Am I compassionate enough? Have I experienced a satori? Have I had a kundalini awakening, or was that indigestion? Am I as Zen-like as I should be, considering how much I meditate? Am I betraying my divine essence by buying new clothes? Does my anger or lack of love and light make me a fraud? Welcome to the world of spiritual imposter syndrome, feelings of fraudulence in a spiritual context.
“I know it’s not spiritual,” I say to Sanya, “but I’m really angry.” Minutes before, I’d had a confrontation with someone who stepped in front of my car on a quiet road, telling me I should have given him more room. I lost my cool. After a week’s retreat away from the hustle and bustle, this was my venture back into city-living. “There’s no need to step in front of the car,” I said, “I could’ve hit you.” We exchanged heated words, my body flushed with adrenaline.
Hours after, the incident replayed over and over. I oscillated between justifying, reasoning, and self-minimising. What I’d done wasn’t awful, it was mild, no one was harmed, we both had our reasons and our shortcomings in the exchange. But in my mind’s eye, spiritually evolved people don’t get angry, or if they do, they take a few deep breaths, articulate how they’re feeling, and don’t act from that anger. The sense of failure added to my shame.
Spiritual practices aren’t only misapplied to avoid difficult or challenging psychological work; they can also be misapplied to enhance the ego, rather than transcend it. As philosopher Alan Watts noted, “egos have the subtlest ways of pretending to be reformed.” One way the ego pretends to be reformed is through spiritual narcissism, when spirituality leads to increased self-centredness, superiority, or specialness. In the words of Chögyam Trungpa in Cutting Through:
“Walking the spiritual path properly is a very subtle process; it is not something to jump into naively. There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.”
Spiritual bypassing was identified by John Welwood in the early 1980s. Welwood’s experience as a transpersonal therapist and Buddhist teacher gave him a unique insight into how spirituality can become an escape mechanism. Despite good intentions, Welwood noticed “a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” He adds:
“When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits. I see this as an ‘occupational hazard’ of the spiritual path, in that spirituality does involve a vision of going beyond our current karmic situation.”
In Ideology and Insanity, Thomas Szasz expresses concern over classifying people with mental illness. Szasz noted how classifying a person has a direct influence over their self-image, and what they believe is possible. Decades later, research by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, captured in Mindfulness, shows the extent people unconsciously adapt their behaviour to their identity. We are what we think, and the concept becomes reality, a lens through which we see the world.