Published January 17 2023
This is the third part of 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 the series are based on incidents that occurred within the last two years.
I thank this author “Sally” for the gift of her writing and her story. It is so rare that someone who has decided to leave the contact improvisation community gives us the gift of their story and thoughts. As she states in her article most of the time this voice disappears from the conversation.
Please note the following TRIGGER WARNING: This article tell a story that includes a boundary violation, taking advantage of the beginner/experienced dancer power-imbalance, and a spiritual-by-passing response. It also refers to sexual and spiritual abuse, and disassociate responses.
Tips to Master Your Lolita Energy and Manifest the Dances of Your Dreams:
Spiritual Bypassing Experienced from a Dancer with Complex PTSD
“Lolita” is defined by Webster’s dictionary as a “precociously seductive girl.” The name and its meaning originate from Nabokov’s novel Lolita – a jarring tale of the sexual victimization of a child by the narrator.
I empathize with Lolita in this article as I was often the youngest woman at contact events and found myself repeatedly sexualized. I also frequently noticed my voice dismissed as I was a new dancer. Furthermore, when I was young, I had a condition called ‘precocious puberty’ that caused premature development in my body and initiated my long, complex battle with PTSD.
“The biggest crime in Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ is imposing your own dream upon someone else’s reality. Humbert Humbert is blind. He doesn’t see Lolita’s reality. He doesn’t see that Lolita should leave. He only sees Lolita as an extension of his own obsession. This is what a totalitarian state does.” –Azar Nafisi
I finally have the courage to write this piece about my experiences as I have recently decided that I truly deserve to feel safe. I write this as a young female dancer with only a few years of experience with contact improv on and off, but I won’t pretend to know the form well. I had to acknowledge my own internalized misogyny and my practice of spiritual bypassing which I previously believed meant throwing myself into intense states of catharsis was healing. These unconscious beliefs enabled me to continue to practice contact improv despite so many violations and emotional turmoil.
I later learned about Polyvagal Theory and realized that my window of tolerance is narrowed due to my history, and my nervous system was not equipped for the unfacilitated jams that attract perpetrators (Wright, 2022). With help from trauma-informed somatic counsellors, I slowly understood that catharsis for me was not healing. My body’s strong symptoms meant I was leaving my window of tolerance and retraumatizing myself by doing so. I needed to focus solely on increasing my window of tolerance in safe spaces rather than throwing myself into high-risk situations. At the risk of being triggered, I had to let go and grieve the decision that I may not be able to practice contact improvistion again if there are no trauma or consent-informed facilitators present. I had to grieve the connections I made within the community, knowing that many of those “friends” are blind to other dancers’ experiences and instead adopt a spiritual bypassing or victim-blaming approach towards those harmed.
Ingrid Clayton, in her article, Beware of Spiritual Bypass, describes how spiritual bypassing is a defense mechanism that shields us from the truth. We are spiritually distracting ourselves from our feelings but believe we are walking a healthy spiritual path.
I have come to the point of being ok with quitting contact improvisation altogether. This realization liberated me from my fears about speaking out and the possibility of being scapegoated as a “bad egg,” being banned from events, or enduring harassment from the dance community. I thought sharing my story might give insight to other women navigating some of these topics to feel seen and validated. It can feel extremely isolating as a victim of sexual assault due to the gaslighting many survivors face culturally.
Contact dance can be a very vulnerable space – I have heard senior teachers mention that contact improvisation still brings them to their “edge” even now, sometimes resulting in being overwhelmed at jams. Why is that? Is it just the introspective nature of the dance, or could it be the lack of guidelines pushing people to their edges needlessly? It can be even more vulnerable as a practice if, like me, you have a history of childhood sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or spiritual abuse from yoga and spiritual communities. The lack of facilitation, or rather spiritual-bypassing-style of facilitation at contact jams is very isolating for a victim with boundary violations, and the fellow dancers gaslighting techniques are the cherry-on-top to make you feel inadequate as a new dancer.
I remember the initial stages of contact improvisation thinking to myself, “I should have more willpower during these advancements from men – why can’t I leave the dance and why do I feel frozen? I must be putting out a vibe that says ‘target’ but how do I stop that?” I was trained by my peers to take full responsibility for my own experiences; thus, beating myself up over allowing these non-consensual sexual advancements to happen on the dance floor. Earlier in my contact dance experience, I was unconscious of the extent of my repressed sexual trauma, appease response, or lack of boundaries, and I was projecting with my actions or rather lack thereof. It was through contact improvisation that I became aware of how well I was avoiding these triggers in my life to keep memories repressed. Through contact dance I became triggered, uncovering memories to further process in therapy. It was also through contact dance that I was retraumatized with sexual abuse and spiritual abuse within the dance community. Below is one of these such instances.
Trigger warning: This story includes a boundary violation, taking advantage of beginner/experienced dancer power-imbalance and a spiritual-by-passing response.
