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Spiritual Bypass

I have heard many times people criticizing or being criticized for something called spiritual bypass. The term was coined by a contemporary psychotherapist and the wiki definition of it is :

"(A) tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks"

It seems to me to be a modern definition of a very ancient problem: it is always easier to trust something or someone else will solve our real inner problems.

In fact, the boddhisatta’s account of his own spiritual pursuits contains a lot of failed practices or attempts that would very easily fit the above definition of spiritual bypass:

Beside those extremes, things like attachment to rites and rituals or a constant pursuit for new and more exciting sensual experiences - through tasting, hearing, touching, smelling and seeing - seem to fit under the sidestepping or avoidance of facing “unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks” in oneself.

All that said, it is important to realize that the uniqueness of the Path re-discovered and taught by the Blessed One is in fact its comprehensive formulation, which if approached completely makes no room for spiritual bypass.

By proposing a closed loop approach with right view - summarized as the Four Noble truths and its respective tasks - as the forerunner and end-goal of his spiritual teaching, the Blessed One definitely had in mind making sure those after him would not have to go through the same spiritual mistakes he made himself in his quest.

Moreover, by summarizing as the gradual abandonment or eradication of ten fetters in oneself as the ultimate way of gauging / assessing one’s own progress in the Path, he covered most - if not all - problematic and liberation-inhibiting modes of spiritual bypassing.

The idea of this topic is then to get people together to discuss:

  • in which ways spiritual bypassing is (or not) a concern of the Buddha-Dhamma;
  • as well, it would be great to know how Buddha Dhamma may have (or not) helped people here address their own tendencies to spiritual bypass.
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This is a great topic thanks!
I love how wikipedia says “Spiritual bypass can be addressed with various forms of psychotherapy, including focusing and motivational interviewing.” :laughing:

I personally wouldn’t categorize what the Bodhisatta was doing at this point as spiritual bypassing. For me, spiritual bypassing is trying (and failing) to deal with personal, psychological/emotional struggles using ideas drawn from spirituality/religion, not trying to deal with deeper existential struggles such as the Buddha was? Maybe there’s a subtle difference?

I think failing in one’s attempts to practice while trying to reach liberation (and being aware of that fact), is different to having significant psychological issues that affect your life and trying to use ‘mindfulness’ or strict following of the rules etc to cope with them. In my mind, spiritual bypassing is not a mistake of practice, although the practice could be wrong. The problem lies in trying to fix a personal, egoistic issue with an answer that can only ever be impersonal and ego-less.

As an example, I met a young fellow last week at a meditation group in Bangkok who got into meditation after developing an anxiety disorder and reading that “10% Happier” book. He said he heard that meditation helped with anxiety and depression and if he squeezes in some meditation throughout his day he can get more work done.
To me there’s aspects of this that are spiritual bypassing. It’s the idea of using a sole spiritual means as the answer to a variety of worldly ‘life’ problems, without any kind of personal accountability.

I actually got into Buddhism through psychotherapy, not the other way round, but I found a lot of parallels between both that helped me.

I think the Dvedhavitakka Sutta (MN 19) and Vitakkasanthana sutta (MN 20) both address useful ways to deal with troublesome thoughts that have a few parallels in the psychological methods I was taught. Ironically, I find these suttas directly countering the “just let your thoughts be, just observe them, don’t try to change your thoughts” theory taught so often these days.

Actually the reason I became interested in Buddhism was because therapy couldn’t fix all my problems :laughing: But to me that’s the point of Buddhism, it confronts universal, existential issues we all face like birth, ageing, illness and death. On the other hand, I don’t think Buddhism automatically makes us happy or can fix certain ‘emotional’ issues.

While this is true, I think the vast majority of us have enormous difficulty with gauging/assessing our own progress. I mean maybe I’m wrong about this, but I think there is such an enormous potential for delusion? Isn’t that one of the points of spiritual bypassing - you think you’re okay, when you’re really not.
I think having a good kalyanamitta or talking to an objective outside source (such as a therapist) would be a better way to be aware of spiritual bypassing.

