For a long time, I harbored a belief that came from reading and listening to spiritual teachers. The belief was that, when I feel upset, the best practice is to just “sit with the feeling” — to tune into the sensations in my body, and just let them pass away. Don’t “react” to the upset by immediately lashing out at someone.
This kind of practice has done wonders for me when I’ve used it in meditation. It’s helped me understand that, when I’m doing something solitary, I don’t need to run away from my task whenever a difficult thought or feeling comes up. However, it was actually harmful for me to practice this while talking to another person.
Why? Because my natural tendency, since long before I did any spiritual practice, has been to hold back my hurt or anger when I’m with someone, and try instead to understand what they’re going through.
I’d tell myself I was doing this out of concern for the other person, and sometimes this was true. But sometimes it wasn’t — instead, it was because I was afraid of how they’d react if I told them how I felt.
When I discovered the spiritual practice of “not reacting,” I started using it as an excuse for my habit of avoiding conflict. “Oh, it’s not because I’m afraid of hurting them or making them mad,” I’d tell myself. “I’m just ‘sitting with the feeling,’ like I would in meditation.”
In other words, spirituality — at least, in this case — actually enabled my immature way of relating to the world, instead of helping me let go of it.
Anger Can Be Compassionate
A major theme of Spiritual Bypassing is how spiritual practice can sometimes enable unhealthy behaviors, and actually retard our personal growth. The story I just told is a good example of what Robert calls “blind compassion.”
“Those of us who practice blind compassion,” writes Robert, “generally spiritualize our misguided tolerance and aversion to confrontation, confusing being loving with putting up with whatever anyone does and never judging them, no matter what.” Not only does this allow others to abuse us, but more importantly, it isn’t really compassionate toward them.
Sometimes, as Robert points out, we need our anger to get a compassionate message across. If I’m yelling at you and putting you down, for example, it may not help me for you to respond in a soft, understanding way. If you tell me “it sounds like you’re angry, and I get where you’re coming from,” I may decide — in my self-righteous rage — that I’m “winning,” and press the attack.
But suppose, says Robert, that you instead “meet me with a force of equivalent intensity, stopping me in my tracks with a ‘Stop!’ that is as fiery as it is caring.” If you do this, “you might not appear caring,” but “I can feel it as you interrupt my neurotic ritual.”
In other words, the intensity you bring can actually help me see how much you care, and snap me out of my old habit of being mean to control my environment.
So What’s Left?
This isn’t to say that spiritual practice is always harmful. In my view, spirituality, and maybe personal development generally, are really about getting intimate with, and getting access to, all parts of ourselves – what Robert calls “the cultivation of intimacy with all that we are.”
If we’re afraid of our anger, for instance, our spiritual practices can help us to fully allow that fear and speak our truth, rather than fleeing from the fear as we usually would. Some people, on the other hand, have no trouble getting angry, but expressing affection feels “weak” or “cheesy” to them — and spiritual practice can help them to fully allow that feeling of cheesiness and give somebody a hug.
I’d definitely recommend this book, especially if you’ve wondered (as I have) how to integrate your spiritual practice into the rest of your life in a healthy way.