the main symptoms of spiritual bypass included emotional alienation, exaggerated sense of detachment, denial of the shadow, and investment in the belief that everything is an illusion, including human suffering. Further research as cited in the above paper indicates that spiritual bypass can be characterized by a need to excessively control others and oneself, spiritual narcissism, and blind allegiance to charismatic teachers. Researchers have also uniformly pointed out that spiritual bypass is likely best characterized as a coping mechanism that minimizes the effect of psychological pain. 
 
This suggests that the path beyond spiritual bypass entails a spirituality that is psychologically informed and uses better tools and ideas to integrate awareness of human suffering from a compassionate and grounded perspective.
 
As someone rooted in yoga practice, it is easy for me to imagine that you might read this, and interpret it as an unfair or unsophisticated rejection of one or another school of Indian metaphysics. Surely, in order to engage in the traditions of yoga, certain ancient ultimate truths about karma, maya, and moksha must be accepted as is.
 
Well, here’s the thing—all traditions, philosophies, and practices can get some things right, and other things wrong. They are also all products of their time and place, and all of the limitations of those cultural and political lenses. Take for example, India’s caste system, which holds that people are born into specific socioeconomic strata based on the karma from their past lives. The high-caste Brahmins are referred to as “twice born” to designate how spiritually progressed they must be to have been born into this spiritual aristocracy, whilst the lowest-caste Dalits are referred to as “untouchables”—because to come into contact with their energy is, for anyone born above them, to be polluted spiritually.
 
This is as cut-and-dried an example of religious Apartheid as any that has existed on the planet. To idealize it or rationalize it today is to deny human rights and democratic principles—but it’s also an expression of spiritual bypass, in that an abstract metaphysical explanation for injustice and oppression is privileged over facing the very real unfair human suffering it perpetuates.
 
In the West, the yoga and wellness new age marketplace perpetuates a version of this logic by linking wealth, success, health, well-being, happiness to spiritual virtue—and perpetuating the ignoring of privilege by framing it as deserved, karmic, a reflection of one’s powers of manifestation, or just being a positive person. This glosses over all the reasons people may be poor, sick, depressed or anxious, and (even if indirectly) perpetuates a kind of victim-blaming and denial.
 
Which brings us back to trauma. For a spiritual worldview to be grounded in reality, it simply has to see trauma for what it is. Real. Not an illusion to be transcended, not playing the victim. Bad things do happen to good people, and there are those in the world who hurt the innocent and vulnerable—often due to their own trauma. It has to reckon with the uncomfortable facts of injustice, oppression, inequality; indeed the spectrum of human suffering, precisely because that is what most needs our compassion, our open-eyed presence.
 
Here’s how reflecting on spiritual bypass has unfolded for me—if you’ve read this far, maybe what follows will be an interesting exercise for you.
 
Let’s consider what we might identify as the core metaphysical beliefs of popular spirituality. Everything happens for a reason. There are no victims. You create your own reality. 
 
These phrases are familiar to any of us who’ve moved in yoga and wellness circles. They sound uplifting and empowering—simultaneously conveying a sense of responsible agency and mystical reassurance. But in each case I have found it useful to consider what they deny or avoid about being human. In the literature on cults there is a technical term, the thought-terminating cliché. These are phrases that are used to prevent critical thinking about the group or it’s leader, and to cover over the cognitive dissonance experienced in toxic situations. In the case of spiritual bypassing, we can expand this idea to include the denial (and even shaming) of emotional tension.
 
Everything happens for a reason is a way of saying that there are no accidents; whatever happens in your life is part of a plan—and it’s all going somewhere good. Sounds positive and stoic. But what about actual accidents, what about traumatic violence, devastating illness, tragic loss of loved ones? What about lives lived in poverty, oppression, injustice, slavery?
 
While it is true that in hindsight we can sometimes look back at painful events as having led to better outcomes, that’s only if we are lucky. For many people painful events or life conditions are not gateways to joy and prosperity. Importantly, notice that when we tell ourselves or someone else that trauma, tragedy, or crushing economic or political situations are perfect, we are actually saying that appropriate emotions like grief, anger, or fear are invalid in relation to this higher truth.
 
Usually this means we have not learned to be present with those feelings or to compassionately relate to them in others. It also exposes an underlying sense of callus entitlement that says the good or bad luck of being born into various life conditions, or subject to certain traumas is actually divinely ordained by the universe. Too bad for those on the bottom.
 
Likewise, there are no victims covers over the truth that as children we are helpless in the face of abusive adults, and as adults we are still vulnerable to violence and injustice. There actually are innocent victims who deserve our compassion, and suggesting that their suffering is self-created on some abstract spiritual level is a failure of empathy. Psychologically, people heal from being victimized by being held in respectful empathy that validates their very real suffering. Relationally, that starts with ourselves.
 
You create your own reality is a useful enough catch-phrase if applied only to things like goal-setting, doing the necessary work to get an education, or showing up in our lives responsibly. But as an overall statement about human existence it falls terribly short. Everything from genetics to the social class we are born into, to how our family treats us, to how all the other people we encounter (who are each seeking to create their own reality too) impact us, is not within our control.
 
Focusing on what we can control is a great mind-set, but blaming ourselves for absolutely everything, or telling others to see their pain that way is a form of damaging gaslighting. Nobody needs that.
 
Of course, it is possible to propose all kinds of elaborate ways to make these abstract metaphysical ideas still seem to fit, while being more compassionate and grounded. Personally, however, identifying these beliefs as ways of rationalizing and denying our vulnerability to suffering has meant setting them aside in favor of an attitude of mindful inquiry that is more open to difficult emotional truths on their own terms. The more I have done this, the less appealing over-simplified supposed “higher truths” have become. I don’t think we need them, but more importantly—they’re not true.
 
In terms of your own beliefs, I would offer the following question: “Is there anything difficult about the real world and human condition that this belief avoids, ignores, or denies?” 
 
If so, what is it like to include in your practice a compassionate openness for what has been denied, with a lot of kindness toward the emotions and trauma that are, to some extent, part of every human life, and that a truly effective spirituality should be able to acknowledge?

• • •

Julian Walker grew up in Zimbabwe and South Africa and has lived in LA since 1990. He is fascinated with the intersections of yoga/meditation, psychology, science, and culture. He has written extensively on cults and gurus, spiritual bypass in New Age circles, trauma and the body, and neuroscience and somatic psychology informing the practice and teaching of yoga. Listen to him as a co-host of the Conspirituality Podcast or read his writing on Elephant Journal, Medium, Freedom Becomes You, and in the 2011 book, 21st Century Yoga.

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