So I guess I’m saying it’s not that I don’t think Buddhism can help us relate to our issues, including psychological/emotional ones, I truly think it can. But that is not the purpose of Buddhism.

I think spiritual bypassing is a concern to us, because we as Buddhists need to take a lot more opportunities to support our Dhamma friends so they know it’s okay to not be okay.

If Buddhism hasn’t solved all your problems, it’s not that you’re doing it wrong. Maybe you need a different kind of help and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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I don’t think there’s really any way to avoid spiritual bypassing in our spiritual practice. Especially when we first start out. It seems to me that there has to be some lofty goal “out there somewhere” we start grasping for and emulating, avoiding and suppressing anything standing in the way of us reaching that goal. After all, we don’t really understand what we’re doing, so how could we understand that we’re doing it wrong. Even if someone tells us we’re doing it wrong.

I think the friction created between where we think we’re at or think we should be at and where we’re really at, is the best thing to learn and develop from. If we’re doing it right, over time that friction should become less and less, simultaneously pushing us toward better conduct and pulling us closer to reality. If we start by resolving all our unsolved emotional issues, psychological wounds and unfinished developmental tasks, I don’t think one lifetime is enough to reach full awakening. I’m not saying we should or even can ignore these things completely but along the way many of them seem to just fall away all by themselves.

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The above point, which caught my attention, is not clear to me although it could possibly relate to my comment below.

[quote=“gnlaera, post:1, topic:3401”]
All that said, it is important to realize that the uniqueness of the Path re-discovered and taught by the Blessed One is in fact its comprehensive formulation, which if approached completely makes no room for spiritual bypass. By proposing a closed loop approach with right view - summarized as the Four Noble truths…[/quote]

The Four Noble Truths can certainly bring individual liberation however they may not be complete enough to develop the wisdom to enable completely free social interaction in the world.

While individual liberation via non-attachment is not exactly spiritual-bypassing (since it is difficult to avoid emotional issues in meditation, where any hindrance will arise to the surface), the liberation of the Buddha described in the version of the Three Knowledges refers to more than merely the Four Noble Truths (the 3rd knowledge). In the 2nd knowledge, the Buddha developed a deep understanding of the laws of moral social kamma, later revealed in many suttas such as the Sigalovada Sutta (DN 31), Samajivina Sutta (AN 4.55), etc.

What I am saying here (at least from my personal experience) is many issues or blind spots of the ‘personal’ nature can be resolved more effectively by reconciling with the laws of social kamma rather than by using the non-attachment & very basic morality of the Four Noble Truths.

An example is past relationship issues. Often a person will blame the other, then blame themselves, then attempt to take an impersonal not-self approach when, in reality, all that occurred (per AN 4.55) is the conditions were simply not right since each respective person lacked the necessary mutual virtues in that relationship. Thus, a person blames the other, then later blames themself, then attempts to get impersonal, for really no reason at all. Its like applying the wrong medicine to the sickness.

While not intentional, (in my personal experience) the meditative approach of the Four Noble Truths can still result ‘unreconciled’ kamma that can bubble up & cause trouble in the face of certain situations if that past kamma is not reconciled clearly.

:palm_tree:

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I really agree with a lot of your points, especially…[quote=“raivo, post:3, topic:3401”]
If we start by resolving all our unsolved emotional issues, psychological wounds and unfinished developmental tasks, I don’t think one lifetime is enough to reach full awakening.
[/quote]

:laughing: :raised_hands: truth!

But isn’t that kinda a part of it? Sometimes (dare I say, often) one lifetime is not enough.

And yes spiritual bypassing is inevitable for most of us. I just think we should always be on guard to pull the rug out from under ourselves or have someone to do it for us.

I don’t mean to discourage those who have found that Buddhism did fix their problems. Perhaps I was too extreme, after all we’re all different and why shouldn’t Buddhist practice be enough to help some people? I just meant to say that psychological help or other personal development can be useful too.

I think you’re right about keeping the tension that drives us forward and that it’s part of learning and developing - 100%. I also seriously dislike the ‘heal every single childhood wound before you do anything’ approach too. But for some of us we need to get our stuff together and clear up the ‘grosser’ issues that are affecting our lives on a daily basis before we can really get into Dhamma practice. Perhaps my basis of reference is for more serious stuff. But in summary what I mean is that we need to value both approaches not just ‘Dhamma fixes everything’.

