Ten years ago, when I quit my job in the hospital, I had just been through a series of traumas and I was hurting so badly I didn’t know how to cope. That’s part of why I quit my job—because I was in and out of feeling suicidal and I just wanted to stop hurting. So many of the people I knew were obviously hurting too, but they were trying to cover it up with addictions, overworking, dissociating, and defense mechanisms like denial. I didn’t want to numb or otherwise avoid the painful feelings I was having, but it felt like feeling my pain was going to be a full-time job for a while. My grief was so consuming, and I had stuffed down a decade of past grief alongside it, that I was afraid I’d be flooded if I allowed myself to feel the torrent of grief I could sense was running like a current of rapids under my barely dressed up heart.

Like many do, I turned to the spiritual path to help me cope, experimenting with retreats at Esalen, walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, pilgrimages to sacred sites, shamanic drumming, guided meditation, silent meditation retreats, yoga, prayer, indigenous spirituality, self-help books, spirituality conferences, cacao ceremonies, ecstatic dance, despacho ceremonies, and pretty much every other “spirituality-du-jour” experience one could have without trying drugs or plant medicines. I became a spiritual tourist, bliss-hunting for the next spiritual high . . .

Until I realized I had just found another way to bypass my pain.

I was using spirituality to avoid feeling not just my own personal pain, but the global pain I could feel in my own heart and body. (Fellow empaths, you know what I’m talking about here.)

That’s when I started studying the shadow of spirituality and learned about spiritual bypassing. In its essence, spiritual bypassing refers to any way in which we use our spirituality to bypass painful emotions, like despair, anger, disappointment, jealousy, or loneliness. Spiritual Bypassing author Robert Masters writes:

We tend not to have very much tolerance, both personally and collectively, for facing, entering, and working through our pain, strongly preferring pain numbing ‘solutions,’ regardless of how much suffering such ‘remedies’ may catalyze. Because this preference has so deeply and thoroughly infiltrated our culture that it has become all but normalized, spiritual bypassing fits almost seamlessly into our collective habit of turning away from what is painful, as a kind of higher analgesic with seemingly minimal side effects. It is a spiritualized strategy not only for avoiding pain but also for legitimizing such avoidance, in ways ranging from the blatantly obvious to the extremely subtle. Spiritual bypassing is a very persistent shadow of spirituality, manifesting in many ways, often without being acknowledged as such. Aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, lopsided development (cognitive intelligence often being far ahead of emotional and moral intelligence), debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow elements, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.

We have to remember that it hurts to be human, and pain is always here for a reason. Pain is usually our body’s or our heart’s way of saying, “Pay attention. Something is out of whack and needs to be healed.” When we use avoidance in holy drag to avoid pain, we limit the growth our souls crave.

The Hot Loneliness

In a recent Super Soul Session, Glennon Doyle Melton spoke about all the ways we try to avoid feeling what she calls “the hot loneliness,” including scrolling mindlessly through social media or popping pills. Just think of all the ways that our culture teaches us to grab for Easy buttons, the quick fixes and self-help tools and antidepressants and booze and social media obsessions and all the other things marketers target into our psyches to promise that there’s an Easy way out of pain. In spiritual circles, the Easy buttons cloak themselves in spiritual garb. The Easy buttons come in the form of hours of meditation spent inhabiting non-dual awareness or ayahuasca ceremonies every weekend or attending one spiritual retreat after another seeking the next tool to avoid feeling the hot loneliness.

Glennon says:

The problem is that when we transport ourselves out of our hot loneliness, we miss all of our transformation. Because everything we need to become the people we were meant to become next is actually inside the hot loneliness of now. So when we Easy button our way out we are like caterpillars who jump out of the cocoon right before we would have become butterflies. Because pain is actually not a hot potato. It’s the traveling professor and it knocks on everybody’s door, and the wisest ones say, “Come in. Sit down, and don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know.” But we’ve got it all wrong. We are afraid of pain, but we were made for pain. We need to be afraid of the Easy buttons. Because the journey of the Love Warrior is to rush toward her pain and let her pain become her power.

Newsflash: It Hurts to Be Human

Being human hurts. We try so hard to avoid this fact, doing our best to numb ourselves with various addictions, overwork, obsessive love affairs, positive psychology, and or spiritual bypassing techniques to try to “love and light” our way past the pain. But no matter how you run away from pain, pain will track you down, stalking you like a leopard until you finally dive down into it and really let it devour you. We have to go all the way into our traumas (as I described here) before it can begin to release us, open our hearts, and show us that at the pit of our pain, all we meet is (paradoxically)—unconditional love. This is what we’re so afraid of? Love? 

When Spiritual Bypassing Comes in Handy

Spiritual bypassing can be a healthy tool when we need it. As I described here when I was attacked by a pit bull, it was helpful to be able to use my meditation training to be able to bypass the intense pain of the acute injury. If you’re in the midst of an acute trauma, go ahead and use the spiritual bypass! But we can’t outrun the pain forever. We can delay it until we’re emotionally and physically equipped to handle it, until we have the emotional resilience to be able to be with that much pain without killing ourselves, harming someone else, or going crazy. Spiritual bypassing sure beats other numbing and bypassing techniques, such as addictions that harm the body. But ultimately, we have to find within us the strength to go down the rabbit hole of our pain—and we can’t do that alone. We need each other. We need our tribe. We need a personal connection to Divine Source. We need therapists and spiritual counselors and soul friends who can hold our hands as we venture into the scary, painful unknown. Only then can we truly, deeply, fully heal.

