Published December 2022
This is the first part in a three-part series called “Dancing in the Land of Spiritual Bypassing, ” written by three anonymous authors Dorit, Kate, and Sally, who have all practiced contact improvisation. All the stories in this series are based on incidents that occurred within the last two years.
I thank this author “Dorit” for the gift of her writing and story that was born out of the pain caused by another.
Please note the following TRIGGER WARNING:
This article refers to a sexual assault that occurred at a retreat.
I sit in my garden with my eyes closed and meditate. I chant, “There are no weeds. There are no weeds”. Yet there are weeds! And if I pretend they are not there, I will not be adequately set up to deal with them. And if I do not see the weeds, I am more likely to blame the vegetables for growing poorly.
I sit in a studio with a hundred other people. I am looking out large windows at a mountain view, and find comfort nestled in this mountain valley. It is the start of a retreat, and the participants all sit in a circle awaiting the opening instructions. I feel brave or perhaps naïve or a mix of both. I say this because I have returned to this retreat where I was sexually assaulted a year previously. The retreat organizers dealt with the assault in an appropriate manner and made many changes to their event to increase safety. But still, I am feeling unsure how being here will work out for me.
One of the leaders starts to give a presentation about consent and boundaries that underpin this dance and exploration event. This leader gives the same speech every year. I have heard it before because this is the sixth time I have come to this retreat.
“We ask all participants to come with the full intention and fair commitment to leave every interaction more beautiful than they found it. Through the above collective commitment, we aim to assure that people are coming with the best intentions even if that means we can still hurt and get hurt by others. While we’re asking for an intention to leave our connections more beautiful, we fully acknowledge that this might not always be possible and that people might actually be triggered and not want to connect at all. Consent can be messy and during our lifetime we will both hurt others and be hurt by others. Luckily this happens mostly unintentionally and not always. We hope people can grow from any mess that arises because working through the messiness with others can teach us about ourselves.”
It’s pretty much the same words as every year but I hear them differently. This seemingly benign and positive look at consent that did not bother me last year is now causing my shoulders to rise and my chest to pull inwards as if fending off a strike. How could I possibly leave my interaction with the person who assaulted me more beautiful than I found it? Being sexually assaulted did bring about some self-growth for sure. But I had to mine through so much pain to find that silver lining. If I had had a choice, I certainly would’ve picked a different path toward self-growth! I wasn’t “triggered”. I had an expected reaction to a horrible event. I did not want to connect afterward with my assailant, not because I was triggered but because he assaulted me!
The leader’s advice and guidance likely makes sense for people in the room who have not been sexually assaulted. I used to think it was a fine way of thinking. What they say can be true for boundary misunderstandings and miscommunications that are not high stakes. However, I can’t fit my experience into the leader’s idealistic guidance. I wonder if other people in the circle feel similarly. Statically there are likely five to fifteen attendees who have experienced sexual assault in this circle.
I put up my hand and say:
Hey, this advice does not work for every situation. In the case of something really bad happening, the person should not focus on leaving the interaction more beautiful. In these cases, they should focus on their own recovery. Any self-growth that may occur is going to be overshadowed by devastating pain. It is not a path to self-growth that anyone would choose for themselves.
There is a bit of a commotion, and the group leader calls a break. As I leave the room, I see someone from the event’s Care Team come hurrying after me. The Care Team is a volunteer group that attendees can seek out during the retreat if they need support. At this moment, I did not ask for support. Yet here this person is. I tell them that I am fine and that there is nothing wrong with me and that I felt the advice we were being given was lacking because it did not work with all cases. They nod their head with what I interpret as a sense of uncertainty in their eyes. I think maybe they were expecting that I would need help. I realize this is likely my fault. I had met with the retreat organizers prior to the event, because they wanted to know what I might need to attend comfortably. I gave them permission to let the Care Team check in on me. Now I am regretting this. Even though the Care Team person has only expressed concern for my well-being, in my mind I am unsure if they are there to offer me support or to keep me calm so that what happened last year will not become the focus of this year’s event. Maybe it’s a mix of both. I am trying hard to walk the balance of this line myself and it is not easy.