Ya know on second glance it actually looks too extreme, maybe I’m only like 75% right here :laughing: sorry bout that. My intention was to say that I don’t think that Buddhism is designed to fix some of the psychological issues we may have. Although it might. But I think we make a mistake when we try to use Buddhism as a tool to that end, from an intentional point of view. But yes, I do think there’s a way it relates to your point thanks for helping me clarify :slight_smile:

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I don’t know how many lifetimes I’ve been saying this (:stuck_out_tongue: ), but I think if we really give everything we’ve got to the practice, one lifetime should be enough. That is the impression I get from the suttas anyway. Of course that is contingent upon hearing and understanding the Dhamma early enough in life, having a long enough lifespan, not getting sidetracked etc. And even if we don’t make it in this life, I think we should at least have an attitude that it’s possible.

My attitude is probably also more on the extreme end of the scale so I apologize if this hurts anyone, but I think that “those who have found that Buddhism did fix their problems” are either Arahants or they haven’t understood what the root problem really is :stuck_out_tongue:

I don’t really have any personal experience with psychotherapy but the main problem I see with it is that it’s too “worldly”. Spending 8 or 12 hours a day working in a meaningless job makes you depressed? There must be a chemical inbalance in your brain. Here’s some pills that’ll fix you right up. Or it’s years and years of talking and analyzing why it is that we don’t fit in this world of ours. There must be something wrong with the people, not with the world or the way we are living in it.

That said, I do know people who have greatly benefitted from psychotheraphy, so there obviously is a time and place for it. People are different so whatever helps is okay I guess. Fortunately psychotheraphy also seems to be moving more towards the Dhamma so that instead of pharmaceutical quickfixes or spending thousands of dollars year after year depending on an outside authority, people are taught ways of being their own psychoanalysts and therapists.

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Hey everyone, thank you so much for your thoughts. Really nice conversation going on here. :relaxed:

To move on, I would like to ask you what mode of spiritual bypass would be left not addressed by the five lower and five higher fetters approach prescribed by the Buddha ?

Five lower fetters:

  1. self-identification views (sakkāya-diṭṭhi)
  2. doubt/uncertainty (vicikiccha)
  3. wrong grasping at precepts and practices (sīlabbata-parāmāsa)
  4. sensual passion/desire (kāma-rāga)
  5. ill will/resistance (vyāpāda)

Five higher fetters:

  1. passion/lust for form (rūpa-rāga)
  2. passion/lust for formless phenomena (arūpa-rāga)
  3. conceit (māna)
  4. restlessness (uddhacca)
  5. ignorance/unawareness (avijjā)

Are you asking whether or not an arahant would engage in avoidance coping?

No, I ask what is the risk of someone who takes up the four noble tasks and has as his reference point for progress the gradual eradication of the lower and higher fetters to still be accused of spiritual bypass?

In other words, in what sense the cultivation of the path as formulated in the Suttas could leave open the possibility if someone manifesting in himself spiritual bypass as defined by modern scholars?

Last but not least, as on the topic’s opening, would it be right to say that for the Buddha dhamma the only modes of spiritual bypass that matter to be addressed are those which relate to the ten fetters?

You seem to be focused on spiritual bypass, but this is simply one sort of unhealthy coping mechanism. There are many sorts, and the risk for these things varies with the individual & their context. Actively engaging in a religion can be done for healthy or unhealthy reasons, and Buddhism is no exception here.

Thanks @daverupa, yes I am focused on spiritual bypass here, that’s the idea / theme of the topic! :blush:

Sure; what I said applies to spiritual bypass with respect to variation among individuals & contexts; Buddhism does not offer a special immunity here. Psychologically un/healthy individuals can be found all over, and indeed many people seek a religion in order to find coping tools.

But religions are the words of another; the key issue is whether one has careful or careless attention, and so we can see that someone working on the Path can have e.g. spiritual bypass issues, or other unhealthy coping mechanisms, right alongside healthy ones.

