May 28, 2017

Does it induce shame to advise someone to “lighten up”? Reply to Robert Augustus Masters

Photo © by John Inglis

Is it a bad idea to suggest that “lightening up” could be a good thing for someone suffering?

Some say it can be shame-inducing. Robert Augustus Masters, the passionate psychotherapist, author, and teacher of spiritually deepening practices, has made a terrific contribution to the discussion of an integral psychotherapy. Notwithstanding the many times I find his short writings on Facebook to be insightful, today I want to offer a counterpoint. One of Robert’s major themes is the importance of not escaping the dark, shadowy side to human life in favor of a superficial escapism. He even coined the influential term “spiritual bypassing” for the phenomenon of using spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, and unresolved wounds.

But is this emphasis too partial? Yesterday he wrote on his Facebook page:

Advising others to “lighten up” or be more positive can be shame-inducing, however nicely we might do it. What if they need to stay with their hate or despair or depressiveness for a while? How can we be sure that they’d be better off getting away from such states as soon as possible? Perhaps at such times we are — through our contact with their endarkened condition — starting to feel more in touch with such states in ourselves, and want the other to get away from their “darkness” so that we don’t have to feel our own.

That’s pretty heavy. Hey, Robert, lighten up, buddy! Just kidding!

What he says is true, but it is just as valid to say that advising others to “stay in heaviness” or embrace their negativity can encourage stuckness in useless emotional entanglements, a backhanded way of encouraging *ourselves* to feel such states. The flip side of “spiritual bypassing” is “shadow wallowing.”

There is a time and a place for rolling in the mud, and a time and place for cleaning ourselves off, and it is difficult to know what to advise someone else without striving to enter deeply into their unique perspective. Wisdom is knowing how to contact our unique self-knowledge and knowledge of the other so we can do the right thing at the right time. As Marc Gafni says, the Unique Self is the One which moves through depression into an authentic joy, and it is that Unique Self which we must know.

I find it difficult to accept that suggesting that someone “lighten up” is harmful in general. It all depends on the context; indeed, it depends on many contexts and constructs. Of course, you don’t tell someone who is mourning to “cheer up, down’t be a downer!” But nor do you tell someone who eagerly wants to be free of a self-destructive behavior, belief, or feeling that there is no hope of having the heavy burden of their sorrows lifted. In World Spirituality, “lightening up” means to be doing one’s shadow work, recognizing that one’s heavy burdens will no longer feel so heavy as their consciousness becomes disentangled from what which it needs to leave behind.


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About Joe Perez

Joe Perez is a spiritual mentor, author, poet, and scholar. He is best known for his 2007 book Soulfully Gay. one of the first memoirs in the tradition of World Spirituality based on Integral principles. He serves as a Scholar-in-Residence at the Center for Integral Wisdom. His work in progress includes Gay Spirituality and Kalen O'Tolán.

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