“Spiritual seekers who suffer from a deflated sense of self, take spiritual teachings about selflessness to mean that they should keep a lid on themselves and not let themselves shine.. As typically happens in many spiritual communities, [they] use spiritual practice as a way of trying to deny certain basic human needs..
Since individuation involves clarifying the psychological dynamics that obscure our capacity to shine through, it is not opposed to spiritual realization. Instead, it involves becoming a more transparent vessel—an authentic person who can bring through what is beyond the person in a uniquely personal way.” ~John Welwood, Ph.D.
The following is an excerpt from The Psychology of Awakening by John Welwood, author of Toward a Psychology of Awakening. Welwood is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and longterm student of Tibetan Buddhism.
“When people use spiritual practice to try to compensate for feelings of alienation and low self-esteem, they corrupt the true nature of spiritual practice. Instead of loosening the manipulative ego that tries to control its experience, they strengthen it, and their spiritual practice remains unintegrated with the rest of their life.
Using spirituality to make up for failures of individuation—psychologically separating from parents, cultivating self-respect, or trusting one’s own intelligence as a source of guidance—also leads to many of the so-called “perils of the path”: spiritual materialism (using spirituality to prop up a shaky ego), self-inflation, “us vs. them” mentality, groupthink, blind faith in charismatic teachers, and loss of discrimination.
Spiritual communities can become a kind of surrogate family, where the teacher is regarded as the good parent while the students are striving to be good boys or good girls—trying to please the teacher-as-parent or driving themselves to climb the ladder of spiritual success. In this way, spiritual practice becomes co-opted by unconscious identities and used to reinforce unconscious defenses.
For example, people resorting to isolation and withdrawal because the interpersonal realm feels threatening often use teachings about detachment and renunciation to rationalize their aloofness, impersonality, and disengagement when what they really need is to become more fully embodied, more engaged with themselves, with others, and with life.
People with a dependent personality structure, who try to gain approval and security by pleasing others, often perform unstinting service for the teacher or community in order to feel worthwhile. They confuse a co-dependent kind of self-negation with true selflessness.
And spiritual involvement is particularly tricky for people who hide behind a narcissistic defense, because they use spirituality to make themselves feel special or important while imagining they are working on liberation from self.
Spiritual bypassing often adopts a rationale using absolute truth to deny or disparage relative truth. Absolute truth is what is eternally true, now and forever, beyond any particular viewpoint or time frame.
When we tap into absolute truth, we can recognize the divine beauty or larger perfection operating in the whole of reality. From this larger perspective, the murders on tonight’s news, for instance, do not diminish this divine perfection, for the absolute encompasses the whole panorama of life and death, in which suns, galaxies, and planets are continually being born and dying.
However, from a relative point of view—if you are the wife of a man murdered tonight—you will probably not be moved by the truth of ultimate perfection. Instead you will be feeling human grief.
There are two ways of confusing absolute and relative truth. If you use the murder or your grief to deny or insult the higher law of the universe, you would be committing the relativist error. You would be trying to apply what is true on the horizontal plane of becoming to the vertical dimension of pure being.
The spiritual bypasser makes the reverse category error, the absolutist error: He draws on absolute truth to disparage relative truth. His logic might lead to a conclusion like this: Since everything is ultimately perfect in the larger cosmic play, grieving the loss of someone you love is a sign of spiritual weakness.
Since it is the nature of human beings to live on both the absolute and relative levels, we can never reduce reality to a single dimension.
We are not just this relative body-mind organism; we are also absolute being/awareness/presence, which is much larger than our bodily form or personal history. But we are also not just this larger, formless absolute; we are also incarnate as particular individuals.
If we identify only with form, our life will remain confined to known, familiar structures. But if we try to live only as pure emptiness, or absolute being, we may not engage with our humanity. In absolute terms, the personal self is not ultimately real; at the relative level, it must be respected.
