A few days ago I mentioned spiritual bypassing in my commentary on a short Hasidic text. A few of you reached out to me after that post went out, asking for more about spiritual bypassing: what it it, how can you recognize it, why is it important.
For a basic introduction, here's a good article by Dr. Ingrid Mathieu: Beware of Spiritual Bypass. Dr. Robert Masters also offers a great essay about bypassing, calling it Avoidance in holy drag. His book Spiritual Bypassing is a classic in my field, and with good reason.
Spiritual bypassing is a defense mechanism in which one uses spirituality in order to avoid uncomfortable or painful feelings. Maybe one wants to avoid anger, or grief, or loss, or boundaries. So instead of feeling that anger (or grief, or loss, or boundary, or whatever the thing in question may be), one papers it over, and calls the papering-over "spiritual."
(The image illustrating this post is a great example of spiritual bypassing in pop culture: Princess Unikitty from the LEGO movie. She's a sparkling rainbow unicorn, and she over-focuses on the positive, refusing to acknowledge anything that hurts... until she reaches her breaking point, whereupon all the negativity she denied herself causes her to boil over in rage. Image via Stephanie Lin.)
It's easy to mis-use spirituality to justify avoidance of things that are painful or uncomfortable, like anger or conflict or boundaries. But this is not spiritually healthy, even though it disguises itself as spiritual. It is a spiritual sickness, disguised as spiritual health.
Authentic spiritual life calls us to experience what is: all of what is. And that includes the things we tend to categorize as "dark" or negative: pain, sorrow, loss, rejection, grief. (I wrote about that recently in my review of Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark.)
The Jewish mystical tradition describes God via a series of qualities that exist in holy balance, such as chesed (lovingkindness) and gevurah (boundaries / strength / judgment). When someone leans so far toward chesed that they reject its healthy balancing with gevurah, that's spiritual bypassing.
When a spiritual leader serving a community where there has been abuse (whether sexual, emotional, ethical, spiritual, or all of the above) ignores the abuse, or urges community members to rush to healing before there has been justice for the abused, that's spiritual bypassing.
When someone doesn't want to feel angry, or isn't comfortable with conflict, so they over-focus on sweetness and light while sweeping their anger under the rug (or encouraging others to sweep anger under the rug), that's spiritual bypassing.
When someone doesn't want to be constrained by someone else's interpersonal or systemic boundary, so they transgress it while convincing themselves that the boundary really shouldn't apply to them anyway, that's spiritual bypassing.
In all of these instances, the quality that's chosen for over-focus -- whether it be healing, or sweetness, or lovingkindness -- is in and of itself a good quality. That's part of the challenge: everyone likes healing and sweetness and lovingkindness, right? But these qualities are only healthy when they're used honestly, authentically, and safely -- and, as the Hasidic text I translated last week suggests, when they're in appropriate balance with qualities like judgment and healthy boundaries.
If I pursue healing at someone else's expense, then that healing is not only false but damaging. If I pursue pleasantries in an abusive context instead of naming the abuse for what it is, then my sweetness is not only false but also complicit in the abuse. If I disregard someone's boundaries because I think I should be exempt from their rules, then my "love" will cause hurt.
Even gratitude, the middah (quality) to which I most often gravitate, can be used in spiritual bypassing. When faced with trauma or grief, if I leap too quickly to "let me find something to be grateful for so I don't have to feel this thing that hurts," then the gratitude practice that's such a core part of my spiritual life becomes a tool for bypassing the thing I need to actually feel.
Spiritual bypassing is what Reb Zalman z"l used to call "whipped cream on garbage:" a sweet topping disguising something rotten underneath.
Spiritual bypassing pretends to make things better, but it actually makes them worse. If a wound is infected, then suturing it and simply hiding the infection will not help the infection to heal. If a relationship is abusive, then pretending that it's healthy will not help the person who is being abused. (For that matter, it also doesn't help the abuser to name and recover from their own trauma.) Spiritual bypassing does serious damage to people and communities.
Authentic spiritual life calls us to feel what we feel, even when what we feel is uncomfortable or painful. Authentic spiritual life calls us to speak truth, even when we'd rather pretend there are no difficult truths to be spoken. Authentic spiritual life calls us to pursue justice, even when we'd rather imagine that if we close our eyes to injustice it will simply go away on its own.
