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Vedanta and Spiritual Bypassing
Someone recently brought up the topic of spiritual bypassing in relation to Vedanta. I thought this was an interesting and important issue to consider. After all, it might seem at first glance that Vedanta is, in fact, a form of “spiritual bypassing” and therefore a way to simply avoid our problems in mithya. But is that actually the case?
Spiritual bypassing is a process by which a person uses spirituality as a way of avoiding dealing with certain psychological and perhaps physical issues. Essentially it’s an aversion tactic, a subtle albeit sophisticated way of shielding us from issues we don’t want to face. While it’s certainly a better way of dealing with problems than taking to drink, drugs and hookers, it’s still something that must eventually be worked out or, no matter how hard you try, your path will never lead to true liberation.
I’m Not Crazy, I Just Meditate Here
When I was nineteen, I joined a meditation group. It was run by a guy who had ties with a spiritualist church, so it was a spiritually-focused group, consisting of around six people. The people were generally nice, but the most eye-opening thing for me was just how dysfunctional they were. Some of the ladies had clear neurotic tendencies, and there was an older gentleman who saw himself as something of a Casanova. It wasn’t until a number of months later I realised that certain members of the group were having affairs with each other behind their spouses’ backs.
Apparently the group leader knew about this and sort of encouraged it, but whether that is true or not I never knew. Word, however, spread around the town that apparently that he wasn’t holding a meditation class at all and that it was actually some kind of “swingers group.” One of his neighbours, having seen the cars all pulling up every Tuesday night, even coyly approached him one day and asked if he could “take part.”
Aside from embarrassment, I think my main takeaway from this was to question my previous assumption that spiritual people were automatically a little wiser and more psychologically balanced than “regular” people. In a lot of cases, quite the opposite is true.
Pain as an Agent of Spiritual Awakening
The reason for this is that people are often drawn to spirituality out of pain. If you think about it, completely happy, successful, worldly people have little reason to be interested in spirituality. Why would they when the maya world is currently fulfilling all their needs and desires?
It’s those who have been wounded in some way and have experienced the pain, dissatisfaction and “zero-sum game” nature of worldly life that are compelled to seek a way out of that pain. Admittedly, our interest in spirituality and enlightenment is also to an extent the fruit of spiritual vasanas from previous lifetimes. But generally, it’s the wounded who have the greatest cause – and need – to break free of the ever turning wheel of samsara. That was certainly the case for me, even at a young age.
Moksa Requires a Qualified Mind
Here’s the rub, however. Vedanta offers the way out of samsara, but in order for it to work, it first requires a qualified mind. A qualified mind means a mind made steady through the practise of karma yoga, triguna vibhava yoga, meditation and upasana yoga. The “field” of the mind must be appropriated tilled in order for the seeds of Self-knowledge to take root, grow and flourish.
The problem is those seeking enlightenment and freedom from samsara often have highly unqualified minds, owing to the pain and psychological disturbance that precipitated their quest for liberation.
It’s for this reason that, unlike any other tradition I’m aware of, Vedanta highlights the immense importance of purifying and refining the mind and psyche, making it a fit receptacle for Self-knowledge.
Vedanta itself is pretty simple – a three-fold practice of listening to the teaching, working through any doubts or confusion and then rigorously integrating that knowledge into every aspect of the psyche until the knowledge is converted to conviction.
The hard part for many is the preparation that must take place in order to qualify the mind for moksa.
A mind too agitated by the irresistable sway of likes and dislikes, desires and aversions, hopes and fears will struggle to muster the consistent time and energy required to actualise the teaching. Furthermore, the conditioning of excess rajas and tamas makes it almost impossible to make much headway with Vedanta. The allure of wordly distractions will keep pulling our focus back to worldly pleasures and pains.
This results in inner conflict and stress. One of the origins of the word “stress” relates to the field of engineering and the pressure and strain caused to certain materials when pulled in different directions. A mind which swings back and forth between the pursuit of enlightenment and worldly samsaric vasanas is indeed subject to the stress of such a dichotomous pull.
Doing the Necessary Work
The key is an unyielding commitment to doing the necessary work of purifying the mind at all stages.
Vedanta is, therefore, not about spiritual bypassing. It is not about ignoring or denying one’s emotional, mental and psychological issues. It’s not an escape. Quite the contrary, the teaching emphasises the importance of clearing the decks prior to even starting.
Again, Vedanta offers specific means for doing this: the aforementioned karma yoga, upasana yoga, meditation and management of the gunas. An understanding of and commitment to following dharma is also presupposed.
While these tools are traditionally considered enough for every student, some people require more. According to Radha, a disciple of Swami Dayananda and an excellent teacher herself, Swami Dayananda became quite confused about this after having taught for several years. While Vedanta has liberated minds for millennia, the Swami came to realise that it wasn’t always working for some people – Westerners in particular.
It transpires that Vedanta is often harder for those of us in the West, largely due to a culture that is nowhere near as dharmic as the Vedic culture. The fact of the matter is that, in spite of our greater material affluence, we Westerners tend to have a tougher time of it psychologically. Indeed, by the time a child is ten years of age, you can almost guarantee he or she will have significant emotional wounds of some kind. These wounds generally take two forms. Either they didn’t get something they needed (such as proper nurturing and a stable family environment, etc.) or they experienced something they should not have (such as abuse, bullying or other kinds of traumas).
