Q I’d like to discuss social issues such as homelessness, caste system, fundamentalism and domestic violence with my father and relatives. They seem moderately interested but dismiss the subject with, “We can’t really do much about it; it’s the will of God.” They spend a fair amount of time discussing religion and philosophy and also go to the temple quite often to worship. However, I don’t see them wanting to extend themselves to alleviate human suffering or questioning the responsibilities of their privileges. Additionally, I don’t see their personalities evolving much or growing as human beings. I am wondering if people use religion and spirituality and fate to avoid dealing with the problems of the world?

A When people are used to a certain amount of privilege due to class, gender, caste or financial success it is easy to not have to think about those who are in less privileged situations in life. It is also easier to believe that anyone who wants more out of life can get it by simply working harder. However, there are other familial and social factors involved in a person’s success besides personal efforts.

Facing life’s unfairness and suffering is very challenging. It’s complex and difficult to understand all the causes and ways of resolving inequities. Nonetheless, that’s no excuse for not engaging in some form of social justice work. We all have different ways of coping with suffering, especially if we don’t think we can do much about it or it feels overwhelming.

“Spiritual bypass” is one such avoidance method. It’s where people use religion and spirituality to console themselves, withdraw from life or simply feel pious so as to avoid feeling guilty or take the time to get involved in a project that helps others. It helps them rise above suffering—one’s own and another’s.

From a spiritual perspective, ultimately all of life’s problems arise out of our disconnection with a deeper and more profound reality. Disorder and suffering are symptoms of not being in touch with the Atman (soul or true nature).

Often that thinking is very short term and oriented around symptom relief, rather than probing the deeper causes of the suffering in our lives and the world at large. Thus, it makes sense to spend time to become more attuned to that from which wisdom, compassion and true guidance for our lives springs and spend time practising spiritual tenets. This is better for the world and challenges each individual to integrate their inner practices with real-life situations.

Modern psychology offers a lot of models to help people work out challenging relationship dynamics and methods to grow emotionally in ways that religion and spiritual practices don’t. These include communication skills; understanding, naming and sharing our feelings; working at seeing another person’s point of view; being oneself while being close to another.

When spiritual awareness and psychological tools are integrated it creates a powerful approach to living a conscious and engaged life in the world.

Alzak Amlani, Ph.D. is a counseling psychologist in the Bay Area. (650)325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com.

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