In a recent conversation, I was surprised to hear a woman who considers herself a new-age spiritual teacher say something like, “with enlightenment, we don’t have to care about the worldly stuff anymore.” I noted a distinct air of superiority in her tone, as if she had finally risen above the need to get involved in the mundane affairs of living as a human being here on Earth at this time. Taken aback by her declaration, I pointed out the ancient vow of the Bodhisattva, who continues to reincarnate into this world to serve the awakening of all beings.
Bodhisattva: (in Mahayana Buddhism) a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings.
This idea was instantly dismissed, of no interest to this self-proclaimed enlightened master. The conversation has stayed with me, inviting me to look within the culture of the personal growth movement, and consider the roots of such a perspective.
Even though a few moments with the daily news might make it difficult to believe, there is an unprecedented movement of awakening happening all around the world. People are seeking to move beyond self-interest, greed, separation, fear, and mental rigidity, opening into a new way of living that is compassionate, inclusive, and holistic. As we come to identify habitual approaches to living that are no longer in alignment with the awakened vision of a new way, inevitably we are forced into the uncomfortable process of change. In order to create a world that is no longer dominated by self-interest, greed, separation, fear, and mental rigidity, we must look within ourselves, seeing where these things are alive within us.
The process can be painful. Most of us like to think that we’re good people, doing the best we can, and when we uncover a shadowy, misaligned part of ourselves, it can trigger disbelief, guilt, shame, anger, self-hatred, and complete denial. Ultimately, in order to transform ourselves and the ways of our culture, we are required to face these things and to walk through the alchemical fire of change. When we encounter our pain, wounds, fears, and flaws, it is easy to become overwhelmed, and we push it all away. It certainly seems preferable to just walk away from all these issues, stepping instead into a new way of being, but without honestly addressing these parts of ourselves, no enduring change will occur.
In the process of spiritual awakening, this dissociation often falls under the guise of spiritual bypass. A term first coined by psychologist John Welwood in the mid 1980s, spiritual bypass includes all the ways that people attach themselves to spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid facing emotional and mental wounds. Spiritual bypass often shows up as detachment, repressing the full spectrum of emotions, hyper-positivity, stigmatizing anger, lack of beneficial boundaries, denial of personal or collective shadow, an elevated sense of importance of the spiritual, and an elevated sense of self in regard to the spiritual.
Having walked in circles connected to yoga, spirituality, and personal growth for over twenty years, I am intimately familiar with each of the strands of spiritual bypass, and have personally experienced many of them. In reflecting upon these things as they appeared in my life, I believe that I ultimately wanted to know that I was OK, that I was a good person, that I was getting something right. Seeing the suffering in our world, and wanting things to be better, it was too painful to believe that I was a part of the problem. After all, I had devoted so much time and energy into becoming a better human being, living up to my potential, and doing my very best in all the arenas of my life. Of course, the path of healing unresolved emotional wounding is circuitous, and it’s not possible to force a complete and thorough resolution according to our preferred human timelines.
And while that is true, there is a strong desire to at least seem like we’re getting it right, finally. Among spiritual circles, one might feel compelled to say, “I’m Angela. It’s all good, I’m okay with whatever is happening in the world. It’s all in Divine order. I’m a positive influence in the world, happy in every circumstance, never angry, never sad or hopeless. I’m completely open, fully whole, and living in the radiance of my own true inner light. The suffering in this world is an illusion, and as a warrior of the light, I transcend this plane of existence, an intergalactic citizen of the universe. I’m on my way home, and this place just isn’t it. Peace, love, and light to you!” But what happens when the truth is more like this? “I’m Angela. I see the good all around me, but there is also a lot of pain in this world. I have experienced a lot of suffering and trauma, and am not sure how to go about healing it, though I want to very much. I want to understand the mysterious unfolding of life, which sometimes seems like it is in Divine order, and other times seems to be nothing but chaos. I am doing my best every single day, but I stumble a lot, as I am human. I feel all things that come through me, from the heights of bliss to the depths of agony, and know that these things are the essence of human experience. From this comes compassion, opening my heart to the suffering of others. I know that in my own journey of awakening there has been no clear-cut path. Sometimes it seems clear, and other times I feel utterly lost. But I am awake, paying attention, listening, and present. I hope that through my life’s experience I can be a positive support to others, as we are all in this together.”
The path of awakening is a path of embracing the full spectrum of human experience. Too often, the error we make is in wanting to transcend the world and its problems. We tend to believe that when enlightenment comes, we will no longer have to feel pain, sadness, fear, anger, or confusion. We want to believe it is possible to live in a place of endless joy, and too often that is accompanied by the belief that we will either escape this realm of challenges and struggle, or we will be saved by some external force that will eradicate whatever is in the way of eternal ease and happiness. Ultimately, awakening is much the opposite journey: as we open to experience all that arises and all that falls away, we cultivate greater compassion, and are able to be present with life with all the challenges and struggle. We awaken into feeling every single thing, resisting nothing, embracing it all.
On an individual level, this is profound. As we truly awaken to the present moment with our full senses and heart, healing and transforming our own lives, we also awaken to a greater sense of personal responsibility, and the desire to be of service to others. On a collective level, as we awaken, we make the leap from living in a human-centric way of conflict and exploitation, to living in a respectful, balanced way, considering the impact of our choices within the interdependent web of life. Bringing together the gifts of compassion and insight, and uniting our hearts and minds, it is no longer desirable to simply look the other way, seeking an escape from the pain of this world. Instead, we look fully into the suffering of the world, opening our arms, becoming the healing presence that will transform the world.
This is not a simple process, nor an easy road. We are facing immense global challenges that threaten life as we know it. The extinction of species, climate change, social and human rights issues, violence and discrimination, injustice, fear, and deep and abiding separation are pervasive at this time. Hearts are closed, minds are rigid, and weapons are at hand, as we continue to face the darkness within humanity that has been suppressed for millennia. And just as with an infected wound, we must open and purify the wounds within the collective consciousness of humanity, allowing the infected hearts and minds to heal and return to basic goodness. This will take time, and it will not always be graceful, but when held in the compassionate embrace of the Bodhisattvas that have come to Earth just now in order to facilitate this awakening, it will continue to unfold.
Angela Blueskies is a visionary musician and medicine woman who has traveled the world for over a decade in search of meaning and spiritual growth. She is the founder of Sound Medicine Journeys, and offers sound healing sessions, classes, and workshops that are both experiential and grounded in the principles of holistic healing. A shamanic practitioner rooted in the traditions of the Peruvian Andes, Angela is also the Creative Director of Heart of the Mother Retreats, and leads journeys and pilgrimages to powerful healing destinations around the world. For more information, please visit angelablueskies.com and heartofthemotherretreats.com.
First published on My Area Yoga: DC, Philly, Chicago on May 15th, 2017