When one chooses the path of meditation to heal psychologically and spiritually, one forgets at times about feelings like compassion and forgiveness. One might even forget about the attitudes of kindness, generosity, and gratitude. When people meditate, they might experience feelings of ease, well-being, and lucidity. I have experienced these meditative states as beautiful and comforting. However, even though the practice of meditation allows a person to experience positive states, they need to support human, everyday living, rather than encourage escaping from what is difficult to face.
There can be the danger of what therapist John Welwood called a spiritual bypass, which refers to a person using spiritual practices to avoid unresolved feelings, to sidestep emotional wounds, or to dodge difficulties in relating to others. Sometimes, when one gets into a meditation state, one may have an unconscious wish to rise above the raw and messy side of being human. Such a “bypass” can occur before a person has fully faced their human needs, as well as their painful emotions. Then injuries, which may have slumbered in the underground of one’s psyche, will rise to the surface.
Many bring old or new injuries to spiritual practice. Meditation and psychotherapy can be used in a complementary fashion. Skillful psychotherapy can be helpful in addressing emotional pain. The consulting room can be a safe place where one is seen and understood. Psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk says, “what we do not heal, we repeat.” One is prone to repeat traumas when they are not addressed in therapy.
Mindfulness and compassion practices bring awareness and balance to our emotional life. A person learns to witness their reactions with kindness and without judgment, which improves their relationship with themselves. As self-compassion and self-forgiveness are developed, one’s relationship with others improves.
When one addresses current conflicts as well as longstanding patterns, it can be helpful to complement psychotherapy with spiritual practice. When the dimension of what C.G. Jung called the numinous is added, a hidden quality opens up that allows a person to open to the trans-personal.
Resting in the still, timeless, formless aspect of reality allows a person’s emotional life to untangle. This quality provides a different perspective. Through increasing access to positive states, the relationship to old injuries can change. As one learns to intentionally cultivate positive states such as ease, emotional balance, trust, and kindness, new habits of being emerge. In the past several years, brain researchers have been investigating how best to quantify and qualify the effects of positive mind states, and assess their effects on the body, mood, and mental health.
When a person excavates the same traumatic memories repeatedly and loses themselves in recurrent ruminations about their injury, then they may become identified with a particular woundedness. Many repeatedly suffer under the might of old painful patterns, as they keep repeating themselves. When particular anguish becomes a habitual way of experiencing the world, a person can become gripped by difficult thoughts and feelings, worries, and desires in a self-repeating way. Then they might fall into what meditation teacher Loch Kelly calls a psychological underpass. Emotional injuries and a person’s futile attempts to overcome them can become a habit of identification. Then a person may identify as an orphan-self, as a victim of trauma, as a survivor of hardship, or as an addict.
Defining one’s primary identity in this way might reduce a person’s potential for individuation and self-actualization. C.G. Jung, Richard Schwartz (IFS), and Loch Kelly (Effortless Mindfulness) call this wider, wiser perspective a person can tap into the Self with a big S. The Self with a big S shows itself through a sense of ease, wisdom, and open-heartedness. As one taps into the Self with the big S, the hold of one’s habitual identifications will loosen.
Another interesting cul-de-sac in our psycho-spiritual development is what Kelly calls a cognitive overpass. If, for example, a person’s primary identity has formed as a “mindful witness” or a “rational manager,” this mask or persona one carries may cover the true authentic person underneath. Much unresolved pain can hide under a rigid surface.
There are two dangers with the cognitive overpass. First, our deepest injuries will be rationalized away, as one is now the perfect mindful witness or rational manager in control of one’s affairs. Second, a person loses access to their natural way of being. One’s identity may now be stuck in a small, tidy, tight place, which, like a persona or mask, hides authenticity as well as what Jung called the Self, our access to the numinous perspective.
When a person can go beyond the experience of a separate self and of an ego identity and discovers the big Self, then the experience of wisdom and open-heartedness can be integrated into a person’s life. From this broader perspective, a person can now emerge as authentic, spontaneous, lively, and deeply feeling. Separateness, isolation, and alienation are now replaced by a sense of belonging and a feeling of meaningfully being part of life.
Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps Score, 2015, Penguin Random House
Loch Kelly, The Way of Effortless Mindfulness: A Revolutionary Guide for Living an Awakened Life, Sounds True, 2019
Richard Schwartz, Internal Family Systems Therapy (New York: Guilford Press, 1997),
John Welwood, Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000)