Spiritual Bypass: Nah, Feel Your Feelings
The mental health community is becoming well versed in the term “Spiritual Bypass” and often uses it to recognize when individuals are relying upon a spiritual practice or belief to “bypass” or divert from the reality of their situation. For example, if someone is living in a fantastical world attached to the belief that controlling their thoughts is a means of changing the outcome of a situation, they are engaging in a form of spiritual bypass. Our actions must follow any positive intentions or those intentions will elude us. We cannot think our way into a positive outcome. Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D., and author of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice says, “Spiritual bypass shields us from the truth, it disconnects us from our feelings, and helps us avoid the big picture. It is more about checking out than checking in—and the difference is so subtle that we usually don’t even know we are doing it.”
Many of us are introduced or reintroduced to a spiritual path upon entering recovery. So, when we begin developing our spiritual lives, it’s not uncommon to get lulled by the idea that we have to be perfect, or that we cannot show anger, or disappointment, or fear, or emotions other than deep gratitude and acceptance of all things. It then becomes easy to use our spirituality to avoid dealing with ourselves and our shadows dancing in the corners of our lives. There isn’t a person who comes to a spiritual path free from some kind of suffering or sorrow. We all have some kind of trauma we are working with, or running from, or trying to navigate. Feelings are uncomfortable. They hurt. They make our knees buckle. They make us weep and scream. They make us feel broken. I assure you, we are far from broken. We are merely bending from exhaustion and fear and resistance. Here, when we spiritually bypass, we certainly have moments of reprieve, but they are merely moments. Here’s what actually happens: those feelings, fears, disappointments, longings, losses, hurts, traumas, they all fester inside of our bodies. And they eek out of us when we least expect it: in traffic, in the grocery line, toward our children, toward our friends, toward our teachers, toward our students, toward ourselves.
It’s alluring to seek out a “quick fix,” but the fact is, we have to walk through the muck of emotions and slog through those dark, sticky feelings to get to the other side, which is freedom. The saying “The only way out is through,” isn’t for naught. When we rely upon spiritual bypass, we are choosing to only focus on that which we like. Life is so much more than that: it’s a remarkable prism of joy, and pain, love, and light, sadness, grief, birth, and death. It is a sea of wonder. It is a symphony. Grab hold of it and enjoy it, even the ugly is there to teach us something. It is where we learn our resilience, and our capacity for care. To quote one of my teachers, Hala Khouri, “Our wounds our often the source of our gifts, and if we don’t investigate our wounds, they will get in the way.