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The Dangerous Mix of Spirituality, Religion and Conspiracy Theories

I spent over 15 years in LA’s yoga world as a teacher and student. It was a long time coming, but a few years ago I left. Those communities can be everything but enlightening. I moved on, did my own thing, forgot about the widespread dysfunction, lack of integrity, narcissism and spiritual superiority until the pandemic came. Watching what happened in that world from afar reminded me of all the reasons why I left. The pervasiveness of conspiracy theories in California’s yoga, wellness and spirituality world reached a public dimension during the pandemic and U.S. election in 2020. For anyone who has been familiar with that industry and who was not on that trip, this was as a shock but no surprise. The response of some in those circles to our crisis at hand was an embarrassment or of high concern for many who make a living in that world. To understand why this happened, let’s take a deep dive.

Attractive at first sight, people from all walks of life flock to spiritual or wellness lifestyles. The motivations are all similar: To heal from trauma and depression, to deal better with stress, promises of better health, inner peace, perpetual happiness, or to find solace. These are valid reasons and who wouldn’t want to feel happier and healthier? Spiritual practices and wellness protocols offer great solutions and benefits, unfortunately this is not always the case or guaranteed. At a closer look, what often happens instead is a great deal of spiritual bypassing.

What is a Spiritual Bypass?

The term was first introduced by Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Welwood in the 1980’s:

A “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks”.

Experts agree that a spiritual bypass can be a helpful tool when dealing with acute trauma and painful experiences, however it becomes problematic when used as a defense mechanism for suppressing and avoiding underlying mental health issues long-term. Even though the defense looks a lot better than most others, like drug addiction for example, it performs the same function. If the defense mechanism is dissociating, which can be the case with trauma of physical and sexual abuse, people may tend to live in a spiritual realm, instead of focusing on the here and now, dealing with actual life. More Negative consequences can result in:

  • The need to excessively control others and oneself
  • Overemphasizing the positive and avoiding the negative
  • Exaggerated tolerance of inappropriate behavior
  • Blind allegiance to charismatic teachers
  • Anxiety
  • Dichotomous thinking
  • Emotional confusion
  • Codependency
  • Compulsive kindness
  • Obsession or addiction
  • Spiritual narcissism
  • Disregard for personal responsibility

“Exaggerated tolerance of inappropriate behavior” and “blind allegiance to charismatic teachers” are especially interesting because they explain why so many “guru” scandals of sexual, mental, and emotional abuse occur in spiritual communities.

In essence, spiritual bypass blocks from the actual truth. It distracts from uncomfortable feelings, and we avoid looking at the whole picture as a result. People check out instead of checking in with themselves. Healthy transcendence is not about trying to avoid unpleasant aspects of life. Instead, it is confronting and coming to terms with reality with equanimity, compassion, and kindness. When spiritual bypassing becomes a distraction to compensate for challenging emotional issues, actual spiritual practices get corrupted. The interesting part, the same people often also have an affinity for conspiracy theories.

The Pandemic: A Fertile Ground for Conspiratorial Thinking

If spiritual bypass is your modus operandi, what do you do when life gets real, like a global pandemic, for example? Lockdown brought up profound personal issues for many, which under normal circumstances people tend to avoid with “busyness” and workaholic behaviors. If you spiritually bypass your way through life, you are most likely not going to challenge your operating system in a crisis. When your defense and coping mechanisms are threatened in such a profound way, it makes sense to throw oneself deeper into delusion, extreme world views and conspiratorial thinking. Otherwise, you would have to take a long, hard look at yourself, which you desperately tried to avoid with your spiritual bypassing methods in the first place.

The yoga, wellness and spirituality circles are full of people who use a spiritual bypass. Hypocrisy and spiritual narcissism are widespread. It is not just a phenomenon in the yoga, wellness and spiritual world but in religious circles, too. That’s a common thread in the example of QAnon where you find evangelical Christians and yogis side by side, who on paper have nothing in common. It’s their psychological makeup that is similar. The irony here, QAnon is a political conspiracy used as a weapon appealing to the “spiritually” inclined. It speaks to communal and grandiose narcissism. The sense of being “chosen”, the one and only who can save the world, the children, “Save America”, etc. Along with entitlement, self-righteousness, and arrogance, they believe that they are the most helpful.

The Spiritual Superiority Complex and The Sheep

The “awakened” or “chosen one” syndrome runs deep in spiritual and religious circles. In some yoga communities they believe they are the “pure ones” to usher in the Aquarian Age, or other New Age communities, who believe that they are chosen to ascend the planet, superior humans known to secret and esoteric information. They “know” what this is all about versus the regular non-spiritual or non-religious person does not and hence is a blind “sheep” following the masses. A spiritual superiority complex right there that made some think they were entitled to skip their civic responsibilities during the pandemic — Covid denial, refusing to wear a mask, etc. That coupled with a perverted individualism didn’t make tackling a global pandemic, which required a great deal of collectivism, any easier. The spiritual concept of “Oneness” loses its meaning when it doesn’t suit one’s personal desires.