The circle reforms and it is now time for the Boundary Council to do its presentation. The Boundary Council was formed in response to the sexual assaults that occurred last year. At the previous year’s retreat, there was a person who was known for sexually predatory behaviour at other events. Several people had warned the organizers, but because there was no central group to process these warnings, they were never put together and acted upon. Nothing was done and this person sexually assaulted several people before he ended up being escorted off the property. I lean into the Boundary Council leader’s words anticipating a sense of healing relief to wash over me as I hear them explain this new initiative.
The leader of the Boundary Council stands up and begins to explain this group’s role in the festival. They describe that festival attendees should aim to be sovereign; to be in charge of themselves and their boundaries. They explain that we are all at different stages on this path toward sovereignty. Some of us are less far on this path than others and may need help sorting through boundary issues. If so, we could call upon the Boundary Council. They also explain the Boundary Council is set up to collect boundary concerns, for example, if people are worried about a particular person. I am so caught up in the sovereignty aspect that the sense of relief I expected turns instead into another cringe.
So I was assaulted because I lacked sovereignty? It would not have happened if I had been further along in my process? Should I have sought out support to ensure that this person did not assault me? What happened wasn’t my fault. Why would I need help in preventing someone from assaulting me? It is not me who needs help. No, it is the person who assaulted me that needed preventative attention.
I zone out and ponder upon an alternative version. This is something I have been doing over the past year. When I face victim-blaming perspectives, I rewrite the scene in my head to give myself a better version.
In my version, their speech goes like this:
If you feel you do not understand consent or are having trouble upholding the ideal of consent, please come to the Boundary Council and we will help you. We can help explain consent to you and even set you up with a consent accountability buddy. Also If you notice someone who is having trouble understanding or upholding consent, let us know and we will take appropriate action. Also, secondary to all this, if you are having challenges setting a boundary we can offer you support in doing so.
In this version, I still include the part about supporting people in setting boundaries because that is a way to teach good relationship skills. But this comes secondary to the main issue, which is working to prevent sexual assaults. In their article The Politics of Affirmative Consent, Rona Torenz writes about how sexual violence is not so much about a person being confused about someone’s boundaries due to miscommunication but rather them not liking boundary setting. Torez claims that the urge to exert power over someone is the cause of sexual violence. Though learning to clearly state and set your boundaries does build healthy relationships, it will not necessarily prevent sexual assaults. By focusing on “sovereignty” the retreat organizers are missing the work that must be done on prevention.
I understand what is happening in this opening circle as Spiritual Bypassing. In her video What is Spiritual By Passing?, Christine Lopes explains that it is a form of fragmentation in which a person or a community is escaping and rejecting parts of themselves that they do not want to admit they have and using spiritual language or utopic ideals to do so. It is a form of dissociation in a cloak of enlightenment.
Jeff Brown, the author of Grounded Spirituality explains that spiritual bypassing is the tendency to jump life’s challenges by racing to the divine, and that it is one of the great obstacles to emotional healing and development.
I feel that the group leader in the opening circle explained consent practices from a worldview in which sexual assaults do not happen. How could one say, “leave every interaction more beautiful than you find it” in a world where sexual assaults occur. How could one say “people get hurt and we hope that this will support people to grow from any mess that arises” in a world where sexual assaults occur.
Lopes explains that a key element in spiritual bypassing is the belief that “I can’t face it”. I think that the leaders in this community feel that they and the community can’t cope with learning about consent while acknowledging that sexual assaults have occurred in the community; that sexual assaults do happen in society.
When there is denial that sexual assaults occur, I believe there will be an accompanying inability to see the perpetrator or the person at risk of becoming a perpetrator. This puts the community at risk because without being able to see and talk about the issue, there will be no significant progress on increasing safety. Also when one does not see the perpetrator, the focus instead is placed solely upon the person who is hurt. Seeing the person hurt without acknowledging how they are hurt leads to ungrounded support that tends to be condescending and victim-blaming, and even goes as far as being aggressive. This guise of “helping” often just ends up hurting and blaming. Not seeing something, not talking about something, and blaming the person assaulted ensures that change never occurs. In this way, spiritual bypassing supports rape culture.
I am not saying that the retreat was run 100% in a state of spiritual by-pass. There was an open community discussion last year after the assaults occurred. They also provided an online community support session some months after the retreat to help the community process vicarious trauma. The leaders made changes to workshop guidelines, created a procedure to report concerns, and checked in with me before I came this year to see what I may need. I am grateful for all this. But in witnessing the opening circle, I realize that what has not changed is the spiritual by-passing culture that underpins this retreat. I see this retreat as a community in a state of back and forth; shaken towards change after what occurred last year but also stuck in a spiritual bypass mindset, maybe even without realizing they are. I worry the changes they have made will fall short unless there is an accompanying change in mindset.
