Spiritual bypassing can wreak havoc and provide one tough barrier to overcome on our journey of self-development. It is perhaps one of the more insidious and cunning traps the ego can set – one that is not only hard to see, but also hard to know when we are in its grips. This is because spiritual bypassing hides in the guise of an act or habit that the ego presents to us as beneficial and actually furthering and strengthening to our self-development. Personally, this was one of the harder barriers I overcame, as my mind was particularly cunning and persuasive when it came to the employment of spiritual bypassing.
So what exactly is spiritual bypassing? Spiritual bypassing is a "tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks" as put by John Welwood – an American transpersonal psychologist who is often cited as having coined the phrase. It is a way to use our spiritual practice as a means to avoid underlying psychological and emotional issues that require attention and healing. The sinister nature of it’s mechanisms comes in the idea that it is actually beneficial to our development, and is in fact an integral part of healing those very same emotional and psychological issues.
Spiritual Bypassing will ensure those parts of ourselves that are striving for our attention go unnoticed while our focus lies elsewhere, all under the guise of progression.
When the fervent enthusiasm that accompanies the early spiritual endeavour is first embodied – it becomes easy to overlook our humanity, and all the facets that encompass our humanness (be it emotional, physical or psychological). There exists a type of spiritual honeymoon period that may accompany our experience after having first being introduced to spiritual ideas and practices, and having had some insights and joyous or blissful moments due to the fruit borne from those ideals. These experiences, if not kept in check from a grounded perspective, can lead us to a type of divorce from our very human parts, in aid of attempting to remain in the spiritual paradigm; forever trying to produce and attain more wondrous spiritual experiences while all else is left behind. This was certainly the case for me. Turning away from the elements of my humanity that were seeking for attention in the name of ‘transcendence’ proved to be quite the error of judgement in the years to come.
Don’t get me wrong, these experiences are in fact beautiful and can prove to be very beneficial to our lives, if they only are embodied and grounded in our humanity. It may be well and good floating on a cloud of bliss in some spiritual plane; but not if that floating comes at the expense of alienating oneself from the world and those in it. We are still social creatures, and at the end of the day, we exist in networks, and bills still need to be paid.
Perhaps one of the worst offenders in the modern spiritual stratosphere is the incessant tropes that are continuously spouted in the world of Neo-Advaita. These utterances go something along the lines of:
“There is no me, so there is no one here feeling this anxiety/fear/depression etc”
“Thoughts are meaningless, and stories are just thoughts – there is no one here to believe in them, so I can just drop them”.
There are endless iterations on these sentiments, and like many, I fell prey to the laziness provided by the venom of their bites. You can repeat those above lines (or similar sentiments) in your head until the cows come home – but what good really can come from it? How did your quality of life improve? What real changes were made, and what real development did you see within yourself? It’s as if the lines themselves are so profound that they render any action or intention to change futile.
I will say that as a Band-Aid, these approaches can provide some reprieve – but only as a band-aid. I believe this reprieve to be in the space provided from discerning between the observing and thinking mind. To say “there is no one here to be anxious” ensures that through observation, you identify the feeling of anxiety and the space in which it occurs. But that’s about where the benefits end and the troubles begin – it is a toenail in the door at best. The trouble then starts when we call upon this technique over and over and over again whenever the inevitable return of the same psychological and emotional issues arise. A cocktail of self induced delusion and ignorance that produces one perplexing hangover.
Too often I found myself (and have noticed this is in certain communities) wanting to reach the end game when I in fact, had no idea what it even was! In my case, it was the idea of Enlightenment – something that is literally ‘sold’ these days. I enveloped myself in teaching after teaching, book after book, until I became an “expert” on what it was – having never reached it (and in fact having absolutely no clue what it actually was). I knew the right words to say, and how to deflect, with poise and eloquence, any real questions levelled at my authenticity or my displays of content. It’s actually quite easy once you get the hang of “the I that feels depressed doesn’t exist” type of thing.
Feet on the Ground.
Escaping the trap was found during this passage of time. I was an expert that truly felt like a phoney. In my heart I knew I didn’t believe what I was saying, and that you could not skip over an entire process by versing oneself in superfluous language. I looked back to my ‘honeymoon’ period, and began to see all the little ways that the very real sides of my humanity got rejected and left by the wayside. It took some time to even acknowledge this and begin the true work of integration. As I have said in one of my social media posts: rejection of self is no way forward.
Spiritual bypassing is not exclusive to the Neo-Advaita tradition – this is just one obvious example of its ugliness. As the earlier definition explains, it can exist in a multitude of spiritual practices and ideas: running to the meditation cushion at the onset of an uncomfortable emotion, looking to the nearest tarot card for our next important decision, unconscious recycling of affirmations in the presence of particularly troubling thoughts - there is an endless list.
When the question at the core of our intent is “How do I feel something other than what I am feeling right now?”, then we exit the realm of spirituality and enter into the realm of psychology, and as such, our remedy lies in psychological understanding and practice. That is why I am such a huge fan of therapy, and encourage all who read this to seek it out where possible, and when called for.
It takes courage and spiritual maturity to both look into and reach toward all that lay within us.
I will leave this post with a very profound quote authored by Robert Augustus Masters from his book Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters. I feel the quote ends this newsletter on a rather fitting note.
"“When transcendence of our personal history takes precedence over intimacy with our personal history, spiritual bypassing is inevitable. To not be intimate with our past—to not be deeply and thoroughly acquainted with our conditioning and its originating factors—keeps it undigested and unintegrated and therefore very much present".