New Age philosophies have been circulating in spiritual communities for decades, highlighted by the end of the Mayan calendar and the precession of the equinoxes in 2012. People made lots of predictions and speculations about what would happen then and beyond 2012. The climate was ripe for conspiracy theories to flourish. For the spiritually bypassing inclined individual those were the perfect alibis to dwell on in the face of uncomfortable personal and world events.

Not to discredit ascension or esoteric knowledge by any means. The ancient wisdom brought to light by New Age philosophies has profound truth and value. Science is catching up and some are now proven through quantum physics.

“Science is the new language of mysticism.” Dr. Joe Dispenza, scientist, researcher, lecturer, and author.

This is only increasing with advanced technologies. The way we look at human health, the brain, the role of consciousness and human potential will be radically different in a decade, or even sooner.

The problem we have here is what people make of it. Spiritual concepts and philosophies are hypocritically used and corrupted. The lines of truth and fiction get blurred to serve personal agendas. No proof exists, only perceptions, opinions, and what you choose to believe, or what you want others to believe. It’s a known fact that some of those “pure and awake” went to the insurrection on January 6th, 2021, for “The Great Awakening”. The world’s only awakening was that something dark and dangerous was happening in front of our eyes. The hypocrisy of the sheep analogy is mind-blowing considering that the classic spiritually bypassing individual often has “blind allegiance to charismatic teachers” or leaders, who can do no wrong, no matter what the crime. Who is the sheep here after all?

Conspiracy Theories Motives and Objectives

What makes some conspiracy theories so effective is that they are fabricated around fractions of truth. What exposes and unmasks them is a lack of nuances, critical thinking, and discernment. In the case of QAnon, the fraction of truth is the horrific crime of child abuse, which works well for recruiting women. However, the conspiracy fails to address the fact that the overwhelming majority of 91% of child molesters are known and trusted by the child or child’s family members. In other words, they are not strangers or Satanic pedophile liberals waiting to steal your children. At worst, conspiracy theories serve an agenda of an individual or a group, functioning as a political strategy. It becomes obvious when you look at who promotes them. Their purpose is to create paranoia and fear mongering, which makes controlling others easy. People become very suggestible under pressure and uncertainty.

The medieval witch hunts are a poster child of conspiracy theories. Paranoia and false conspiracies were massively perverted and fueled by the Christian church to further their interest and power. Bizarre accusations and conspiracies around the sacrifice and eating of children have a longstanding history; the Romans against the Christians; early Christians against heretics and Jews; later Christians against witches; and as late as the 20th century, Protestants against Catholics. QAnon strikes a similarity with this history. A proven strategy that worked for centuries still works today.

Spiritual and Religious Alibis: Faith and Belief

What’s so interesting about this is the continuous connection between malevolent conspiracy theories perpetuated by spiritual and religious groups. This is possible because they are based on faith and belief, which are the key elements that have distinguished religion, or spirituality from science.

“Faith is based on belief without evidence, whereas science is based on evidence without belief.”

Psychiatrist Ralph Lewis, M.D. further writes in “What Actually Is a Belief?”:

“Science values the changing of minds through disproving previously held beliefs and challenging received authority with new evidence. This is in sharp contrast to faith (not just religious faith). Faith is far more natural and intuitive to the human brain than is science. Science requires training. It is a disciplined method that tries to systematically overcome or bypass our intuitions and cognitive biases and follow the evidence regardless of our prior beliefs, expectations, preferences, or personal investment.”

That coupled with the psychological make-up for spiritual bypassing, you have a formula for delusion. No rational thinking and scientific data can penetrate deeply rooted perceptions and belief systems.

The Truth Gets Lost in Emotional Agreement

“When people accept, believe, and surrender to information that’s equal to their emotional state, they become subconsciously programmed.” — Dr. Joe Dispenza.

Spiritual bypass and other defense mechanisms reveal problems with emotional self-regulation and an avoidance to look at the truth. In the example of the pandemic, lockdown created the perfect environment for conspiracy theories to thrive. Millions of people were isolated at home, many unable to cope and their usual defense mechanism threatened profoundly. During times of pain and discomfort people can turn to delusion and fantasies because it feels like a way out. Other than cultural conditioning, what draws people to right-wing fear mongering hate groups? Finding a scapegoat to justify and project your inner turmoil is easier than to look at and work on yourself. Doing so by associating with a group or social movement provides purpose and validation of self. Just like a spiritual bypass, conspiracy theories offer a false sense of safety and control in times of uncertainty. Unchecked and taken too far, this mix becomes very dangerous.

Acknowledging mental health problems instead of glossing over and trying to cover them up with spiritual practices and beliefs or waiting for a messiah for salvation is the first step towards true healing. It’s a serious conversation that needs to happen in yoga, wellness, and spiritual circles because spiritual bypass has been an epidemic for a long time. The rise of conspiracy theories have become a fundamental threat to American democracy. Currently, over 40 Qanon supporters are running for Congress in 2022.

We are dealing with symptoms that can’t be solved by governments from the outside in, but must be solved from the inside out, starting with the individual, who is suffering. Taking personal responsibility for one’s own body, mind and spirit is the core teaching of all spiritual traditions. If anyone tells you anything else, run the other way.

Article originally published on Medium.

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