When disturbing thoughts and emotions arise within us, we’d like for them to just go away, especially those “negative” feelings like anger, fear, and sadness. But we can’t pretend they aren’t there by fleeing to our “light” side, also known as “Spiritual Bypassing.” Those pesky thoughts and emotions will fester inside us. Instead, to find inner peace, we can learn to embrace our wholeness.
When I first set foot on the path of personal and spiritual growth back in the 1980s, a common theme in spiritual circles was “going to the Light.” It was the idea that certain emotions were un-spiritual. To be an evolved person, you had to look and act the part, which included being serene, loving, kind, and peaceful all the time.
“Don’t feel anger or any of those dark parts of yourself,” they’d say (notice any judgment there?). “Just go to the Light. Surround yourself in Light, push all those bad thoughts away, and everything will be blissful.” Everyone was running as far as they could from anything that could be seen as dark and unspiritual. This tendency to avoid the shadow, our less-than-desirable parts of ourselves, and cling to our imagined ideal was known to some of us as “Flight to Light.”
It works really great. Until you blow up at your kid, or someone cuts you off on the freeway. Until a deep-seated fear, overwhelming despair, or uncontained rage arises from within us, and suddenly the light isn’t working to make it go away.
Avoiding the Shadow and Spiritual Bypassing
When we indulge in Flight to Light, we avoid the shadow—the unconscious part of personality known as our “dark” side. But the shadow isn’t limited to the unpleasant aspects of the self. It also contains good qualities that we don’t recognize within ourselves. Essentially, the shadow holds all that we aren’t willing to see within us—and that’s usually the “negative” qualities. We shove our insecurities, less than desirable traits, shame, and guilt, among other disturbing aspects of ourselves, into the closet of the shadow and attempt to keep that door closed – tight.
In psycho-spiritual terms, this tendency to avoid the shadow and cling to the light is called spiritual bypassing. According to Robert Masters, author of Bringing Your Shadow Out of the Dark, spiritual bypassing “is the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.” Anything that we’re afraid of looking at, and which is in contradiction to the spiritual idea we have of ourselves, is passed by; shoved back into the shadow indefinitely.
We believe that we got rid of that anxiety that we judge as pathetic or the anger that is so “unspiritual” by sweeping it under the rug. But we know, deep down inside, that it doesn’t just go away. It’s piling up within us until the time when it can’t stay hidden anymore.
Rather Than Splitting Off the Dark – Wholeness
Spiritual Bypassing is a way of splitting off parts of ourselves that we’re uncomfortable with. This does violence to our heart and psyche. Rather than splitting off what we fear is within us, we can learn to embrace wholeness.
Wholeness is essential to the path of healing and spiritual awakening. As we expand into more and more of our Divine nature, we learn to welcome it all back in, knowing we are capable of being with anything that arises within us. In wholeness, we become deeply resilient, as well as compassionate and non-judgmental towards ourselves and others. We accept that we are a whole being that has many aspects beyond labels of good and bad. Rather than chopping ourselves and our experiences of life into acceptable and unacceptable pieces, we learn to love all of ourselves unconditionally and embrace life with whatever appreciation and acceptance we can muster.
In yogic philosophy, two of the five causes of suffering are raga (pronounced like RAH-guh) —attachment, and dvesha (pronounced like DVAY-shuh, “dvay” rhyming with “bay”)—aversion. This is the dance of spiritual bypassing, or Flight to Light and avoiding our shadow, and it is a source of our anxiety, depression, and despair.
Yoga philosophy also gives us a wonderful practice to help us out of the problems with the dance of raga and dvesha. It is known as upeksha (pronounced like oo-PAKE-shuh). This roughly translates as “even-mindedness.” When life is good, we can be happy and appreciate it, but remain even-minded and not become overly attached to it. When life is rough—or when we encounter situations, people, and aspects of ourselves that we would judge as “bad,” negative, or even evil—we need even-mindedness all the more. It is the ability to step back and see what is without reactions, assumptions, or convicting ourselves or anyone else.
Even-mindedness helps us to accept the unacceptable without condoning it. We can still take action to work with our less-than-desirable selves and help heal and transform those aspects. We may still feel called to help right the wrongs we see done in the world. During our current times, the shadow may appear to be looming larger than ever. But it’s important not to deny or give in to the fear and run away. Upeksha helps us stay steady and aware, without reacting, so that we can respond effectively to whatever provokes our worries. We can remain rooted in our inner calm, even in the moments when the dark seems to overtake the light, and our anxiety rears its head.
The next time that you notice an “unspiritual” emotion or reaction within yourself, rather than rejecting or avoiding it, welcome it in. You don’t need to do a spiritual bypass to feel OK. Acknowledge that it is there with even-mindedness. Do your inner work if it feels there is an issue to heal. And embrace yourself with compassion and acceptance, knowing that your wholeness is much greater than any emotion or characteristic within you. You are simultaneously all of that, and none of that; one Divine Essence that is beyond light and shadow.
- Flight to Light – the Mistake of Spiritual Bypassing - November 26, 2020