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What is a Spiritual Bypass?

The stories we tell ourselves

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“…there may even be puritanical fanatics of conscience, who prefer to put their last trust in a sure nothing, rather than in an uncertain something.” ~ Nietzsche

If you are uncertain about what John Welwood meant by “spiritual bypass” then please watch Billy Preston sing “That’s The Way God Planned It” at “The Concert for Bangladesh.” Note the reverence, note the conviction, note the way the music lifts Reverend Preston from behind his Hammond B3 and across the stage and back.

“You may not understand me… but Billy will understand!

This is precisely the elusive, tantalizing magic that Elizabeth Gilbert geniusly describes in her TED talk on the origins of creativity.

Spiritual bypassing was best described to me by Rabbi Eitan of the Kabbalah Center here in Los Angeles in 1997 when he asked, “Do you know what the true Kabbalists did when the Nazis took them out to be shot?”

“No,” I replied.

“They danced,” Rabbi Eitan said. “They danced to thank God for giving them hatred to overcome!”

Would you be able to find the joy in being murdered? Or is that the ultimate spiritual bypass?

The human mind is a meaning making machine and as Hamlet so astutely observes, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

When asked who is his greatest teacher, I have heard His Holiness reply, “The Chinese” (who murdered millions of his people).

What Welwood meant by “There is no spiritual bypass” is that you must also do the psychological processing of trauma. Saying, “My baby just died — it’s all good” would constitute an egregious spiritual bypass.

Our minds are built to create coherence out of chaos. And yet, the certainty of any narratives is fleeting at best. The best narratives are dynamic while the worst justify people harming others.

Can you prove with scientific certainty that God wanted those particular Nazis to murder those particular Jews on that particular day, not wasting bullets on the children, simply burying them alive with their parent’s corpses to writhe until they suffocated? Is that the way God planned it, Billy? Did she plan slavery as well as all of the other atrocities that humans have committed against fellow humans, other animals, and mother earth?

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” wrote Yeats. Best and worst, a dialectic. Maybe that’s the problem? Maybe if the human mind could accept the amorphousness of reality and stop inflicting antinomies on it in an absurd quest to create a few moments of stable footing before we slip into the abyss…? Ay, there’s the rub.

When you look up a word in a dictionary it is described by other words. This is one aspect of what Derrida meant by “deconstruction” — that the meaning falls out from under itself — which is described extremely well in the middle of this lecture by Leo Gura:

However, Gura makes a curious move during his last few minutes stating that Derrida did not go far enough to accept non-dualism as something “beyond” deconstruction.

Following Alan Watts and many other sages, I have espoused and taught Advaita Vedanta for many many years: the best that humans can perceive through our senses that our minds chunk into narratives is maya, illusory. But beyond that, beyond human perception Brahman equals Atman, we are all one interconnected pulsing being. Maya is subsumed by Brahman.

“And a man’s life’s no more than to say One.” ~ Hamlet

“When all is one and one is all” ~ Robert Plant, “Stairway to Heaven”

Non-dualism is the duck and what we perceive as “reality” is the rabbit.

After 25 years of having an adverse relationship with the scars on my face, I consciously chose what was hitherto unfathomable. “I’m supposed to have these scars on my face. I’m supposed to have permanent discomfort,” I uttered. I thanked the universe for giving me hatred to overcome. This is radical acceptance and a spiritual bypass (but I may have done a wee bit of psychological processing of the trauma on the side). Since I’ll never be able to go back in time and remove my scars, the sooner that I stop wanting to change the unchangeable, the sooner I will be able to alleviate the woulda-shoulda-coulda-didn’t resentments that used to keep me awake at night.

Narrative therapists help patients choose more propitious illusions.

So choose your illusion: if it helps you create coherence out of chaos to say “That’s the way God planned it” or “Thank you God for giving me hatred to overcome” or “I’m supposed to have these scars on my face” then give it a whirl! It sure as hell has helped me. Thank god for spiritual bypassing!

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