On Spiritual Burnout and Bypassing
Sometimes, the ways and events of the world can weigh you down. Over the past 18 months or so, we have seen a LOT of that, what with the pandemic and the various awfulness happening in the news.
I know things are starting to get to me when I am less drawn to my Focus (altar), less motivated to do my spiritual practices. It’s ironic, because spirituality is the cultivation of a feeling of meaning, awe, connectedness and joy, and you’d think we’d go running for that when times are hard.
Some do. I’m just not one of them.
Instead, my tendency is to lean into what’s the damned point, and to continue my doomscrolling and obsession with events over which I have no control while neglecting my spiritual practices, or doing them in a perfunctory manner.
I think many who are inclined towards depression do the same.
But here’s the thing. There are helpful ways to approach hard times and bad news, and there are harmful ones. This post is about how to choose the former, and what the latter looks like.
Right now, we are all contending with a barrage of news, and nearly all of it is bad. Some of that is what our media chooses to focus on, but some of it is just that there are Big Problems ranging from COVID-19 to climate change to crashing biodiversity before us, and these problems are completely real. In that context, it can feel trivial and self-indulgent to keep up with our spiritual practices, to carry forward with a vision of a better, kinder world despite how grim so many aspects of our times are right now.
It can feel natural just to quit.
This is spiritual burnout. And sadly, when we succumb to it, we often go into a freefall of exhaustion, despair and depression, obsessing more and more about bad news and losing our ability to experience joy or the beauty in the world. The medical term for this, anhedonia, refers to a condition in which the hippocampus region of the brain shrinks, reducing the ability to experience happiness (as well as to form memories, so there is often a “brain fog” effect that I am seeing around me a LOT these days). The good news is that positive experiences can reinflate the hippocampus, returning the ability to deeply feel happiness and joy.
The opposite impulse—spiritual bypassing—is to fall face-first into spirituality as a shelter from the harsh realities of the world. Some go as far in this direction as to deny harsh realities as “part of a Plan” (“Everything happens for a reason”; “It will all work out in the end”), and to pretend to be untouched by world events. This denial of personal anger and fear is psychologically dangerous, and it can lead to victim-blaming (“If something bad happened to you, you must have brought it upon yourself”). Often, the spiritually bypassing present themselves as “evolved”, “wise”, even “enlightened”, or consistently play the martyr. But they’re really just hiding feelings they fear and feel shame about. Spiritual bypassing is a state of delusion.
So: dry, cold misery…or full-on denial and delusion. Not much of a choice.
But there is a third path when confronted with the feeling of overwhelm at the cruelty and suffering in the world: a middle way. It’s harder to stick to. But interestingly enough, it can help us to carry on, even in times as difficult as these.
The first step when you feel yourself starting to get that grim, what’s-the-bloody-use feeling, is to grieve.
Keep up your practice, but build into it a moment when you can say I’m sad, I’m angry, I’m afraid today; it was caused by ___________, and I feel _____________ about it. I’m working through these feelings. I ask my deepest self and the Mighty Cosmos for compassion and aid.
If, for example, you have a gratitude practice—and I certainly encourage that you do—add a “gripe” practice. Acknowledge the feelings. Let them out.
And then go forward with your usual practice. Light the candles, burn the incense, pour the wine, turn the cards, shake the rattle and beat the drum. Do what you do. Breathe deeply of the scented air, and remember that this life is still a gift, still a wonder.
Take a walk. Go to the park. Sit by the river or the beach.
Settle into that calm, present place, the ritual state, the Zone. Find that inner calm.
The times when we feel least motivated to live our Atheopagan practices and lives in fullness are the times when we must push through, and do something, anything to keep them going.
Even if it’s small. Like lighting a candle and whispering a few words.
Our practices help to remind us to look for the beauty. To remember that we are uniquely magnificent creations of the Universe.
Hold on, friends. Hold on.
You must log in to post a comment.
Thank you Mark.
What you say here powerfully resonates with me, Mark. I also feel burned out, and I am trying to adopt these same strategies of staying within reach of the good, persisting with actions which help me, regulating the more negative inputs and noticing, appreciating and amplifying the positive. Even then, sometimes it just doesn’t work, and all one can do is hang on. Sending best thoughts to you.
Thank you, Hilary. Hard times, and those of us of good heart really need to work hard not to be demoralized.
I had those feelings with last year lockdowns. What helped me was to start spiritual practices, to acknowledge that my feelings needed attention. It helped me to gain some discipline which was essential to distribute my time between bad news, good news and work. Thinking with a clear mind, I realized that partly I was struggling because I only watched bad news. There are bad news, some of them are even urgent and pressing, but it is my choice how much time I give them in my head.
As you imply in your article, balance is the key. You can’t ignore the bad news, but you shouldn’t gloat on them. One or two hours a day is more than enough. Easier said than done, but here’s where the spiritual practices should be helping: a sharper mind, a stronger will, a sense of community.
Thanks for sharing, Mark. I appreciate the perspectives.
Thank you so much for this. It is much needed. Maybe by officially including grieving, we’re also less likely to run away from the spiritual practice.
That’s certainly my hope. Because we can use all the tools we can muster to muddle through, these days.