I was dancing with a man who I later noticed seemed to dance almost exclusively with younger women. We were doing a “contact improv/authentic movement” spin-off exercise (since learning authentic movement from someone trained extensively in it, I see how damaging it can be when not taught accurately). The exercise had each of us witness another person dance for 5 minutes, trade, then move into a contact improvisation duet. As my solo was being witnessed by the man, I could sense him sexualizing my performance. I started dissociating, becoming numb and unconscious with my movements. My body felt far away, and I struggled being witnessed, opting eventually to do stretches with my eyes closed to try to feel in my body, ground myself, and ignore the man. When I opened my eyes, the man was still undoubtedly sexualizing me and raised his eyebrows, projecting his desires on me. I felt some relief when we switched roles and I got to witness him, feeling more in control. Then it was time for the duet; the man almost immediately picked me up, threw me over his shoulder, walked out of eyesight of the rest of the dancers, put me down, and proceeded to grope me and make the “dance” very sensual. I became completely frozen when he put me over his shoulder, I dissociated and stayed in that state for most of the “duet” with or without his awareness. The teacher at the time must have sensed this as they approached us casually and proceeded to dance solo 15 feet away from us, and may have even checked in with us verbally. I was blacked out and didn’t remember much of the duet other than looking at the sky in shock waiting for it to be over. I had the occasional giggle (as part of an appease nervous system response I learnt later), which the teacher might have interpreted as consent and didn’t intervene. I was very grateful for this teacher simply dancing near us and witnessing the duet as who knows what might have happened otherwise. Finally, the duet time commitment ended, and we all gathered again in a group. The man may have thought I was consensually present in the duet the entire time; although he did not verbally check in with me, he was sexually coercive. I later learned that my history of trauma played a large part in my inability to resist aggressive sexual advances and my strong dissociation response.
Later in the day, during a break, I tried to talk to him about my experience during the duet. I thought he might want to know how I felt, but I was wrong. I tried to explain my feelings, but I became entrapped in an appease response – triggered by just talking with him. I feebly discussed how I was overwhelmed and didn’t want that to happen again, attempting to voice a sexual boundary. I knew he was engaged to be married to a woman who was not present, so I asked if he would tell his fiancé about the dance. I told him it would make me more comfortable if she knew. He said he would not be telling her and glazed over and ignored what I had to say. He said something along the lines of, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but it is not my problem.”
There was no discussion during this contact improvisation event about consent or trauma-informed practices – this was within my first year of practicing contact improvisation. There was a nonverbal exercise to practice leaving dances frequently and mixing up partners but that was it. “You can leave a dance whenever you like” is a commonly known guideline I have heard in contact improvisation space. However, how does this approach work if someone has a history of trauma and is unable to leave a dance due to a trigger or appease response after a boundary violation? Should a teacher be trauma-informed and be able to intervene if they see a student showing symptoms of a freeze-response in a sexual or sensual dance? Or should we all let nature take its course in the anarchist, spiritual-bypassing fashion that draws so many to the contact dance scene?
At unfacilitated jams, it seems that individuals spiraling into their “trauma vortex” (a somatic-experiencing term coined by Peter Levine) are left to fend for themselves alone (Morgan, 2022). Alternatively, it is left on the shoulders of attendees of the event who may happen to be trauma-informed to facilitate something for the person if they are lucky (which I was at times). These attendees are not paid to do this – they use their own time to hold space out of compassion and empathy, sometimes having trauma-informed awareness to see the signs of an unregulated nervous system.
Facilitators and teachers who spiritually bypass consent and trauma are making a profit while ignoring the collective re-traumatization and revictimization at these events for those less privileged. This practice also makes contact improvisation inaccessible to many. I have friends who say contact is terrifying and beyond their comfortability due to their own trauma, or they have heard enough stories of sexual predators that they would not choose to expose themselves to that. If suddenly there are collective boundaries to hold a safer space, I wonder how upset people currently benefiting from the lack of these boundaries would be. I also wonder how much more accessible the space would become for a more diverse group of people who will not currently attend because of the exhausting constant need to assert one’s own boundaries and the resulting gaslighting from others in those instances.
“I am sorry you don’t feel safe in this space, and you are not able to dance more”, a senior contact improvisation teacher said to me. This was after I spoke in the sharing circle at the end of his class. I spoke of how I was a survivor of sexual abuse, and it was extremely challenging to bring myself to contact improvisation spaces knowing that I am on my own with my triggers as there is typically no one facilitating a trauma or consent-informed space. I voiced my opinion much later in my practice of contact improvisation after gaining enough confidence to express my experience. I was met with the above response from the lead teacher and some students chiming in behind him with, “no one can really make you feel anything” – a quote I assume taken out of context from non-violent communication practices. Non-violent communication is rooted in compassion which was absent in these deflective comments. The students continuously asked for details of my trauma history and the teacher let them, to perhaps to try to validate my current experience for themselves?
