Recently there has been a pattern on social media of BIPOC people expressing their completely valid pain and anger and sadness over the continuing murder of Black people by police, and getting pushback from “spiritual” people claiming that their anger is too much, or somehow misplaced. I have also experienced this phenomenon. I used to call it “spiritualler-than-thou” syndrome, until I discovered that it already had a name, spiritual bypassing.
The following is an excerpt from my book, The Night Journey: Witchcraft as Transformation.
Spiritual bypassing is a term coined by John Welwood and means the avoidance of painful feelings by focussing on spirituality instead. It can be very subtle and takes many forms and is the shadow side of spiritual practice.
The symptoms of spiritual bypassing include a refusal to look at ‘difficult’ emotions like anger, because they are ‘not spiritual’. It can also include overemphasis on one’s negative traits, and an excessive focus on oneness at the expense of individuality. It may also manifest as a view that the physical, fleshly aspects of life (food and sex being the most obvious examples) are somehow ‘not spiritual’. People who are engaging in spiritual bypassing are just too nice, too compassionate, too tolerant, and often dismiss those who express anger and sadness as intolerant or lacking in compassion. Spiritual bypassing is often accompanied by the view that ‘all is one’, and this results in weak boundaries and a lack of self-protection characterised by being too ready to forgive and forget.
The cure for spiritual bypassing is doing the real inner work. Expressing and working through difficult emotions, using safe means of catharsis. More authentic forms of religion and spirituality have techniques for doing this.
Real, embodied spirituality (or the inner work) can be hard work. The good news is that being hard on yourself does not need to be part of that process; being compassionate with yourself, but at the same time being real and working with the wounds in your psyche, is the way forward.
Pretty much anyone who sets out on the spiritual journey will encounter this pitfall in one or several of its forms; but forewarned is forearmed. Identifying the likely causes and symptoms of spiritual bypassing is a big step towards avoiding it. Working with your shadow side, rather than repressing it, will be a helpful thing; and expressing anger, sadness, melancholy, regret, even bitterness, will help to prevent the festering of wounds, and instead start the process of cleaning them. By all means be forgiving if it helps to prevent simmering resentment, but make sure that you set boundaries and clear expectations for better behaviour next time; don’t keep allowing the person to commit the same transgression over and over again, forgiving them each time. If they cannot mend their ways, then you need to set up some boundaries for your own protection, like avoiding seeing them, or not seeing them in situations where the violation is likely to occur.
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