Bypassing pain

“I am as healthy as I am because of my positive thoughts. If I didn’t have a good attitude, I would be a mess. It has really saved my life.”  “I meditate so that I don’t think about all the hard things that have happened in life. It gives me peace.” “I walk in nature because it soothes my soul. I forget about everything and focus on the beauty.”

These quotes are from three different people as they reflected on spiritual practices. I could have spoken all three statements, and perhaps this is true for you as well. There is no doubt positive thoughts, meditation and walking in nature (along with other practices) can create a peaceful space in our lives. We explore benefits of these practices here in this space, but what happens when instead of creating peace, they become something that help us distract, avoid or deny something in our lives in need of healing?

Who doesn’t start meditating to experience a peaceful mind? Or walk in nature to get away from the busy-ness of our lives; to escape the mind-clutter? Practices aimed at resiliency and well-being often start out this way. “Spiritual Bypass,” is a term coined in 1984 by psychotherapist John Welwood to describe when spiritual practices are used to bypass our pain. Perhaps as you read this you are thinking, “Isn’t that the point of resiliency practices? To calm my mind and lower my stress?” In a way you are right, at least at the beginning of the practice. However if we look more fully to what spiritual practices do, we see they allow us a place where we can listen to our deep self instead of our ever present monkey mind. And sometimes our deep self helps us understand the triggers that hook us, beliefs that no longer work for us or wounds in need of healing – and we all have them. A practice that distracts us from tending to these hard spaces could be consider a bypass.

We cannot heal if we do not tend to our wounds. We cannot tend to our wounds if we are ignoring them by speaking a mantra, meditating, or any other practice we can think of doing to avoid them. Spiritual practices calm and center us so that we can care for what needs healing. While spiritual practices might “look better,” they can be used to distract, deny or avoid difficult feelings as effectively as an extra glass of wine, diving into computer games, excessive exercise or working long hours can.

This week as you step into those intentional practices, ask yourself an additional question, “How am I using this practice to access my deeper voice? Or, is this a distraction from a hard and challenging emotion that I do not want to experience?” I have certainly answered ‘yes’ to the second one, maybe you have as well. There is no shame in bypassing hard elements of life, however there is also no healing unless we acknowledge and care for those areas of our life. We cannot care for what we do not acknowledge. Investigate the reason behind the practice. If your practice has ended up as a bypass, take some time to wonder and be curious of how you can use your practice to access your deep self. You have in you what you need, so take a deep breath and explore.

Peace for the week,


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