We tend to associate spirituality with transcendental, heightened states of being that are invariably related to the emotions of joy, happiness, contentment, and deep inner peace.
Spiritual growth and its journey can be life-changing. It can make you happier, healthier, more connected to Source (God, Spirit, Zero-Point, whatever term works for you), feel safe and well taken care of, and finally give you the tools you need to live an authentic, fulfilling life.
The term ‘spiritual bypassing’ was originally coined by psychologist John Welwood in 1984. As he explained in an interview, “Spiritual bypassing is a term I coined to describe a process I saw happening in the Buddhist community I was in, and also in myself. Although most of us were sincerely trying to work on ourselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”
The issues Welwood is referring to include the loss of a beloved, a relationship breakup, childhood abuse, family problems, low self-esteem, loneliness, self-sabotaging behaviors, fear, emotional or mental health issues, and any other problems life presents. In short, spiritual bypassing is the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.
For many people, spirituality becomes a crutch used as a way of standing back up again in the face of life’s turmoil – and sometimes this is necessary. We all need support at times – the problem comes when spirituality is used as a drug for which we become dependent on in order to bypass the pain and darker elements of our lives.
When spirituality is employed as a defense mechanism to ward off the “bad parts” of our existence, it actually becomes our greatest hindrance, preventing us from developing authenticity, true courage, and wholeness; qualities that refine our souls. The use of spirituality can provide us with a solid place to hide, but in doing so it traps us in an all-is-happy-and-perfect illusion.
If you think you have done spiritual bypassing yourself or know anyone who has, do not beat yourself (or others) up about it, it is a pitfall many fall into for at least a moment. Spirituality often feels great! That is why it is easy to get stuck on the positive side of it, but it can also mean that you are repressing and avoiding everything else. Long term, that does not serve you. The good news is that by realizing you may be spiritually bypassing the full experience of human life, you can make the changes necessary to progress to the next level where spirituality makes you feel good, makes you grow, and creates a launching pad for you to achieve everything else in life as well.
There are so many promises out there that this path or that practice will allow you to live in a perpetual state of bliss, achieving all of your goals, becoming rich and thin in the process. Who doesn’t want that?
I am amazed at all the ways in which we try to feel endlessly good. We’ve gotten progressively more skillful in our methods: turning away from drugs or alcohol to alter our consciousness and turning towards things like self-help books, meditation, yoga, prayer, clearing techniques, and special diets. But when using any of those practices we can also distract ourselves from our feelings, thinking that we are walking a healthy spiritual path.
People often ask me about a particular spiritual practice, hoping that their particular belief or experience with spirituality does not fall prey to spiritual bypass. Often they try to convince me that when done properly, their spiritual practice is about connection, greater consciousness, and acceptance. I reply that spiritual bypass is an equal opportunity defense mechanism. It is more associated with what we do with our spiritual practice than it is related to the practice itself.
Types of Spiritual Bypassing
There are many types of spiritual bypassing that may show up in life. Some of the more common examples include:
The Optimistic Bypass
Most of us have met people who love to laugh and smile, yet seem to be forcefully optimistic. “Focus on the positive!”, “See the glass as half full!”, and “Don’t let a frown get you down!” – these are some of the common catchphrases of people who tend to use optimism as a way of avoiding the more somber and troublesome realities of life.
The Aggrandizement Bypass
This is a type of self-delusion that is used as a way of masking one’s perceived deficiencies and insecurities. The aggrandizement bypass is adopted by those who seek to feel superior, enlightened, or having reached higher planes of existence.
The Victim Bypass
When one becomes a victim of their own gifts (empath, prophetic, etc.), or of other people, it takes away the pressure of taking responsibility for one’s happiness. This form of spiritual bypassing is often used by people who believe they have extrasensory gifts of some kind, but due to their gifts, they are unable to feel healthy or happy.