I’m not sure that working on the fetters is necessarily different than working on unhealthy coping skills…

…but I think the fetters encompass more. So working on the fetters appropriately can address e.g. spiritual bypass, but so can other methods. The fetters indicate further issues, further efforts to be made.

Since ignorance is the final fetter & only an arahant is free from this fetter, it seems for non-arahants many modes of spiritual bypass would be left not addressed.

Yes, that’s my understanding as well. Avijjā is indeed a powerful catch-all! :grin:

But let’s think in terms of what us non-enlightened things have to deal with. It seems that the five lower fetters alone are already very comprehensive in terms of what modes of spiritual bypass they can address.

Now, thinking of one already beyond the level of stream entry, the first two of the higher fetters should address the potential for “spiritual bypassing through deep samadhi”…

I already posted that, in my view, most supramundane path factors, such as non-craving, non-judging, non-thinking, non-attachment, non-selfing, etc, can result in ‘spiritual bypass’.

The typical issues that remain unreconciled in spiritual bypass are generally moral issues (such as issues arising from past personal & parental relationships) and these can be fully awakened to on the moral level (‘sila’).

While the non-personal emptiness (‘panna’) provides the most secure & advantageous foundation, the spiritual bypass resolution can come from the 2nd knowledge, as i previously posted.

Whether issues arose from our own past actions or the past actions of others, an effective way to remove spiritual bypass, imo, is to ‘right’ those past (‘wrong’) actions in our mind.

This not only helps oneself but, most importantly, places one in a position to help others. For example, a practitioner that abides in impersonal emptiness (sunnata) may still struggle to help others with mundane issues because that sunnata practitioner lacks deep insight of the mundane laws of kamma such as in Sigalovada Sutta (DN 31), Samajivina Sutta (AN 4.55), etc).

:seedling:

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I have been pondering and reading a little bit more about the topic.

It seems to me that once all that is needed for stream entry to take place is the dropping the first three lower fetters - self-identification views (sakkāya-diṭṭhi), doubt/uncertainty (vicikiccha) and wrong grasping at precepts and practices (sīlabbata-parāmāsa) - it may be very possible to see someone at this stage of enlightenment stuck in some sort of spiritual bypass.

However, given that the further attainments of sakadagami (“once returnership”) and anagami (“non-returnership”) require a material or total dropping of the fetters of ill will/resistance (vyāpāda) and sensual passion/desire (kāma-rāga), I don’t see much room for problematic spiritual bypassing by someone at those stages.

Nevertheless, as before, I reckon that those higher stages there is indeed room for some sort of “spiritual bypass by spiritual bliss”, this is for in those passion/lust for (subtle) form (rūpa-rāga) and passion/lust for formless phenomena (arūpa-rāga) - usually linked with jhana-related realms of existence / modes of being - may still be very much present.

A once-returner has not uprooted ill-will & lust. They have only significantly lessened (attenuated) them. So when certain sense contacts occur that trigger off the spiritual bypass, ill-will & kinds of lust can arise. :ox:

those bhikkhus who have abandoned three fetters and attenuated lust, hate and delusion are all once-returners, returning to this world to make an end of suffering. MN 22

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Hi Deeele, mind that the type of lust the Buddha is referring to in the case of a sakadagami and anagami is a very refined one and relates to the potential for getting entangled or stuck in the material and immaterial absorptions - deep samadhi experiences. That is why they were called higher fetters.

An example of this is what we find in the descripition of Maechee Kaew’s anagami fruition mentioned in this other topic/post:

The mind’s usual sense of physical limitation and embodiment completely disappeared. She felt her being dissolve, expand outward and merge with all things, as though forming one essence with the universe; resting within, unfettered by any dependency, was a supreme emptiness — clear, bright and still."

Later on in the book you will see that Luangta Maha Boowa had to guide her to move on further in her practice:

"She spoke of her progress over the past year, carefully detailing the consecutive stages of her experience, and concluded with her “lion’s roar”, the radiant emptiness of mind that permeated the entire cosmos and transcended all conditions.

