From Spiritual Bypassing to a Trauma Sensitive Approach

‘Spiritual bypassing’ has become a common term over the last few years, but people don’t always mean the same thing by it as there are many ways bypassing can occur.

At the core of bypassing is the motivation to escape our experience. It shows up as denial (rejecting one kind of experience) as well as preference (grasping at another). When bypassing, we focus on and grasp at one specific kind of experience, usually the more pleasant, and attempt to make that permanent, whilst at the same time excluding and denying other typically more painful and unpleasant kinds. 

This ends up causing many issues such as fragmentation in the psyche, cycles of craving and aversion, inner struggles and conflicts and, without the proper guidance and understanding can cause further dissociation for a trauma survivor.

Let’s go through a few common examples of spiritual bypassing:

  • A big one is attempting to avoid our negative thoughts by remaining in a space of positivity by speaking about “lower and higher emotions” or “heightening our vibrations” whilst at the same time rejecting or denying “lower” emotions and grasping at “higher” ones. In this scenario, we may attempt to imagine abundance and light whilst at the same time, ignoring or avoiding looking at the darker and more painful psychic narratives and bodily feelings. 
  • Or we can be addicted to meditative states and moving into transcendent dimensions. Our spiritual practice becomes oriented around leaving our body permanently rather than living more fully in it. We can attempt to go into astral realms whilst at that same moment denying our human experience.
  • Another common one is practising compassion or forgiveness from the neck up, ignoring the suppressed rage, hatred and resentment that we carry in our bodies. We can use teachings such as “the world is illusion” in order to deny the fact that during our lives we will experience tragedy and loss and hide behind this concept from the fact that life can be extremely painful. We can cling to the void and use it as a way to disconnect from our lives. It can show up as using plant medicines, craving spiritual insights and openings and feeling unsatisfied with our usual reality, which causes us to use the medicine again and again chasing these experiences. The same can happen through specific spiritual practices or meditation retreats that bring about an opening, but when it inevitably fades, we grasp at and attempt to recreate it. 

The common thread here is the avoidance of pain and seeking of pleasure. All of this is based on what the Buddha called “craving and aversion,” which in his teaching, the core of all suffering. 

The dangers with bypassing are not the states themselves, which are just potentials of consciousness and are actually here for us to enjoy and experience. The issue is the addiction and attachment to the states and the belief that a certain type of spiritual experience or attitude will lead to salvation and end our suffering.

Many teachings actually perpetuate these attitudes and beliefs. Spiritual experiences are wonderful to have, they can expand our mind and open us up to dimensions that can literally transform everything about us.

 


--HAVE YOU GOT THE ULTIMATE TRAUMA THERAPY CHECKLIST YET??--


 

However, without the proper understanding and guidance this can easily become an addiction and a bypass, causing many problems if we are not equipped to deal with the unconscious content these experiences can evoke. In this way, the spiritual experience can act in the same way as a drug, giving the mind relief from whatever pain it is in during its normal mode of functioning.

When we experience the expansiveness of mystical states we also experience relief, then when those states collapse (and they 100% will) we will then attempt to recreate them, perpetuating the cycle of craving and aversion.

This process is no different to the heroin addict seeking relief in the drug, though the drug here is a spiritual experience.

This seeking attitude can cause people to join cults, spiritual groups, adopt practices that cause them to withdraw from their life and loved ones, attending retreats and satsangs over and over again, and become devoted to gurus who take financial advantage of them. It is an all-too-common story.

In the teaching I have followed and in my own unfolding, there is seen to be a very real difference between having a spiritual experience and having an awakening, an awakening is a fundamental shift in our identity of who we are as the experiencer.

Even though spiritual experiences can be amazing and can in themselves be transformative, a spiritual experience is not an awakening if we are still identified with being the personality as the one who is experiencing it. A spiritual experience is a transient experience that will pass. If we strive for truth and liberation in trying to find a ‘permanent experience’ this will inevitably lead to suffering as all experience by its very nature is impermanent.

Just like the heroin wears off and we experience withdrawal, spiritual experience passes and we will inevitably experience the opposite.

In contrast to this seeking mechanism, the shift of identity is the realisation of ourselves as Pure Conscious Being, which is present throughout ALL experience, no matter how painful or mundane, blissful or loving the experience is.

An awakening is not an experience in the sense of a constant state that is maintained, but rather it is a shift in the experience of who/what we are. We awaken to ourselves as the constant, unchanging Reality.

