Do you feel that many years of Yoga, Meditation, or other spiritual practices didn’t help you resolve your trauma or some emotional wound?
Sometimes you perceive the world of spirituality as narcissistic and fake?
There is an answer to those questions: it is called Spiritual bypassing.
In the 70s, some spiritual teachers see the need to bring deep psychology into the east's practice: A. H. Almaas, the founder of the Diamond Approach, Eva Pierrakos with the Pathwork, and Osho, to name a few.
However, in the 80s, John Welwood, American psychotherapy and Buddhist practitioners, created the term spiritual bypassing to describe a phenomenon where people use various spiritual practices or beliefs to avoid painful emotions, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.
“When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with”- John Welwood.
THE CORE OF SPIRITUAL BYPASSING:
Emotions, by themselves, are neither negative nor positive, but as a child, we learn that not all of them are welcome, so we start to repress or dissociate from some of them, and that’s where the problem began.
The dissociation from the emotion will make us express it in a twisted, distorted way.
Let’s take anger, for example.
Fritz Pearl, a Psychotherapist, and founder of Gestalt therapy, described anger as life energy, and its healthy expression can help us in certain situations.
Maybe we have been treated in an abusive way in a particular context, so the anger we feel from this situation can help us establish a healthy boundary.
If we have believed the anger is wrong, we might channel it and express it in a twisted way, such as blaming or passive aggression, for example.
I took anger as an example, but every emotion holds its intelligence; if we are spiritually bypassing, we label them as "positive" or "negative."
So, being negative about certain emotion separates us from our unresolved wound and disconnect us from some part of ourselves.
As a consequence of denying our emotions, we also dismiss the emotion of others.
Rather than allow them to express their pain or disappointment, we might label them as negative or whiny.
Now, an important disclaimer:
Some of us might think to flip to the other side and act out painful emotions irresponsibly. Doing that also will not help.
It will be just another attempt to avoid getting in touch with it.
SIGNS OF SPIRITUAL BYPASSING
In transcendence, we go beyond something; we want to go beyond earthly life in this particular context.
In spiritual bypassing, transcendence became unhealthy because it results in escapism, disconnection, and avoidance.
Despite believing in Oneness and Non-separation, the unhealthy transcendence separates rather than unify and integrate ourselves from whatever we consider lower or negative.
First, there is nothing good about being negative, but being overly positive or kind can be a denial of something that needs to be seen and addressed.
Kindness, in this case, is rooted in fear rather than courage, so we might choose to be kind to avoid confronting a person or something about our life.
Spiritual superiority and narcissism:
If we feel not to be good enough within ourselves or lack self-confidence, some spiritual practice, and belief, it can lead to the "I'm awake, and you are not" syndrome.
We all need to feel special or seen by others, so we might embrace a particular practice that compensates for that need.
MEDITATION IN SPIRITUAL BYPASSING
Meditation itself or Mindfulness is an incredible tool that can improve the qualities of our life.
But there is another side of the coin.
Some form of Meditation can serve the purpose of numbing us by distancing from our pain.
Our psychological wounding might not show up so much during meditation because the focus is on our practice.
The relational wounds we hold inside usually show up during the relationship.
On the other side, if we are open to looking at ourselves without fear, we can use meditation to increase our awareness of our weak points.
THE COMPLEXITY AND THE UNAVOIDABLE TRAP OF SPIRITUAL BYPASSING
I want to make an esential point towards those who feel judged when they read about this topic.
Spiritually bypassing is not something we consciously choose to do, and from my experience, it is an unconscious act we probably have to go through it to understand.
In the growing up process, we develop many coping mechanisms to interact with the environment.
Along with that, we create a personality that has become a disconnection from our True Self.
When we reach adulthood, this identity that helps us survive and be accepted during childhood might have become dysfunctional, so we use spiritual practice to create a new identity based on the old dysfunctional one.
Usually, this false personality draws us towards a particular spiritual practice or belief; thus, we find just an alternative way to rationalize and reinforce old defenses.
At this point, this new identity as a spiritual person who has embraced a particular spiritual practice or belief is difficult to be recognized because it enables us to survive.
In the core of our being, this false personality has become linked with survival, so we feel that if we drop it, we will get in trouble.
Let’s take a general example of a person who had to numb himself in his body and heart because, as a child, the pain was unbearable: he might embrace a spiritual belief or practice that promotes detachment.
The detachment promotes in Buddhism, for example, is not intrinsically wrong, but with this person, it will become unhealthy because it came from a disconnection from his True Self.
OVERCOMING SPIRITUAL BYPASSING.
If we feel we got into the trap of spiritual bypassing, we need to begin by letting go of the idea that something is wrong with us.
We need to be brave enough to admit how we feel, what we want and don’t want, what we like, and what we don’t like in our life experience.
We need to allow our emotions and pain with compassion and understanding.
We need to develop the ability to observe our mental activities with healthy detachment.
I relate spiritual bypassing also with our Inner Critic, so working on it can help.
If you would like to know more, I recommend reading my article on the Inner Critic.
If this article speaks to you, and you want to explore how it might apply in your life, you can contact me, the
Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation (2002)
Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects US from What Really Matters (2010)
-Robert Augustus Masters
I also highly recommend the work of Mariana Caplan