Why It’s Worth Off-Ramping From Spiritual Bypassing
Spiritual bypassing, a phrase coined by John Welwood and defined as a kind of spiritualized conflict avoidance that demonizes certain natural emotions like anger and can cause us to bypass our need for healing trauma, our activism, and our pain, runs rampant in spiritual and religious circles. It can make us feel good, even ecstatic, but just like any drug, the “hit” is temporary and the crash after the high can be catastrophic.
Some people bypass by meditating- first for a short amount, then increasingly escaping the world with more and more and more meditating. Some bypass by comforting themselves with positive thinking or spiritual teachings that deny and bypass more painful emotions, like grief, despair, anger, jealousy, helplessness, worthlessness, or shame. Some bypass the pain of reality with spiritual fantasies of utopia or benevolent aliens or angelic beings (not that there aren’t life forms in other star systems or beings we can’t see, just that we can get so caught up in imagining such beings that we fail to face the pain of reality on this planet.)
Some bypass by resolving uncomfortable cognitive dissonance with overly simplistic kinds of false certainty. For example, if it’s too uncomfortable to hold the paradox of a great darkening upon our potentially endangered species in contrast to an age of greater awareness of such darkness, we might simplify things into believing a delusion of a Great Awakening that will take us into the 5D and leave the darkness behind in the 3D.
Some bypass by making up comforting stories that resolve the unsettling feeling that arises when we ask the question “Why do bad things happen to innocent people?” If we tell ourselves that everything happens for a reason or that our souls choose our trauma or that we’re expiating karma from a past misdeed in order to earn a better reincarnation, we don’t have to face the stark existential reality of the utter randomness of some tragedies. If we pretend people “manifest” everything that happens to them, not just the blessings but the curses, then we don’t have to face the fact that nature does not have a conscience. Earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, floods, tornadoes, droughts, famines, pandemics, and other natural disasters affect the pure of heart as equally as they affect the wicked.
It’s hard to face such realities, especially as natural disasters rise in frequency with climate crisis. It’s far easier to do downward dogs and listen to guided meditations and pray for world peace.
I’m not saying such things are bad or wrong or harmful. They can be quite calming for our nervous systems and quite good for our health, when used properly and not overused. I like to think of them as energy transfusions. When we’re anemic on life force, a good yoga class or meditation retreat or ecstatic dance or spiritual healing can be just what the doctor ordered- as long as it doesn’t prevent us from facing reality, getting treatment for our traumas, using our voting power and our political activism to take a firm stand for equal human rights for all beings, and taking care of ourselves and our fellow humans during a pandemic.
Both personally and globally, the veils of denial are lifting, and spiritual bypassing doesn’t make so much sense any more to a lot of people who used to find it comforting. So much that was unseen is coming into the light of awareness, revealing a lot of darkness, but also a lot of light. We stand starkly in the truth, no matter the price. But the price of truth is costly. It costs us our comfort, our delusion of safety, and our hope that our children’s lives will be better than ours were. Religion and New Age spirituality can be balms that soothe us in hard times, but they can also preach messaging that actually harms and oppresses innocent people who are suffering and comforts us when we need to fully feel the excruciating emergency of our discomfort.
They can also groom us to tolerate abuse, fail to hold perpetrators of abuse accountable for the abuse they cause, prematurely forgive people who are not remorseful, and harshly blame ourselves for things we did not in any way cause.
While it may feel narcotizing to dose ourselves with it, “spiritual bypassing,” the conflict avoidant use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved traumas, and unmet developmental needs, only serves to prevent us from the kind of activism we must prioritize right now if we’re to turn around the many global crises our species faces at this perilous time in human history. In order to be motivated to do something, we need to first feel everything.
As the veils of my country’s dark history are lifted and the lies I was taught in history class come out of hiding, we are strip searched in our willingness to get naked with reality, even as we lose the comforts of soft and flattering veils. Without the cotton candy rush of “spiritual bypassing” and all its platitudes that attempt to decorate the darkness, we are left with the stark side effects of millenia worth of oppression and dehumanization of our fellow human beings, as well as late stage capitalism’s extractive entitlement with the resulting erosion of the environment, extinction of many species of biodiversity, and threat to the very survival of our own species. Without the emotional bypass of so many culturally accepted numbing strategies we use to avoid feeling our grief, terror, shame, and outrage, the truth lies bare and ugly and nearly unbearable.