So how could things have been done differently in this opening circle so that the people in the room who had been sexually assaulted would not have to cringe their way through the presentation? What changes could be made to prevent spiritual bypassing? Surprisingly, not much would need to change. The festival organizers could still follow their ideals but include language that acknowledges the experience of all who are in the room. When there is an acknowledgment that sexual assaults have and can occur in our community, I stop feeling that my experience is invisible or hidden away, and this has profound healing properties for me.
The leader could say:
“We ask that you aim to leave interactions more beautiful than you found them. We acknowledge that this is not always possible when egregious boundary violations occur... We want to present the idea that the consent process will be inherently messy. And sorting through this messiness with people can be a source of personal growth and learning. However, when there is a severe boundary violation, this principle is not always possible due to the harm done. A boundary violation as a path to self-learning is not a path some would choose due to the pain and hardship involved.
I give myself this rewrite and feel my shoulders relax and my breath becomes easy.
My recommendation to event leaders who present festival introductions or consent training is to look at your planned presentation through the lens of how it would land for a person who has been recently sexually assaulted. Statistically and sadly there is a good chance that all large events you run will include people in this situation. Through this lens, you may find ways that you are denying their experience or leading with a victim-blaming stance. By using this different perspective, you may discover your language and ideals imply that sexual assaults do not occur in your community. I am highly confident that these outcomes would not have been intentional. But whether intentional or not, they can still hurt people. If you discover you are doing these things, I then recommend rewriting your planned presentation and using language that acknowledges the reality of sexual assault appropriately. Write your presentation for all those who are in the room.
When attendees hear opening remarks that have a spiritual by-pass tone implying a victim-blaming stance, they may be less likely to risk coming forwards with a concern or complaint. This is why when the reality of sexual assault is acknowledged, it is more likely for a person to report a boundary-crossing. When the existence of sexual assault is acknowledged is also more likely that leaders or community members will see the person in the group that is struggling to follow consent practices and be able to set community boundaries or offer them guidance and support. It is also more likely that those who have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime will feel included. In this way, acknowledging the reality of sexual assault helps build safer spaces in which to dance and explore.
In finishing, I want to say that the retreat was a mix of moments of spiritual bypassing and moments of heartfelt acknowledgment from the leader and attendees. Many people offered me kindness and support that felt appropriate and matched what I needed. Also, I understand that to return after a very public sexual assault had occurred was a tricky thing to do… not just for me but for everyone involved. I was a walking, standing reminder of what had happened and there was no rule book or guidance to follow on how to do this right. I acknowledge that most people were probably doing the best they could, and the things that were hurtful were most likely people unconsciously reflecting the rape culture that we are all steeped in. What is needed is a shift in culture, and a shift in culture takes time.
I sit in my garden with my eyes open and look at the weeds. I contemplate what I can do to prevent the weeds from taking away a bountiful harvest.
* Note: details have been changed to protect the anonymity of the retreat. The writer has done this because they want the message about spiritual bypassing to be the focus, rather than calling out a specific retreat.
(2022). Sexual Assault Statics in Canada. https://www.sexassault.ca/statistics.htm
(2022). Statistics about sexual Violence and Abuse. https://rapecrisis.org.uk/get-informed/statistics-sexual-violence/
(2022). Statics. National Sexual Violence Resource Centre. PA, USA. https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics
Brown, J. (2019) Grounded Spirituality, Enrealment and Spiritual Bypas. Amisha Ghadiali Channel. https://youtu.be/YqGrSXxnjwg
Brown, J. (2018). Grounded Spirituality. Enrealment Press. Acton, Ontario
Lopes, C. (2020) What is Spiritual By Passing? (How to Stop Doing It!). https://youtu.be/nhTKWVKJNlE
Rona Torenz (2021). The Politics of Affirmative Consent: Considerations from a Gender and Sexual Studies Perspective. German Law Journal, Cambridge University Press. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/german-law-journal/article/politics-of-affirmative-consent-considerations-from-a-gender-and-sexuality-studies-perspective/B25EBDAFB1A142D125D0542882614D84
Underwater photo by Greg Schilhab