John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, first coined the term spiritual bypassing in the early 1980s. It defines “the tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds and unfinished developmental tasks.”
Spiritual bypassing is not necessarily unhealthy when chosen consciously to cope with acute stress (Fox, J.; Cashwell, C. S.; Picciotto, G. (2017)). However, if it is used constantly to sidestep the real issue at hand then we have to take a closer look at it as it keeps us spiritually immature. That is if our intention is to heal the psychological Mother Wound. Part of the path of awakening and healing, however, is to engage in spiritual bypassing, at least in the beginning. Both Dan and Aleah, for years, ran from one workshop or seminar to the next, travelled all over the world to find the ultimate thing that will finally make life easier and stop the suffering.
What is to give light, must endure burning - Victor Frankl Klick um zu Tweeten
Spiritual bypassing can be very subtle and sometimes hard to detect or acknowledge. As mentioned above with denial being in place spiritual bypassing is a great defence mechanism and serves to regulate unbearable emotional upheaval. But let’s quickly talk about why we do that in the first place. Yes, for one we know that the brain protects us from emotional upheaval. Through spiritual bypassing we actually bypass where it really hurts. However, we also want to share a perspective from our own personal experience and observation.
As mentioned above we bypass spiritually in order to avoid feeling painful feelings. And herein lies the misconception. We don’t really try to avoid feeling per se. Because feeling what you have to feel when you want to resolve the psychological Mother Wound is not impossible, and unimaginably difficult as the brain makes it out to be. And you can certainly do it, because we did it too.
Nobody Wants To Suffer
What we are actually trying to avoid is suffering. A very specific kind of suffering. That suffering is connected to our experience of overall emotional suffering during childhood when we carried a lot of difficult feelings without having anywhere to go with it. Our parents very probably were not emotionally attuned enough to tend to our emotional suffering. For one because they might have lacked awareness and two, they might have been people who repressed their own pain too. That made it hard to deal with a child’s feelings and vulnerability and even more, so it makes it hard to get confronted with your children’s needs when your own needs have not been met either.
Repeat after us:
Feeling does not equal suffering.
Feeling does not equal suffering.
Feeling does not equal suffering.
Yet again, you can read these words, but unless your brain repetitively made the experience that allowing feelings was a safe experience and not one that results in emotional death, chances are you will keep feeling scared of “going back there”.
Healing work is layer work and we have to reveal one by one. Klick um zu Tweeten
Possible Signs Of Spiritual Bypassing
- Intellectualizing higher truths, ideas and concepts
- Judging certain emotions as unspiritual (jealousy, anger or frustrations for example)
- Being stuck in the head and overthinking
- Being overly focused on conspiracy theories
- Overemphasis on the positive
- Judgement about ones’ shadow side
- Does not have to, but can be used to bypass: Believing in god or being rigidly religious
- Delusion of having arrived at a higher level of consciousness
- Forceful effort to kill the “ego”
- Using statements such as “everything is perfect as it is”, “its all just an illusion!” or “love is all there is”, etc.
- Using mediation or yoga or breathwork to escape unpleasant emotions
- Being overly positive and too detached
- Premature forgiveness
- Overdone niceness
- Being superficial
- Plant medicine and drugs
- Romancing spirituality
- Focusing on helping and saving others to avoid dealing with one’s own issues
Feeling Superior To Others And Infinitely Wise
You can also easily tap into “spiritual materialism”, a term coined by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. It is “a distorted, ego-centred version of spirituality”, where in the end we are only deceiving ourselves into thinking that we are so developed spiritually. Instead, we are only strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques and remain spiritually immature. We almost get addicted to spiritual teachings and practices.
Another interesting sign is when you start feeling superior to others combined with a judgmental attitude. During their spiritual bypassing time, Dan and Aleah tried to convince everyone around them about the newest addition to their spiritual make-up. Secretly they looked a little bit down on people who were still “plugged into the Matrix”, haven’t done the important spiritual work or didn’t travel the world to expand their being.
Feeling superior happens partly also for another reason. As we are still sitting on the wound of not having felt loved or significant to mother/father, we try to create that feeling of superiority by putting ourselves above others. In the end it is only an emotional survival strategy. In this way we do not have to feel the insignificance our unconscious continuously troubles us with.
Spiritual bypassing brings us away from our pain and issues but also from our authenticity. Klick um zu Tweeten
If we want to cut through spiritual bypassing, we have to turn towards the painful, that which you feel resistance towards, the unwanted and the scary. To do this we must cut through a couple of layers such as our numbness and defences, pacing ourselves in the process and not think of it as something we have to be able to do a certain way. Healing work is messy work and you get to your goals faster if you slow down properly. Healing and growth is not something we just dabble in here and there, it asks for your sincerest commitment and dedication, especially when the going gets tough.
In this work, in the end, the goal is to become much more comfortable with emotional discomfort and that is the opposite of spiritual bypassing. It is challenging, but very rewarding. In our own experience; once you become comfortable with your vulnerability, nothing will ever seem so hard anymore as you truly mastered a very important human skill.
You are not alone in this! We are here for you and happy to answer any questions you might have.
Aleah Ava & Dan Hart,
Founders of The Royal Path
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- John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist