For all of us who assume that our spiritual practices are the cure for our dysfunctions, the notion of “spiritual bypassing” is a startling idea. Psychologist John Welwood first coined the term in 1984 to describe using spiritual practices and beliefs as a means of avoiding our painful feelings towards our unresolved issues and needs.
Both our Unity culture and our larger American culture is quite averse to pain, so much so that we all expect, rather unconsciously, that numbing our pain is a good thing, and part of the solution. So we take aspirin for a headache, to give a most simple example, rather than seek the cause of the headache, or we take prescription medication that allows us to keep intact our possibly unhealthy lifestyle, all to avoid making any fundamental changes in how we live.
So into that numbing culture, spiritual bypassing fits so effortlessly that it is even difficult to discern its existence. Living so much in our heads, and glibly mouthing mental affirmations, we seem to think we’ve got it all covered. Only when we begin to awaken to the need of actually fully feeling our emotions and our bodies, and as we awaken to a full-bodied spirituality, does it begin to make sense to also feel our pain.
Spiritual bypassing comes in many disguises and many of them have names that come with the approval of our spiritual organizations. It is common in our New Thought tradition, for example, to honor transcendence as a way of rising above our mundane lives, a way of getting past our pain. Few seem to notice that our discomfort always seems to return, or never really went away. We need to learn that our painful emotions need to be squarely addressed, and lived through, before they can be released, for they have important lessons to teach us.
I know that I was drawn to Unity teachings by a natural desire to feel better, and of course there is nothing wrong with that. As was common back in the ’70s when I came on the scene, there was the teaching that even came as a bumper sticker, “Unity—The Way UP!” Unity was the way to rise above, up and over. Of course, this idea appealed to the times because many of us were finding ways to get high and avoid our pain.
It was when I discovered body-centered Gestalt therapy that this way of living was challenged. I learned a new approach to healing that is well expressed in the saying, “The way out is through.” We need to face our pain, discover and live through its source and current expressions, and discover what parts of ourselves are hidden inside its darkness. As with all shadow work, we learn that there is “gold” for us to recover, and the experience is almost always liberating. When we don’t own our own darkness, we are likely to project it on others, our spouses, our families, and even other members of our movement!
Of course, the work is not easy. If we love the light, we cannot then flee the heat. As the psychologist Victor Frankl put it, “What gives light must endure burning.” We love to speak in terms of wholeness and Oneness, but in truth we often engage in practices that end up fragmenting ourselves, separating us from our bodily feelings, and avoiding the unflattering aspects of being human.
I see therapy as a form of denial work, a way of letting go and releasing all that no longer serves me. But instead of identifying my pain as what I must release, I see it as my teacher to learning what is hidden within me and calling for my attention. There is a release coming, but it is after I’ve fully processed my darkness and appreciated it with love and gratitude. Then I am ready for a new life that is a living affirmation.