May we all find that inner fortitude so that we can do what we must in order to be who we must.

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  1. So true! I have had my own journey through untangling all the burdens and collective beliefs I was carrying. And still am. Going “through” it is the way, sitting with it, accepting the delicious, messy, emotions and feelings of being human. I am so grateful to have SOUND to move through this. Using your voice and other instruments to fully express the height and depth of life moves the beliefs, feelings and emotions through your being in an expansive, healing direction!

  2. I think, for some, it’s just too much horror to actually feel it all…we have to be compassionate with where people are in their journey and not rush those who aren’t ready to feel that deeply. But we also have to call out those who use spirituality to meditate all day in the safety of their bubble when it’s undeniable what’s happening outside the bubbles of the privileged elite.

  3. Just finished reading your book The Anatomy of a Calling.. Bravo to you. My wife is reading it now. This was an excellent post! God bless

    • Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed The Anatomy of a Calling. I always feel a little shy when someone tells me they’ve just read it. Thank you for being gentle with something so personal to me 🙂

      • Thanks for sharing your inner world in such an authentic, honest way. Your messages always come from a place of love and understanding…

  4. I found numerology extraordinarily helpful on my journey. If you have not had your chart done, I would recommend it. I could also do one for you if you do not know a practitioner.

  5. I really wish I could learn how to deal with a combative/loud neighbor. You are right, Lisa, because I have been reading every self-help book known to man. Anything to give me an answer of how to cope with this. I know the situation is out of my control and I just don’t know how to let go. Seems like we (me and my husband) are trying to move on but can’t. We LOVE our house and have looked at the possibility of moving but just can’t find another place we like as much. We’ve lived here for 11 years so it’s tough. It’s turned me into a person I don’t like filled with hate and anger. My house for the past two years is no longer a place to relax and feel safe. No longer my sanctuary.

    • What would you do if the situation is under your control?

      • Wow, that is very thought provoking and just the fact that someone replied brought tears to my eyes. We have never been in this kind of position before and after a while you feel like you are on an island by yourself. So, I guess the problem lies in the fact that I cannot control that they live there. I can wish and hope with all my might that they will move but my health can’t wait for that. Moving is under my control, but finding someplace else we like has been challenging. We thought we’d live here forever. Good question though that I will keep pondering.

      • And I guess the obvious answer might be to change my perspective or reaction. I’m just not there yet. Lissa Rankin I’m not. I so admire her and how she was able to forgive so quickly the owner of the Pit Bull who attacked her.

    • Hi Gwen. I know a family who are going through the exact same thing at the moment – soon after they built and moved into their very lovely home, a nightmare couple bought the house next door and proceeded to make their lives hell. I was called because I do remote energy healing on buildings/land and we shall see how that goes. I am not a feng shui practitioner but I also suggested placing small mirrors on the side of the house facing the neighbors. Googling ‘feng shui bad neighbors’ will bring up more suggestions. When you really love your home I believe it’s worth trying everything before selling up. Best of luck with it.

      • Thanks so much Kila. I will definitely look up the feng shui bad neighbor thing. It’s amazing how the negativity can permeate your back yard. I at least need to get some sage and do a clearing.

    • I am so very sorry to hear you have been having to deal with this for so long. Probably doesn’t help much, but please know that you are not alone in this situation – seems like more than a few of us have been there, some of us more than once. It is unfortunate that people are not more considerate of those they live close to. It can make life miserable. I definitely feel your pain on this one!

      • Thanks Nancy, and yes it does help to know you are not alone. We managed to live here 10 years with no problem until this family moved in. Yes, consideration is what they lack for sure!

  6. Very well put and very real! I believe our culture is so distracted by technology, media and ego. We do not deal with our issues or in most cases aren’t aware how or the repercussions of not doing so.Problems are too real and frowned upon dealing with because there are too many easy ways out. I’ve been on a healing journey for about a year now. I read your book “Anatomy of a Calling” shortly after quitting my job as a full-time Ultrasound Technologist and that fueled my drive. I’m now a Healing Touch Practitioner Apprentice and have learned healing techniques to be able to heal people Physically, Emotionally, Mentally and Spiritually. Most times these steps have to be done at a pace that is comfortable for the client but the important thing is they are making progress. I hope to spread the word about how important it is to heal yourself and live to your highest potential because that is where true happiness resides. Thank you for opening my eyes and reassuring me I’m on the right path! I absolutely loved your book and everyone that I have told about it has said the same! Haven’t finished “Mind over Medicine” yet but have enjoyed learning what I have read so far. Thank you Lissa!