A client of mine who was desperate about her marriage had gone to a spiritual teacher for advice. He advised her not to be so angry with her husband but to be a compassionate friend instead.
This was certainly sound spiritual advice. Compassion is a higher truth than anger; when we rest in the absolute nature of mind, pure open awareness, we discover compassion as the very core of our nature. From that perspective, feeling angry about being hurt only separates us from our true nature.
Yet the teacher who gave this woman this advice did not consider her relative situation—that she was someone who had swallowed her anger all her life.
Her father had been abusive and would slap her and send her to her room whenever she showed any anger about the way he treated her. She learned to suppress her rage and always tried to please others by being “a good girl” instead.
So when the teacher advised her to feel compassion rather than anger, she felt relieved because this fit right in with her defenses. Since anger was threatening to her, she used the teaching on compassion for spiritual bypassing—for refusing to deal with her anger or the message it contained.
As her therapist, I had to take account of her relative situation and help her relate to her anger more fully. As a spiritual practitioner, I was also mindful that anger is ultimately empty, a wave arising in the ocean of consciousness, without any solidity or inherent meaning.
Yet while that understanding may be true in the absolute sense, and generally valuable for helping dissolve attachment to anger, it was not useful for this woman at this time.
Instead, she needed to learn to pay more attention to her anger in order to move beyond a habitual pattern of self-suppression, to connect with her inner strength and power, and to relate to her husband in a more active, assertive way.
How then do we arrive at genuine compassion? Spiritual bypassing involves imposing on oneself higher truths that lie far beyond one’s immediate existential condition. My client’s attempts at compassion were not entirely genuine because they were based on denying her own anger.
Spiritual teachers often exhort us to be loving and compassionate, or to give up selfishness and aggression, but how can we do this if our habitual tendencies arise out of a whole system of psychological dynamics that we have never clearly seen or faced, much less worked with?
People often have to acknowledge and come to terms with their anger before they can arrive at genuine forgiveness or compassion. That is relative truth.
Psychological inquiry starts here, with relative truth, with whatever we are experiencing right now. It involves opening to that experience and exploring its meaning, letting it unfold without judgment.
As a therapist, I find that allowing whatever arises to be there as it is and gently inquiring into it leads naturally in the direction of deeper truth. This is what I call psychological work in the service of spiritual development.
Many people who seek out my services have done spiritual practice for many years. I have often been struck by the huge gap between the sophistication of their spiritual practice and the level of their personal development.
Some of them have spent years doing what were once considered the most advanced, esoteric practices, reserved only for the select few in traditional Asia, without developing the most rudimentary forms of self-love or interpersonal sensitivity.
One woman who had undergone the rigors of a Tibetan-style three-year retreat had little ability to love herself. The rigorous training she had been through only seemed to reinforce an inner discontent that drove her to pursue high spiritual ideals without showing any kindness toward herself or her own limitations.
In addition to spiritual bypassing, another major problem for Western seekers is their susceptibility to the “spiritual superego,” a harsh inner voice that acts as relentless critic and judge telling them that nothing they do is ever quite good enough: “You should meditate more and practice harder. You’re too self-centered. You don’t have enough devotion.”
This critical voice keeps track of every failure to practice or live up to the teachings, so that practice becomes more oriented toward propitiating a judgmental part of themselves than opening to life unconditionally.
They may subtly regard the saints and enlightened ones as father figures who are keeping a critical eye on all the ways they are failing to live up to their commitments.
So they strive to be “Dharmically correct,” attempting to be more detached, compassionate, or devoted than they really are, while secretly hating themselves for failing to do so, thus rendering their spirituality cold and solemn.
Their self-hatred was not created by the spiritual teaching; it already existed. But by pursuing spirituality in a way that widens the gap between how they are and how they think they should be, they wind up turning exquisite spiritual teachings on compassion and awakening into fuel for self-hatred and inner bondage.