For those who have a deeper wounding, it’s necessary to work through those issues prior to Vedanta. While Vedanta is in many ways the ultimate medicine, it is a means of knowledge and not a tool for healing psychological issues.
An issue can only be successfully resolved when dealt with at the level of the issue. A spiritual solution won’t necessarily take away psychological issues. These should be dealt with as part of one’s antahkarana shuddhi, or mental purification.
This is the all important preliminary stage of Vedanta, and because it’s frankly not much fun, it has little appeal to most people. People instinctively want to avoid pain, so are keen to jump headlong into the advanced stages without first dealing with that pain. Repression is never a solution, however, because whatever is repressed must ultimately be faced, often in greatly magnified form.
Chasing Perfection Is Not Necessary
If you happen to be sitting on a nail, it’s no good doing Self-inquiry and declaring that you are the Self and the nail is only mithya. A spiritual solution to a physical or emotional problem won’t solve that problem, and until it is dealt with at the appropriate level, the pain remains. What you need to do is get OFF the nail, heal the wound and then practise your Self-inquiry.
The fact of the matter is even when you know you are the Self, and understand the relationship between satya and mithya, the mithya world still functions according to its mithya laws, and these laws must be observed as long as the body and mind remain. One can enjoy the fruit of Self-knowledge, knowing one’s nature to be whole, complete and ever free, while still appropriately and healthily transacting with the mithya world.
Of course it’s possible to fall into the trap of thinking that you have to resolve ALL the jiva’s karma and psychological issues and compulsions in order to be free. Such a Herculean task is both unnecessary and impossible. It’s also worth stressing that the aim of Vedanta is not becoming a better person or trying to “perfect” the jiva – which again, is a frustratingly impossible task.
The jiva is imperfect by its very nature and will always be subject to some issue or another. Indeed, many of these issues are hardwired into the jiva’s body, mind and the collective psyche. Mithya is a world of duality, and that duality will always remain. There’s no getting around the fact that life will always have its pleasures and pains, joys and sorrows, highs and lows. The key is to navigate these with equanimity by holding fast to the knowledge that you, as the Self, are unaffected by any object or experience.
Krishna says in the Gita:
“The shifting qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas shape the things of this world but I remain unconditioned by them. These qualities of Creation exist in Me, but I am not in them.”
This isn’t spiritual bypassing – it is knowledge. A better term for it might be “spiritual contexualising.”
In fact we could ditch the word “spiritual” altogether because, really, Vedanta isn’t pointing to anything “spiritual.” The Self is transcendent, but it is also imminent – which is to say always present and always available as the innermost essence of one’s being.
An Impartial, Objective Mind
Vedanta is in no way about aversion or denial, both of which are symptomatic of a tamasic mind. We don’t deny that the jiva continues to experience the gunas and vasanas. What Vedanta does do, however, is to divest any sense of identification with them. These issues and experiences arise within you, awareness. They are objects appearing in you – and, as such, you are free of them.
Rumi wrote a beautiful poem called The Guesthouse, suggesting that we see all that arises in the screen of the mind and body as a guest, as something to be treated courteously and with kindness yet objectivity. He suggests:
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some future delight.
This is a healthy way to deal with the content of the mind and psyche – treating each experience, each thought and emotion with objectivity and impartiality.
Part of our spiritual practise may then include getting to the root of whatever troubling emotions and patterns arise, practising Self-inquiry, applying karma yoga, following dharma impeccably and devoting our mind and heart to whatever our conception of the Lord.
Unravelling the Knots of the Heart
The process of unravelling what the Upanishads call the “knots of the heart” is not an easy one. It requires courage, consistency, perseverance and an enormous amount of self-compassion. Some find it an easier battle than others, depending upon their karma and the constitution of their mind.
Ultimately, moksa means unqualified freedom – a freedom that doesn’t depend on this or that being a particular way. The liberated are therefore free to continue clearing whatever perturbs the mind or they can simply and dispassionately rest in the impartiality of their own being.
Vedanta reveals that you are free regardless of the state or condition of the mind or anything else in mithya. But, perhaps ironically, in order to properly assimilate that knowledge, you need a reasonably pure and qualified mind. So it’s a necessary battle, facing down the “entrenched tyrant” of the mind and making sure that your mind works for and not against you.
In conclusion, only someone who doesn’t fully understand the teaching will accuse Vedanta of spiritual bypassing. In actuality, Vedanta is a process of contextualisation. It doesn’t ignore or deny the jiva’s problems. Properly assimilated, it simply removes identification with those problems, enabling us to deal with such issues with far greater efficiency and ease, while affirming that regardless of what happens in mithya, we, as satya, the essence of existence itself, are always free and whole.
To get to that point, however, when this knowledge is fully internalised and “owned” by the mind, we generally need to continue our practise and to chip away at the grime covering the mirror of the mind. When that is done, the light of Truth shines freely – and what beauty it is.