The incredibly valuable work of Robert Augustus Masters includes in its oeuvre one of the first treatises on the hazards of “spiritual bypassing”, which describes critical ways Western practitioners of eastern or otherwise ancient modalities can create unhealthy self-deluding relationships to its ideologies. The text raises very cogent points and should be required reading for anyone living in Los Angeles (or who just generally consider themselves on a spiritual path or anything involving rigorous self-betterment). Spiritual bypassing is just one peripheral aspect of his campaign for living an authentic and full-spectrum existence, and all of his writings therein I highly recommend. Being clearly a man of deep self-cultivation, he understands what it means to misapply a spiritual teaching, and the egoic dangers of such an incomplete understanding. However, I feel the need to comment on some of his points around “transcendence”, since his idea of that process needs to be either elaborated on or even (he might think) completely countered by my understanding of it. His view of it can be found here:
“When transcendence is unhealthy, what has been transcended has been excluded from our being, resulting in escapism and disconnection. Where healthy transcendence embraces what’s been transcended, unhealthy transcendence avoids, making a spiritual virtue out of rising above whatever is deemed ‘lower’ or ‘darker’ elements of our nature.”
In one sense, he totally nailed it: transcendence should engender an all-inclusive perspective of ourselves and the world, which is a richer, more dynamic or generally healthy approach to life. But as someone who teaches meditation of the “transcendent” variety, I should point out that important nuances of the transcendence process need to be more thoroughly explained to anyone worried about the “incorrect” practice of such a spiritual modality.
Transcendence is a result of certain practices (meditation is one of the most ubiquitous) and does not involve the practitioner willfully detaching themselves from the inconvenient attributes of themselves or their lives. It involves spontaneously discovering a place within that is free from the boundaries of individual identity – “good” and “bad” qualities included. It is not an intellectual decision of “I’m going to go over here where it is comfortable” nor is it a philosophical positionality. It is a mechanical event that pipes us into a deeper wisdom and leads to the automatic sorting out of what stays or goes in our individuality. The sorting is not dictated by a spiritual philosophy or anything in the realms of human understanding.
This is why the word “higher” is applied to describe this conscious field. Agreed about how recklessly it gets thrown around by the more spiritually aspirational, but its proper use does not describe a “better” model of human being with superior human qualities, but a source of wisdom way beyond what the human intellect can have a say in. And in case speaking about some field of deeper wisdom sounds spooky to you, know that it doesn’t have to mean something mystical or theistic. Just something that doesn’t fit into your intellect, just like your most basic biological processes. For example, your mind isn’t taking you through an intellectual play-by-play of eating or sleeping and asking for your approval regarding the metabolism of individual amino acids. It’s just happening autonomously and somehow, you end up nourished. No ideology required. Transcendence is similar: what our intellect thinks is good or bad has nothing to do with what coalesces. Not all meditation is like this, but the one I teach is just this sort of passive, natural process. What Masters is describing involves a certain contriving misstep that has no source in the meditation process, but begins when we open our eyes, uncross our legs, and have a look around the room.
Waking reality is where the license to passivity expires and our discrimination must kick in. This is where we re-enter our obligation to being a good human and philosophical paradigms begin to model our trajectory. The sorting of what is “good” and “bad” begins, informed by things like intellect and intuition, and not transcendence-seeking maneuvers. The transcendent, that place we “go” in meditation, may shape and and continue to operate through the intellect, but not in ways our individuality is conscious of and can ever hope to manipulate. The transcendent exists outside of the bounds of intellect and intuition and therefore beyond our control. Therefore, we can’t “use” the transcendent to escape or mislead ourselves. The transcendent uses us (that little sentence sounds like a whole separate article…and one day it will be).
The issues with transcendence Masters is talking about are when a misshapen ideology is formed around the transcendence modality and applied to waking experience to escape responsibility. But that is unhealthy decision-making, not unhealthy transcendence. You can’t call transcendence unhealthy any more than than you can call sleep unhealthy. It’s a process that involves certain conscious events and metabolic signatures, but is not in our control and henceforth not subject to the philosophical corruption that Masters is so worried about. And it seems the use of transcendence as a pejorative has found a similar place as the word “sleep” in 20th century vernacular. Calling someone “asleep” in our culture is used to imply undue ignorance, where someone is applying unconscious passivity when conscious vigilance is needed – and they are implored to “wake up”.
