The Spiritual Bypass Trap - in relating and racism.
Updated: Jun 17
Spiritual Bypass: “Using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business’, to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs
and feelings” ~ John Welwood
We are all in danger of spiritual bypass because of how appealing it is. None of us are exempt. It soothes us like any short-term balm on sore skin. We turn to spirituality as a crutch while disconnecting from the people or situation at hand. It disguises itself not just by making us feel better in the moment, but the misbelief that it makes us good, helpful humans, healers, and teachers.
Perhaps we answer the call to be positive, optimistic, people of power, and change. The irony is that in clinging to spiritual ideals and bypassing the pain at hand, we become unavailable to the world that needs us.
For trained helpers, holding expectations that our worth is shown in how quickly we get people through to the ‘other-side’ of their feelings, we gravitate to finding the good, the positive reframe, the lesson, yet we are in danger of promoting feeling better over genuine growth.
In this moment, we fail the person before us. We fail to reflect their innate resilience and character. It's also a form of self-abandonment, as we defend an ideal, that is by default (*due to being in the room as a big red elephant) yet to be fully realized and embodied.
One of the ways we abandon our Black, Indigenous and/or People of Colour (BIPOC) family, friends, colleagues, and communities is through using spiritual bypass; in defense or avoidance of racism:
1. Defending against a racist world,
2. Defending against the need to engage the issue.
3. Defending your own character and everyone’s character as a blanket statement. In denial of and separating ourselves from being invested in the issue or the people “in the ring”.
None of us on a spiritual path want to abandon the experiences needing genuine attention; whether in ourselves and others. It happens out of self-preservation, emotional and energetic overwhelm, and from an inner ‘freeze’ in not knowing how to do enough or make a difference. Our spiritual ego protects us in an idealized ‘balm’ and we neglect the human task at hand.
Let’s break down the spiritual bypass and how it shows up right now:
AVOIDING PAIN OR NEGATIVITY
Trying to pull people out of their emotions or responses into a state that is more comfortable for you, (and by your belief), for them too.
We amplify the positive and repress the negative. When we shy away from pain or negativity, we become a ‘scapegoat’ for the wound, i.e. We protect the wound, but not the person. In repressing pain (pushing it away), you keep it dormant, which keeps it alive without being responsible to deal with it.
BEING OVERLY IDEALISTIC
Side-stepping heaviness, to lift it into a spiritual or idealistic frame. When we are overly idealistic we cover up problems instead of working with the core issues and origin. It is a form of rejecting reality. The “ideal” that is being projected, is either not being experienced by the person before you or does not meet their core need which must come first.
I.e. “We are all one human race”, “We all come from the same source”.
What we are really sharing in response is; “I’m uncomfortable”. “I don’t know what to do with these feelings/sensations/overwhelm” “...and I need to pull you out of it to feel safe.”
BEING OVERLY DETACHED
Spiritual bypass is a power dynamic. It replaces this feeling of helplessness, with the superiority of 'understanding' which doesn't connect or attune with the person or issue. In effect, we’re disconnected and assert power through walls of peace, calmness, and a stance of being unaffected. This belittles or minimizes the other person's experience.
I.e. “White-washing” or “blanketing” over an issue that other people are expressing with vulnerability and pain. It is a power dynamic due to being able to do so, being able to avoid it.
(Note, detachment can also happen for those experiencing the trauma themselves, as a way to numb and be able to cope).
UNGROUNDED OR DIS-EMBODIED SPIRITUALITY
Spirituality is a backbone and backdrop to bring clarity, light, strength, and wisdom to what we face as humans. Since humans operate from their own subjectivity, the closest thing we can learn to rely upon is our spiritual ground. It makes sense we would turn to spiritual practices and beliefs when we need them most.
It's not that our spiritual ground, framework, and life, can't be shared, or at the heart of our approach. But if we start to defend our spirituality, we miss the point and are unavailable to the person before us.
When we attach our identity to a spiritual path, we are at risk of judging other-ness, of constructing within ourselves a spiritual superiority, or "protectedness" from the world.
THE KEY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SPIRITUAL RESOURCING AND SPIRITUAL BYPASSING
Spiritual Resourcing; Draws upon the spiritual fabric, backbone, and backdrop of our life. Calls it into this world, to support, guide, and enact our gifts. Connects us through our humility and humanness. Aids us to embody our spirituality and livelihood in full.
Spiritual Bypassing; Leaves the human experience behind. Rises until we are unavailable. Escapes to greener pastures, where we can no longer see clearly, experience, or move through the experience at hand. Neglects why we are alive.
“What spiritual bypassing would have us rise above is precisely what we need to enter, and enter deeply, with as little self-numbing as possible. To this end, it is crucial that we see through whatever practices we have, spiritual or otherwise, that tranquilize rather than illuminate and awaken us.” ~ Robert Augustus Masters
FOCUSING ONLY ON THE POSITIVE
We can be well-trained in overemphasizing the positive, finding the gifts, or the growth before we’ve even accepted where we sit.
When we’re afraid of speaking or “getting it wrong”, being positive may feel like the safest option. It is a healer's natural inclination to “look for the good”. However, it only serves as a short-term resource.
Example: Working with a teenager in juvenile detention, who sits before me holding shame for his arrest, and past. If I first connect with his basic goodness, reflecting that in the boy, and with curiosity and empathy, draw out the positive, it may help restore a part of him.
If as his counselor, I was then to walk away, I’d be doing him a great disservice. Once we have rapport, and he knows I see the good in him, I need to be willing to sit with him in the pain. To confront his acting out, his unmet needs; to go there with him. Now we can face the wound. Positivity is a balance point, an entry point. However held alone, to be only positive, rejects part of the person and their concerns.
