Say Namaste and Pass(me)

Alper Tanca
7 minutes

All major spiritual teachings and philosophy have a common motto: “He who knows himself knows God.” In Islamic Sufism, this is “He who knows his nafs knows his Lord”. This points us to the starting point in the journey of searching for one’s place in creation. In my efforts to understand and recognize my “essence” I have had the chance to study different teachings and to experience whether many of them are suitable for me or not. In the course of this, I questioned sometimes the people I encountered and sometimes myself a lot about one thing in particular, and that was whether spiritual teachings were being used to solve the problems we faced, or whether they were being used as a means to bury these problems.

It turns out that I am not the only one who suffers from this, as a psychologist named John Welwood did a lot of thinking about this problem and finally came up with a theory called “spiritual by-passing”. I think we can translate this into our language as spiritual ignorance.

Welwood coined the term “Spiritual By-passing”, stating that some people tend to suppress their identity and needs, stopping their emotional development by resorting to spirituality to avoid difficult or painful emotions or challenges. When used as a long-term strategy to ignore or suppress unaddressed mental health issues, spiritual by-passing can lead to problems such as “excessive need to control others and oneself, shame, anxiety, emotional confusion, exaggerated tolerance of inappropriate behavior, addiction, obsessive kindness, obsession, spiritual narcissism, blind devotion to charismatic teachers, and neglect of personal responsibility.”

This concept refers to ignoring the problematic, turbulent side of ourselves as human beings and trying to rise above it before facing it and making peace with it. This can be exemplified in the way a fruit, while still raw, wants to break free from its branch and fall to the ground, and desires to become a tree again.

The point is that there are some drawbacks to living a one-way spirituality. The rule of this creation is contrasts. In this respect everything is bipolar. Like darkness and light, day and night, good and bad. If we focus only on one side and ignore the other, it creates polarization and imbalance in terms of separation.

The role of the spiritual by-pass in relationships is illustrated by Welwood as a yogi in a cave retreat. In this respect there is no problem for the yogi in the cave, because all his attention is on his practice. In this state, psychological wounds are unlikely to surface, or at least the environment is free of triggers that would worsen the yogi’s psychological state. However, this is not possible in everyday life. The main reason for this is that we live in a web of relationships, whether we like it or not. Almost all of our psychological wounds are rooted in our relationships.

Islamic mysticism, on the other hand, has recommended a balanced approach to this issue. According to Sufism, “it is easy to become a man on the mountain.” The important thing is to do it in public. It is not to say that isolation practices do not exist, but they are practiced for very limited periods of time and on condition that they return to the community.

In Sufism, this realm cannot be ignored, and there is a view of life that is always balanced between the material and the subtle, i.e. “Sırât-ı müstakîm”. Welwood, in a way, shares the same view, according to him, “We are not just people learning to be Buddhas, but Buddhas awakened to learn what it means to be human.

To give an example of Sufism’s middle way view, for example, lust is a necessary drive. It gives us the impetus we need to reproduce, to desire something and to strive to achieve it. But if lust is experienced in extremes, it is not acceptable because it leads to immorality and greed. It is an expansion of the same human condition, the difference being that the middle-of-the-road version is encouraged, whereas too much or not at all is disapproved of by Sufism.

The Western psyche and the Eastern psyche are very different. The internal connotation of many concepts between Eastern and Western culture is also very different. For example, while surrender can have a positive meaning in Turkish depending on where it is used, in French surrender means “abandonner”, meaning defeat, abandonment, failure. This is why Eastern practices cannot be taken as they are and applied by Westerners with the same results. These need to be considered from a broader perspective and designed taking into account the differences between the two cultures. It is important to go through the concepts again and adapt them.

According to Buddha, life is suffering. At the root of all this suffering are our desires and connections. We live our lives clinging to what we think will satisfy us and ignoring what we don’t like. These connections, this clinging to things, is the main cause of all these sufferings. While this may give temporary satisfaction, it is never lasting and never enough. The application of this idea of disconnection as seen in Western spiritual practitioners can take the form of ignoring the human connections that make us who we are, rather than letting go of the ties that pull us down. It is not to free ourselves from the bonds that make us unhappy. On the contrary, ignoring our need for human connections is another form of dependency and an insecure form of connection.

As for Sufism’s point of view on this issue, Sufism in no way condones isolation, neither emotional nor physical. He attaches great importance to interpersonal relationships and gives some advice on how to live in healthy relationships. In other words, it is the art of establishing a balance. In Eastern religions, enlightenment is experienced and completed in the state of Nirvana, that is to say, of disappearing in the presence of the Creator. In Sufism, this is called the state of “fenâfillâh”, that is, the state of annihilating your existence in the existence of Allah. But for Sufism this is not the end point. The final point in enlightenment is the state of “bekâbillâh”, where a person has gone beyond non-existence with the Creator and has come into existence with Him. He is aware that everything is part of the whole, and he is also aware of multiplicity, but he is also aware that this multiplicity is not separate from unity. That is, he does not reject the pleasures and troubles of this material world, he is aware of them and fulfills their requirements. It continues to live in society as a member of it, works, produces, builds relationships, has family and friends. This does not prevent him from being constantly with the Creator in his heart, but he is aware that this world too has a relative reality and an absolute necessity.

It builds this on a foundation of being on the middle path, that is to say on the middle way. It attaches great importance to healthy relationships between individuals and imposes certain rules. For the Sufi, everything in existence has a cause and function. In this respect, no emotion or motive is unnecessary or unimportant. He pays particular attention to these emotions and warns when they become damaging to the fabric of the individual’s personality. In the same way, it does not seek to suppress the problems that come to us in this world, but rather to contemplate them and realize what these difficulties are trying to tell us about ourselves. The goal is to know ourselves and our nafs with every means at our disposal.

Our job is to listen to our inner voice, because it whispers to us the clues to live this life in a happier way, closer to our center.

As long as we don’t silence him and say namaste.

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