In the first entry of the Critical Mental Health and Orientalism series, Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi examines the apolitical tendencies of Western healing spaces, and how these tendencies can prevent more radical and necessary forms of healing, resistance, and reformation.
Spiritual bypassing: a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”(Fossella and Welwood, 2011)
This work is fictionalised.
I’m at a plant medicine ceremony that is being led, for once, by a Muslim woman. A friend. It’s in a studio type space in East London. I won’t reveal the real name of the venue but it’s something like ‘Limitless Time’, let’s say, and so when we talk about that day afterwards, we often say, ‘remember when we met in limitless time?’
Afterwards, my friend is sitting in a circle with three of the women from ceremony, chatting. The women are all white. I hear her offer them water from a bottle from her bag. She explains that the water is aab-e-Zamzam, holy water. I watch their faces light up as she speaks. She talks about the healing properties of the water, about how you can mix just a few drops into your regular water and it will take on the energy of the aab-e-Zamzam. I listen, surprised. I don’t talk about my religion with white people, with non-Muslims. What’s the point? The response, I imagine, would be a kind of cynicism, or a patronizing kindness, or, I guess, an exoticising, although in these circles, the religions of choice tend to be Hinduism and Buddhism, and when it is Islam, invariably Sufiism – the bits that ‘resonate’: colour and dance, surrender and karma … but this friend, she continues, and I start to think maybe she has more faith in her faith than I do. Maybe she is spreading the word. And they’re listening, so excitedly. Eagerly. Almost, I start to feel, greedily. Still, I watch her, so secure in her faith, so generous, in a sense. But she’s trying to explain the whole thing scientifically – she is performing an act of translation for them – and then one of the women asks, oh, so if even one drop, then how come all water isn’t … something like that. And she’s not doing it to be mean, she’s just curious. And in response my friend makes a joke about what a clever question that is and she laughs and turns away and then I watch her, before my eyes, deflate completely. A small damage has been done here, in this heightened post-ceremonial space.
I decide, some years ago, to find a psychoanalyst. And so, I call the British Psychoanalytic Institute, or Association, or something like that. I tell the woman on the phone that I would prefer someone of my culture. She goes through a list and she finds someone who shares my name, Ayesha. That sounds good, I say. And it was good, we’ve seen each other for many years now. But regarding the phone call, the woman says to me when I say I would prefer someone of my ethnic background,
‘Oh yes, I understand, so you can talk about the problems specific to your culture, with somebody who knows.’
And this angers me. And I want to respond, no, but close. It’s so that I can talk about the problems specific to your culture, with somebody who knows.
But I don’t. I say, instead, with an awkward laugh, yes. Or something like that.
It is difficult to seek healing in a different place from where you were raised. I grew up in Pakistan, and I live in London now. People cannot help but impose their own world views, looking for shortcuts in order to understand. You can imagine what the most common presumptions are. Forced this and forbidden that. I get so defensive sometimes that it becomes hard to speak the truth, to even see the truth. My friend Pakeezah Zahoor, who grew up here in the UK, says in a talk, ‘the very scary thing is sometimes, when you see those representations all over the place, like, oppressive Pakistani father, you start to superimpose those representations onto the people around you.’ And she is tearful as she says this, as she speaks of how limited representations end up limiting how we see our own selves.
