The term spiritual bypassing was first coined by psychologist and Buddhist teacher John Welwood in 1984. It refers to the many ways in which people use spiritual teaching and practices to avoid facing painful emotions, situations or unmet needs. Sometimes spiritual teachings can be used to legitimise that avoidance; sometimes the bypassing may be so subtle it is unnoticed or normalised. Robert Masters has a great description of it – “Avoidance in Holy Drag”. Like so much human behaviour it is nothing to be ashamed of, simply a natural movement of the human mind away from suffering but if we are unaware we are bypassing it can become a barrier on our spiritual journey.
Bypassing can lead to a withdrawal and disconnection as we hide behind our spiritual ideas and create a façade of superficiality and niceness. An over-emphasis on being positive all the time can develop as an escape from owning and healing our psycho-spiritual selves. Yet by developing a true capacity for real emotions we enable a more authentic embodiment of spiritual understanding which is not possible if we bypass them.
A few examples of spiritual bypass include:
- Exaggerated detachment
- De-emphasis on taking any sort of thoughts or feelings seriously
- Poor boundaries
- Anger or conflict phobia
- Desire phobia
- Devaluation of the personal over the spiritual
- Emotional numbing or repression
- Delusions of having arrived at a transcendent level of being
What I frequently see in my work is what can be described as premature transcendence – trying to rise above our humanness before we have fully understood and made peace with it. This creates a schism between the form and formless aspects of ourselves. This lop-sided spirituality inhibits deeper understanding because avoiding painful feelings in an attempt to protect ourselves creates more masks and barriers. Human emotions are not something we can ignore indefinitely without consequence. For example, intimate relationships don’t flourish where one or both partners are dismissive of emotional needs.
So what does it look like in practice? Well if you find yourself saying or thinking any of these you could be bypassing.
- It’s just a thought.
- I know it’s my thinking.
- It’s all an illusion anyway.
- He doesn’t have a very good grounding, otherwise he wouldn’t be upset.
- It is just ego telling you that.
- The fact that she is upset is down to her not you.
What else do we get up to when we are spiritually bypassing?
- Do you strive to maintain the appearance of someone always at peace?
- Do you live in a bubble of love and light?
- Do you reach for spiritual books or Syd Banks recordings when you feel upset?
- Do you regard some feelings as positive and some as negative and seek to rid yourself of the negative ones?
- Do you reframe things e.g. “It’s all meant to be.”
None of these examples actually means you are spiritually bypassing, and it is all done innocently anyway, but being aware of it and honest with ourselves can be very helpful and save us time and anguish later.
One of most helpful aspects of the three principles understanding over some other spiritual teachings is that it truly embraces our humanness. Sydney Banks said:
“If the only thing people learned was not to be afraid of their experience, that alone would change the world.”
The principles understanding teaches us to be unafraid of our experience so there should be no need for bypassing and yet it is what I see in my work on a regular basis. I see this most often when people are struggling with an old familiar state of mind, such as anxiety or depression, that returns after a period of peace that often comes on the back of insight into the principles. Or when yet another relationship is breaking down. People wall off parts of themselves they do not want to look at or go into denial about a situation they repeatedly find themselves in. Sometimes we have to give ourselves permission to feel fully what is trying to be felt. Sometimes we have to find courage to turn and face what we are trying to avoid.
There is often wisdom to be found in feelings, memories and situations that keep coming back. Your soul is always whispering to you but sometimes it howls at you in the form of painful feelings or experience, even physical pain or illness.
What we resist often seems to get stronger and that which we do not bring into the light of consciousness will continue to lurk in the shadows and haunt us. Often when we have deeper spiritual understanding we are better equipped to deal with our “demons” so the deeper intelligence will bring them forth so that we can look at them from a new perspective.
One of the other types of bypassing I frequently see is the devaluation of the personal over the spiritual – the personal self is just an illusion syndrome. This syndrome is also prevalent within the neo advaita and contemporary non-duality teachings. It can lead to serious bypassing and a denial of individuality. True integration of spiritual understanding means living consciously in the both form and formless dimensions.
It has to be said that I do my fair share of signposting people towards the formless, to our spiritual essence, to who we really are. It can be transformational. Yet there is also a need to ground that understanding in our everyday experience. To deny duality is to deny life. It is through duality that the energy of life itself moves and creates the sacred form of existence.
I love the grounded practicality of the Three Principles teaching but as a community we are not immune from the traps seen in other spiritual communities. Spiritual bypassing is the shadow side of spirituality. Awareness of it is helpful because when we allow ourselves to acknowledge what we have been avoiding we can look at it directly in the light our deeper understanding of the Principles. As we bring love and understanding to those lost parts of ourselves we can learn to integrate them and move towards wholeness.
(The photo at the top of this blog was taken on a kayaking trip to Chocolate Beach on a tiny uninhabited island adjacent to Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada.)