Spiritual Bypassing and Gaslighting in the Age of Trump
“It’s all just an illusion.” This was the response someone made on a post about the danger we are facing with a Trump presidency. And it was not the first time someone had said that in the months since the election. “It’s all just an illusion. This isn’t reality. We just have to shift our perspective.”
It’s good that we don’t have the ability to physically reach through our computers, because I’d be bitchslapping people left and right for saying this.
And it’s not just said in response to Trump. It’s a common response to any sort of difficult situation. And it’s bullshit. It’s the kind of bullshit that makes me twitch and rage.
I’ve noticed that when people say, “It’s all just an illusion,” it’s so they can avoid the discomfort you’re making them feel. You go to a spiritual mentor or friend with your pain, and they respond with, “It’s all just an illusion.” They’re engaging in spiritual bypassing in order to minimize their own pain and gaslighting you in order to keep you from continuing to cause them pain with yours. “It’s all just an illusion, you’re stressing out over nothing. Everything is for the best.” They aren’t necessarily doing this consciously. They may truly believe this, but not all beliefs serve us, and this is one that needs deep re-evaluation.
Spiritual Bypassing is insidious, and so prevalent in the New Age and Spiritual circles that most people are experiencing it without even knowing it. It’s a pain avoidance technique, something our culture has gotten very, very good at. But more than just a pain avoidance technique, it’s a reality avoidance technique. If it’s all just an illusion, then we can ignore the suffering and go about our comfortably privileged lives without ever having to deal with the pain of living in a chaotic world where significant numbers of people live in horrific conditions, women are raped and killed daily, children are trafficked for sex, and the climate is rapidly shifting to what may be untenable for human life. It’s scary fucking times, and “It’s all just an illusion,” is really reassuring.
Gaslighting is a manipulative technique meant to make the receiver doubt their sanity, and thus doubt reality. It’s a technique often used by narcissists; Trump is gaslighting America. He’ll say something, it’s recorded, and not long after, he denies it even happened, or insists that it was misinterpreted or taken out of context. “It’s all just an illusion,” makes you doubt reality. It makes you doubt your own emotions and your own experience. It’s a deeply disturbing form of gaslighting, because it’s an idea put forth by many so-called gurus and spiritual “leaders.”
Recent advances in quantum physics seem to demonstrate that reality as we experience it is a sort of hologram, or even a simulation. New Age teachers and spiritual gurus often take this to mean that our reality isn’t the real reality, and so it’s all just an illusion, even the suffering, and the way to escape the suffering is to escape the illusion. They point to ancient teachings about how fleeting life is, how temporary everything is, how everything is constantly changing as proof that this is not the real reality, that this is all just an illusion. But is that really what those teachings are saying?
When a Zen master speaks of attachment leading to suffering because change is constant, they’re not saying that the reality we experience isn’t real. They’re saying that shit changes, and if you continually get attached to shit, when you lose the shit, it’s gonna hurt. That doesn’t mean the shit wasn’t real. Shit has been real for a very, very long time. But shit is temporary. There is always new shit, and new shit eventually becomes old shit, and old shit goes away. This is why mindfulness and non-attachment are so important. Enjoying your life in the moment, knowing there might not be a next one. Enjoying what you have while you have it, knowing you might not have it for long. And not suffering when the thing is gone, because you fully immersed yourself in every moment with it.
The truth is that even if this is all an illusion, it’s all we’ve got right now. And to ignore what is right in front of us in favor of wishy-washy spiritual maxims is not going to promote true spiritual growth. Instead, it encourages people to stay in a spiritual infancy, unable to truly handle painful emotions and situations, stuck in a perpetual pattern of avoidance that doesn’t make anything better, and can actually make things worse.