Last week I wrote about conscious and unconscious experience and about how we humans know only in part who we are. For devout people who seek to meet life’s challenges with faith in God, this can mean that their spiritual practices give them space to reflect on the unconscious motives that might be at work in them, particularly when relational conflicts arise. Ancient Christian practices such as meditation and contemplative prayer create habits that can bring insights into our hidden longings, wishes and fears. Unfortunately, spiritual practices can also be used to block deeper awareness when a devout person feels overwhelmed by anxious thoughts and feelings that seem to contradict their current understanding of their faith tradition. Spiritual bypass is a term used in psychological research to identify unconscious ways people use spiritual beliefs and practices to avoid anxiety and pain that has not been adequately processed.
We view ourselves in certain ways that we have made peace with, but that might not sync with the complex realities around us and may actually blind us to genuine thoughts, feelings and behaviors that we deem unacceptable. Prayer practices and beliefs can for some people become a way of cutting off a more genuine encounter with their limits, character flaws or errors. Something about a person in spiritual bypass strikes observers as hallow or frenzied. It is not intentional on the part of the person caught in spiritual bypass, but it feels false to others. Often people in my office tell me about encountering a church leader who talks about love and grace, but whom they experience as rather cut off and cold. When they are honest, they begin to explore with me their doubts about many things they wish they believed but that they find themselves struggling with. This encounter with unconscious material that doesn’t line up with Christian orthodoxy can cause some people to react harshly against themselves and to repress these thoughts and feelings back into the unconscious in the hope that they will disappear and that the comfort of faith will return. The problem is that this is a short cut that ultimately leads nowhere. When we numb out negative thoughts and feelings, even if our conscious intent is to be faithful to God by doing so, we numb out all feeling and thwart genuine growth. We’ll continue to explore these ways that good faith slips into spoiled practice over the next weeks. Please keep reading.