Every week I send out a love note filled with resources, musings, and inspiration about walking this path of yoga and liberation. Click here to subscribe!
I wrote last week about the effectiveness of yoga and other spiritual practices, if we know what they’re there for. But just like anything, we can manipulate spiritual practice for other needs, other ends. The concept of “spiritual bypassing” was coined by psychologist John Welwood in the 1980s to describe the tendency of spiritual seekers to use the practice as a means of going around life’s difficulties.
As Thich Nhat Hahn says, “No mud, no lotus.” We have to get down in the muck in order to attain the beauty of the flower. Spiritual practice may make our lives better, but it's because we get better at engaging our life, not because it takes us around the parts of life we don't like. To use an oft-referenced metaphor, spiritual practice doesn't take us out of the ocean, but it can teach us how to ride the waves.
But spiritual bypassing shows up in more nefarious ways when we use our spiritual practices to overlook or disengage with the suffering of the world around us. This might look like people who say, “It’s all love and light.” It’s folks who think, “All this talk about racism (sexism / homophobia / ableism / etc) is an illusion because we’re All One.” It’s demanding, “High vibrations only.” It’s saying, “I’ll pray for you,” and doing nothing more.
Spiritual bypassing is requiring niceness over truth, positivity over authenticity.
This is a profound misunderstanding of the spiritual path.
Here’s the thing: I do believe that we are “All One.” On a divine level, I believe we are inextricably interconnected. The web of life binds us to one another--our shared humanity, nee our shared sentience--links us to each other in ways we can’t always understand but we can often sense on a deep level.
And beyond the woo, on a purely physical level, we must be symbiotic on this fragile planet if we are to have any hope of surviving the impending crises of our changing climate. (Thanks to K for reminding me of this salient point.)
But when we pretend that this inherent interdependence negates the very real inequities that exist in our world, we are inadvertently perpetuating the systems that create those imbalances.
When we presume that our similarity as humans means that injustice isn’t worth talking about....
When we feel more bothered by the “negativity” of people talking about (or taking a knee over) racism than we do over the racism itself....
When we aren’t concerned about people who experience oppression because they have “created their reality”...
We are probably spiritually bypassing.
And inadvertently, we are helping those unequal societal conditions to continue to exist.
One of the most important mechanisms of systems of privilege is to make itself invisible, and when we choose to look away, we are upholding the status quo. Another mechanism of systemic oppression is to silence anyone or anything that would draw attention to the inequalities of the system. So when, in the name of spiritual evolution, we shut down someone’s righteous anger at injustice, we are participating in their oppression.
This silencing is deadly. This tuning out and willful ignorance has grave effects.
This is not what spiritual practice is for. When we choose to tune out the world around us, we are abusing these sacred practices for ends they were never intended for.
Rather, these practices are to make us, as Donna Farhi says, “more attuned, more sensitive and more resilient.”
I’m here for it. Are you?