As a psychotherapist who works with accomplished yogis, yoginis, meditators, and committed seekers and practitioners of all kinds, I have come to discover with my clients just how easy to use spirituality to hide from life – from intimacy, from our feelings, from our tender vulnerabilities, from our unresolved wounding around love, and from our immediate embodied experience in any of its moment-by-moment unfolding. We can deny, stuff, shut out, repress, and abandon our very real feelings of hurt, anger, disappointment, and jealousy because on some level they have been deemed very unspiritual, unacceptable, or further evidence of our own unworthiness. Or, we will act the feelings out—indulge, identify, and fuse with them – believing we are making actual contact, while spinning around their surface and doing whatever possible to discharge the disturbing energy which is seething underneath.
Depending on our specific, historic core vulnerabilities – which arose intersubjectively in our families of origin, as part of a relational matrix – certain feelings were simply not safe to embody, as they triggered anxiety in our caregivers, or otherwise led to their withdrawal of love, affection, mirroring and attunement. As young children, it was an act of kindness and creativity to split off, dissociate, and disconnect from material we were not developmentally capable of digesting and metabolizing on our own. We are wired to do whatever possible to maintain the tie to our caregivers, even if such tie is precarious, misattuned, or ultimately not in the interest of any sort of self-cohesion or integration.
As we engage over time in these strategies of denial and acting out – both pathways ultimately of fundamental aggression and chronic abandonment—we often find ourselves wondering why we are not feeling alive, connected, and truly able to open to others – why things just aren’t flowing for us in the ways we long for. We wonder why we don’t feel worthy of love, why we don’t know in some fundamental sense that we are loved or lovable exactly as we are. But a part of us senses that it is only in intimate and direct contact with our vulnerabilities, in all their forms, that we will know this aliveness and be able to truly take the risk that real embodied love will always demand. As long as we are using spirituality to avoid intimacy, contact, and the depths of our own being – as long as it has become yet another means by which we can avoid our unlived lives – we will feel lonely at our core, disconnected, and split off from love.
As we start to discover the ways we are using spiritual ideas, beliefs, language, jargon, exercises, teachings, and practices to avoid relationship (with self and other), with as much kindness, space, and compassion as possible, we can return our attention into present, embodied experience. We need not shame ourselves in this discovery or deem it some evidence of our failure or unlovability. But rather use it as an opportunity to be curious about the strategies we’ve brought into adulthood to get away from very disturbing, survival-level panic and anxiety. And begin to open our hearts to this movement as the best way we’ve known to care for ourselves until now. For it is only radical kindness and space that will melt the wounds and tangles of love.
Like any defense mechanism, this relationship with spirituality has served an adaptive function and we can honor it for the help it has provided us at a particular point on our journey. And we can start slowly and with a mighty presence and compassion, to allow the protective function to dissolve, to reclaim full experiential responsibility for every feeling and emotion we’ve intelligently split off from, and step into the mandala of integration and wholeness, which is none other than our true nature. As we journey on the path of the heart and that of metabolization by love, re-owning and re-embodying to the entirety of what we are, we weave a sanctuary for the light and the dark within. And in this we become a holding environment for ourselves and others, more and more transparent and more and more translucent to the activity of the beloved in this world.