Any spiritual leader who claims otherwise is not worthy of the title.
Cap Hill Pride, Seattle, 2017-06-24, Brought To You By T-Mobile; 7646
© Bill Pusztai 2017
An interesting couple of hours at Cap Hill Pride (Seattle) this year. Often recently Prides have left me feeling .. meh, why bother? but this year was different. Perhaps it's the political climate. Perhaps it's my internal weather.
I was reminded, after many years of not experiencing it, of that feeling of being an embarrassment to one's acquaintances who are concerned with looking normal/safe for the benefit of their heterosexual associates or family. That feeling of being too gay or too far out there or just too weird. Or maybe not rich, or pretty, or well-enough-connected. I spent most of my 20s and 30s there, how could I have forgotten this? And I was suddenly attuned to all the people at Pride who were walking around with that wariness about them. Gay Shame Day.
Oh yeah, that's why I make the kind of art I make. I've been going through a period of why do I even do this? and this afternoon that flipped like a switch. Suddenly my head is crowded with ideas I want to try out.
And the moment that spoke the loudest to me was the angry, loud, antiaesthetic lesbian punk band. Yup. I'm feeling that. <3 <3 <3.
Earlier this week, David and I studied a fabulous text from the Hasidic rabbi known as the Kedushat Levi (R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev), to whom I was first introduced by R' Elliot Ginsburg, my teacher of Hasidut in rabbinical school. It's a short commentary on this week's Torah portion, Korach, and it packs a powerful punch. (Read it in the original Hebrew at Sefaria.)
The text riffs off of a short phrase in Numbers 18:19, "It is an eternal covenant of salt." Levi Yitzchak explains that this was said after the deeds of Korach. (For a reminder of what those were, see my post at My Jewish Learning, A Failed Rebellion.) Korach wanted everyone, including himself, to be priests. He didn't want to be a Levite, which was his own ancestral tribe -- he wanted to be a Kohen (a higher-level priest), and he wanted everyone to be kohanim.
Here's where Levi Yitzchak makes an interpretive leap: he says the kohanim / priests represent the divine attribute of חסד / chesed (lovingkindness), whereas the levi'im / Levites represent the divine attribute of דין / din (justice) -- sometimes called gevurah, the quality of boundaries and strength. Here's the problem with the Korachite rebellion: in wanting everyone to represent chesed, Korach leaves no room for din. He wanted everyone to be pure chesed, but in truth (says Levi Yitzchak), the world needs judgment and justice too. The world needs gevurah: boundaries, strength, a strong container.
Ramban (also known as Nachmanides) understands salt as a combination of fire and water, which is to say, justice and lovingkindness. He says it's the combination of those two, the appropriate balance of those two, which sustains all the worlds.
Levi Yitzchak teaches that the covenant of salt (representing the balance of chesed and din) came as a response to Korach's actions, in order to remind us of what's wrong with Korach's imbalanced view that everyone should embody only chesed. What the world needs is the appropriate balance of chesed and din, lovingkindness and justice.
Reading this passage, I marvel at how contemporary and real it feels. I've been in contexts where people want everyone and everything to be all-chesed-all-the-time, and they are not healthy contexts by any stretch of the imagination. Love that flows without boundaries is a flood, destructive and damaging. When we over-privilege chesed at the expense of gevurah, there are no appropriate roles or boundaries... and a community in which roles and boundaries are not honored, in which gevurah is not honored, is a community that will inevitably be rife with ethical violations and abuse.
Levi Yitzchak skewers the Korachite perspective that says everyone should express only lovingkindness. John Lennon may have written a catchy tune with the refrain "all you need is love," but on a spiritual level, he was wrong. The world needs judgment, discernment, and justice every bit as much as it needs unbridled or unbounded love -- indeed, as Ramban notes, a world that has only one half of that critical binary cannot endure.
This is true not only on a macro level but also a micro level. Every human being is a world. Every one of us contains both of these qualities and more. Maybe you recognize chesed and gevurah as the first two qualities we remind ourselves to cultivate as we count the Omer each year. Every human being needs a healthy balance of all of the qualities that we share with our Creator: lovingkindness and boundaried-strength and balance and endurance and all the rest. A person who seeks to be only chesed will inevitably be imbalanced, and will wind up doing damage not only to himself but to their whole community -- as Korach did.
