When I first left the hospital after twenty years studying and practicing medicine, I was traumatized, depressed, and lost. What a blessing it was that I landed at Esalen Institute as I was off-ramping from my life as a doctor. Esalen was like a hospital for my broken heart, and that’s where I first got introduced to New Age spirituality. Although I lived in California much of my life, I was not raised in the world of the New Age. My father was a doctor so his religion was science, and my mother was a devout Christian. Between the two of them, anything New Age was “woo woo” charlatanism to my scientist father and “the work of the devil” to my fundamentalist mother. Medical school only clinched it for me that the New Age was full of nonsense and not to be trusted.
But after leaving the hospital, my broken heart opened my mind, and I found myself exploring the kinds of ideas Esalen peddled like pills for broken hearts with the gusto of someone newly converted. I don’t know how I would have handled those years if I hadn’t had this medicine. It sustained me when I was lost, and I’ll be forever grateful to Esalen, the New Age, and my spiritual bypassing phase for helping calm down my suicidal impulses that flared up around the time when I left my job as a doctor.
Like a kid in a candy shop, I jumped from one meditation retreat to the next conscious dance to the next Native American ceremony to the next Tantra workshop to the next energy healing. I experimented with New Age beliefs like the “law of attraction,” tried on magical thinking like a cute pair of sandals, became a spiritual tourist in hot spots like Pisac and Machu Picchu in Peru, Byron Bay, Australia, and Ubud, Bali, bent spoons, psychically played with animals, and matched up with a “twin flame,” fusing into ecstatic boundaryless Oneness together (while also triggering the crap out of each other in the name of spiritual growth.) I became a regular “bliss-hunter,” cavorting around with other bliss hunters and feeling pretty smug and superior about how enlightened I was becoming, while we thought of ourselves as “witches” and “wizards” and judged the “unspiritual” as Muggles to our Hogwarts. We were horribly lacking in empathy- but part of the bypass is that we failed to even notice we were hurting people. We couldn’t be with someone else’s trauma because we couldn’t be with our own.
Two Perfect Storms
Then all hell broke loose in my life as I experienced thirteen back-to-back traumas that culminated in the death of my beloved mother. I’d experienced a Perfect Storm before, back when my daughter was born by C-section, then within two weeks, my father died, my brother wound up with full-blown liver failure as a side effect from the Zithromax he was taking for a sinus infection, my dog died, and then I had to go back to working as a doctor four weeks after my C-section and two days after my father’s funeral. It’s part of what ultimately thrust me out of the hospital and onto the spiritual path.
Since that first Perfect Storm that led to my escape from medicine, I had been dabbling in the New Age on and off for many years. But when five people I loved died within six weeks in September 2015- and thirteen back to back traumas followed in the next two years, I realized that the New Age spirituality I’d been dabbling with wasn’t robust enough to help me survive this much agony. The next two years of back to back trauma culminated in the loss of my mother in October 2017, which was almost more than I could bear. None of my New Age spirituality held up to the deluge of pain that threatened to drown me, but fortunately, I had been introduced to Internal Family Systems (IFS) two years earlier by my cousin Rebecca Bass Ching, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in trauma. “It’s a total game-changer,” (https://lissarankin.com/internal-family-systems-ifs/) she had told me. And she was right.
The only thing that helped me through those two years was my IFS practice. IFS hoisted me into a whole new phase of my development, which, starting after my mother died, led me to begin weekly trauma therapy for the childhood developmental traumas I didn’t even realize where in my body, my nervous system, and my psyche. Until that point, I hadn’t realized that I was using my spirituality as a way to bypass my trauma. I was so devoted and enmeshed with my mother that it took my mother leaving this planet for me to do the hardcore trauma healing and shadow work (around my mother wounds) that I wasn’t brave enough to do when she was still around.
What Is Spiritual Bypassing?
I had already been introduced to the idea of “spiritual bypassing” before my mother died, but it wasn’t until that time that I realized how hollow this kind of spirituality really was. What do I mean by spiritual bypassing? First coined by psychologist and spiritual teacher John Welwood, Ph.D., spiritual bypassing is a common phenomenon, not only in the New Age but in many spiritual circles, including those rooted in Eastern philosophy and religions. The book Spiritual Bypassing defines it as “the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs… 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.”
