February 24, 2022
For Desmond Tutu and Thich Nhat Hanh
“Spiritual bypassing,” a term coined by the American Buddhist teacher, John Welwood, is the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” Spiritual bypassing is a misguided attempt at premature transcendence, a way of separating ourselves from our common humanity. Bypassing is a denial of the task of living through all the absurd paradoxes we are confronted with during our lifetimes. Worse, it’s an attempt to separate from the inseparable, and, as mindfulness teacher Sebene Salassie argues in You Belong: A Call for Connection, “[t]he delusion of separation is at the heart of not belonging.”
A popular approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion work might be called woke bypassing: the tendency of institutions and the people—all people—who serve those institutions to bypass unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks and claim a level of enlightened transcendence that belies the reality of our fallibility. Consider: How quickly was the black@ movement swept under the rug by a “diversity and inclusivity” statement penned by a Board of Trustees or administration? How is the focus on equity and inclusion work contingent on social perception? How did your school’s “diversity and inclusion” roadmap get redirected when parents voiced concerns? Did you reroute to avoid parents or engage them? So many of us have wanted to get to the mountaintop without the struggle, and when we do, we often focus on semantics, not hearts. We often demand an immediate revolution instead of trusting that evolution requires patience, understanding, compassion, and love. This woke bypassing, like spiritual bypassing, favors “[a]bsolute truth […] over relative truth, the impersonal over the personal, emptiness over form, transcendence over embodiment, and detachment over feeling.” Bypassing is the absence of presence, which is why invitations to be present and embodied through yoga and meditation each morning, as well as the emphasis on indigenous practices, at this year’s NAIS People of Color Conference (POCC), were truly radical.
Dharma practitioner Martin Alyward retells a story about how his teacher showed him what presence truly means:
After the first day [of painting windows, my teacher] said to me, “Look, stop, your problem is you’re trying to paint the windows. Just stop. Just take care of the brushstrokes, and let God paint the windows. It’s…