Wednesday, April 18, 2018

On spiritual bypassing

I’ve received a few messages recently regarding “spiritual bypassing” and how to relate most skillfully with its (inevitable) appearance in our lives. In some circles the term has taken on a pathological tone which is neither warranted nor helpful. Like any other spiritual catch phrase (e.g. accepting everything the way it is, the “power” of the present moment, immediately forgiving everyone who has hurt us, fear is the “opposite” of love) it is important that we journey under the surfaces of these concepts and into the subtlety, nuance, and depth that their skillful engagement requires.

In my experience, "spiritual bypassing" is no different than any other defense mechanism. It serves an important adaptive function and must be honored and respected as such; not attacked, shamed, and torn down in some glorious heroic enlightenment project. There is a tremendous amount of data we can discover in reflecting upon the ways that we engage with particular beliefs to avoid certain aspects of ourselves. The goal is not to "get rid of" spiritual bypassing, but to bring more consciousness (and compassion) to its inevitable and varied expressions, to bring it into the vessel and begin to heat it up with curiosity, awareness, kindness, and warmth.

To what degree are my beliefs and practices bringing me closer to myself; to previously disowned feelings and shadow-aspects of my personality; to the underlying core beliefs I have about myself, others, and the world; to my fears and longings for intimacy with another; and to the way I am unconscious organizing my experience? Alternatively, to what degree might my practices be keeping me away from those parts of myself, promoting distraction and avoidance, and unaware of my own narcissism, blind spots, and habitual behaviors in relationship? The invitation is to get really curious about why we are drawn to certain practices, our intention for taking on certain beliefs, and the unconscious functions that our engagement with them may be serving.

I see spiritual bypass as an inevitable, natural, and information-filled dimension of the journey and, like all defensive organization, imbued with very important data for our own healing and awakening. It is not something to shame ourselves for, but in some sense to celebrate its recognition in our lives. What a miracle, really, to be able to see this and to care enough to tend to what we are seeing with new levels of awareness, curiosity, and compassion. The mere appearance of spiritual bypassing is not confirmation that something has gone wrong or that we have failed, but evidence that we have a raw, alive, beating human heart; that there is a longing deep within us for wholeness, meaning, connection, and to feel alive.

There are times when psychologically defending against certain feelings can be the most skillful way to handle our lives. If, for example, we use certain meditative practices to reduce symptoms of anxiety so that we can make it through the day, attend to our jobs and children, etc. - is this "spiritual bypassing?" Let us not answer too quickly. We have to go deeper and see how nuanced and subtle this territory really is; not to use compelling catch phrases like “spiritual bypassing” to attack parts of ourselves and re-enact dynamics of splitting and self-abandonment.

In psychodynamic practice, working with defensive organization takes an incredible amount of awareness, skill, insight, compassion, and capacity in self-reflection. In a more poetic sense, mechanisms of defense are allies on the path and not obstacles. Training ourselves to see how we might be using our relationship with spirituality to avoid certain aspects of our experience, to hide out from intimacy and relationship, to keep certain emotions and feelings dissociated and outside awareness, and as a way to avoid certain developmental tasks is a real act of kindness that we can give ourselves, others, and the world.

In this sense, spiritual bypass is/ was an effective strategy we’ve learned to care for ourselves, to honor the delicate nature of a traumatized nervous system, or to prevent too much conscious awareness to emerge too quickly, overwhelming us with buried self-experience we have not yet been able to embody, hold, metabolize, and integrate. To not crash through the wall of our defenses, but to approach them with love.

We must remember that more spiritual practice is not always the most wise, skillful, or loving container for working with developmental trauma and other types of wounding, or the right medicine in any given moment of activation. In fact, it can overwhelm the body and nervous system, and constellate re-traumatization. More meditation, more resting in the present moment, more forgiving, and more accepting are not always the right prescription in a particular life at a particular time.

This is an area of inner work that I find immensely complex, nuanced, and rich, and one of quite a lot of depth. I appreciate the willingness to stay with it, to really go deep into it and its implications.

My latest book – The Path Is Everywhere: Uncovering the Jewels Hidden Within You – is now available 

My next two events: 

The Path is Everywhere: A Weekend Intensive, June 15-18 in Loveland, Colorado

The Great Befriending: A Five-Day Journey of Self-Love, Deep Rest, and Coming Alive (with Jeff Foster), September 21-26 in Loveland, Colorado (tickets on sale starting April 13)