It Ain't All Good (and that is okay)
John Welwood defined spiritual bypassing as using “spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal and emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings and developmental tasks.” At the heart of spiritual bypassing is a defence mechanism of avoidance because when spiritual practices are used to compensate for processing emotions and to cover up problems, they can become a way to avoid working on the actual issues.
One of the most recognisable signs of spiritual bypassing is the constant insistence and pretence that everything is okay (when in reality it isn’t) via an over emphasis on the positive and an avoidance of the negative. Even a cursory scroll through social media can provide ample examples of this. We can’t always feel or be positive. Human nature simply isn’t like that. During quarantine times, you’ll be forgiven for feeling all kinds of emotions; all of which are normal and allowed. Do not let anyone tell you that it should be positive vibes only because this is dangerous and toxic. That which we will not look at or feel in ourselves (and in the world), we cannot address.
When our own pain and confusion interlocks with the emotional triggers in others, then these emotions will likely escalate. In contrast, compassion is when we meet the confusion and pain of ourselves with rational thought and emotional expression and we can recognise and hold the space for others. What compassion is not is chalking everything up to the universe having your back, clinging to the mantra that thoughts become things (without actually doing the work) or zoning out on our meditation or yoga while the world burns. This is what I mean by the toxicity of spiritual bypass. The notion that we can simply focus on the positive and nothing else is needed is the equivalent of cleaning the bathroom blindfolded, whilst convincing ourselves that it’s not dirty in the first place.
Certain New Age ideas purport that what we focus on expands. This is true to a certain degree, but you should also consider that neither does what we ignore shrink. What we resist persists. If we are going to practice true compassion, we also need to be aware of the pain, fear and inherent instability of this world and not use pseudo spirituality to comfortably and conveniently bypass our human accountability to each other and ourselves. This is integrity. And it is integrity, not comfort, that is the very core of compassion.
When we say no low vibes or convince ourselves that we are attracting abundance because we are ‘super grateful and positive’ , we are cutting ourselves off from vital aspects of our humanity. I tend to people’s trauma for a living. They don’t come to me to pretend their pain is not there; they come to me to face it with compassion and with skillful means. I have to stay open to it, help them to integrate it into their experience and yet not get bogged down by it along the way.
I have met people who in the depths of loss were told by allegedly well-meaning spiritual folks and healers to be mindful of their energy and through a very skewed lens of an interpretation of the law of attraction, advised that they should just focus on the good times and be grateful. While there is nothing wrong with cultivating a consciously optimistic attitude, we need to be careful that our optimism does not become a blind positivity bypass. The way that we can do this is to encourage ourselves to remain open to the harder emotions and to welcome pain, anger, grief as well as joy. New Age spiritualism often has us thinking that in simply focusing on the positive, then we can somehow have everything that we want, heal our wounds and the wounds of the world. This is immature and ineffective. To grow, heal and change, we need to face our discomfort.
As a psychotherapist, I have learnt that when we experience trauma, we create a split in our psyche. We will either highlight or minimise/erase information, emotions and even memories that do not fit our story about ourselves. Those parts deemed to be less acceptable get relegated to the background of our psyche, where they become part of the Shadow (Jung). It is these parts that tend to engage us in compulsive comfort seeking and can entangle us in codependent dynamics. In all honesty, it is these parts that really need our honesty and our compassion.
Meditation is also frequently used to avoid uncomfortable feelings and unresolved life situations. For those in denial about their personal feelings or wounds, meditation practice can reinforce a tendency toward disengagement or interpersonal distance. They are at a loss when it comes to relating directly to their feelings or to expressing themselves personally in a transparent way. It can be quite threatening when those of us on a spiritual path have to face our woundedness, or emotional dependency, or basic human need for love.
In my psychotherapy practice, I have worked with clients who have engaged in spiritual practice for decades. I respect how their practice has been beneficial for them. Yet, despite the sincerity as practitioners, their practice is not fully penetrating their life. They seek out psychological work because they remain wounded and not fully developed on the emotional/relational/personal level and they may be acting out their wounding in harmful ways. I’ve often seen how attempts to be non-attached are used in the service of sealing people off from their human and emotional vulnerabilities. In effect, identifying oneself as a spiritual practitioner becomes used as a way of avoiding a depth of personal engagement with others that might stir up old wounds and longings for love. It’s painful to see someone maintaining a stance of detachment when underneath they are starving for the positive experiences of bonding and connection.
To grow into a healthy human being, we need a base of secure attachment in the positive, psychological sense. This means close emotional ties to other people that promote connectedness, grounded embodiment and well-being. As John Muir wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” Similarly, the hand cannot function unless it is attached to the arm—that’s attachment in the positive sense. We’re interconnected, interwoven, and interdependent with everything in the universe.
Life is beautiful and life is painful. If we close our hearts to the harder parts of the human condition, then we cannot be truly open to the positive either. We need to stay grounded in this world and stop trying to escape to another. Escaping may be what our traumatised inner child has done for years. Wholeness will not to be found in another form of dissociation.
We have a responsibility to life, to each other and this beautiful, broken-hearted world. It’s okay if you’re hurting and afraid and don’t know what to do. Me too! We will figure it out and work through the hard stuff together. Be brave and take the first step to be real and connect wholly and authentically with your emotional experiences.