When she stopped speaking, Ajaan Mahā Boowa looked up and calmly asked, “Is that all?” Mae Chee Kaew nodded. Ajaan Mahā Boowa paused for a moment and then spoke:

(…)

Returning to the nunnery that evening, Mae Chee Kaew reflected on how the radiant mind had become her sole lingering attachment.

Cherishing and safeguarding it more than anything else, she hardly wanted to interfere with it. Within the entire mind and body, nothing stood out so prominently as that luminance. It provoked such a riveting sense of inner amazement — and consequently, such a protective feeling of attachment — that she wanted nothing to
disturb it.

Because of Mae Chee Kaew’s delusion about the mind essence that knows all things, she forgot to investigate and pass judgment on the true nature of that essence. When the scope of the mind drew inward, it gathered itself into a radiant nucleus — bright, cheerful and bold. Every mental act arose from that nucleus. Consciousness flowed from that nucleus. Thoughts formed there.

All happiness seemed to gather there. So she had believed that it must be Nibbāna, the center of her being that was so bright and clear all the time. But she now realized that it was actually the nucleus of the origin of suffering."
–page 194-198

Hence, yes, this is the sort of “spiritual bypass by lust” possible to a anagami.

Much better than the usual spiritual bypass by desire for pizza, ice cream and even internet debating of us unenlightened things! :yum:

My two cents…

I suppose if it’s a case where the spiritual bypassing is causing someone to truly harm themselves (or others) then perhaps it is useful to work on it. But beyond this, I cannot see how it is useful; so I guess I am asking myself how useful it is to focus on this in a therapeutic setting. Perhaps those of you who have done so might share? Just to be clear, this is a genuine question as I truly don’t know and 'am truly interested to find out. Just to be very clear, I’m not knocking or being critical of what anyone does. I’m asking with great respect to all those who have committed their lives to helping those of us in crisis.

However, I can see a possible negative in pointing out to someone that their particular delusive coping strategy is not real. I have seen how this can be a serious discouragement to the growth of someone’s spiritual life. Okay, so somebody is intent on thinking that they are practising non-attachment, when they’re clearly attached to all manner of things, including depression or anxiety or anger or whatever. But instead of blowing this out of the water, is it not possible to use the value and worth they see in growing non-attachment in order to help them become happier and healthier? So using their crutch as a way in, a way in for them to see the other pieces of the puzzle, other aspects of the maze, that they have been ignoring.

**

Another few cents…

The other thing that ocurrs to me is that Buddhism is about finding emotional and psychological balance. It absolutely is. One cannot hope to understand deep metaphysical truths without using one’s emotional/mental world as the playing field. Existential truth and pyschological truths are deeply intertwined within the 8 fold path.

Although, I don’t think they will be usefully intertwined if one spiritually bypasses even a tiny bit of Right View. Of course, as far as the EBTs that I’ve read go, only the Awakened ones have really got Right View. But the rest of us need to at least have a reflective understanding of it and some degree of faith/confidence in it so that we look at the world and at ourselves through this lens. Then, in my humble experience, the metaphysical and the psychological begin to become one and the same thing.

**

And…

I also think that if one looks at the Vitakkasanthana sutta (MN 20), the first strategy outlined for removing distracting thoughts can be viewed as a positive, useful, deeply insight rich form of spiritual bypassing. To illustrate this, I’ve posted a link to a wonderful cartoon by Michael Leunig. The angel realises he can substitute a wholesome mind state for an unwholesome one.

Years ago I was talking to Ajahn Brahm about how growing wholesome states is like climbing a gradually sloping mountain. The further up you go, the happier you get. And I remember he said instead of climbing the mountain, you can just jump from peak to peak. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get it for years. Truly though, I still don’t get it because I am nowhere near proficient at the practice of this. However, I’ve got a reflective understanding of what he meant (I think)…it’s about letting go. It’s about a positive form of spiritual bypassing. Where you just leave behind the whole, you don’t bring any parts of the whole with you…no lingering doubts, fears, what ifs or maybes…it’s just gone and you’ve moved on. No analysing or indepth questioning even. It’s just not in your world anymore. Gone. And you’re in another more useful, more happy place. Most of the time I am climbing the slope…leaving behind in my wake large traces of the treacle that I’m wading in to get to the top. Occasionally I just take that leap of faith, convinced suddenly, in one moment, that I don’t need to have an understanding of the mire I’m bogged down in, in order to take the next step up and be a little more free…instead, I just jump, fly almost…

