Douglas Todd, in the Vancouver Sun, writes about something that many people have been concerned about for a long time - the use of spiritual teachers and practices to bypass pain, wounding, and trauma, essentially stuffing it down, smoothing it over, and otherwise ignoring material that must be processed and healed in order to be a psychologically healthy person.
There is a name for this process - it's called Spiritual Bypassing - and by far the best book on the subject was published last year by integral psychotherapist Robert Augustus Masters. [My review is here.]
In this article, Todd looks specifically at the impact of Eckhart Tolle on this phenomenon - with all his "live in the now" teachings (The Power of Now). There is value to these teachings, but most people lack discernment, so they end up engaging in spiritual bypass and thinking they are becoming spiritually enlightened. As a result, it seems they are dropping out of therapy and then eventually suffering a severe rebound in symptoms - in the words of the recovery movement: what we resist persists.
I have had concerns about this with other practices, as well, such as Big Mind, which promises enlightenment experiences in a couple of hours. Even Ken Wilber's 3-2-1 shadow work process can be a way to avoid the real, in-depth, painful shadow work most of us need and used to bypass the serious issues that must be dealt with in a meaningful way.
You can read more of Todd's excellent articles at his The Search column in the Sun.
By Douglas Todd
Canadian psychotherapists say some troubled clients are crashing after reading Eckhart Tolle’s world-famous books, which teach that the secret to ending your suffering is “to live in the now.”
The head of Canada’s Institute of Family Living says her therapists are having clients who have suffered severe sexual abuse stop trying to face their past ordeals after taking the Vancouver spiritual teacher’s online courses, where they’re taught they must “stay in the present.”
Diane Marshall is one of many counsellors reporting that traumatized clients are dropping out of the therapeutic healing process after reading Tolle and concluding they must minimize their pasts, cease planning their futures and “honour and accept the Now.”
When patients treat such doctrines as the unembellished spiritual truth, therapists say they often try to ignore the fear associated with their dreadful upbringings.
As a result, many are thrown into a severe crisis.
Many clients are “using denial and avoidance in the name of ‘living in the now,’” Marshall told me in an interview. Their anxiety and depression then “sneaks up on them and they are slammed into a real setback.”
Instead of trying to ignore their considerable inner pain, Marshall says people who had difficult upbringings need to grieve their losses.
That way “they’re able to claim their life and go forward courageously into the new future.”
Marshall is one of many Canadian therapists who worry that desperate people suffering depression, anxiety and other psychological conditions are vulnerable to being told that spiritual techniques, like “living in the now,” will offer a magic solution.
While generally supporting the value of serious spirituality and membership in religious organizations, most therapists don’t think there are spiritual shortcuts around the hard work of psychological recovery.
In addition, some therapists worry that struggling people are being thrown into intense depression and further self-hatred after failing to live up to the spiritual solutions set forth by Tolle and other guides.
Tolle’s philosophy, influenced by Eastern spirituality, might be more sophisticated than it appears to his followers. And he’s not the only one who has won fame and fortune by offering self-help advice that seems as uncomplicated as child’s play.
Still, tens of millions of people are reading Tolle’s books, such as The Power of Now and A New Earth, and paying for his online courses, which are marketed by Oprah Winfrey. He’s a major global influence.
Many are wholeheartedly adopting Tolle’s teaching that the key to happiness is to get rid of one’s “egoic mind” and stop “creating time,” which the German-born teacher says dangerously places a person in the past or future.
“True salvation is freedom from negativity,” Tolle says, “and above all of past and future as a psychological need.”
Most therapists, however, say that everyone needs to confront their imperfect pasts, and to build a strong, healthy ego.
The latter gives people the self-confidence to deal with challenging situations, face their often-difficult upbringings, recognize their mistakes and make decent choices about their futures.
Rather than dodging the terrible things that may have happened to us by zeroing in exclusively on “the Now,” noted psychologists such as Mark Freeman say “hindsight” is pivotal to insight and healing.
It is not all wrong to try to be “in the now,” to experience what is happening to us as it’s happening, says Freeman, author of Hindsight: The Promises and Perils of Looking Backward.
But hindsight, the psychologist says, is also “a powerful tool for redressing the forgetfulness that so often characterizes the human condition. It’s a vehicle of recollection, where we are called back to ourselves, and it’s a key feature of living the examined life.”
University of B.C. psychologist Marvin Westwood (right) is another who takes seriously the value of understanding our pasts, including through the ancient wisdom of the Sufi poet, Rumi, who said, “The cure for pain is in the pain.”
We shouldn’t deny our pasts; we should grieve what went wrong, Westwood says. He encourages people who have learned to be “numb” about early hurts to face the fact their hearts were once broken.
“Their pain is a blessing,” Westwood says, “because ultimately it helps to bring back feeling, and can lead the way to the restoration of depth and soul.”