We're Here to Help Each Other Get Unstuck

The Spiritual Bypass, part 1

On Feb 16, I was leading one of the sessions at our monthly "Friday Faith Development" evening. I shared with the group this story by Jessica York from the UUA "Tapestry of Faith" curriculum (adapted, abridged). It's about the First Unitarian Society of Chicago in 1948, and how the function of congregations is to change us:
In 1948, most congregations in the United States were segregated by the color -- either by policy or by custom. The First Unitarian Society of Chicago (1USC) was one of these congregations. Although their church was located in a neighborhood with many African Americans, only whites could join, according both to custom and the written bylaws of the church.

The day came that many members began to believe that if they really wanted to live their values and principles, they needed to take action against racism. The minister, the Reverend Leslie Pennington, was ready for this day and ready to take action. So was James Luther Adams, a well-known and respected liberal theologian and social ethicist. Adams taught at the Meadville Lombard Theological School, right across the street from the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. And he was a member of 1USC's Board of Directors.

Reverend Pennington and James Luther Adams joined with others to propose a change in the church's bylaws to desegregate the church. They saw this as a way to put their love into action.

But in 1948, anything about skin color or racism was controversial. Even those who supported equality and civil liberties for African Americans sometimes believed in a separate, but equal policy.

When the congregation's Board considered the desegregation proposal, most of them supported it. However, one member of the Board objected. "Your new program is making desegregation into a creed," he said. "You are asking everyone in our church to say they believe desegregating, or inviting, even recruiting people of color to attend church here, is a good way to tackle racism. What if some members don't believe this?"

Respectful debate ensued at the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. Both sides felt, in their hearts, that they were right. The debate went on in the Board of Directors' meeting until the early hours of the morning. Everyone was exhausted and frustrated. Finally, James Luther Adams asked the person who had voiced the strongest objection, "What do you say is the purpose of this church?"

Silence settled over the room. Everyone wanted to hear how this question would be answered. The Board member who opposed opening the church to people of color finally replied. "Okay, Jim. The purpose of this church is to get hold of people like me and change them."

The First Unitarian Society of Chicago successfully desegregated.
I believe that the good of congregational life is that it changes us. The purpose of our being here is to get hold of one another and change us. When I say this, it might arouse a shadow of suspicion – that I have some agenda for what I want you changed into. But when I say “change,” I mean, “unstuck.” Each of us gets stuck in different ways, stuck on different sticking points. And what any of us will find ourselves becoming if we get unstuck is unpredictable and likely to be quite different from what anyone else becomes. The only agenda is for you to come into the fullness of your uniqueness. I don’t know what that will look like – though I usually can recognize it once it happens. Like the next painting or music that will blow you away: you have no idea in advance what it will be, but you know it when it happens.

Spiritual practices are helping us get unstuck, whatever stuckness we may be having. Each week I suggest a “Practice of the Week.” (Over 150 practices have been described so far -- see the index of practices HERE.) Some of them are in the “Might be your thing,” category – gardening, yoga, quilting, martial arts, cooking, etc. There aren’t all for everybody, but one of them might be perfect for you to jump into and make into a spiritual practice.

Then there are “occasional” or “worth a try” spiritual practices. Try them at least once, and some of them are good for coming back to every once in a while. Make a home altar, create and use as needed a playlist of your most uplifting songs, list three good things that happened to you in the last 24 hours and reflect on your role in making them happen, fast, empathize, simplify. These are some sample things worth doing every once in a while.

The third category is “slogans to live by.” These are mottos to repeat to yourself and to call to mind to give yourself guidance as you face the various situations of your day: be generous, smile, say yes, identify your emotions, claim desire, stop blaming, be curious, be grateful, take breaks, etc.

As we develop our spiritual resources for becoming more joyful and more compassionate, we develop certain habits of thought – and those are often tremendously helpful. Especially at first. Here’s the thing though: The very insights that might help us get unstuck can themselves turn into sticking points.

Some spiritual idea or other can become an excuse for staying stuck. It can become a device for disconnecting from a part of ourselves. It can be a tool for trying repress or excise our pain, shame, anger, frustration, moral outrage, or fear.

When that happens, it’s called “taking the spiritual bypass.” It means using the ideal of calm, equanimous, centered, inner peace to avoid confronting the fact that you hurt, or are angry, or are scared. It means employing spiritual tools and teachings to deny and repress our real pain.

We all do it. I do it. Probably even the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh – whoever your model of spiritual serenity might be – also take the spiritual bypass sometimes. In the following posts, I'll describe some of the common ways the spirituality undercuts itself by bypassing real issues of hurt, outrage, or frustrutaion.

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This is part 1 of "The Spiritual Bypass"
See also:
Part 2: True Spirituality and Bypassing Spirituality
A parody of "spirituality":

The extemporaneous version:

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