As I’m writing all this I’m asking myself why this happens…because it just happens…out of nowhere I deeply remember and it just happens… I’m not really sure why. But I’m guessing it’s just the result of putting in the causes…of being deeply interested in wanting to understand and practice all of the aspects of the 8 fold path. I am hoping that if I keep going, it’ll just become habit; that I’ll hopefully become an expert at this “positive spiritual bypassing” and totally understand myself and my world and the hows and whys and whats of both.

**

With metta

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Hi Kay,

Thanks for all those ‘cents’ and your lovely, rich descriptions :blush:

I think spiritual bypassing always hurts a person, or others, otherwise it wouldn’t be a problem.

I can’t talk about my personal experience here, as this is a publicly accessible forum where I am potentially identifiable. If you do want to ask more about it, please feel free to private message! :slight_smile:

Let me first say that in the latter part of your post you present the excellent technique of ‘replacing an unwholesome thought with a wholesome thought’ from the Vitakkasanthana sutta. In fact, this technique is also used as part of Acceptance and Commitment therapy, along with simply distracting oneself from the thought, or denigrating the importance or value of that thought. These techniques are all highly effective.

But I believe many people and particularly those who suffer with mental illness or a period of emotional difficulty are not capable of calming their minds, identifying thoughts and taking control of their thoughts, particularly at critical moments.

We also live in a society (or at least I do) where we don’t naturally incline to helping people with these kinds of issues in social settings. So the ongoing support and guidance of a therapist can help us when we are particularly confused or troubled, to begin to get some feedback and clarity in our minds. This also takes the burden off friends/family who may be struggling themselves or don’t know how to help.

Of course, we are all responsible for our own progress, and making that resolute choice is the determining factor for lasting success.

But the misconception, around ‘we can solve everything by ourselves by just changing our thoughts/using mindfulness/meditation’ I fear, is part of the insidious belief we carry that the mentally ‘struggling’ should just ‘pull their socks up’ or ‘snap out of it’.

Most therapy courses don’t consist of you showing up and the therapist telling you “Oh by the way sorry your coping strategies aren’t real!” But more often it’s a chance to say “Ok, you’ve got this pattern and it’s a problem for you, how does it start, lead on, result?”. Actually some of the greatest healing can come from someone just listening, or just sitting with you without expectation or judgement (except the expectation of getting paid :laughing:). Really, just having someone you can talk to helps enormously.

We live in the world of our own minds, but talking in therapy is a chance to open and confront the habitual and often addictive and determining patterns we take that lead to a certain consequences. It can be hard to self reflect when a pattern is particularly strong and stifling, so it’s not always possible to get out of alone.

As an example, I used to be a dietitian and 90% of the people who came to me wanted to lose weight. Surprise, surprise. They also almost always knew how to do it. But they couldn’t actually do the things they needed to do in order to lose weight. Of course, it would have been easy for me to say ‘Ok eat less, exercise more, bye!’, but that would do nothing. What I actually needed to do was talk with them, discussing what they were doing step by step, helping them bring awareness to habits and underlying beliefs and break them down, helping cultivate mindfulness so they could actually make a choice - something we basically don’t do, most of the time, despite what we think :smirk:.

So what I want to reiterate again is that some people in difficult situations are not capable of ‘pulling themselves out of it’ or willing their thoughts to change, because these are very strong ingrained patterns. I mean, as experienced meditators we know how hard it can be to really see our own minds! The patterns at least will be difficult to do change alone, although admittedly not impossible.

As an aside, I also want to note that with the increasing secularisation of Buddhism and ‘dhammafication’ of psychology, there’s definitely the potential for ‘psychological bypass’! And that’s the point I got to, because psychology can’t answer all our questions, and it would be inappropriate to solve our spiritual or existential ‘problems’ with psychology.

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