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Spiritual Bypassing

I remember as a teenager hearing a church youth leader say ‘no actually I don’t have a cold’ (snot congesting her nose and looking awful), I’m not accepting it in Jesus name.’

While this is tame in comparison to friends who were told to go back to abusive husbands and pray for a miracle; or the demonising of therapy because you should just go to the Bible for answers, I internalised that I should always be up. Triumphant, overcoming, #blessed, keeping my words full of faith and my pain to myself.

Nothing mattered more than things eternal. Bums on seats in church that lead to salvation. What happened in this life now was less important but whatever the problem, God will turn it around, favour and blessing will be yours. Which leaves us feeling pretty confused and ashamed when our problems remain. I must have done something wrong. Maybe I didn’t pray hard enough, is there secret sin in my life I’m not aware of? (I genuinely felt and believed these things, I’m not trying to be snarky).

John Welwood first coined the term spiritual bypassing in 1984, in an article he published in the journal of Transpersonal Psychology. It’s so fitting and relevant to what so many people have experienced in churches we’ve been part of.

Our wider culture also promotes countless ways to numb, distract, be amazing! Hustle culture says push through at work too, override your tiredness and meet the deadlines, leave your body at the door. Pinterest shows us the lives we should really be living. The houses we should be decorating.

As the term suggests, we can’t bypass our feelings with our spirituality. Whether it’s the one we find in church or the one we seek through yoga or meditation.

We can find connection, relief and grounding – all positive ways to bring us back to centre but we have to feel to heal.

My mum is fading away at the moment, her light slowly dimming. As I wrote about last week, this is bringing up all sorts of uncomfortable emotions and physical sensations. I have been able to just stop and feel them. I have a bit more time in my days for the next few months and I wonder if this is perhaps why. I find myself resisting this though, it’s hard and painful and pushes on all sorts of pain triggers that feel like bruises.

My people know I’m taking it slow, saying yes to the things I know I can handle and giving myself space to feel and process what turns out to be such a physical thing. Deep belly breathing, my face in the sun, letting myself cry for the younger version of me who wasn’t allowed to be upset, feeling angry, compassionate, whatever is needed in the moment. And maybe like Alice, the daughter in the comedy Shrinking, (which I loved), it’s not a bad idea to put a timer on each day and cry or rage, punch some pillows.

Trying to bypass pain by asking God to take it from us is the same as numbing it with alcohol and sleeping tablets. The end result of feeling inadequate and weak will be the same. Feelings are uncomfortable and we’d rather not feel them but the spiritual path is not an escape from pain. It looks virtuous, but can be just as harmful.

You are allowed to feel. To grieve, to stop and be with your feelings when they are overwhelming, to let your body process and integrate your experiences of being human.

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