A person who insists that chesed is the goal in and of itself (rather than as part of a healthy and balanced palette of qualities) will be naturally inclined toward spiritual bypassing, using feel-good spiritual language to mask deep-rooted avoidance of life's complexities. The same will be true in a community that privileges chesed over a healthy balance of qualities. Such a community will inevitably be not ethical, not healthy, and not safe.
The wisdom offered this week by Levi Yitzchak and Ramban is still relevant in our day: what we need, as individuals and communities, is the right balance of chesed and gevurah. The right balance of love and boundaries, in which loving flow is guided and guarded by ethics and justice. The right balance of all of the sefirot, all of the qualities that we and God share.
May it be so in all of our communities, and in all of our hearts, speedily and soon.
“Like, zucchini as the bread?”
“Zucchini instead of cheese?”
“But I don’t like zucchini!”
And so we’re not going to. We’re going to call this a zucchini panini when speaking to the wary and somehow, this causes less distress. Why we are accepting of vegetables inside two slices of bread when we pretend our grilled cheese has gone to Italy is not for me to question. What I can promise, however, is that this is no compromise.
(Mah Innernetz went down on Tuesday morning and was finally restored late last night. No work, no play, just futile router rebooting every hour on the hour and racking up massive data overages from Verizon Mobile while waiting on Verizon FIOS to get its shit together, trapped in a super frustrating ouroboros of corporate bullshit.)
First of all, happy birthday to this guy:
Here he is with his birthday present, which I 100% had nothing to do with:
In addition to Friday night soccer*, Jason's newfound return to outdoorsy-sportsy-ness now includes bike riding. Like on trails and dirt and stuff. He is currently scouring Craigslist for a bike for me, which is adorably misguided. To give you an idea of the last time I rode a bike, please consult this terrible blog post from 2003, only the fourth post ever published on this site, back when I had no clue what I was doing and wrote a lot of angry Open Letters to strangers and stores and the Oxygen Network.
I do not particularly want a new bike. I'd really rather get a new dishwasher, as our current one is barely functioning and I am like five minutes away from writing an Open Letter about it.
But there's been a lot of bike-type action going on, as we recently celebrated the Passing On Of The Hand-Me-Down Bikes with all the boys. Noah got a new (used) bike...
...and promptly crashed on his first ride out.
(He's fine. Just needed to apply some band aids, ice packs and extra computer time.)
Ezra moved up to Noah's old bike and went training wheels free...
...and promptly crashed 15 seconds after I took this photo.
(He's also fine. I believe the only real injury was pride-related.)
Ike inherited the smallest bike, and originally wanted to skip the training wheels altogether...
...but then quickly reconsidered.
He is now riding all over the place like some giant actual child, rather than the tiny baby we all know deep in our hearts that he really is.
STOP WAIT COME BACK IT'S ALL GOING TOO FAST.
I should probably get a bike, I guess.
*So about the soccer thing: Almost immediately after I wrote about Jason getting back into soccer he injured himself, tearing his hip flexor. He's been attending physical therapy three times a week ever since, while also still going to soccer and bike riding and running 5Ks on our treadmill. Meanwhile, I skipped my workout yesterday because the Internet was out and I couldn't watch Netflix.
"Not all women, trees, or ovens are identical." -- Mishna Pesachim 3:4, in the name of R' Akiva
Some women like winter. Some incubate babies
and some have no uterus. Some wear eyeliner.
Some are happiest in Israeli sandals
flaunting our pedicured toes.
Some are stronger than the steel cables
that hold up a suspension bridge.
Some of us are notorious.
Some of us write love poems.
Some of us have roots that go deep
into the earth and will not be shaken.
Some give our fruit and branches
and trunk until we are nothing but stumps.
Some grow thorns to protect ourselves
even if we're vilified for it.
Some women are more like trees
than like ovens: constantly changing.
Some women are nourishing and warm.
Some women burn with holy fire.
Some of us are irreducible, incomparable
like the Holy One of Blessing Herself.
