Throughout yoga class, Jennifer feels fat. She’s obsessed with the other women’s bodies – how much thinner, limber, and more beautiful they are. Afterwards, at Whole Foods she buys a package of Organic Fig Bars and a pint of Carob Almond Rice Dream, goes home, eats it all, and throws up. Self-hatred quickly follows.
Kyle is late on his rent again, and can’t be sure he’s not overdrawn. It’s always this chaos, every month. That reservation he made for the weeklong meditation retreat was more than he could afford – but maybe he’ll get some answers there.
Jennifer and Kyle are examples of what we call spiritual bypass: when a person’s spiritual intentions and aspirations are sincere, but their unfinished business is holding them back.
People become attracted to spirituality in the hope it will solve life’s problems and relieve pain and suffering, but it’s not quite that simple. A popular misconception is that spiritual practice will in and of itself resolve psychological issues. Best-selling books advocate that by ignoring our discomfort and focusing on the Light, or on what we wish to manifest, we can get everything we want. This idea of positive thinking, or the law of attraction, can divert us from our real issues.
You can’t make progress on the spiritual path if you’re ignoring your pain. Pain, in fact, is an indication of where you need to grow – by pretending we’re happy all the time, we miss the lessons our suffering and humanity are trying to teach us. As Alan Cohen says in Wisdom of The Heart, “If you desire to know where your spiritual work lies, look to your emotional pain.”
When we have unmet needs, they will clamor for our attention and divert us from what we want to be our path. Hence, we end up battling addictions, psychological issues, and not living our right life, rather than making the spiritual progress we hoped.
Failing to discriminate between pseudo-spirituality and true inner transformation, we can get lost for years or life times.
Kyle and Jennifer and others like them are sincere spiritual seekers, but not dealing with their psychological issues is stunting their spiritual growth. Jen needs to get help from an eating disorder therapist, or depending on the severity of her problem, spend some time in a treatment program. Kyle needs to understand that being on a spiritual path doesn’t negate needing to learn how to handle money. Working with a psychotherapist who specializes in understanding the pitfalls of the spiritual path could make all the difference in the world.
© 2014 Catherine Auman This article is an excerpt from Catherine’s book Shortcuts to Mindfulness: 100 Ways to Personal and Spiritual Growth