I first met my friend whose Limitless Time ceremony I went to at another ceremony that she was helping out in, run by a white woman. They are invariably run by white people, these things. And they’re filled with people once called Jonathan who have now changed their name to Krishna, or whatever. And they talk and sing about how ‘we are all one’ in a way that is not true, it just isn’t, and this matters, the politics of the space matters. At one point, the woman running the ceremony says ‘everything around you is pure illusion’, but she says it in an Indian accent while shaking her head sideways, imitating, presumably, a yoga teacher from India. People laugh when she does this. When I tell my friend this hurt me, she responds that she used to be ‘militant’ like that too but now she’s not. But I cannot shake the feeling and later, I tell another woman, a black woman, the same – she smiles and reassures me that the imitation was actually a compliment, and when I resist further she says, ‘oh you’re like one of those people who got annoyed with Jamie Oliver for making jollof rice’. And the more we talk about it, the more her argument turns into ‘we are all one after all. All cultures belong to everybody’, and I begin to wonder whether this is one of the proverbs in the dictionary of spiritual bypassing: ‘we are all one’. And I remember when James Baldwin said that thing about therapy turning you into oatmeal, and he’d never done therapy and I don’t agree with him but maybe he meant something like this. Maybe you cannot exist in such places without turning into oatmeal. Without putting on your hippy gear, which is ‘white people in India’ gear, and dancing and wearing the bindi sticker that someone has placed upon your forehead after giving you a kiss on the cheek as if anointing you except when she does that, you think of Modi, and of withheld visas, and of casteism and islamophobia, but no, no, this is not the space for specificity, keep it vague, chant and pray for an end to war but don’t get too specific. Today, Gaza is being devastated and they’re all silent. Maybe they’re thinking, ‘how confusing, which side to side with, when those guys, dancing at the peace rave seem so much more like us. But we love Palestinians too, that’s not what we mean. Let’s just be quiet.’ Is that what they’re thinking? Maybe their next thought is, ‘fuck it. I should organise a peace rave. I’m on the side of ‘peace’, man.’ Corey Robin (@CoreyRobin) captures this irony in a devastating tweet in response to the genocide currently taking place in Gaza: ‘Maybe in a couple of hundred years, Israelis can open every meeting with a land acknowledgment. Like we do.’
There is real danger in the ideas repeated over and over without context in ‘wellness’ spaces: ‘positive vibes only’; ‘everything is just as it’s meant to be’; ‘we are all one’. Ahenakew et al. (2020) write about how ‘plant medicine practices have been largely used in the West for individuals to access personal power or for self-actualization, rather than to mobilize political and existential responsibility towards the planet’. And I suppose I have hoped one will lead to the next, that the self-actualisation becomes the political mobilisation, but I’m not so sure anymore. I think, in fact, it may be very possible to get caught up in an escapist and solipsistic loop in search of the former – the self-actualisation – and fail to find the necessary contextualisation and grounding for the latter. Farzana Khan (@khankfarza) writes in a tweet:
“It’s terrifying how neo-liberalised self-care/wellness has pacified how we organise and resist. Effective (and liberatory) trauma-work supports us to have congruent response to our context. Meaning we resist, mobilise, fight when needed … Recover/rest when apt.”
At another ceremony, the space-holder informs us that menopause is make-believe, that your period does not have to stop, and my eye catches the eye of an older woman, and I can see her heart has sunk already. How can you allow yourself to heal deeply when the space is being held by somebody you do not trust? Somebody who is telling you that you have failed and could have kept the blood flowing. But then one day, I hold space for this space-holder, and I see a lost and abandoned child and a history so brutal, so very devastating. It is not straightforward; we are all hurt people holding space for others who are hurt. How to learn to do it well?
John Welwood describes spiritual bypassing as our misguided attempts at ‘premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it’ (Fossella & Wellwood 2011). He continues, ‘If Buddhism is to fully take root in the Western psyche’ – a psyche he describes as frequently suffering ‘from an extreme degree of alienation and disconnection’ – ‘it needs to become more savvy about the dynamics of the Western psyche’ (2011). He offers an example that I very much see myself in, of how people with avoidant attachment styles can turn towards spiritual practices of abstention and emotional distance to further deny their need for attachment. ‘Avoidance of attachment,’ he writes, ‘is not freedom from attachment. It’s still a form of clinging – clinging to the denial of your human attachment needs, out of distrust that love can be reliable’ (2011).
