Originally published on Yoganonymous (2015) by Dr. Jamie Marich
Photography by Laura Waldhier
“I think it’s wonderful when people find God. What I don’t think is wonderful is when people assume this excuses them from working on their shit.”
Without even knowing it, my first recovery sponsor Janet gave me a fabulously potent warning about the dangers of spiritual bypass. She was not one to use a curse word, so when she dropped that bomb, I was sure to listen! When I began my own journey along the path of recovery and wellness fourteen years ago, I had the privilege of working in a well-known pilgrimage site in the Catholic world (Medjugorje, Bosnia-Hercegovina). Seekers came from around the world to this mystical place searching for healing and for answers. During my three years of service, I had the opportunity to watch people who worked in the village for a long period become impassioned about faith…and then fall apart when the realities of their lives confronted them with full force. I saw numerous problems with addiction and mental illness amongst the seekers and even felt myself falling prey to the “If I could just be a good enough Catholic then all of my issues will clear up.” Fortunately, Janet’s wise mentorship entered my life, and she instructed me that I could still pursue a spiritual path while addressing my issues and doing the painful work that came with it.
In yoga and meditation circles, I’ve been hearing more discussion about spiritual bypass in the last few years, and I am grateful for this increased awareness. However, many people I teach have never heard of spiritual bypass and are searching for a useful working definition along with some examples, and I seek to provide both in this article. Buddhist teacher John Welwood first coined the term spiritual bypass in the 1970’s. In an interview he gave with Tina Fossella some thirty years after his original article on the subject, Wellwood explains:
Spiritual bypassing is a term I coined to describe a process I saw happening in the Buddhist community I was in, and also in myself. Although most of us were sincerely trying to work on ourselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolvedemotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.
The first book devoted entirely to the subject of spiritual bypass specifically as a recovery issue, came from psychologist Ingrid Mathieu (now Clayton) in 2011. She concisely defines spiritual bypass as “the use of spirituality to avoid dealing with ourselves, our emotions, and our unfinished business.”
It is important to note that discussing spiritual bypass does not seek to demonize spiritual, or even religious practice in modern times. For many of us, finding a spiritual path becomes a critical part of our journey towards recovery, wellness, and transformation. But at what point does the pursuit of spiritual practice, whether it be meditating, going to church, practicing yoga, or even going to recovery meetings and saying the requisite prayers and slogans become avoidant? As a clinical counselor with a dual specialty in addiction and trauma, I’ve come to believe that anything, even activities that are fundamentally healthy, can become maladaptive when they assist us in numbing out to the realities of life. I’ve seen it happen with exercise, and I’ve seen it happen with spiritual practice.
You may be shaking your head at me already and protesting, “Aren’t these things supposed to help us cope with intensity?” I would agree that in teaching people skills for stabilization (i.e., coping) and containment over the years, spiritual activities rank high on my list of what I attempt to foster in others. Yet I also assert that people will do just about anything to keep from feeling difficult emotions, whether they come in the form of anger, guilt, sadness, frustration, or any number of manifestations. People may attempt repress these feeling with going to an overabundance of yoga classes and/or church services, or meditating in just the right way with just the right teacher for hours on end, just as easily as other people may stuff these feelings down with drugs or alcohol. The forms of how emotional avoidance may manifest differ, yet the core issue is the same. I also contend, after helping many individuals on their own trauma recovery paths, that peace can come when the difficult emotions are finally felt all the way through—fully, and without apology, in a safe container (e.g., like working with a therapist, a support group, or an open-minded spiritual teacher who has done their own work). More distress generally happens when we hold down what we need to express than in the expressing itself.
About four years ago, I grieved the loss of a relationship. To give it a little context, I was grieving the loss that an old love from high school—a lovely man who re-entered my life at several points in my adult life. Seriously, it was like something out of The Thornbirds. Back in 2011, it became clear that although we loved each other very much, we were on two totally different life paths and a serious relationship was not meant to be—even after all of the near misses. I wasn’t just angry with the God of my understanding…I was fucking pissed. And I had enough insight to identify that being so livid with God was keeping me stuck. I couldn’t understand why the God I trusted so much and attempted to seek through my various practices would keep teasing me with the promise that the love this man and I shared could blossom into something I really wanted. In the aftermath of our last parting of ways, I shared with a trusted friend of mine, “I am so angry at God and I know I need to get it out… but it would feel like sacrilege to really let it all rip.”
Both the good little Catholic girl and good little yogi ego states gnawed at my conscience—it felt like dangerous ground to go there. Wasn’t I supposed to be seeking detachment? Wasn’t I supposed to be grateful for all that God blessed me with on my path? Wasn’t I just being selfish and self-centered, needing to spend more time in church, in prayer, in meditation, on the mat?
And then it hit me—if I truly believe that the God of my understanding knows all and sees all, wouldn’t he already know how pissed at him I really was? At that point I decided to ditch both the shoulds and the s’postas and deal with my deepest darkest feeling—which happened to be bitter anger towards a God who I still loved and was grateful for. Through journaling honestly, dancing, and sharing with a trusted member of my support system, I felt the anger—brutally, painfully, and all the way through. On the other side of that work God and I were in a better place than ever. I was able to let go of my attachment to that great love of my life while continuing to be gentle with myself if emotions around him continued to surface (and they can still surface from time to time). This work opened the way for a new relationship (my current husband) to enter in, and more importantly, new growth in my spiritual practice and relationship with the God of my understanding.
As my sharing hopefully demonstrates, spiritual bypass is not just a religious thing. Anyone who is on a spiritual and/or religious path may become susceptible. I see people bypassing in yoga and meditation circles just as readily as I saw it while working for a major organized religion. As I shared, sometimes my own struggles with spiritual bypass are informed by old religious messages from my past, made fresh again by messages I can also receive from teachers along the paths of yoga and meditation or those in recovery programs. The themes are really very similar.
Dr. Jamie Marich
Curator of the Dancing Mindfulness expressive arts blog: a celebration of mindfully-inspired, multi-modal creativity