‘For imaginary thought to cease, clean up the garbage that clutters your mind. This garbage is composed of concepts, prejudices, beliefs, ideas, and suppressed feelings.’ – Prem Baba
In the last five years, I’ve spent a lot of time in yoga ashrams. Over and over, I have noticed something that used to puzzle me greatly. I came into contact with people, often Swamis, who had been practicing sadhana for decades, around thirty or forty years, and yet were very emotionally reactive. I observed them being rude to each other and to ashram workers, having fierce arguments amongst themselves and generally radiating a tense, unhappy energy. This used to scare me. ‘What’, I thought, ‘if after thirty years of doing my practice I am still emotionally reactive like this?’ and ‘What good is all this sadhana if this is the outcome?’
Over time, I realized that this was the by-product of what is commonly known as ‘spiritual bypassing’. Spiritual bypassing is when we try to transcend our being human before we are ready to do so. In yogic and other Eastern philosophies, there is much talk about the transcendence of emotions, of observing the emotions as they arise and likewise often a disapproval of common human emotions like anger. These are all wonderful ideas and I appreciate the wisdom of seeing things from a spiritual perspective. There is a reason for every difficulty we experience in life and we can learn something from every situation. And of course it would be wonderful to stay calm and reflective in the most difficult circumstances whilst radiating love, light and understanding.
The problem with this approach is, in my view, that it often pushes our emotional body into the cellar. Many of us carry emotional wounds and samskaras that are difficult to look at or feel. So the temptation is ‘I’ll practice yoga and do meditation, and magically these wounds will be transcended. I will be above such human emotions.’ I know this from my own experience. After years of meditation, it’s so nice to think that we’re ‘above all that’. And then we get into an intimate relationship with somebody and all hell breaks loose. We regress into childhood and the calm resolve is gone. If anything, it’s a good lesson in humility.
The reality is, we have to walk before we can run. First we need to cleanse the emotional body, and then we can begin to start thinking about transcendence. Like my teacher Yogi Vishvketu from Rishikesh always says: ‘First you need to clean your house, then you can put nice things in it!’ This of course doesn’t mean that we can’t do yoga and meditation alongside emotional healing work – it just means that we have to be more aware to not bypass the emotions that need to be felt in their full extent before they can be transcended.
I used to be a prime contender for this spiritual bypassing, and still am sometimes. It’s so nice to be in the calm spheres of meditation. It’s soothing and it gives me great balance, and I wouldn’t want to miss it. But thankfully I’ve also done a lot of work that focuses on the emotional body, too, such as bodywork and authentic movement. And this work has shown me that emotions, especially those we have repressed in childhood because they were too painful to feel, need more than just calm observation. A bodywork therapist recently put it aptly: ‘Imagine how you would have felt as a child if your emotions had just been calmly observed.’ Exactly. The emotions need to be felt, understood – for there is usually a good reason as to why we have them -, accepted, and then we need to learn to take responsibility for them. And that is key.
The other side of spiritual bypassing is emotional indulgence. We can be in danger of slipping into a victim role and get stuck in our emotions. But the middle path is the golden one once again. What we didn’t get as children because our caretakers were unable to give it to us, we now need to learn to give ourselves. But what happens more often is that we act our emotions out because we are unable to contain and fully experience them, and project those unfulfilled needs onto our romantic partners. And so we spend the best part of our adult lives trying to win an old battle by engaging in relationships that don’t give us what we need either and hoping to get those needs met by a partner who can’t meet them because he’s likely as wounded as we are. And that’s where meditation gives us the awareness to see the ‘big picture’.
In my experience, too much emphasis is placed on transcendence in many spiritual institutions when emotional maturity hasn’t yet been reached or even attempted. There are no tools available for those aspirants who need this maturation. Hence we see monks with alcohol problems, yoga teachers who sleep with their students, emotional reactivity and so on and so forth. We can be highly advanced spiritually and yet still in infancy emotionally.
Last year in Rishikesh, I came into contact with a wonderful Brazilian Saint. His name is Prem Baba, and to me he represents the perfect combination between spirituality and psychology. He recognizes the need for integrating our shadow self. And yet, he is a realized Master whose mere presence opened my heart and calmed my mind. His work is a perfect fusion of East and West, and he uses spiritual wisdom and traditional methods together with a mixture of psychological and shamanic tools to help his disciples to clean their garbage that clutters their minds.
I feel that in this changing world, this fusion between East and West, between tradition and progress, is the way to go. We need to become autonomous beings on all levels: mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And we can only become autonomous if we heal our emotions and de-condition our thought processes. If we don’t do this first or alongside our more transcendental work, we carry the risk of having a nice shining exterior house that is cluttered and dirty on the inside. And then our work to liberation can take twice as long because philosophical systems can condition us, too.
‘One cannot be autonomous as long as one is driven by relationship dynamics, by guilt or attachment needs, by hunger for success, by the fear of the boss or by the fear of boredom. The reason is simple: autonomy is impossible as long as one is driven by anything. Like a leaf blown by the wind, the driven person is controlled by forces more powerful than he is. His autonomous will is not engaged, even if he believes that he has ‘chosen’ his stressed lifestyle and even if he enjoys his activities. The choices he makes are attached to invisible strings. He is still unable to say no, even if it is only to his own drivenness. When he finally wakes up, he shakes his head, Pinocchio-like, and says, ‘How foolish I was when I was a puppet.’ – Gabor Mate, ‘When the Body says No’
For more information on the healing of emotions, I found the following books useful:
Prem Baba ‘From Suffering to Joy: The Path of the Heart’
Chris Griscom ‘The Healing of Emotions’
Diana and Michael Richardson ‘Tantric Love: Feeling vs Emotion’
Tony Crisp ‘Liberating the Body’
Gabor Mate ‘When the Body says No’