Can Confronting Spiritual Bypassing be a Tool for Change?

Anyone who has worked for change quickly learns how difficult that is. We are born into cultures which teach us right versus wrong. Conflicts between cultures occur when what is considered right in one culture is considered wrong in another.

The weight of what is acceptable in a culture is the product of many years of experience, beliefs, and history. As children we are indoctrinated with our cultural norms. [indoctrinate: teach (a person or group) to accept a set of beliefs uncritically]. Disillusionment can occur when a person applies critical thinking to some cultural norms.

A person who expresses or acts in a way their culture defines as wrong faces very strong peer pressure to conform. May face the possibility of criminal penalties. Such defiance often leads to being ostracized from society.

Difficulties can also arise when what is considered right changes with time. For example, I’ve been studying about the Indian boarding schools. Indian children were subjected to forced assimilation into the White settler culture. White men invaded tribal communities and forcibly took the children to the boarding schools.

In particular, I’ve been learning about those Indian residential schools that were run by Quakers. I imagine most Quakers today, if they even know about the Quaker Indian boarding schools, assume Quakers were involved because they wanted to help the Indian children. I imagine those Quakers were compassionate and probably did not foresee the terrible consequences of what they were doing. Nonetheless, significant traumas occurred. And it is important to know this trauma has been passed from generation to generation. Is deeply felt in tribal nations today.

More than 100,000 Native children suffered the direct
consequences of the federal government’s policy of forced
assimilation by means of Indian boarding schools during the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their bereft parents,
grandparents, siblings, and entire communities also suffered.
As adults, when the former boarding school students had
children, their children suffered, too. Now, through painful
testimony and scientific research, we know how trauma can
be passed from generation to generation. The
multigenerational trauma of the boarding school experience
is an open wound in Native communities today

Quaker Boarding Schools, Facing our History and Ourselves by Paula Palmer, Friends Journal, October 2016

Many Quakers today are beginning to learn about this history of forced assimilation and the multifaceted, intergenerational damage done in the Indian boarding schools. I learned a lot from the presentations that are part of Paula Palmer’s ministry, “Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples”.

This is painful for Quakers to face, because working for peace and justice is a focus of our work in the world. A number of us have ancestors who were involved with the Quaker Indian boarding schools.

On numerous occasions I’ve heard people say, in various ways, they are not responsible for the actions of their ancestors. There are several reasons why I believe we do have some responsibility.

  • The excuses for the Indian boarding schools are a glaring example of White Supremacy. The idea that the White settler way of life is better than Indigenous ways. This has been built into the White culture. Indigenous peoples today continue to be oppressed by the ongoing White Supremacy. This is an example of structural racism.
  • Native peoples continue to suffer from the trauma that occurred generations ago.
  • We White people cannot decolonize ourselves until we acknowledge the harm done by our ancestors and ourselves. Realize the benefits we continue to receive just because of our skin color. Benefits Native, African, Latin, and Asian Americans continue to be denied because of their skin color.
  • We White people cannot deepen relationships with Indigenous people living today, until we can share with them our sorrow for what happened. Share what we think about what that means to us today. We can pray and hope that eventually native people might begin to forgive us.

When I learned about spiritual bypassing recently, I recognized this applies to Quakers and the Indian boarding schools. Attempts to discuss this among White Quakers have resulted in extreme discomfort, which meant no discussion could even begin.


“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

The question is, will we let painful feelings prevent us from doing the work that needs to be done to move toward justice? “ I am calling on each of you to start doing the work. Sit with the discomfort, work through it.” Tia Salih


… spiritual bypassing is characterized by an active avoidance of pain and reality. It is deliberately deciding to cut out the discomforts of life, backed by a privileged perspective of spirituality and life.

The inaction of the spiritual healing community during times of injustice not only betrays the very principles of the 8-fold path, but helps maintain the system of white supremacy whose foundation is maintained through indifference and minimizing. What do I mean by this?

  • Walking away from the discomfort of dismantling your privilege.
  • Not understanding the negative impact of avoidance language like “good vibes only.”
  • Being complicit in a system that does not see all lives as worthy.
  • Actively choosing to turn a blind eye to injustice.
  • Not recognizing that remaining overly detached and idealistic is what enables discrimination, mass incarceration, police brutality, lynching, hate crime, the school to prison pipeline, etc.

“But,” you ask, “I’m not the cause of these problems. How can I possibly be in the wrong if I’m encouraging positivity?”

Here is the hard fact: your good vibes are doing nothing. It doesn’t matter that you aren’t showing up to KKK meetings dressed in white sheets. It doesn’t matter that you do not kill the individual yourself. It doesn’t matter if you have a black friend. It doesn’t matter that you hold egalitarian beliefs internally. Remember what your school teachers told you? A bystander can be just as bad at the bully. If you choose spiritual bypassing you are choosing to avoid the topic of such painful realities that allow these atrocities to exist… and it is killing us.

Let that sink in for a moment… that choice of pain and reality avoidance is killing us.

No amount of sage*,essential oils, chanting, meditation or yoga is going to change that fact.

So, one more time, I am calling on each of you to start doing the work. Sit with the discomfort, work through it, and recognize that your decision to be a spiritual healer means that it is your purpose just to spread “love and light” — your purpose is to show up.

White Privilege In Yoga Pants: Spiritual Bypassing by Tai Salih, CYT, Medium, 6.18.2020

These are some of the areas where I think spiritual bypassing occurs,

  • White supremacy and racial injustice. Including Black and Indigenous oppression
  • War and peacemaking today
  • Environmental damage from our lifestyles
  • Border imperialism and separating children from their families

Many Quakers tend to avoid confronting these issues.

A spiritual, justice center of my life has been praying to find ways to help Quakers and others become more aware of the environmental damages from fossil fuel use. And then to do something about that, such as giving up personal automobiles. I was taught our lives should be examples of our beliefs. For that reason I gave up having a personal car almost fifty years ago. As far as I know, I haven’t convinced one person to give up their car. That’s not to say what I did was worthless. At the very least it helped me feel a little better about my carbon footprint, even knowing it is much larger, even without a car, than that of people in many other parts of the world.

In light of that apparent failure over many decades to create change, I’m wondering if using the idea of spiritual bypassing could provide a new way to discuss our environmental practices. We have all been inundated with seeing increasing environmental chaos, and increasingly aware of our contributions to that. Making it even more difficult to face.

I’m interested in having some gatherings of Friends and others that would be similar to worship sharing. Or would actually be worship sharing, where we ask ourselves, and share with each other, what we are bypassing spiritually. That takes the focus away from “what you are doing wrong”, to, instead, “this is what I’m bypassing spiritually”. Then others can indicate if they are feeling similarly, and what they have been doing in response. Different Friends might have different things they are bypassing. Sharing things we avoid should be easier to do in a gathering like this.

As it says above, “remaining overly detached and idealistic is what enables discrimination, mass incarceration, police brutality, lynching, hate crime, the school to prison pipeline, etc.”


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