This raises the question of how much we can benefit from a spiritual teaching as a set of ideals, no matter how noble those ideals are. Often the striving after a spiritual ideal only serves to reinforce the critical superego—that inner voice that tells us we are never good enough, never honest enough, never loving enough.
In a culture permeated by guilt and ambition, where people are desperately trying to rise above their shaky earthly foundation, the spiritual superego exerts a pervasive unconscious influence that calls for special attention and work. This requires an understanding of psychological dynamics that traditional spiritual teachings and teachers often lack…
Many spiritual seekers who suffer.. from a deflated sense of self, take spiritual teachings about selflessness to mean that they should keep a lid on themselves and not let themselves shine.. As typically happens in many spiritual communities, [they] use spiritual practice as a way of trying to deny certain basic human needs..
[One’s] psychological conflicts [can] cut off access to deeper capacities such as strength, confidence, and the ability to connect with others in a genuinely open way. These intrinsic human capacities—traditionally described as “the qualities of a Buddha”—can be seen as differentiated expressions of true nature.
If realizing pure, undifferentiated being is the path of liberation, then embodying a full spectrum of these differentiated qualities of being is the path of individuation in its deepest sense: the unfolding of our deepest human resources and imperatives, which exist as seed potentials within us, but which are often blocked by psychological conflicts.
This understanding of individuation goes far beyond the secular, humanistic ideal of developing one’s uniqueness, being an innovator, or living out one’s dreams.
Instead, it involves forging a vessel—our capacity for personal presence, nourished by its rootedness in deeper human qualities—through which we can bring absolute true nature into form—the “form” of our person.
By person I do not mean some fixed structure or entity, but the way in which true nature can manifest and express itself in a uniquely personal way, as the ineffable suchness or “youness” of you.
Since individuation involves clarifying the psychological dynamics that obscure our capacity to shine through, it is not opposed to spiritual realization. Instead, it involves becoming a more transparent vessel—an authentic person who can bring through what is beyond the person in a uniquely personal way.
Working in this way to clear up old emotional conflicts can help us develop a richer quality of personal presence and begin to embody our true nature in an individuated way. Our individuated nature can then become a window opening onto all that is beyond and greater than ourselves.
While spiritual traditions generally explain the cause of suffering in general terms as the result of ignorance, faulty perception, or disconnection from our true nature, Western psychology provides a more specific developmental understanding.
It shows how suffering stems from childhood conditioning; in particular, from static and distorted images of self and other that we carry with us in the baggage of our past. And it reveals these painful, distorting identities as relational—formed in and through our relationships with others.
Spiritual traditions that do not recognize the way in which ego identity forms out of interpersonal relationships are unable to address these interpersonal structures directly.
Instead, they offer practices—prayer, meditation, mantra, service, devotion to God or guru—that shift the attention to the universal ground of being in which the individual psyche moves, like a wave on the ocean.
Thus it becomes possible to enter luminous states of trans-personal awakening, beyond personal conflicts and limitations, without having to address or work through specific psychological issues and conflicts.
This kind of realization can certainly provide access to greater wisdom and compassion, but it often does not touch or alter impaired ego structures which, because they influence our everyday functioning, prevent us from fully integrating this realization into the fabric of our lives.
Thus, as Sri Aurobindo put it, “Realization by itself does not necessarily transform the being as a whole. One may have some light of realization at the spiritual summit of consciousness but the parts below remain what they were.”
We in the West have been exposed to the most profound nondual teachings and practices of the East for only a few short decades.
Now a deeper level of dialogue between East and West is called for in order to develop greater understanding about the relationship between the impersonal absolute and the human, personal dimension.
Indeed, expressing absolute true nature in a thoroughly personal, human form may be one of the most important evolutionary potentials of the cross-fertilization of Eastern contemplative traditions and Western psychological understanding.
Bringing these two approaches into deeper dialogue may help us discover how to transform our personality in a more complete way—developing it into an instrument of higher purposes—thus redeeming the whole personal realm, instead of just seeking liberation from it…”