Within myself and with individuals who attend for therapy or participate in courses I direct and, indeed, with colleagues and friends, I am frequently faced with questions about the relationship between psychological and spiritual work. Spirituality has long been a struggle for me, even though many who read my books or my attend courses say that my work is very spiritual. When they make such comments I find I am inclined to clarify my work by asserting that it is primarily psychological in nature and in practice, but that I can understand how some people come to see it as ultimately spiritual. I know that my fear is that individuals who are troubled and troubling – which includes all of us – may seek out spiritual practices as a way of resolving deep emotional issues. This practice has become known as spiritual bypassing. Having spent seven years in a monastery and undoubtedly having had several spiritual experiences, I still emerged from the cloisters as uncertain, insecure and vulnerable as I had been when I entered. Over my years in clinical psychological practice, I have met with several individuals who had gone the spiritual route to resolve their deep insecurities but emerged even more insecure.
When we encounter obstacles to our mature development in our homes, classrooms, schools, churches, communities and workplaces, we creatively find ways to defend ourselves against such emotional, social, physical, sexual, intellectual and creative abandonments. These defence mechanisms are formed at an unconscious level and they deepen and multiply over the years that we continue to experience threats to our wellbeing. There is no way around these defences – neither drugs nor spirituality work. However, when individuals attempt to ease their emotional pain with either drugs or spirituality, I understand that they are seeking answers that do not necessitate going into their painful stories; my hope is that at some future date they will grasp the nettle of their inner turmoil. The reality is that the efforts to use spiritual practice to try to rise above and transcend our emotional and personal and interpersonal issues – all those hidden unresolved matters that weigh us down – will not work.
I can understand from my own life how spiritual bypassing can be particularly tempting for individuals who have little or no sense of self. After all, the core wound we all suffer is the disconnection from our own being. This inner disconnection originally took place in childhood in response to parents and other adults who did not fully see, welcome, accept, celebrate and love us. In the struggle to reconnect with ourselves the lure of spiritual teachings and practices that urge us to ‘give ourselves up’ and have a ‘spiritual identity’ can be difficult to resist. However, such an identity is as defensive as the old masked psychological identity because it is based on an avoidance of unresolved emotional issues that have been crying out for resolution. It is in this way that involvement in spiritual teachings and practices can result in a rationalisation and a strengthening of old psychological defences. For example, those individuals who have a deep real need to be seen as the special individuals they truly are can emphasise the ‘specialness’ of their spiritual insight and practice and/or their ‘special’ relationship with the spiritual teacher to shore up a sense of self-importance. This ‘specialness’ is an unconscious substitute for the real thing – which is their own unique and special presence. The reality is that whilst many Western and Eastern spiritual teachers are very warm, kind, loving and personal in their own way, more often than not, they frequently do not have much to say about the personal and interpersonal aspects of life. Indeed, they tend not to detect the tendency in themselves and in their followers to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep low self-esteem, social alienation and other emotional defences.
It is my experience that spiritual practice is best pursued from a place of inner solidity and from a place of ongoing resolution of alienation from self and others. As human beings, we live on two levels – the psychological and the spiritual; these two dimensions cannot be reduced to one. When such a reduction is attempted we neither realise ourselves psychologically nor spiritually.
Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist/Author, National and International Speaker. His recent book with co-author Helen Ruddle, Relationship, Relationship, Relationship: The Heart of a Mature Society is relevant to today’s topic.