Melissa Renzi discusses spiritual bypassing in her article, Spiritual Bypass: 5 Common Examples, Why it Happens and What to Do. Renzi explains that the wisdom teaching of reality can be frequently “misconstrued”. Many seekers experience a glimpse of the ‘absolute reality’ denigrating the ‘relative reality’ as an illusion. The absolute is not superior over the relative – both realities are true. At a societal level there are uncomfortable realities and injustices. When we avoid facing problematic issues in our outer-systems, we invalidate the lived experiences of others while shirking our own accountability to create healthier systems that support everyone.
I am not unique as a dancer trying out contact improvisation and to have repressed trauma surface due to re-traumatization. I believe we don’t often hear about these scenarios for multiple reasons:
- Individuals aware of their own neurodivergence or trauma history would not continue to attend contact improvisation events and be retraumatized, thus disappearing from the conversation;
- Victim shaming culture ensures these stories are silenced;
- Spiritual bypassing practiced in the community acknowledges these issues and claims that it is the victim’s fault for “manifesting or attracting that for themselves in a dance, as it is their only responsibility to take care of themselves”;
- Victims are in denial and take complete responsibility for the abuse or spiritually bypass themselves as a form of a fawn response. This is often a very skillful appease and a nervous system response to seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs, and demands of others (Marriott & Kelley, 2020).
Lonny Jarrett, author of Deepening Perspectives on Chinese Medicine, explains how many of us delude ourselves, preferring to imagine that we operate from a much higher source of motivation. When the going gets tough, perspective contracts and most of us act from selfish motives based on fear and desires of the ego. Although the spiritual path begins with the individual seeking freedom for the sake of personal relief, the culmination of the path manifests as a common integrity for the sake of all. Authentic freedom entails a deep sense of obligation to others, grounding the expression of enlightenment in a deeper integrity. This is relatable to the Bodhisattva Vow, “be the doctor and the medicine,” (Tricycle, 2018). We eventually cultivate the felt obligation to soul, self, and others.
What to do instead of Spiritual Bypassing?
- Not Knowing. Admit to yourself and others if a situation is too complex or overwhelming that you do not know, humbly remain open to solutions.
- Validate Relative Reality. Feel into and voice the sensations and emotions in the body. Use your feeling and thinking self before your spiritual self’s concepts blanket and hide any emotions. Validate the relative reality’s truth before deflecting with the absolute reality’s truth.
- Compassion and Kindness. Reflect on your own internal spiritual bypassing, be present and compassionate with those parts that were bypassed and learn from those parts. You will then be more able to have compassion for other’s tendencies. Try to touch the place of hurt that can relate to others suffering rather than exiling them (Hahn, 2020). Working with a counselor might be needed if there are significant wounded exiles that have been bypassed.
- Intention vs. Impact. When spiritual bypassing, the person often believes they are being helpful and mean well. However, the impact can still be hurtful or shaming. You can have good intentions and still apologize and validate when your intentions cause harm, thus owning the impact of our words and actions (Renzi, 2020). This validates the lived experiences of others.
Feel free to comment below – this piece is intended to start conversation around these topics in spiritual communities and share perspectives and solutions.
“Lolita,” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Lolita
Azar Nafisi Quotes. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved December 10, 2022, from BrainyQuote.com Web site: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/azar_nafisi_437436
Clayton, I. (October 2, 2011). Beware of Spiritual Bypass. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/emotional-sobriety/201110/beware-spiritual-bypass
Wright, A. (May, 23, 2022). What is the Window of Tolerance, and Why Is It So Important? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/making-the-whole-beautiful/202205/what-is-the-window-tolerance-and-why-is-it-so-important
Renzi, M. (Jul 23, 2020) Spiritual Bypass: 5 Common Examples, Why It Happens, and What to Do. Retrieved Dec. 10, 2022, from https://melissanoelrenzi.com/spiritual-bypass/
Hahn, R. (July 10, 2020). Spiritual bypassing: What it is & how to avoid it. Retrieved December 10, 2022, from https://rosehahn.com/spiritual-bypassing/
Lonny S. Jarrett. (2020). Deepening Perspectives on Chinese Medicine. (pp.212-217. United States, MA: Spirit Path Press.
Marriott, S. Kelley, A. (Feb 27, 2020). TU116: Fight Flight Freeze … and “Fawn”?? Can People-Pleasing Be a Sign of Trauma? In Therapist Uncensored. https://therapistuncensored.com/episodes/tu116-fight-flight-freeze-and-fawn-can-people-pleasing-be-a-sign-of-trauma/
Walker, P. (Jan/Feb, 2003). Codependency, Trauma and the Fawn Response. The East Bay Therapist. http://www.pete-walker.com/codependencyFawnResponse.htm
Porges, S. (Oct 1, 2021). Treating Trauma: When Working with Please and Appease. NICABM Channel. https://youtu.be/9mPNvFQTVa0
Morgan, R. (2022 received from website). A Path of Heart Counselling Services. https://apathofheart.com/individual-counselling/how-somatic-experiencing-works/
Tricycle. (2018, November 21). The bodhisattva vow: Eight Views. https://tricycle.org/magazine/bodhisattva-vow-eight-views/
Underwater photo by Greg Schilhab