Spiritual Bypassing In an Age of Climate Change and Vaccine Disinformation
Transcendence is meaningless in a burning world.
This article was originally published on Ethos.
Psychotherapist John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypassing” in 1984 to describe the tendency of some of his patients to punt difficult challenges in lieu of spiritual platitudes.
Buddhist by training, Welwood said he coined the term as a way of making sense of patients that turned to metaphysical ideas instead of confronting psychological wounds and unfinished developmental tasks.
“When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to try to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. We may also use our notion of absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits.”
Welwood said that believing in absolute truth instead of relative truth is one of the most pressing dangers; another is choosing transcendence over embodiment. Claiming that you’re practicing nonattachment instead of confronting unresolved trauma, for example, will likely lead to the perpetuation of that trauma.
While Welwood predominantly focused on individual trauma, spiritual bypassing can be broadly applied to social issues. The Buddhist notion of interdependence teaches that not only are we dependent on one another but on our environment as well. There’s no you separate from the environment that you live in.
Right now, our environment is not doing well, which says a lot about where we are as individuals.
I co-founded the Conspirituality podcast in May 2020 to address the disturbing intersection between seemingly progressive yoga and wellness practitioners with right-wing conspiracy theorists being indoctrinated by the growing influence of QAnon.
While many talking points have died down, two persist: an anti-vax disinformation campaign forcing America to return to mask mandates and lockdowns and the belief that a secret cabal of pedophiles is trafficking children.
While we’ve briefly covered the latter—mostly in light of how these conspiracy theorists are undoing the good work of organizations that are actually fighting child sex trafficking—vaccines have been a continued subject of our work. Rather than run down the list of disproven claims that won’t make much of an impact to conspiritualists anyway, another adjacent issue has emerged in these vaccine disinformation campaigns: spiritual bypassing.
This doesn’t only affect anti-vaxxers—and it’s not only anti-vaxxers refusing COVID vaccines. “Vaccine hesitancy” is a debated term, but anecdotally I know a number of people who are “just waiting” for more evidence to emerge on their efficacy and safety. While I don’t agree with their assessment, these skeptics aren’t spreading disinformation or attending rallies. They’re just not getting vaccinated, in large part due to the intentional and unintentional spreading of vaccine misinformation.
What I often find in their rhetoric, however, is a damning appraisal of “Western science.” While that term is academically defined as pre-Renaissance scientific inquiry conducted by Greek, Latin, or Arabic societies, today “Western science” is presented as a mishmash of practices that can’t actually be pinpointed.
Vaccines usually fall into this category although, ironically, the first evidence of vaccination comes from Traditional Chinese Medicine centuries before Louis Pasteur’s experiments. Even more confoundingly, “Western science” is sometimes called allopathic, a term that homeopathy founder Samuel Hahnemann coined to denote a medicine in which “opposite treats opposite.” The basis of homeopathy, of course, is “like treats like.” In this system, you wouldn’t treat diarrhea with an antidiarrheal, but with Arsenicum album, which has the side effect of promoting diarrhea. The irony is that vaccines fall under the category of “like treats like” even though anti-vaxxers will sometimes call them “allopathic” since they’re developed by pharmaceutical companies.
Confusing? Certainly, which is why social media is not built for actual debates.
Or nuance. The lack of complexity in vaccine discussion highlights a continual trend in the wellness community. That pharmaceutical companies can both be greedy and self-serving despite clinical evidence, as with the opioid and antidepressant controversies, and produce highly successful vaccines in record time is rarely discussed.
This phenomenon becomes particularly troublesome when spirituality is introduced into the conversation. For example, Ayurvedic doctor and Hindutva apologist David Frawley—who, it should be noted, is pro-vaccine—does a disservice to science by confusing the need for verifiable scientific data with murky mysticism.
Vaccines are one of the most important public health interventions in history. In another recent tweet, Frawley not only confuses chemistry with metaphysics, but he also pushes back against longstanding consensus in the neuroscience community that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon.
While describing medical philosophies are part of a rigorous debate in global communities, Frawley’s seeming lack of faith in data proved embarrassing in this January tweet.
When it was time for him to apologize, he unsurprisingly doubled down while again highlighting his enduring love for Modi.
Politics and spirituality are often confused in Hindutva, as they are in American society. Frawley is only one of many apologists. His insistence on glossing over the relevance and importance of vaccines to play politics about India becoming the “guru of nations” and using his Twitter feed to play metaphysics is but one example of the social component of spiritual bypassing and focusing on what’s irrelevant and confusing with sound science.
There’s another example.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the conspirituality phenomenon is people inventing conspiracies instead of confronting the most pressing issue bearing down on all of us: climate change.
As climate migration affects more people in the coming years, the fight for resources will grow uglier. When the wealthiest nation on the plane is also in the midst of the most economically unbalanced period in its history, urgent action is needed.
Instead, we’re rallying about masks stopping oxygen when something much different will be halting respiratory systems en masse.
I recently made the mistake of engaging with @ADevotedYogi on Twitter, a Frawley fanatic who exposed an even more troublesome instance of spiritual bypassing. Besides retweeting vaccine conspiracy theories as well as pro-Tucker Carlson propaganda, he recently dropped this mind-numbing claim.
Watching yogis bypass climate change is not a new phenomenon, and many take it seriously, in theory if not in action. In reply to my thread, this is one of many tweets @ADevotedYogi shot my way.
Carbon has been higher in the past—on a planet inhospitable to human life. Sadly, there’s no value debating on such threads because there’s no debate in the scientific community.
The spiritual community is its own many-headed monster, however, one impossible to defend against. When your default defense is feeling over reason, progress proves impossible.
In many ways, the QAnon-themed yoga movement is only an appetizer. Societies always experience trends—the Satanic Panic of the eighties morphing into Pizzagate—but in a society with increasing economic inequality that will soon be victim to climate migration, what trend follows?
In terms of spiritual musing, it doesn’t matter—more bypassing. This is not a fringe movement. Over 502k people follow Frawley; another 333k, @ADevotedYogi. And they’re nowhere near the gravest offenders of disinformation. Quack osteopath Joseph Mercola was recently outed as the pioneer of the current anti-vax movement, and he’s sitting on over $100 million in wealth. Resources will not be an issue for a man that’s built a career on monetizing fear around “Western science.”
But they will be for many of us. Action follows philosophy; philosophy follows attention. Right now, a growing number of people are paying attention to unimportant or irrelevant social trends, fueled and funded by a small cohort of wellness influencers spreading the gospel of disinformation. How long the illusion will hold is a question we’ll continue to face until it’s too close to our faces to ignore.