Rather than “me” having an expansive experience and then losing it, we recognise ourselves as the constant expansive presence, our very own Self as Conscious Awareness is present no matter the experience. When we are properly guided toward this kind of realisation and have a firm sense of who we are as a grounding resource, we can take the next step of re-inclusion and begin to move with much more ease and courage toward the very things we have been trying to avoid and run away from.

We become the container for our experience to unfold within.

Rather than struggling with, grasping at, rejecting or attempting to escape from certain experiences from this space we can learn to include all of ourselves and receive things as they are. The potential is to be at the same time beyond yet fully immersed in our humanity.

Where does trauma come into the picture? 

For those of us who have experienced hardship in our lives, such as a painful childhood, difficulty in attaching to our caregivers, arrests in the individuation process, levels of abuse and other kinds of trauma, the seeking mechanism is quite often in hyperdrive. The orientation of escape can be quite strong in us when our lives have been filled with suffering, which is completely understandable.

 


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This can actually serve us, and we can use that drive and channel it toward our transformation, if our lives have been more smooth and with very little difficulty it will be much harder to muster up the energy and drive to really devote ourselves to our process, we may not find the level of devotion we need to really practice nor the willingness to really face our shadow.

The most common issue I see that often arises for people is the lack of proper guidance. We are often guided by teachers in the wrong direction, which quite often causes more suffering, fragmentation, dissociation and addiction. 

A huge modern-day issue is the internet: we are bombarded with YouTube videos, Facebook posts, teachers and teachings, as well as thousands of accounts of people's spiritual experience with flashy lights, pictures and music.

The market is oversaturated with concepts of awakening and spirituality, most of which have actually lost their connection to the more ancient paths of transformation. In these traditional paths, teachers would give practices specifically tailored to the individual in front of them.

Those practices would be designed for where that particular individual is at and would not be relevant for the next student. For some, certain forms of meditation may be ideal for where they are in their unfolding, for others it may be time to do certain forms of inquiry, for others it may be time to really dive deep into trauma or psychological work, for others what is needed may be to just sit quietly and receive the transmission, and for some it may be time to live the life of a householder and bring their spirituality into their mundane everyday life. 

Many, if not all forms of spirituality, were created prior to the modern neuroscience of trauma and the understanding of childhood development.

This has exacerbated some of the issues I spoke of above due to the fact that the advice being given by teachers is not always capable of dealing with somatic stress. What then happens is that people take these teachings and then attempt to use them to escape their trauma even if that is not the purpose or intention of the practice.

There are huge misunderstandings out there and if we are not careful we can spend many years doing nothing but spinning stored stress. This has caused many people to find themselves in vulnerable positions, where spirituality causes further pain.

Rather than finding a sense of wholeness, this causes further splits and re-traumatises them. 

A trauma-sensitive approach to spirituality is one that includes guidance to hold space for the parts of us which are wounded, hurting and in pain. We learn to safely hold the darkness, rather than try to escape it. We do not become “light workers”, but rather we become “darkness workers”.

We develop a capacity to fully step into the pain, to contain and hold the undigested life experience and allow it to unfold and integrate. Our practice then does not become about avoidance, but rather acceptance, as we learn to skilfully traverse our human experience rather than run away from it.

Rather than seeking the perfection of a constant spiritual state by escaping our humanity, our orientation is towards wholeness and being fully grounded in our human experience. It is actually by facing our humanity and understanding our darkness directly that we find our peace with it.

A true spiritual path is not one that is driven by our desire to feel better, but rather is guided by a sincere and earnest desire to find the truth of our being. 

The result of developing a capacity to move toward our pain and to understand our psychological patterning, combined with the traditional forms of self inquiry and meditation can result in a far more inclusive, integrated and holistic spiritual realisation that is not based on running away.

Rather than chasing spiritual states, we can in the midst of everyday life, recognise our true Being as a continuous sense of presence whilst at the same time develop a capacity to move toward pain. Whatever is happening in our lives we can learn to say ‘yes’ to the experience and to allow it.

This transforms us from the inside out, allowing the parts of our psyche that remain fragmented and split off to be included. Just by the allowance of these parts they metabolise and integrate back into our Being. 

In this way, the path up and the path down do not have to be at odds. Spirituality and daily living can become one seamless unity.

We can know ourselves as beyond, whilst at the same time be fully immersed in our lives as a human. Eventually, the feeling of there being any separation between ‘us’ and ‘our lives’ falls away, and the two merge as One.

 

Peace & Blessing,
Matt Nettleton (Co-Creator of Embodied Processing)

 

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