Can you relate?
Have you ever experienced a new relationship, deep in the early honeymoon stage, where they’ve looked at you and exclaimed how “perfect” or “amazing” you are? Underneath the glow of it, you may have felt unsettled. They highlight the positive aspects that they are looking for in order to fall in love. Their reflection doesn’t yet offer a substantial feeling of safety or real acceptance.
In overemphasizing the positive, and rejecting the negative:
We overlook the opportunity for deep lasting change
We don’t establish safety and acceptance when it’s needed the most.
REDIRECTING TO ONENESS, TOGETHERNESS, SAMENESS OR UNITY
When we redirect to sameness, or oneness, we are in effect saying we are unable to process the world as it is.
“There is no separation,”, “You and I are one”, “Systemic racism is a myth to separate us.”
These kinds of responses summarise the above; they show detachment or disconnection, idealism, focus only on the positive, and often reflect a power dynamic (the speaker can avoid the issue).
It is also a form of ‘Global Think’ (one tribe, follow the leader), rather than the task to come to know yourself first, and then be part of the whole as a complete individual.
“I don’t see colour”, or “we need to return to one culture, one tribe”. These statements are intensely sad for me to hear. Only when we are threatened or insecure do we want this kind of “Oneness”.
When we know ourselves and can celebrate our uniqueness, we become more whole. When we can celebrate our differences, and the rich diversity that excites our world; our food, music, dance, dress, celebrations, grief, healing, landscapes, living environments, ceremonies, and protocols (values). Our natural world is diverse, and as a deep aspect of it, so are we.
Countering “Black lives matter” with “All lives matter”
This is like being transfixed - staring at the horizon and what is to come - ignoring the person lying beside you in immediate pain. We are not there yet. We are not at that Horizon, and to speak as if we were, is to leave people behind.
We have to acknowledge the pain in order to heal it. Acknowledgment is powerful. What we push away or avoid, is strengthened. When we face it directly, openly, it immediate;y begins to change.
Example, you cut your leg, and it develops into a septic infection. Visualizing yourself walking freely will not clear the infection. Knowing your true nature is to walk unhindered will not clear the infection. We’re asked to first look at the septic wound directly, to examine it as it is. We can't ignore the physical. Only then can spiritual resources come in to support healing.
BEING OVERLY COMPASSIONATE
Robert Augustus Masters expresses this well;
“Blind compassion is rooted in the belief that we are all doing the best that we can. When we are driven by blind compassion, we cut everyone far too much slack, making excuses for others’ behavior and making nice in situations that require a forceful “no,” an unmistakable voicing of displeasure, or a firm setting and maintaining of boundaries. These things can, and often should, be done out of love, but blind compassion keeps love too meek, sentenced to wearing a kind face. This is not the kindness of the Dalai Lama, which is rooted in courage, but rather a kindness rooted in fear, and not just the fear of confrontation, but also the fear of not coming across as a good or spiritual person. When we are engaged in blind compassion we rarely show any anger, for we not only believe that compassion has to be gentle, we are also frightened of upsetting anyone, especially to the point of their confronting us.”
BEING SPIRITUALLY ELITE
“It’s ok if you don’t get it”
“We can agree to disagree. I’m sorry if it hurts you and you’re not ready to hear this””... if you’re too thin-skinned”, “...too sensitive”
These don’t reflect healthy boundaries, but patronizing dismissals. Spiritual bypass provides a ‘safe place’ to disagree from, a detached, “advanced” vantage point.
If we cannot come to ‘ground’, to our human connection and listen or hold space with someone, we are not spiritually resourced, we are spiritually bypassing.
“Spiritual bypassing leads to a one-sided form of spirituality where one aspect of life is elevated at the expense of its opposite. And when spiritual practice is used to bypass our real-life human issues, our spirituality becomes compartmentalized. Physical life is not clean. It is messy. Physical life is a life of contrast. It is an experience that involves both what is wanted and what is unwanted. Spirituality is not an excuse to run away from physical life.” ~ Teal Swan.
THE SPIRITUAL RESUME
“I’ve studied this….,”
“I have BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or People of Color) friends… teachers…”,
“I have other experiences, I’ve had this in past-lives”.
A spiritual resume is a disclaimer.
The disclaimer comes either (1) before speaking or acting in ways that don't uphold your authentic ally-ship, or (2) to diffuse responsibility instead of actively self-examine. i.e. Referencing a BIPOC friend as a crutch to not self-reflect, making them responsible to check you, “they would have said something to me”.
THE EMPATH SPONGE
“I feel and take on others’ pain. My tears are yours, my back pain is from them, I transmute for people without even realizing it.”
No, this is an unconscious connection through the pain-body. When we have unresolved pain in us, we attune to it in others and feel it deeply. It’s easier to feel through other people. However, empathy is a gift, both ways. It also shows us where our pain is, and what needs healing. This is a big topic - covered in a separate article.
As empaths, it’s our job to feel and move energy. If we block it, we become sick. Our experience is an invitation to deepen our resilience and attunement.
So, let us each walk the question...
HOW does your humanity and your spirituality come together?
As every spiritual value we hold is tested in our life, as we unlearn what is true and not true. As we continually lose our ground to know our path. As we face existential reckoning that unearths our identity over and over. As we face ourselves, and embrace the whole. As we glean daily, the power of the heart and humility, threading our lives and communities. As we mature our well-integrated wisdom, by staying available and experiencing our innate capacity to be with our life.