Spiritual bypass is defined as using spiritual language to avoid having to confront psychological or emotional issues. The concept was introduced by John Welwood with a focus on Buddhist spirituality, but his insights apply to all spiritual traditions.
Spiritual bypass happens all of the time in the Christian church. Some examples include:
Telling the recently bereaved, “At least they are in heaven now.”
Telling the recently unemployed, “Well, it’s all a part of God’s plan.”
I’m sure many of the people reading this have their own examples, too. The issue is some of these statements can be helpful or life-giving to people. They can also make the recipient feel further isolated and like they, the suffering party, are now also responsible for consoling the person who is trying to console them.
How to Tell When We are Using Spiritual Bypass
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, it is important for us to notice our own uses of spiritual bypass when talking to others. One of the key questions to ask yourself when you’re trying to console another person is: Am I sitting with this person’s pain, or am I avoiding it?
If we are genuinely sitting with a person in pain, the likelihood of spiritual bypass drops. If we are uncomfortable with another person’s emotional discomfort, then we are more likely to use spiritual bypass as a way of alleviating our own discomfort. If we are sitting with a person in grieving or pain, their emotional distress is more important than ours.
We also need to beware of when we are spiritually bypassing ourselves, which we often do because of the faith context we grew up in. When we find our self-talk bypassing our pain instead of acknowledging it, we can view this as an opportunity to sit with our pain instead.
What to Do Instead of Spiritual Bypass
An example of a tradition that prevents spiritual bypass is the Jewish custom of “sitting shiva.” When people come to console the bereaved, they sit on low stools because their comfort is less important than the mourner’s, they do not speak until after the mourner speaks, and the only words they are to offer are “I’m sorry.”
According to reformedjudaism.org, the “focus of a condolence call is to listen to those memories that the mourner wishes to share or to talk about other subjects initiated by the mourner that may have nothing to do with his or her loss.” There are no aphorisms spoken by those trying to console, they simply provide their presence and their listening ears.
While many of us on this site are unlikely to be able to get our families or faith communities to “sit shiva,” we can learn a lot from this tradition. The consoler’s needs, wants, and thoughts are less important than the bereaved. The consolers’ words are less important than their presence. We can affirm the bereaved’s emotions or offer an apology, but mostly we should sit and listen to what they want to say.
Remember: it is not our job to fix another person’s pain; it is our job to accompany them through it. If we don’t want to be present and silent with a person in pain, it is best to leave that to other people in their life.
How to Deal with the Spiritual Bypass of Others
Unfortunately, dear reader, it is likely we will also be the recipients of someone else’s spiritual bypass. When this happens, first acknowledge, within yourself, that the person is spiritually bypassing your emotional pain. After you’ve acknowledged this, I think there are two main responses we can take.
The first option I see is letting them use spiritual bypass, and then moving on, perhaps grateful for the knowledge that this person is not a person who will be a source of comfort as you process your grief or pain. This is best used for people in your extended community who are trying their best, but are not particularly close to you.
The second thing to try is telling them, “I do not find that comforting right now.” You might follow up with, “I just want your presence right now.” This option is for those you want to be closer to you in your time of grief; they may be the kind of people worth explaining spiritual bypass to as some point, though a grieving person should prioritize their own emotional well-being over the understanding of those around them.
If people have additional thoughts on dealing with other people’s spiritual bypass, I would love to see them in the comments.
Bart Hennigan has a Master of Public and International Affairs degree from the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently in year three of Sewanne's Education for Ministry and is pursuing certification as a spiritual director through the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. When not reading or discussing philosophy and theology, Bart is a stay-at-home father of three, which has taught him much about patience and the importance of silence.