Similarly, transcendence as a meditation technique is healthy. As a life practice, probably not. The word “integration” might better serve us in our eyes-open practice. And, funny enough, transcendence by its very nature integrates us, but that which is integrated does not require our individual consent as much as Masters description of “healthy transcendence” entails where we “embrace what’s been transcended.” Embracing our individuality outside of the transcendence process is a great practice, but during it, we don’t worry too much about having an individuality to embrace. What we embrace in meditation is our deepest self beyond all individuality, which doesn’t compromise, but enrich, our capacity for all of those individual traits that Masters is so afraid of us negating in going beyond ourselves. This deepest Self is more of a priority to certain Ancient Indian spiritual schools like Vedanta, much more so than all of that stuff that human identity is supposed to be made of, something that could lead to a denial of a very vital human experience that we have been given a ticket to for a reason. And just as the Vedantins might have a bias for the deepest self, someone like Masters has a bias for the embodied individualistic self, which can lead to over-identification with the stuff that Vedanta would think incarcerates us with illusion. It is not important who is right, since both ends of the spectrum will serve us if we have a healthy relationship to them. As you can imagine, it’s about balance, and knowing what approach applies where.
It’s important to understand that Vedanta might provide an idea of ultimate conscious reality, but does not offer much in the way of models for everyday life. And if being confronted with a very everyday human challenge inspires the response: “no point in dealing with that since after all, the multiple forms of life are just a reflection of a unified formless Self…no further inquiry or action required”, then you might have complacency issues you want to examine. But I think it’s important to waylay any concerns about “unhealthy” transcendence, since it is virtually non-existent in my definition of it as a primarily meditative event. Instances of transcendence as the escapism Masters describes are rarely found in this day and age. One would be hard pressed to find someone not interested in coming out of meditation and dealing with their lives. The pull of the relative world is too strong. Escaping the razzle dazzle of modern life and all of the psychophysiological patterns it embeds in us takes considerably more strength of will than engaging with it. An escapist philosophy is certainly a thing, but I think that “unhealthy transcendence” is a thoroughly incorrect term for it. Abstraction, repression, or idealism would be far more suitable.
And I think this leads us to further questions, one being whether spirituality can really even be considered the medium for our bypassing tendencies. I think Masters is not describing a spiritual tendency, but general human immaturity and egotism. Spirituality just got caught in its jet engine. This particular brand of immaturity may not even be timeless or global, but related to a particular modern experience in a Westernized world. The 21st century technoindustrial landscape has created a climate where we are at once hyperactively striving and non-negotiably comfortable. We want fast, upward-mobilizing results with minimal personal sacrifice. For the last few generations, that tendency has simultaneously accelerated and collided with a frenzied discovery of every hitherto unknown spiritual tradition you can get you hands on – and without millennia of tradition to buttress anything. We are a spiritual infants, so we bypass the real work. It will be generations before we get the hang of it. And that’s just fine.
If Masters also sees the source of the problem as not in spirituality, but spiritually immature human beings, it may then follow that he doesn’t think human beings are strong or particularly bright enough to be using conscious modalities, lest they provide a sugar high for their innately monstrous egos. Which is also worth noting, hence the long tradition of teachers keeping their students in check. Today, we have a deficit of solid mentors able to be as intimately involved with the lives of practitioners who live in a considerably more individualistic and DIY culture ever before. So what to do about all these practitioners, swollen with partially-understood teachings, gallivanting around indulging themselves?
First, let’s understand what this human tendency really is. One term given to our comfort addiction by the psychological field has been the “Pollyanna Principle”, a tendency that causes us to distort our perception of events into a more positive flavor than they originally were. It also describes our bias in pursuing that which is pleasurable, which kind of makes me giggle. To give one of the most flagrantly understandable human qualities such a whimsical, mythical and generally condescending term suggests how disconnected we are from our nature. Of course we have a pleasure bias! What do you think pushes someone to master themselves and their environment, but the tendency to avoid what is destructive? Of course we’re going to keep our ego safe and of course that tendency is going to get overused and cause stagnation. And yes there is something to be said about “toughing it out” and “being real”, but we need to let go of our Protestant attachment to struggle in order to integrate with and better understand our pleasure-seeking tendencies such that they serve us better.