Yet we cannot afford to collapse into helplessness, not if we care about ourselves, each other, and our children. We must strengthen ourselves, grow our stamina, condition our nervous systems to tolerate our uncomfortable reality, and learn to bear the unbearable as so many others have had to do while a privileged few got coddled into comfort.
The way people in spiritual communities have deal with pandemic life makes me think of something a kind dental assistant said to me right after the dentist opened after lockdown. “I’m so sorry I have to hurt you in order to help you.” It’s like that. We have to hurt in order to heal. But the rewards for being willing to do so are huge. We trade fake comfort for intimacy with life itself- and with one another- and that’s a good trade.
Fortunately, we can always fall back on the true comfort of the spirituality that does not bypass caring and feeling and empathizing and acting to solve real world problems. We all hold within us the ultimate comfort- the Divine Self, the Inner Pilot Light, the God that animates every living being and can hold us, love us, and nurture us even amidst the most extreme tears into the fabric of our reality. Just when we think we can’t bear another warm fuzzy veil lifting away, this Love rushes into our own hearts and strengthens us with courage, fortitude, compassion, a sense of interconnectedness, and a quest for even more truth. Thereby anchored in our hearts, alive in our bodies, grounded in the Earth, and connected to one another, we take the next step and lift the next veil.
This is no small task. This is species-saving work we’re doing here, so we shouldn’t expect it to be easy or comfortable. But we have no choice. This is not optional work, something we do because we want to be good people or get a gold star in heaven. We’re talking about survival here. We must do this heart surgery on ourselves if we want to stick around and create a planetary home our children can survive in.
I know that off-ramping from spiritual bypassing tendencies can be a hard for those who have received comfort during rough times from messages like “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle” or “My soul chose this [fill in the blank trauma,]” or “I’m just expiating my karma from a past life” or “Get out of your victim story.” But overlaying such messages on others who are suffering or using it as a way to make sense of the trauma of someone else victimized by a perpetrator’s oppression can be full on abusive.
As Tim Lawrence said, “Let me be crystal clear: if you’ve faced a tragedy and someone tells you in any way, shape or form that your tragedy was meant to be, that it happened for a reason, that it will make you a better person, or that taking responsibility for it will fix it, you have every right to remove them from your life. Grief is brutally painful. Grief does not only occur when someone dies. When relationships fall apart, you grieve. When opportunities are shattered, you grieve. When dreams die, you grieve. When illnesses wreck you, you grieve.So I’m going to repeat a few words I’ve uttered countless times; words so powerful and honest they tear at the hubris of every jackass who participates in the debasing of the grieving:Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”
Because so many people had a mass exodus from New Age spiritual bypassing since the pandemic started, I joined forces with some of the best non-bypassing teachers I know to teach the IFS-informed online course Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 101 in 2020, and now we’re adding to it with Spiritual Bypassing 2.0. If you join us now, you can listen to all my favorite non-bypassing teachers from the 2020 course- Richard Schwartz, Karla McLaren, Thomas Hubl, Shiloh Sophia, Carol Penn, Tosha Silver, Rebekah Borucki, and my sister Keli Rankin.
And now we’re adding Resmaa Menakem, Jeffrey Rediger, Anasuya Godis, Rachel Carlton Abrams, and Steve Hassan!
REGISTER HERE FOR SPIRITUAL BYPASSING RECOVERY 2.0
This course is intended to help you unpack, debunk, and examine many unhelpful, confusing spiritual bypass teachings about fear, shame, anger, jealousy, anxiety, and other valuable and necessary human emotions; lovingly and gently wrestle with any uncomfortable emotions that arise when you feel into any disillusionment, confusion, betrayal, or sadness you may feel because you have lost trust in long-beloved New Age leaders, compassionately self-examine how you or your teachers may have been subtly promoting systemic racism with spiritual bypassing teachings, get to know the parts of you that feel painful emotions (like fear and rage) so you can understand how they think they’re trying to protect you, help them heal, and use them to participate in sacred activism, discover a fully embodied, emotionally intelligent spiritual path that does not bypass, demonize, transcend or reject any natural human emotion, and learn more about Internal Family Systems (IFS) as a practice for compassionately loving and comforting “parts” of you that may be afraid of getting flooded with painful feelings so you can be more in touch with your true Divine Self.
I hope you’re coping during this intense time and hope this course helps those who need support. Off ramping from the narcotic of spiritual bypassing is no small task, but there’s nothing more important right now than mustering up the moxie to enter the trauma recovery spiritual path that lies on the other side of spiritual bypassing. May you journey with eyes and hearts wide open.