Some women balance justice and mercy.
Some are mirrors: we'll give kindness
as we receive, but injustice causes
our eyes to blaze the world into ash.
This poem arose out of a wonderful line from mishna that I encountered in Heschel's book Torah from Heaven, which I've been slowly reading on Wednesday mornings with my coffee shop hevruta group for well over a year.
Some give our fruit and branches / and trunk until we are nothing but stumps. See Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. (Wow, is that one messed-up parable about the damage of boundary-less love.)
[I]njustice causes / our eyes to blaze the world into ash. See the Talmudic story of R' Shimon bar Yochai, who spent twelve years in a cave, and when he emerged, was so outraged by what he saw as people's poor priorities and choices that his very gaze set the world on fire.
Summer Solstice 2017; 7646
© Bill Pusztai 2017
May the power of the people who would do us ill diminish with the length of the days. May their strength to harm drain from them. May their followers disperse. May their excess material wealth fall away from them and never return. May their arrogance and spite drain from them. May their ability to harm us be taken away altogether by the spirits of the dead by the end of Samhain Night. May they spend their remaining days repairing the harm they have done. May the seeds and fruit set this season mature fully in wisdom, compassion and grace.
Jason and I took a little getaway to D.C. this weekend in honor of Father's Day and his upcoming birthday (Thursday, somebody remind me). We got all dressed up for a fancy dinner and an evening at the theeeeeatah.
(In the full series of selfies, you can actually SEE the curls withering from my hair from the good ol' D.C. humidity in real time.)
The show was WONDERFUL, although the guy sitting next to me appeared to disagree, as he refused to applaud and then muttered "What the fuck was that?" to his wife as we exited our row at the end. I did not hear her answer. The Sound of Music was playing in the other auditorium, so maybe that would've been more his speed than a genderqueer punk rock drag show about a botched sex change operation and a Greek mythology-fueled mental breakdown. Maybe try Google next time, sir?
Anyway, we loved it and happily made our way back to our hotel, looking forward to sleeping like the dead for as many hours as we desired. We had an overnight sitter and there would be no small nightmare-having children or head-jumping cats all night.
That was technically true, but there was also a hotel fire alarm that went off around 2 a.m., followed by an EQUALLY LOUD AND ALARMING intercom update involving beeps and ATTENTION ATTENTION WE DON'T REALLY KNOW WTF IS GOING ON BUT Y'ALL JUST STAY PUT OKAY?
We were so dead asleep we thought the fire alarm was coming from our thermostat and was something we needed to turn off. Then I stood there -- naked and confused -- staring blankly at my suitcase trying to figure out what clothes I should put on, as I hadn't packed any pajamas and had left my flat shoes in our car and really didn't want to go outside in like, Jason's boxers and t-shirt and stilettos. When the intercom update advised us to await further instructions rather than evacuate, I was like, "oh good" and hopped back in bed. At which point my brain fully switched on like, UHHHH GUYS GUYS THAT FIRE IN LONDON IS THIS HOW THAT STARTED WHY ARE WE STILL HERE OMFG.
Finally, a third (looooooood) update informed us that the fire department had determined the source of the alarm trigger and lo, it was definitely not a fire. We didn't get anymore details after that but my money is on a drunk person who doesn't understand not to fuck with parents who are just trying to get one goddamn night of goddamn sleep, goddamn you goddamn asshole.
It was still a nice night and morning, we hit the farmer's market and Jason's favorite butcher shop (everybody has one of those, right?) and we got back in time to take the kids out for a nice Father's Day brunch. Then we came home again, tossed TV remotes and screens at the kids and collapsed into nap comas.
Oh, and finally, while nothing has been decided for sure quite yet, allow me to cryptically tease an upcoming possibility that is looking more and more likely...
(I DID IT I WORE HIM DOWN HE'S TEXTING ME ADOPTION LISTINGS MWA HA HA)
Aparajito, dir Satyajit Ray, 1956, India.
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), dir Satyajit Ray, 1959, India.
This was my introduction to the works of Satyajit Ray, who is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in Indian film history and probably one of the best ever anywhere. Flawless storytelling, with many subtleties and a deep compassion for the internal lives of the characters at every stage of life.