If you’ve spent much time with me in classes, workshops or trainings, you’ve likely seen me make a hand gesture with my palms facing upwards, side by side. No matter the topic, the dialogue accompanying the self-created mudra is always about two seemingly unconnected or even conflicting ideas, truths or options. And the challenge of the moment is never about figuring out which is right or better, rather, it’s opening the mind to the possibility of both/and. The contents held in each hand, no matter how incongruent they may seem, are rarely mutually exclusive. What if it’s this and that? What if both are true?
Not sure what I’m talking about? Here’s an example from a recent exchange with a private client. In the past year, this student lost her partner in an incomprehensibly painful way. It’s been a year of grieving and trying to figure out how to move on, and not long ago, she was faced with attending the wedding of a loved one. Her mind was fixed on “I should be happy for them” and every other reaction was shelved as selfish. Our work was the lesson of both/and. In one hand: it’s an incredibly happy occasion; it’s one of the most important celebrations in life; the happy couple will be surrounded by friends and family, joy and rainbows and roses and perhaps even unicorns. And in the other hand: it is completely true and 100% acceptable that for this woman, the wedding day might also be quite painful and full of grief; it could trigger envy, which awakens the monsters of guilt and shame; it well may incite feelings of sadness, loneliness and loss. Why does it have to be one? What if it could be both? Happy and sad. A celebration and a day of mourning. What if we can get so big as to open our hearts wide enough to hold it all: happiness for others and honoring our own pain (and vice versa) even in the very same moment?
This scenario is not just an example for the idea of both/and. It’s also about the potential pitfall of spiritual bypassing. Had she been less brave, less willing, it would have been easy to skim over the complexity of her feelings, denying the extent of her own pain. In doing so, she would have missed the growth that is possible when we go in deep. If you haven’t heard the term before, read on:
– It’s all good! is just one of countless “we are one,” “all is well,” “it’s God’s will,” “there’s a reason for everything” quips that we place atop discomfort to cover the depth of the emotional life bubbling under the surface. It is the whitewashing of a difficult or painful circumstance by offering the contents of only one hand. Whatever the situation: you’ve lost a job, experienced a setback in health, endured the loss of a loved one. Yes, in the larger scheme of things, it is, in fact, not the end of the world. But in this moment, it is also likely to be very, very sucky. And grazing the surface of disappointment, sadness, regret, grief is to miss out on the point of the more difficult lessons in life: the riches are only found when we dig into the places where we are closed and hard, and allow ourselves to be cracked open to the light. This life is most decidedly not about everything being good, or always going our way. And pretending things are okay when they are not is spiritual bypassing. Instead, how fully can we experience all that this life serves up as being in service to our growth, and becoming all that we are meant to be?
– Religiosity. Religion can be a helpful framework to explore the realm of spirit and soul. But when it’s just an identifying marker an individual uses to describe her/himself, when that label is not backed by actual spiritual practice and practical, daily application of the teachings of said tradition, the mark is decidedly missed. I absolutely know people who are devout in their religion and steadfast in their dedication to devotion, self-study and service. At the same time, there is a significant population across all religions of folk who go to service, say the prayer and read the book once per week and do none of the internal work necessary to embody and live out the wisdom held in ancient teachings. The label means nothing if used to abdicate responsibility for your choices, actions and community; if it somehow releases you from active participation in your own freedom and self-realization. Religion as a title, without the work, is the opposite of spirituality, and can be another form of spiritual bypassing.
– It’s not me. We look out into a world that we don’t understand. Its war, violence and injustice are incomprehensible and we want to claim we are not that. We want that to be other, separate. We wish to believe we are not a part of or in any way responsible for the horrors of this world. But I fully subscribe to “as within, so without.” All that we see outside lives also inside of us. And it is imperative, as seekers and students, to root out where war, hatred, violence, racism and envy are hiding within. This particular weeding job is not pleasant, not pretty, and in my experience, doesn’t go very quickly. Believing we are not a part of the problem is spiritual bypassing. I again offer you both palms: we are part of the solution and we are also part of the problem. For as much as we must speak out and take action when we see hatred and injustice around us, we must also do the internal work to recognize where we are, ourselves, participants- even and especially, unknowingly.
I love the works of Viktor Frankl and this quote comes to mind: “What is to give light must endure burning.” Yes. This. We want to give light, be light, be the change- all these are worthy goals and ideals. But in order to do so, we need to take the fire to our own darkest corners. We must dive into the places we most wish to avoid. We must take stock of where we are resistant, what we are pushing away, what we are skimming over. To do the work is to shine brightly. And in order to do so, we must hold ourselves to the fire. Real spiritual life, as I was told early on, is not for sissies. Dive in.