I wrote an article exploring how we can understand endemic sexual harassment in relation to the fact that our experience of life is through thought in the moment.
I looked at the fact that people do terrible things and how that relates to the central principle of my coaching which is that we have innate health, that we are incapable of being psychologically damaged, that no feeling or thought is abnormal, that it is the nature of the mind to change, that at our core we are love, potential and creativity and that we are designed to always return to this.
Among the hundreds of comments, the term ‘spiritual bypass’ was used. It is a fascinating term coined by a psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher John Welwood meaning a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks”.
Is it true? I asked myself. Is there a risk that with my coaching I am just papering over the cracks? That I am scattering daisies over a mine field? That with my fingers in my ears, I am singing ‘tra la la’ in someone’s face and ignoring their real issues?
The answer is:
and the answer is:
And this depends entirely on:
how immersed we are at that moment in the experience of life
how immersed we are in our understanding of how we experience life
Immersion in the experience of life
When I was ten, my father died. In those moments of abject grief, it would have been impossible for me to see my desolation as anything other than the direct result of my father dying.
My sister had a heart and lung transplant. The terror of waiting to see if she had survived the operation felt anything but imaginary.
Desperate for children I had round upon round of failed IVF and two miscarriages. One evening in the bath I sobbed and sobbed until i felt my heart would break. It did not look for one minute that that had anything to do with thought.
If the nurse had said while I was giving birth to my 9 pound son with nothing but gas and air ‘Stop making a fuss, It’s just your thinking’… well…
As a conscious human, our experience is vivid, dramatic, terrifying, elating. It is absolutely real and all encompassing because that is the reality of each individual in that moment. To deny the felt truth of this experience is a nonsense. And our realities are made up of this, moment by moment experiences that we feel acutely in our body, that we see with our eyes and hear with our ears. Absolutely real.
Any attempt in these moments to use spirituality to tell me not to feel these experiences or that they are somehow not real would be ineffectual, insensitive and, some might even say, cruel.
Immersion in how we experience life
As a conscious human being, we are immersed in our experience. We also, crucially, have the ability to see for ourselves that this experience is fluid, that it changes, that in certain moments a problem looks desperate and then we forget all about it. We move from love to hate, fear to calm, jealousy to pride, anger to acceptance and back again. Sometimes it looks like this is caused by the outside world and sometimes nothing has ostensibly changed.
When my Dad died, my grief came and went, was overwhelming or unnoticeable from one moment to the next. Even during the drive in the funeral car to the graveyard my Mum, Nan, sister and I moved between tears, silence, talking about Dad, talking about other things and other people, we laughed and joked, cried and hugged.
Now, I miss him desperately. Or I see him still here in my son’s music and my daughter’s laughter. I am devastated that my husband and children have never met him. Or I know that he is with us at all times. I am proud of how we managed. Or I think what a mess we were. I wish I could change the past. Or I am happy that a space was created in our lives for someone else that we dearly love. I think how it made me vulnerable. Or I think how it made me strong.
Happy, sad, hopeful, desperate, lonely? Which is it? Which of my thoughts or memories are the right ones?
The answer has to be all of them. All of them are right and none of them are wrong. They are thoughts and feelings that move through me and according to what thoughts appear I have that experience.
And which are caused by his death?
The answer has to be none of them. I am crying now as I write this. I wasn’t crying before and I probably won’t be crying in five minutes time. It looks like these tears are caused by my father’s death but that is the trick of consciousness. If they were I would be crying or not crying all the time because, as far as I know, nothing is changing in relation to how alive or dead he is. (If it is I’m in for quite a shock…)
While we are in it we are in it. There is no space to see something differently, and, importantly, no need. This is the human experience at its raw edge. Life, death, grief, pain, anger, birth, fear. We are immersed in it. Our whole mind and body involved. While it looks, feels, sounds real, it is real.
When we become aware of the power of thought, we immerse ourselves in our understanding of how we experience life. We look to the shifting nature of that individual reality to see what is the truth behind it. This is human understanding at its most profound. Wonder, reflection, marvel, awe, excitement, curiosity. There is no end to this exploration and along the way we become ever more compassionate for ourselves and others in those moments when what we are experiencing is so real that exploration would be ridiculous.
What do we do with this?
A very good answer would be ‘nothing at all’.
Nothing needs to change for any of us to be OK. We move from immersion in the experience to immersion in understanding our experience, then back and then back again, then back and then back again….
That is how we are designed.
At the same time we are here on earth, given human form to explore and discover. We have the possibility to direct our energy and attention.
James and I went for counselling when we were living in Amsterdam. Each session was two hours of talking through all the ways that the other was letting us down, everything we didn’t like about the other, all the ways we wanted the other to change. We would get into the car after the session, bristling with so much anger and resentment that we couldn’t speak to each other for days afterwards. The ‘homework’ was to spend time cuddling each other. Yeah, right.
Is that what we want to put our attention into? The differences, frustrations, irritations, divisions that come from thought in the moment?
Or do we want to put it into what is universally true for all of us, into what unites us, into what makes us human?
We don’t need to create any outcome with this.
We never have to mend a marriage or come to terms with grief or move past a trauma or heal from pain or prevent a war. To try to do this is to deeply dishonour the human experience.
That is spiritual bypass.
And one day, a moment will come when we have a fleeting glimpse beyond what changes. For a split second, we see the permanent, loving, constant and universal. We might see it in music or art or nature or kindness or sport or laughter or anything else. We might even see it in discord or grief or pain or trauma or war. This glimpse is so intriguing, so beautiful that we cannot help but move towards what it reveals.
We move into the very centre of life.
Here, there is nothing to bypass. We want it all.