Somatic Injustice and the Spiritual Bypass

Pandemic privilege, reinforced by some forms of spiritual practice, can obscure the devastation and inequality that COVID 19 exposes with “opening up.”

“The coronavirus scenario I can’t stop thinking about is the one where we simply get used to all the dying.”  New York Times, May 5, 2020

The other day a friend living in the US posted an article that suggested that “people” will become indifferent to news reports of thousands dying every day from COVID 19. I thought to myself two things – who were the “we” he was referring to? And whose deaths were they being indifferent to?

In the state of Georgia 85% of those who die are African American. In Washington DC 89% of the deaths are Black. In many other states Black people and Latinos are the majority infected and who die.  In Arizona the Navajo Nation has been hit hard,  while in Canada a few pockets of Indigenous Nations are struggling to contain the virus. Another  group which has been treated as disposable is the elderly, a population that has been devastated by the corona virus in most Western nations. Here in British Columbia  and nowhere else in Canada has there  been as yet  documentation of race and class as to who is getting sick and dying.

My doctor here in Victoria warned that all this “opening up” of the economy would result in genocide in the United States. In the US a white supremacist federal government and many states has prioritized economic recovery over the lives of Black, people of colour, Indigenous and poor people.

This is serious stuff. For many of the pandemic privileged, those who have houses with multiple bedrooms and more than one bathroom, who can work from home, who can feed their families from a full pantry from Costco, the numbers of ill and dying are just that—numbers .  It becomes easy to ignore the fact that possibly 1.6 billion workers worldwide—mostly day labourers—will be unable to feed their families . So what do we do with all this? How do we hold all this horror and injustice without going numb?

This pandemic has exposed the depths of inequality in our cities, countries, regions, globe.  Inequality is a social relationship, a relationship in which we are engaged with our bodies.  The fact that we are all interdependent, interconnected with all beings, the plant life, the animals, the waters, is a fundamental teaching in Buddhism and in Indigenous traditions.  Without grocery store workers, garbage collectors, care aides, cleaners, postal workers, delivery people, food packers—you know the list now—many more could die from this pandemic.  We only exist through a vast network of interconnections that includes the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe.  And all these connection are embodied. None of the work I have just mentioned are online, they require bodies placing themselves at risk.

Is there an alternative to the somulent indifference that is easy for some of us to fall into? The writer seems to be speaking for the population who is safer, who have the time to read the New York Times and may be sheltering or working from home.  In this population there are many who are deepening their spiritual practices and relying on religion and spirituality to get them through this. The fear of being struck down at any time by this virus, the isolation and loss of contact with family and friends, the challenges of reduced income, or no work, can be greatly soothed or comforted by practices that centre oneself and bring one in contact with the divine or a reality greater than oneself.  These practices are valuable and reinforce our sense of interconnectedness.  However I want to caution against what has been called “ the spiritual bypass.” This a term first used by a Canadian psychotherapist Robert Masters to describe “the use of spiritual beliefs to avoid dealing with painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.” 

The pandemic has exposed in multiple ways the extent of inequality in our societies. Inequality is manifested and exists through our social relationships, and our bodies are the vehicle of relationships. As we have learned from the impact of the virus, we are in relationship with everyone and every being on this planet.  This is a moment of truth and it is an opportunity  to look within and become aware of emotional responses that maintain dominance and oppression, that is to observe and catch our body responses and reactions. This is not only about becoming aware of our positionality and privilege, but also about becoming aware of how unexamined beliefs, unconscious reactions that may have been passed down for generations are encoded i n the body. 

So, for example, with the pandemic, there is much media portrayal of Indigenous peoples and communities as backward and dysfunctional and hence as vulnerable to mass deaths in their communities.  Indigenous communities are projected as passive victims of this disease. These are colonial assumptions. These judgments  produce both a bodily response for Indigenous peoples and for the those who make these judgments.    Even as you read this, notice if you are aware of sensations , feelings, images that come to mind with this way of representing Indigenous communities.

We recognize some communities may be ill-prepared for a pandemic because of lack of clean water, access to healthy food due to poverty and substandard housing because of colonial policies. However  the reality is that there are many Indigenous nations who have experienced previous epidemics and are well prepared and are being proactive. Many are preventing visitors from entering their territories, enacting lockdowns and prevention measures and drawing on their traditions and medicines as resources. There are 634 Indigenous communities in Canada, speaking 50 Indigenous languages. To paint them with one brush is dangerous and maintains colonial dominance.  Indigenous communities are supporting each other. As in India where local communities are providing food for day labourers who are walking hundreds of miles home after the instant lockdown declared by Modi, communities here are providing food, care packages and health supplies to members.

Notice how this information affects your body—again, sensations, feelings, images.

I myself spend a lot of time in prayer and meditation during this pandemic. In my Zen practice I notice bodily sensations and feelings.  To be truly mindful we need to take this practice outside meditation time and into how we engage with what is happening in the world. It may be jarring to stop after reading “facts” or watching the news and check in with our bodies to notice our reactions,  but this is a necessary first step.  We can let out a sound, express those feelings or sensations rather than override them. We can notice differences, what feels good when we read/hear something and what feels uncomfortable in our body.  If we can name the inequalities and allow ourselves to feel into it in a deeper way then we won’t as easily bypass the broader issues that are exposed by the pandemic. And then it may be easier to figure out what to do. This is an opportunity to repattern ourselves for a more just equitable society. And then it may be possible for us to know and act upon what we can do to tackle the inequality. Remember always we are in relationship and our bodies are an integral part of that  relationship.

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