One problem with our pleasure seeking tendencies is our tendency to consider what is more comfortable as more valuable. As an antidote to this, Masters seems to be proposing a non-hierarchical view of human qualities. Here we must be cautious of considering any aspect of our humanity as more valuable than any other, lest our self-delusion tendencies kick in and we develop a bias towards those “superior” traits, becoming reckless poseurs who fail to acknowledge and work with what we believe to be “inferior”. This extends to society, where the ego adopts this kind of thinking to exalt oneself above others. What results is not just elitism, but one shrouded with progressive intentions. And what could be more insidious than someone confusing their pleasure-seeking nature with superiority? So although spiritual bypassing is viewed as a form of self-protection from our shadow side, the non-hierarchical view is self-protection from the pitfalls of the human ego.
But as I imagine Masters would agree, insulating ourselves from any aspect of our nature is not a holistic approach to being human. If “avoiding or rejecting the aspects of ourselves we don’t want” is looked upon as repressive and dissociative, then wouldn’t our pleasure bias be exactly one of those things to embrace and understand more intimately? Because our pleasure bias is not a stagnation vehicle anymore than it is a growth vehicle. It just depends what form it takes. The very drives that delude us are the ones that mobilize us to a place of greater thriving.
The problem seems to be not in seeking pleasure, but dependence on ideology. How safe do we try and keeps ourselves with a certain philosophy such that we are bound to its ideals and afraid of whatever we experience outside of its paradigm? Really, a warning about spiritual bypassing is a warning against clinging to ideologies without questioning them. But not being bound to ideology is in fact a spiritual act, and to allow ideas to limit us would be a rather un-spiritual position. So perhaps a better name for Masters’ formulation would be “anti-spiritual bypassing”.
Bypassing is driven by our fear of getting bound to aspects of ourselves that no longer serve us, and the non-hierarchical approach is driven by the fear that forgetting about our self-limiting bullshit can throw the baby out with the bathwater, abolishing of what is fundamentally us. Which raises a good question: when unhealthy patterns in us dissolve, how do we know they left willingly (or transmuted into something more useful) and were not repressed? And, more so, how do we discover/love who we are, and simultaneously go beyond it into new possibilities?
Masters’ way seems to favor the former, an unsurprising priority of a psychotherapist, which comes from a tradition of digging into and integrating with our unconscious. This sensibility can easily be seen as in contention with something more idealist or “ascendence-oriented” (for examples of something more idealistic than his see any other spiritual teaching in existence). What arises in observing his approach is the age old spiritual idiom of “you are perfect as you are”, which is of course an inert concept without the added, “now dig in and discover who that perfect self is…and don’t be afraid of getting your hands dirty.” Something he would do with gusto.
But being inspired by ideology to become something that somewhat diverges from who we are is not as self-negating as one might think. If a philosophy resonates with us and we have become more clear and connected to our inner sense of truth, then it is not necessarily providing cheap exogenous ideals, but animating something that already exists within us. So going beyond ourselves, is being ourselves, since we by our very nature are always becoming.
In his book Divine Dynamite, which seems to have been written well before Spiritual Bypassing, Masters makes me wonder why he is so concerned about the follies of our seeking:
“The self that is gung-ho about getting spiritual, that seeks transformation, that makes spiritual real estate out of moments of light, that defines itself through meditative practice and association with spiritual heavyweights, sooner or later becomes not only an object of awareness, but also just more fuel for the fire of awakening — as eventually do all our apparent selves, all the “I’s” that together make us up.”
Why worry about the deluded ego so much when it is so prone to getting burned up if we are in fact doing the work?
Are we going to misstep during this process? Damn right. Are we going to influence others to be spiritually foolish in the process. Expect it. And I do not tend to be shy about criticizing all the obnoxiously glossy, ungrounded and otherwise misguided spiritual trajectories, but I think all of that dramatic prose forewarning the dangers of simply embarking on a spiritual path is missing the whole point in its alarmism. Growth is a process. And periods of delusion, when things like our ego jump in and appropriate our growth into materialistic self-inflation, is part of the process. These are potential side effects of what is necessary: investing at least a little intention into “I’d like to be more like this”. We need models to move forward – things we prefer over others. The important thing is to just not be bound to the models and open to outcomes that diverge from our original vision. Remember that the process that deludes us is also the one that brings clarity. Just keep at it and never forget how vital it is to embrace your adorable little deluded self whenever you catch it.