My friend, the Limitless Time friend and I are, one day, driving back from an event. Things have changed for her – she has gone through the death of a loved one and has been dating somebody more political. These experiences seem to have brought her closer to her own self. This time, she confides to me that she was not paid for her assistance by the woman whose ceremony she helped with, the one who did the Indian accent. She tsks and shakes her head, tightening her grip on the steering wheel. ‘Who gave her permission, anyway, to hold these ceremonies?’ When she says this, I see a spark in her that fills my heart with love for her, and respect. It is this spark, rather than her ‘peace and love’ spiel, which feels like the true healing force within. She continues: ‘You need permission. Real permission. She says she saw it in a dream, that she was ready. And with her new name too, she says she saw it in a dream. That’s not how things work. You can’t just change your name like that.’
My friend is careful. She seeks permission every step of the way. And I have seen other spaces too, of embodied, contextualised healing. There is, for example, Dr. Daniel Foor, a white guy who teaches Ancestral Lineage Healing and insists, without flinching, that there is no separation between the political, the personal, and the spiritual, and that we operate from within systems, broken systems. I’ve seen him urge white people who are drawn towards a connection with ‘ancestors’ who they feel may be less problematic to turn back towards their own blood ancestors, even (or especially) when it’s difficult, and to think about how our personal callings intersect with bigger causes. And there are others: a South American teacher I sat with in Wales who not only gave deep homage to the land but also included prayers for the damage done in the name of that land. And of course, there is my own analyst, the above-mentioned Ayesha. I have also not spoken here of my faith, nor my family, my friends, or the writers that I love (I have quoted some here), although these are all key to my own journey.
I also think, by the way, that we are all one, that we are an interconnected organism, each part affecting the other. What I’m objecting to is the decontextualised ‘we are all one’ that flattens difference rather than addressing it. D. Hunter offers a powerful example of the importance of avoiding such false equivalencies, citing the danger in those of Irish heritage bringing up the argument that the Irish too were slaves. He writes, ‘when it is raised, it should be in the context of how shit the English government has been since its inception. Not when we’re talking about the transatlantic slave trade’ (2019; p.164).
And so, in my contemplation around the one-ness of us all, I wonder what it would look like, in this moment, to let in, just a bit more, the devastation taking place in Gaza today. And I remind myself of the words of Audre Lorde: ‘Every day of your lives is practice in becoming the person you want to be. No instantaneous miracle is suddenly going to occur and make you brave and courageous and true. And every day that you sit back silent, refusing to use your power, terrible things are being done in our name’ (1989). And I try to be more present in this very fleeting moment in which we are meeting, in limitless time.
About the Author
Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi’s debut novel The Centre (July 2023) is published by Picador Books in the UK and Zando Projects in the US. She has also published short stories, essays, monologues, reviews, and poetry, written for radio and the stage, and was contributing editor for the Serial podcast The Trojan Horse Affair. You can find her on Twitter/X @tweetingayesha
About the Editor
Tehseen Noorani guest edits the Critical Mental Health and Orientalism series. He researches extreme experience, particularly in the contexts of psychedelics, psychosis and madness, through a critical, materialist lens. Find him on Twitter/X @tehseennoorani
Images: Rakshanda Khan (Instagram: @theartsytherapistonline)
Ahenakew, Cash, Rene Suša, and Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti. (2020). A Collective Call for Accountability in Plant Medicine Experiences. Chacruna. https://chacruna.net/collective-accountability-plant-medicine/
Fossella, Tina, and John Welwood. (2011). Human Nature, Buddha Nature: An Interview with John Welwood. Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. https://tricycle.org/magazine/human-nature-buddha-nature/
Hunter, D. (2019). Lumpen/Class Work Project. Chav Solidarity. https://www.theclassworkproject.com/product-page/chav-solidarity-e-book
Lorde, Audre. (1989). Commencement Address. Oberlin College. [May 29, 1989]. https://queerhistory.com/radical-graduation
Others whom I have referenced: Corey Robin (@CoreyRobin), Farzana Khan (@khankfarza) and Daniel Foor (https://ancestralmedicine.org)