June 26, 2017
A few days ago I mentioned spiritual bypassing in my commentary on a short Hasidic text. A few of you reached out to me after that post went out, asking for more about spiritual bypassing: what it it, how can you recognize it, why is it important.
For a basic introduction, here's a good article by Dr. Ingrid Mathieu: Beware of Spiritual Bypass. Dr. Robert Masters also offers a great essay about bypassing, calling it Avoidance in holy drag. His book Spiritual Bypassing is a classic in my field, and with good reason.
Spiritual bypassing is a defense mechanism in which one uses spirituality in order to avoid uncomfortable or painful feelings. Maybe one wants to avoid anger, or grief, or loss, or boundaries. So instead of feeling that anger (or grief, or loss, or boundary, or whatever the thing in question may be), one papers it over, and calls the papering-over "spiritual."
(The image illustrating this post is a great example of spiritual bypassing in pop culture: Princess Unikitty from the LEGO movie. She's a sparkling rainbow unicorn, and she over-focuses on the positive, refusing to acknowledge anything that hurts... until she reaches her breaking point, whereupon all the negativity she denied herself causes her to boil over in rage. Image via Stephanie Lin.)
It's easy to mis-use spirituality to justify avoidance of things that are painful or uncomfortable, like anger or conflict or boundaries. But this is not spiritually healthy, even though it disguises itself as spiritual. It is a spiritual sickness, disguised as spiritual health.
Authentic spiritual life calls us to experience what is: all of what is. And that includes the things we tend to categorize as "dark" or negative: pain, sorrow, loss, rejection, grief. (I wrote about that recently in my review of Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark.)
The Jewish mystical tradition describes God via a series of qualities that exist in holy balance, such as chesed (lovingkindness) and gevurah (boundaries / strength / judgment). When someone leans so far toward chesed that they reject its healthy balancing with gevurah, that's spiritual bypassing.
When a spiritual leader serving a community where there has been abuse (whether sexual, emotional, ethical, spiritual, or all of the above) ignores the abuse, or urges community members to rush to healing before there has been justice for the abused, that's spiritual bypassing.
When someone doesn't want to feel angry, or isn't comfortable with conflict, so they over-focus on sweetness and light while sweeping their anger under the rug (or encouraging others to sweep anger under the rug), that's spiritual bypassing.
When someone doesn't want to be constrained by someone else's interpersonal or systemic boundary, so they transgress it while convincing themselves that the boundary really shouldn't apply to them anyway, that's spiritual bypassing.
In all of these instances, the quality that's chosen for over-focus -- whether it be healing, or sweetness, or lovingkindness -- is in and of itself a good quality. That's part of the challenge: everyone likes healing and sweetness and lovingkindness, right? But these qualities are only healthy when they're used honestly, authentically, and safely -- and, as the Hasidic text I translated last week suggests, when they're in appropriate balance with qualities like judgment and healthy boundaries.
If I pursue healing at someone else's expense, then that healing is not only false but damaging. If I pursue pleasantries in an abusive context instead of naming the abuse for what it is, then my sweetness is not only false but also complicit in the abuse. If I disregard someone's boundaries because I think I should be exempt from their rules, then my "love" will cause hurt.
Even gratitude, the middah (quality) to which I most often gravitate, can be used in spiritual bypassing. When faced with trauma or grief, if I leap too quickly to "let me find something to be grateful for so I don't have to feel this thing that hurts," then the gratitude practice that's such a core part of my spiritual life becomes a tool for bypassing the thing I need to actually feel.
Spiritual bypassing is what Reb Zalman z"l used to call "whipped cream on garbage:" a sweet topping disguising something rotten underneath.
Spiritual bypassing pretends to make things better, but it actually makes them worse. If a wound is infected, then suturing it and simply hiding the infection will not help the infection to heal. If a relationship is abusive, then pretending that it's healthy will not help the person who is being abused. (For that matter, it also doesn't help the abuser to name and recover from their own trauma.) Spiritual bypassing does serious damage to people and communities.
Authentic spiritual life calls us to feel what we feel, even when what we feel is uncomfortable or painful. Authentic spiritual life calls us to speak truth, even when we'd rather pretend there are no difficult truths to be spoken. Authentic spiritual life calls us to pursue justice, even when we'd rather imagine that if we close our eyes to injustice it will simply go away on its own.
Any spiritual leader who claims otherwise is not worthy of the title.