  7. Oh dear.. Yes, this is the truth that most spiritual bypassers don’t want to hear (including me haha). But somewhere deep down, we all know that this is the truth. I agree that in an acute trauma we are mostly not strong enough to face the pain. Boy, I struggled with this for such a long time, and still am. Reaching for spirituality at this point saved my life and created a gateway to take the next steps when I was ready… In the end, we have to forgive and love ourselves. Accepting who we are can give us so much confidence to go out there and love the world!

    • I think we all go through a spiritual bypassing phase. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Certainly nothing to judge in ourselves or others! Just something to notice, with tenderness at how sweet we humans are as we try every Easy button possible to avoid feeling pain…

  8. Thank you so much. I definitely needed to hear this today and in this moment.

  9. Thank you Lissa. In gratitude and love.

  10. I just love this topic. I’ve gone through, am going through my own journey with using spirituality as a way to let my emotions off the hook. I think I saw you (Lissa) comment down here that we all go through this phase of using spirituality as another way to numb out essentially. It’s truly an amazing journey to sit with what we feel in a way that can teach us and instruct us. Humbling… painful… enlightening… freeing… a big soup pot of learning how to learn from our experience of life. Thanks for writing on this, it’s such an important topic right now. ~ J

    • Thanks Jeff. Yeah- it’s nothing to kick oneself about. I do think it’s just a phase of development, like a second puberty. And the spiritual bypassing phase is so enticing! I really love this poem by Dorothy Hunt because it so lovingly and honestly and accurately describes the phases of the spiritual path, at least as I’ve experienced it from my own direct experience:

      The Invitation

      When God comes in your house
      it is only by your invitation,
      but even your invitation is God’s,
      for she has always been
      landlady and tenant,
      windows and walls,
      the fire in your hearth
      and the cold wind blowing at your door.

      At first, her visits seem so welcome.
      She brings tea and cookies and loves you
      so sweetly inside your own heart.
      You keep inviting her back
      by your prayers and meditations,
      imagining you’ve found the one you always wanted
      who will hold you on her endless lap
      and take away your pain forever.

      But pretty soon, she starts arriving
      unexpectedly, at odd hours of the day and night,
      and every time she comes,
      she takes something away–
      a pretty picture here, a bookcase there,
      maybe even some trash
      you are happy to be rid of
      in your basement.

      But at some point, it occurs to you
      she intends to move in completely.
      And now the mind starts backing up:
      “Perhaps you could come back another day,
      after I’ve worked on my house,
      after I’ve bought nicer furniture,
      after I’ve finished my fight with evil,
      after I’ve planted a peace garden.”

      But you must know
      that if you invite God in,
      sooner or later she will set up house,
      and when she does, beware;
      for she tosses out every single thing
      she does not need, which,
      in the case of the personality,
      is every single thing you thought you were.

      Every thought and cherished belief
      she just throws out on the garbage heap;
      and that might be fine if she replaced them,
      but she never replaces those sacred thoughts;
      she utterly destroys them. She strips the coverings
      off the walls, and peels the paper from the window glass,
      opens the door to invite in the wind,
      and every creature you wanted kept out.

      Sometimes she cleans your house gently,
      dismantling it room by room.
      But often, she just comes in with a torch,
      and you feel in your gut the fire burn
      in the center of your separate comfort,
      and you watch the contents of your house
      melt and turn to ash,
      and the roof blow off.

      And just when you think
      there is nothing more that she could take,
      she opens the ground beneath
      the barely intact shell of your house,
      and all the levels of your being
      fall into the space that has no name;
      and you are left alone in all the world,
      without a map, without a path, without a point of view.

      And you know you are creator of your dreams,
      your dreams of mountains and rivers,
      calm seas and storm clouds,
      crashes of lightning and spacecraft,
      beautiful babies asleep at the breast,
      joyful dancing and puppies at play,
      Spring’s new blossoms,
      and the threat of Winter’s war.

      And at this point,
      what you are inside your house
      is simply What is looking out.
      Nothing’s left but what is looking,
      yet everything you see is you.
      Now your life turns inside out.
      Your body is the world of being
      looking out of Just What Is.

      And strange as it seems
      to the mind of your memory,
      you enjoy each dance of yourself,
      even the pains you hoped to be rid of,
      you experience fully without regret.
      For everywhere your eye may look,
      all it sees is infinite love
      displaying itself in creation.

      And just to be completely honest,
      there are times you might be tempted
      to rebuild your house of concepts,
      for the mind just loves to think;
      but the fire of Truth resides within you,
      where it always lived before you knew,
      and it keeps revealing moment to moment
      what is false and what is true.

      So what can be said about what happens
      when God takes over her house?
      She laughs and simply sips her tea,
      washes her dishes and sleeps when it’s time,
      then goes to find another house
      where there has been an invitation,
      an invitation to come in
      from the deep, deep love of Herself.

  11. Hi Lissa, I discovered you in the last WW Hay House Summit and immediately your approach resonated with me. I am currently healing thyroid cancer with alternative medicine and recently posted in my blog about you and your self diagnosis approach. I hope I am doing you justice 🙂 httpss://speakingupmytruth.wordpress.com/2017/06/29/ww-hay-house-summit-healers-making-a-better-world/

    • I love your blog. Thank you for sharing it and blessings on your healing journey.

      Much love


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