Disclaimer: Trauma is different than what is addressed in this article. If you or someone you love is experiencing strong sensations and psychological pain from trauma, please seek out professional services. In fact, there are times when practices like mindfulness can be contraindicated in trauma. This article is not a means to shame those of us who are healing. I respect and honor you deeply in your journey toward healing. I also have unwavering faith in your courage and capacity to move through your experience. I may not know you personally, but I love you.
Being human is no easy task.
Everything in life is impermanent. Life is in a constant state of flux and change.
We get sick, we get old, and we die. In the middle of all this, we experience great losses, regrets, betrayals, and a whole plethora of other experiences. Seems morbid, but it is the truth.
Our minds want to avoid all this. Our minds prefer pleasure over pain, gain over loss, praise over blame, and glory over disgrace. When the unpleasant comes soaring through our consciousness, we want to numb, distract, avoid, resist, and any assortment of strategies to take the edge off the experience (No blame! This stuff is hard!).
Many of us have sought out spiritual teachings and chose this path to find meaning and healing from the pain we have and continue to experience. There comes a time, though, when our practices can be just another attempt at avoiding our suffering. In other words, we’ve traded in drinks for mantras, drugs for altered states of consciousness, and blaming for moral righteousness.
This attempt to prematurely transcend feelings, emotions, psychological states, physical states, and experiences in order to prevent the pain in these experiences is termed “spiritual bypassing.”
We can find ourselves doing this when we reach for a spiritual book when we start to feel anxiety. It can occur when we attempt to reach altered states in order to escape the reality of being human. It occurs when we seek to repress our anger because it’s not “spiritual.” It occurs when we choose to “let go” rather than setting boundaries and making hard life decisions. It occurs in our attempts to chalk up our grief to impermanence in order to fix everything and get a move on with it.
We are supposed to be full of joy! We are supposed to be feeling light and free! We are supposed to be feeling grateful and forgiving! We are “spiritual,” after all.
It’s not a matter of if we do this. If we look honestly and gently, we will see that we all do this. It’s human nature to avoid pain. It’s just a matter of when and how.
The problem that arises with spiritual bypassing is that it takes us further from spirituality. Spirituality is learning and practicing how to fully embody all experiences. This includes the painful ones. As long as we are prematurely blocking our experiences, we will be limited in our ability to meet life with wisdom and compassion.
There is the story of two wolves. One wolf is love, compassion, kindness, peace, and all the glorified states. The other wolf symbolizes hate, anger, greed, fear, war, and all the rejected states. In spiritual bypassing, we are taught to feed the loving wolf and ignore the troubled wolf. But, without tending to and meeting with loving presence the troubled wolf, we will never truly embody the spiritual path.
Instead, we will run from the painful and “wrong” states. We will come to shame them in ourselves.
This can be incredibly harmful to our waking up to life. In my opinion, the most harmful result of this, and spiritual bypassing, is that once we take on this perspective of rejecting the bad and tending to the good, we project that rejection on the world. We get into this state of grandiosity where others who are “not as spiritual” are less than us. Those who are actually suffering are not as “good” as us.
This limits our compassion. This limits our ability to become disillusioned by our fears of separateness. This limits our ability to take a courageous look at all the ways that we are causing harm. It limits our ability to heal. It limits our ability to see the harm and pain in this world caused by oppression.
Essentially, the act of abandoning the “bad” parts in ourselves leads us to abandon those around us who are in pain and experiencing the parts of ourselves we have rejected.
We can start to walk around with the belief that we are superior in some capacity because we are maintaining this positivity. We become so disconnected from our authentic selves. We become attached to a specific way that we believe we are supposed to be, consequentially blocking off to any further experience.
This spiritual path includes opening into and honestly, kindly, and patiently looking at all the messiness and parts of ourselves we would rather not identify with. It asks us to experience life fully and allow life to make its way through us. When we open to the spiritual path, we realize all of the parts of ourselves that we definitely do not like. Including, but not limited to, our pettiness, our anger, our addictions, our restlessness, our judgments, our blame, and our realization that we are likely not becoming enlightened in this lifetime. When we open to it fully and honestly, this path humbles us significantly.
So why even do this spiritual thing?
Well, this path also teaches the ability to be with and relate to our pain, and the pain of others, with great tenderness and care. We begin to love the parts of ourselves that we have previously shamed. We can learn how to have a little more space around the habits of our mind that cause harm. We begin to see the ways we cause harm and can learn to respond differently.
Every time we take the courageous choice to open to our suffering, we are learning how to be free of that suffering. In this way, personally and globally, we can effect change.
It is small. It is humble. Not much glory. This is spirituality.
So, let us keep learning. Let us continue the discipline of our practices. Let us stay honest, open, and willing to experience this whole spectrum of human life.
And as we tend to these shadow places of ourselves, we can open even more to the pleasantness of this precious life.
Not saying it is easy. Just saying it is worth it.