How can I tell if I am growing by acting gown up or practicing spiritual bypass? What is the difference between walking the talk, acting myself into right thinking, and finding a more socially acceptable delusion to the practice of my addiction? When does “go-along to get-along” become toxic? What if I weren’t always “nice”? Why do I feel like a fraud? Why do I only want you to see my spiritually enhanced self without ever seeing the dark, unpleasant or unlovely parts? How can I tell I am avoiding growth and how can I tell I am actually participating in a form of spiritual bypass?
First a definition:
“. . . [we] use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” – John Wellwood, psychologist and Buddhist practitioner.
As in all things recovery oriented; that sentence makes it sound intentional. In my experience most occurrences of spiritual bypass are the result of denial rather than affirmative action. I don’t wake up and say to myself “I feel like such a fraud, I am so angry, so disappointed, so small that I am going to put on this mask and act like life is not just fine, but SUPER FINE!” I am, in fact, unaware. Unaware of my pain and unaware of the gloss I am putting on the day.
Spiritual bypass may be a way to avoid, deny, or just plain not acknowledge your deep spiritual and emotional wounds. It may be intentional (I’m fine!) or unintentional (I’m fine now.) I have everything figured out in my brain. I have done my steps, I know what happened to me and I know what I did. So everything should be fine now. But yet, it isn’t. I am relieved to have gotten the secrets out – but that is cognitive. That is thought. The feelings and non-rational (NOT irrational) the non-intellectual artifacts remain. The impact on my decision making, the way I look at the world, the way I talk to myself and narrate the world; those remain.
And the feelings remain trapped in the body, the cells, in my structure. I have stories and feelings stuck in my digestive process, the habits of my breathing, where my tension goes when I am not looking, even my immune system and susceptibility to colds, bronchitis, pneumonia, heart palpitations and arrhythmias, the discomfort in my joints, my tolerance or lack there of to physical discomfort or even chronic pain or fatigue. My body holds the emotional scars. I may not be listening. I may not be believing it.
Why do we fall into spiritual bypass? This isn’t an issue of right or wrong, good or bad. When I get stuck in duality I may be more easily seduced into spiritual bypass. When I look at life, feelings, who I am as merely skilled and unskilled it is easier for me to meet ‘life on life’s terms’.
It is human to want to shrug off pain, to leave it behind, to let it go. It is when letting “it” go before it teaches us what we need to learn that we begin to suffer.
“ In some ways, we are now spiritually distracting ourselves from our feelings, thinking that we are walking a healthy spiritual path. [We are} trying to feel endlessly ‘good’”. Ingrid Clayton PhD.
How do I know if I am practicing spiritual bypass? How do I know if I am using my tools of recovery to obscure my pain rather than to heal and release it? How can I tell if I am wearing a “feel good” mask – acting as if all were hunky dory, maybe even fooling myself? Part of it is the experience of having and/or expressing love for all but myself.
There are, indeed, tell-tale signs. Some of them can take the form of
- Avoiding the real here and now
- Holding forth on spiritual matters from a posture of “woke AF” (JP Sears can l enlighten you on this.)
- Being self righteous about your spiritual practices (trying to convince others, being judgemental of another’s pain)
- Feeling angry a lot (with and without suppression)
- Being overly compassionate
- Losing personal boundaries / feeling as if you didn’t deserve them if you were truly enlightened
- Pretending that everything is OK when it isn’t
- Perseverant negative self talk
And, yes, I have experienced them all. I go through times when I think I “should” or “should not” feel a certain way. I feel an undercurrent of frustration or anger when my mind is telling me not to experience my emotions. My self righteousness about my spiritual practices can manifest in a bullying of myself: telling me that if my practices were good enough then I wouldn’t feel bad, angry, lost or scared. I may open my heart in compassion even when to do so would violate my own self care boundaries. I might think about what pleasantness the future will bring so don’t worry about how I feel right now. And more.
In my book “Yogic Tools For Recovery- A Guide To Working The Steps” I was laying the groundwork for feeling one’s way through the left overs of pain, trauma, mis-guided solutions to the difficulties in life. The mind can’t do it all. The mind is what comes up with the story “I’m fine.” The body will give you discomfort that will result in you feeling crabby, feeling bad, experiencing pain. The result is the mind, acting unwise, jumping to conclusions, shutting off and shutting down. All the while you are trying to act woke AF. This is pain. Excruciating pain.
When I am ready I do wake up. I wake up, not to the universal swell of unencumbered bliss, but to the reality that I am hurting. I find this out due to my experience of cognitive dissonance: how I feel in in direct conflict with how I am behaving. There is friction in my soul. Just like getting sober: I need to figure out where I am (I am powerless over _____) and that my life/feelings/heart has become unmanageable. I need to start where I am. I can’t get anywhere without that knowledge. And I embark on healing with authentic self compassion and work toward self love.
Life is messy. The road is not a direct one from here to there. But without a HERE I will never get there, without the ability to tolerate the messy I cannot be authentic, meeting the moment as it truly is, rather than how I wish it were. And the clincher: I have to be authentic in order to truly spiritual.
Eventually I come back to my healing practices: of meditation, prayer, yoga, healthy diet, exercise, and grounding—all modalities that support my transformation rather than replacing it.
Finally – if my life seems smooth yet I feel a sadness well up, or frustration, or disappointment in others. If I recall old, previously abandoned resentment, or knit new ones, I pause. If I am falling again into the grips of the bully part of my brain, kind of push myself towards a snide “bless their hearts” snide or arrogant form of “compassion” rather than an authentic “I see me in you, you in me” compassion I know there is more work to be done. Lean into the dark part rather than deny it and become a more unified part of the universe.