I knew cognitively that spiritual bypassing wasn’t a mature kind of spirituality. I knew I yearned for something deeper than the cotton candy of bliss hunting. But I wasn’t quite ready for what would come next until all that trauma practically forced me into a trauma-informed, embodied, socially aware spirituality that I’m still evolving into.
I’m grateful for the timing of how this all evolved, because it meant that I had already altogether outgrown my child-like New Age experimentation by the time 2020 rolled around. Then when the pandemic hit, I watched with shock and horror as New Age teachers, wellness influencers, Hay House authors, alternative health care providers, and yoga instructors rolled onto the conspiratorial bandwagon, defied public health guidelines, joined the QAnon cult, and suddenly decided Trump was a lightworker. (WTF?)
In polarizing times like this, spiritual bypassing shows up as “conflict avoidance in holy drag,” making it nearly impossible for those who practice spiritual bypassing to take a firm stand for public health or against racism, causing many to escape into delusions of a Great Awakening utopia right around the corner- because the dystopian reality of a global pandemic, a divided United States, systemic racism, climate crisis, increasingly scary and deadly natural disasters, and the existential threat of species extinction bring up lots of intense and legitimate emotions- like fear, terror, rage, grief, helplessness, hopelessness, and powerlessness. My own experience helped me understand and even have compassion for those who were vulnerable to cultic influences like QAnon. In order to be vulnerable to a cult, you need to have a heavy burden of undigested, unhealed trauma. Because it is not typically trauma-informed, New Age spirituality is a set up for this kind of vulnerability. So while I was surprised how many allegedly progressive spiritual folks went down the “red-pilled” rabbit hole, I should have seen it coming.
You Can’t Save People From Cults; You Can Just Love Them Back Out When They’re Ready
Like anyone who has ever lost a loved one to a cult knows, when people join cults, you can’t help them. People join cults because their traumas make them vulnerable, and unless they’re actively seeking help for their traumas, any attempt to save them will only backfire. You have to let people go when they burn bridges, turn on you, behave abusively because they can’t convert you to their cultic belief system, and give you no choice but to distance yourself, praying the whole time that one day, they wake up to the delusional world view of the cultic leaders. Only then, when they realize they’ve been conned, is there any hope of reintegrating them into consensus reality- and back into your life.
I am not the only one who lost friends and loved ones to the cult of Trump and the spiritual bypassing, Covid denialism, climate crisis denialism, and systemic racism denialism of the “Trump is a lightworker” New Age crowd. No amount of critical thinking, challenging people with science or facts from medical journals or sharing news from reputable media sources like the New York Times, PBS, or NPR changes the opinions of people whose traumas cause them to join cults. We must grieve the ones we’ve lost and tend to our own devastated parts inside our own hearts. We cannot change or control the ones we’ve lost down the rabbit hole. But what we CAN do is educate ourselves about why New Age spirituality and any spirituality based on spiritual bypassing isn’t robust enough for the back to back traumas of times like these.
Help For Spiritual Bypassers
What we can do is that I’ll be doing my best to help you understand what I had to learn for myself over the past five years of my own spiritual development. I’m still learning and growing, but I have a trauma-informed birds-eye view now on New Age spirituality and how it makes people vulnerable. I understand why I got seduced into the beliefs and practices of spiritual bypassing. I have some nostalgia for my “bliss hunting” days, but I’m grateful I had good support as I outgrew that phase of spiritual development. (Special thanks to trauma therapists Asha Clinton, Ph.D., the founder of Advanced Integrative Therapy (AIT) and Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., founder of Internal Family Systems (IFS). As such, I have a tender place in my heart for others who are now outgrowing that phase as well.
To begin to offer help, Internal Family Systems (IFS) founder and family therapist Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. and I are offering a free group healing using IFS to treat those with spiritual bypassing tendencies. If you think this might be you- or if you have loved ones who might be open to a richer, deeper spirituality, you are so very welcome to join us. We promise you won’t be shamed or demonized in any way if you’ve been vulnerable to bliss hunting yourself. If you were never vulnerable to those tendencies in the first place but someone you know has been, our free group healing might help you understand loved ones who have been spiritual bypassing and might need support in times like these.
Register for the free group healing here. If you can’t make it live, we’ll be recording it and you can join us later.
I’ll be sharing more with you about spiritual bypassing, what it is, how to recognize it, why it’s not congruent with social justice and anti-racism, and what lies beyond it over the next few weeks, so stay tuned. Until then, take good care of your tender heart in trying times.