Spiritual Bypassing is Not Benign

Although I grew up in the spiritual community of the Unitarian Universalist Church, I have often veered away from the word “spiritual” in the past. It hasn’t been until I’ve immersed myself more into the coaching and healing world that I’ve really started to put my finger on the fact that the associations I’ve had about spirituality that I reeled against is not really spirituality, but spiritual bypassing.

I used to think of spirituality as a kind of pedestal - people who have transcended earthly concerns and are somehow on a higher level of consciousness. But the thing is to truly be “conscious” you have to acknowledge the dark, not just the light.

Spiritual bypassing is when we gloss over the darkness and focus only on the light. This viewpoint has become more insidious as things like the law of attraction permeate our healing and spiritual communities.

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I used to think of this glossing over of the dark as at best laughable and at worst harmful to the person who is not facing their shadow, but I have come to realize that this trend and the systems that perpetuate it are causing great harm to others.

To be clear, I do believe that our thoughts have a profound influence on our reality and that where we focus our energy we see more opportunities. However, when I see platitudes like “high vibe only” and “follow your bliss” being used as weapons against people who are confronting their shadow, I see the real harm it can do.

I am very new to this whole topic and I will stumble my way through inelegantly, but here are some of the factors that I see that make spiritual bypassing so dangerous:

Victim Blaming - I first noticed this in the energy healing community with comments like, “you can heal if you want to,” or “people with fibromyalgia often don’t really want to heal,” and while I acknowledge that  there are a ton of modalities out there that can help in the healing process, many of the people I’ve known who have had dramatic healing experiences had the time and resources to explore and find the right modalities that worked for them. More recently I’ve observed how this line of thinking also minimizes the pain of people who have been abused and traumatized by quoting things like Eleanor Roosevelt, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent” in response to someone’s expressed pain, which brings me to...

White Supremacy - I will admit that I am at the beginning stages of learning about this topic and have made it a high priority to learn more as I go. In my interview with Leela Sinha, she said “there are ways in which intensiveness - understanding intensiveness, helps us understand systemic racism. Because there are a lot of ways in which, over time, intensiveness has become culturally correlated with being nonwhite.” Where I see this play out in our spiritual communities especially is in tone-policing and asking people to “tone it down” when they express intense emotions. There is also a lot of cultural appropriation and erasure within modern day western spiritual communities. Where I’ve seen white supremacy play out most recently has been through victim blaming as well as lack of social context, capitalizing on the pain of others, self-centering, prioritizing “niceness” over “kindness” and deflection of responsibility. I know the UU church is facing this directly through their work on finding your roadmap to the UU conversation on white supremacy. Until we face our own contributions to this systemic issue, we will continue to perpetuate it. 

Capitalizing on the Pain of Others - Again, my first observation of this trend has been through behavior of healers that use other people’s pain and their promise of relief from that pain for their own personal gain. More recently, I’ve seen the pain of women of color used to gain attention and sympathy from white women in the spiritual community. As a byproduct of this, many well intentioned women, myself included, found themselves learning valuable lessons at the expense of other people’s pain. I am still processing myself how to best approach this and learning more every day.

Lack of Social Context - I have always been an optimist and it has worked out for me for the most part, but I acknowledge that that is in large part due to the fact that I grew up as a white middle class child with loving and supportive community and all of the privileges that came with that. When we judge people’s responses on our own personal bubble of experience, we are missing out on the social context which led to the response. For example, one thing I have taken for granted is my ability to have a calming influence on other people. I usually chose my words carefully when approaching a difference of opinion online and I'm used to being able to reason with people without having my words twisted around on me. What I have witnessed recently is that women of color who put in even more time, effort and emotional labor into crafting their responses in a way that should be heard, get their words twisted around into an attack even when it is obvious to me that it is not an attack, merely a calling attention to a problem that needs to be addressed. They get accused of "playing the victim" and then the white women in question turn it around and actually play victim and make it all about them. When you are experiencing acts of aggression and micro aggression on a daily basis “positive thinking” will not fix it.

Self-Centering - Self care is essential in doing any kind of spiritual, personal development or activist work. Too often though, if we get caught up with “connecting with self,” we get lost in “connecting with others”  - except where it directly benefits us. This was particularly observed by Sadie McCarthy-Sitthiket in my interview with her this week when she talked about how as American’s we are ego driven and individual focused as a culture. This self-centering is also seen a lot when someone points out a way we've injured them and then we make it all about us by over explaining or taking a victim stance. 

Prioritizing “Niceness” over “Kindness” - Kindness is about being helpful and assertive. Niceness is about being “polite.” When we place niceness over kindness, we are negating the very real challenging feelings other people may have. Niceness is a shallow condition that never looks below the surface. If we live in the land of niceness every day, we leave no room for deeper connection at best and do additional injury to the suffering of others at worst. Processing trauma, pain, abuse, oppression, suppression and our own internalized and externalized systems is not always pretty. Spiritual communities need to support that messiness rather than push to repress it.

Deflecting of Responsibility - This to me goes back to the victim blaming. When we quote things like, ““no one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” we deflect any responsibility we may have played in making someone else feel badly. We put it on the person who we offended and accuse them of being “too sensitive,” or “easily offended,” when in fact we should be focusing on what it was that we did or said that made them feel bad in the first place. Good intentions are nice but it is their consequences that tell us if they were kind. When we get too invested in defending our own point of view, we lose sight of the pain we may have caused or perpetuate it defending our case.

Inaction - To me the benefits of positive thinking and law of attraction can be that it brings your awareness to more opportunities in line with where you focus your energy. A vision board, for example, can keep our focus on where we want to go and widen our scope of possibility. These opportunities, however, are useless unless we take thoughtful action. For me, spirituality has always been tied up with social justice, and I feel that I have not taken action enough in this regard. I am committing myself to learning more and exploring more how visionary women have been making a difference in the world on my podcast.

As I wrap up the first year of my podcast, I see that it has been largely introspective in terms of exploring how intensity affects us personally. Moving into the year ahead, I’d like to shift focus on how we can use our intensity in a positive way to change the world, with a strong leaning towards intersectional feminism.

If you are local to the Portland, OR metro area and are invested in exploring intersectionality in our own spiritual communities, feel free to contact me. I don’t feel at all qualified to lead this discussion, but it’s something I would like to explore further.