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Spiritual Bypassing | Harmonist

(Harmonist) – Spiritual Bypassing

by Harmonist staff

By Ekendra dasa, originally published at Suburban Mysticism.

In a conversation with some kirtana enthusiasts some months ago on the idea of karma, I mentioned a poignant verse from the tenth canto of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (10.14.8).

tat te ’nukampāṁ su-samīkṣamāṇo
bhuñjāna evātma-kṛtaṁ vipākam
hṛd-vāg-vapurbhir vidadhan namas te
jīveta yo mukti-pade sa dāya-bhāk

My dear Lord, one who earnestly waits for You to bestow Your causeless mercy upon him, all the while patiently suffering the reactions of his past misdeeds and offering You respectful obeisances with his heart, words and body, is surely eligible for liberation, for it has become his rightful claim.

This verse presents a concept that is core to Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava theology. Spoken by Brahma, who realised his error in stealing Kṛṣṇa’s cowherd friends, it instructs us on how to avoid feeling victimised by adversity and how to use such difficulty as an impetus to take shelter of God.

My attempt to present this beautiful and liberating idea was cut short by one participant in the discussion, who remarked, “That just sounds like spiritual bypassing.”

This struck me by surprise, given that the person who said it was initiated into a prominent western Gauḍīya lineage. I didn’t want to embarrass her, but it was painfully obvious that she’d never understood the profundity of this Bhāgavatam verse and was more influenced by the current zeitgeist than the message of the predecessors in our heritage. So I offered little in the way of rebuttal, just advising her to perhaps not dismiss such authoritative statements out of hand without first inquiring seriously about their meaning. We wrapped up the talk on amicable, albeit superficial, terms “agreeing to disagree”; but the incident really got me thinking. I’ve learned, with age, not to attempt to teach something to those who do not want to be taught, and maybe I had a thing or two to learn myself?

So over the next few days, I looked into this idea of “spiritual bypassing”. In his classic book, Toward a Psychology of Awakeningthe late psychotherapist John Welwood, defined spiritual bypassing as using “spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks.”

I’m glad I looked into it because this idea is worth considering. Taking inventory, I realise that I have a tendency towards spiritual bypass when it comes to my physical health. During my 30s and 40s, I ate as if I had the body of a teenager. I’ve been surrounded by a culture that discourages sensory indulgence, while offering an outlet in the way of sanctified food. This proved difficult for me to navigate. Now that I’m in my 50s, with a recent heart attack still in the rearview mirror, I’m finally developing some intelligence in that department. No more neglect of physical health in the name of spirituality for me. I think I still have a lot of reasons to live.

It could be argued that the main teaching of Bhagavad-gītā is to not “spiritually bypass” one’s duties in life, but to perform them as an offering to Kṛṣṇa (18.66).

sarva-dharmān parityajya
mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja
ahaṁ tvāṁ sarva-pāpebhyo
mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śucaḥ

Here, Kṛṣṇa advises his friend Arjuna to stop using religious arguments to avoid performing his duty to fight the evil-doers who usurped their righteous kingdom.

Earlier in the conversation, Arjuna had given up by telling Kṛṣṇa (2.9), “na yotsya iti govindam uktvā tūṣṇīṁ babhūva ha”, “Govinda, I shall not fight,” and then fell silent.

In the first chapter and beginning of the second chapter of Bhagavad-gītā, Arjuna articulates several seemingly valid justifications for a pacifist approach. Arjuna was a highly trained warrior meant to protect others from harm but, overwhelmed with emotion, he seriously considered the path of spiritual bypassing. Fortunately, Kṛṣṇa enlightened his friend, and any of us who care to learn Bhagavad-gītā, how to perform our duties in devotional consciousness.

In the human form of life, we have the capacity to transcend material nature; yet we are guided throughout the sacred texts to approach mysticism in such a way that we will not cause harm to ourselves or others via neglect. Like Arjuna, we should overcome this tendency and take assurance of Kṛṣṇa’s words, “I will protect you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.”

Back to the original passage that began this train of thought:

tat te ’nukampāṁ su-samīkṣamāṇo
bhuñjāna evātma-kṛtaṁ vipākam
hṛd-vāg-vapurbhir vidadhan namas te
jīveta yo mukti-pade sa dāya-bhāk

This profound verse is not a justification for spiritual bypassing one’s needs or responsibilities to others. It offers us a way out of the “blame game” where a victim mentality can rob us of the mental clarity needed to manage the inevitable adversities of life. It suggests an enlightened perspective, not an excuse for abnegation of duty. We reap as we sow; but Kṛṣṇa has always looked after us, is looking after us, and will always look after us. Taking confidence in this reality is liberating and can accompany us as we take care of our needs and perform our social functions in this world.

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