We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
You are never alone. You are eternally connected with everyone. – Amit Ray
Surely you’ve heard sayings like these before. But have you considered how spirituality intersects with social justice? To believe that the two are separate is a mistake, conveniently ignoring centuries of oppression. Spirituality cannot be divorced from social justice and civil rights issues. To do so is a form of spiritual bypassing, a psychological defense mechanism which does harm.
Spiritual bypassing is a term coined by psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher, John Welwood, in the early 1980s. Spiritual bypassing is the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid unresolved emotional issues and wounds in addition to avoidance of negative or painful feelings. By spiritually bypassing these issues, one sidesteps the difficult inner work, thus adopting more comfortable and “positive” feelings and concepts. Sound familiar? In my experience, it is not uncommon among those in spiritual communities (many of which are White-led, co-opted new-age communities). While this defense mechanism can occur within an individual, it can also live among groups of people. For example, a well-meaning, highly educated, yoga-devoted White man once suggested that attention should be placed on one’s spiritual essence or core rather than concerning oneself with immediate issues in communities of color: the lack of food, safe housing, and job opportunities. Promoting individualism and ignoring the tangible essentials is toxic.
There are many layers to a person – people are complex creatures. The complexity increases as groups and communities form. Psychologist Carl Jung used the term ‘the shadow’ to describe unconscious aspects of ourselves – those aspects we have denied, rejected, despised, or disowned. Without conscious awareness the shadow continues to live – it is hidden. Think of triggers – what are you triggered by? When we disown or cannot tolerate an aspect of ourselves, or our group’s history, it easily gets projected onto other people or other groups. Hate, fear and prejudice are example’s of the shadow operating. Other people become mirrors – they trigger us, giving us a glimpse of our shadow. When we consider how much of what we see in our world today as manifested projections, it’s stunning.
Mindfulness practice can be a first step in beginning to see our shadow because as we slow down, turn inward, and increase awareness we can ‘catch’ projections (even as they are happening in the moment). A simple mindfulness exercise for beginners can be sitting quietly for about 10 minutes with closed eyes and focus on the breath. Notice what arises without judgment (thoughts, memories, future plans, desires, judgments) and return to your breath. With practice, moment-to-moment awareness increases which supports the shadow work process.
While it is easy to judge the shadow as something bad, let’s instead acknowledge that the shadow is just part of being human. It is neither good nor bad. It just is, like the sun rising to bring light and setting to give darkness. When we get a glimpse of our personal or collective shadow it can throw us off, and it can sting! We begin to become aware of our inner moral conflicts. To avoid the discomfort of all this, we are liable to defend ourselves from the pain by using the defense mechanism, spiritual bypassing.
In order to evolve in meaningful ways, we must be grounded in this world and we must face those aspects that we do not want to own. This is the way through these difficult times. ‘Love and light’ is wonderful, but it is not enough. Turning a blind eye to the collective pain currently surfacing only keeps us in denial longer, and it keeps us disengaged from our whole being. Taking meaningful compassionate action rooted in justice for all people is required. To sit back is taking a privileged position. To go silent, to not act, in times of injustice denies our interconnected spiritual nature.
The spiritual life does not remove us from the world but leads us deeper into it. ― Henri J.M. Nouwen
Dr. Z (drzphd.com) has produced some great videos on #ShadowWork. Here is a link to part 1 of her 6 part series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHPn5Jtzyhw
Do you reside in California? I am available for individual counseling services for those interested in shadow work.