Joan Poelvoorde

Psychotherapy & Healing Arts

Pathological Happiness, Spiritual Bypassing, and Spiritual Practice

It is our duty to help liberate God who is stifling within us, in mankind …

God is never created out of happiness and comfort, but out of shame and hunger and tears.

Nikos Kazantzakis
The Saviors of God

After months of studying and meditating in yoga ashrams in Detroit and New York in the 1970s, I thought I had witnessed the pinnacle of pathological happiness—ethereal smiles, uplifted eyes, spacey language, and a complete lack of passion. One deeply distressed ashramite had been so thoroughly convinced of the necessity of repressing his human impulses that he began to decompensate and was removed from the ashram. To be fair, there were others among them, generally a little older, who seemed grounded in reality and in their bodies.

Perhaps I had witnessed the pinnacle of pathological happiness—still, it remains clear that pathological happiness is the spiritual magnet that draws us toward what John Welwood calls "spiritual bypassing." (John Welwood, "The Principles of Inner Work: Psychological and Spiritual," The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1984, Vol. 16, No. 1.)

Spiritual Bypassing

Spiritual bypassing is the use of meditation, yoga, or any spiritual practice to attempt to rise above or transcend our bodies, our "unacceptable" feeling and impulses, our emotional and developmental responsibilities (the psychological tasks of life), the need to individuate from one's family—to develop an identity separate from that of one's family. It means working with need, feelings, doubt, confusion, uncertainty, "fear of love, fear of the loss of love, fear of giving love, fear of receiving love and, establishing a sense of self-respect which is not overwhelmed or crushed by other people's opinions." (Welwood) It means looking at one's shadow eye to eye, and owning the parts of ourselves we would just as soon project onto others. These are among the developmental and psychological tasks which we need to support our spiritual growth and development. The Western student is often introduced to a system of spiritual practice that assumes the student's successful passage through these basic developmental and psychological challenges.  

To illustrate the difficulties with practice for us spiritually starving Westerners, I have chosen to touch upon two somewhat divergent methods of spiritual practice: Tibetan Buddhism (Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness, Three Rivers Press, 2008) and the Spiritual Exercises of Nikos Kazantzakis (as outlined in The Saviors of God, Touchstone, 1960). Though dissimilar in technique, the outcomes of each bear a surprising resemblance.

Tibetan Buddhism

The purpose of spiritual practice for the Tibetan Buddhist is to liberate us from our attachment to an imprisoning self-structure. This is accomplished through the practice of meditation which teaches us to relax the mind, and to observe the mind's activity with curiosity and compassion—without judgment. Each thought, each feeling, no matter how shocking or negative, is part of the process of meditation. For the purposes of this essay the practice of shinay meditation will be used.

Rest the mind in its natural clarity which is present always —like space is always present. It is accepting whatever clouds and mist might obscure the sky, while it is recognizing that the sky remains unchanged

Shinay practice is like looking at the vast expanse of space rather than focusing on the galaxies, stars, and planets.

Space is not defined by the objects that move through it. Awareness isn't defined by the objects that move through it. Awareness simply is.

There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom.  

Buddha nature is always open and clear, even when thoughts and emotions obscure it. All the qualities of clarity, compassion, and emptiness are contained within Buddha mind …

One cannot however, be liberated from a structure that is not already in place. The ego must be strong enough and whole enough to engage in the process of liberation—not dismissing the ego, not eradicating it, neither denying nor denigrating it, but keeping it in its place. It is the process of cutting through our confusion, and of discovering within us the natural awakened state of mind—luminous, spacious, unhindered, and free from dualistic concepts.

Nikos Kazantzakis

Kazantzakis avers that we human beings are the only means by which God can be freed from our bodies and manifest into the world. Kazantzakis asks that we see and accept the boundaries of the human mind without vain rebellion; that we work ceaselessly to bring meaning to the confused struggles of mankind. The essence of god is the struggle for freedom. Kazantzakis proposes that we utilize all of our passions, senses, and emotions, both positive and "negative," in the service of birthing god into the world and becoming responsible for our planet.

I have one longing only: to grasp what is hidden behind appearances, to ferret out that mystery which brings me to birth and then kills me.

I am a weak, ephemeral creature made of mud and dream. But I feel the powers of the universe whirling within me. Before they crush me, I want to find a single justification that I may live and bear this dreadful spectacle of disease, of ugliness, of injustice, of death.

I am not good, I am not innocent, I am not serene, My happiness and unhappiness are both unbearable; I am full of inarticulate voices and darknesses; I wallow, all blood and tears, in this warm trough of my flesh.

What is meant by happiness? To live every unhappiness. What is meant by light? To gaze with undimmed eyes on all darknesses.

[The] ultimate stage of our spiritual exercise is called Silence … Silence means: Every person, after completing his service in all labors, reaches finally the highest summit of endeavor, beyond every labor, where he no longer struggles or shouts, where he ripens fully in silence, indestructibly, eternally, with the entire Universe.

Each method arrives at a state of peacefulness and clarity by completely opposite methods. I am reminded of Krishna's declaration to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita regarding practice: "In whatever way people approach me even so do I receive them. My path do all people tread each in his or her own way."

Joan Poelvoorde, a professional psychotherapist in Manhattan (NY) offering relationship, personal growth, anger management, creativity, shamanistic & Imago Relationship Therapy