The Psychonaut Bypass
Many spiritual seekers use psychedelic drugs such as LSD, mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms, and other entheogens that expand the mind and perception of existence to explore the frontiers of the mind and reality. However, like any other drug, this can be used as a way of escaping reality and avoiding committing to personal development and soulful refinement.
The Saint Bypass
The Saint Bypass is similar to the Optimistic Bypass. It promotes the underlying belief that spiritual people can’t have dark sides because that would make them “unspiritual”. The Saint Bypass is essentially an avoidance of one’s Shadow by overcompensating with the guise of a sweet, heavenly exterior. It is an example of extreme “black or white” thinking.
The Finger-Pointing Bypass
Finger-pointing instills us with a false sense of righteousness, abdicating our responsibility of looking inside and working on ourselves. The Finger-Pointing bypass is a powerful form of avoidance and procrastination.
I Think I Am Spiritually Bypassing. Now What?
Spiritual bypassing is a psychological defense mechanism. Although the defense looks a lot prettier than other defenses, it serves the same purpose. Spiritual bypassing keeps us from the truth, disconnects us from our feelings, and makes us avoid the big picture. It is more about checking out than checking in—and the difference is so subtle that we usually don’t even know we are doing it.
The reality is that most likely we ALL “spiritually bypass” or avoid or disavow or project onto others the parts we don’t like in ourselves, at least some of the time.
If you suspect yourself of spiritually bypassing the first thing to remember is that we all do it! Growth is not about being perfect; rather it’s about making progress. The more honest you are about your own behaviors, the more you can grow. It is as easy as that.
One important way to keep from falling into spiritual bypassing is to understand that all emotions serve you. There are no bad emotions, even when they make us feel ‘bad’. Any emotions that come up in life need to be felt, acknowledged, thanked for their messages, and released—not repressed by the latest fad clearing technique. The reality is that we don’t get through this human experience without feeling strong feelings including anger, greed, jealousy, pain, anxiety, grief, etc. All feelings contain valuable information for us, and when we learn to feel, accept, and appropriately express all of those feelings within us, we move towards psychological and spiritual wholeness.
The next step is being at peace with how long healing and growth may take. You do not have to be a fully awakened spiritual master tomorrow, and even those who seem like they have reached that level are still going through their own processes.
Finally, the remedy to spiritual bypassing is to work with your shadow—the darker corners of your personality and soul that carry negative thoughts or emotions. By working with them instead of ignoring that part of you, you will bring a balance to your spiritual journey and growth.
There is nothing wrong with positivity, but if it becomes a way of ignoring reality, it can become an issue. You cannot ignore negative emotions and thoughts and hope that yoga (or other positive focused practices such as tapping, ACT, EFT, NLP, Rich and Race, LIIFT, ACT, body code, emotion code, and a myriad of other “clearing” practices) will immediately take them away. They need to be addressed and taken care of in order for you to transmute the ‘darkness’ and grow. You can be an amazing person and still have feelings of jealousy, fear, sadness, grief, or regret. Accepting them as a part of who you are instead of ignoring them will make you a more enlightened and emotionally healthy person.
The purpose of Nature is the advancement, growth, unfoldment, and expansion of life. Real-life means the complete expression of all that one can give forth through the body, mind, and soul. Practices focused on positivity deny anything “negative” and the lessons that need to be learned. Usually, when you bypass a lesson, it will keep coming back again and again and will get bigger and bigger each time until you are almost forced to learn the lesson.
Practices focused on positivity have some great processes for discovering core wounds and helping people in the short term. Long term they are usually toxic. It is like someone getting shot, the bullet is still in their arm; they clean the wound a little, maybe stitch up the wound if necessary, and put a bandage over it. Then every time it visibly festers, they clean it again, redress the wound, and put another bandage over it. The scar gets thicker and thicker making it harder and harder to properly heal the wound. The key is to discover what the experiences and pains are telling you so that you can finally heal.
A common theme amongst those that endorse any of the positive focused practices is that “anything is possible”, so why not clear the easy way. However, these practices bypass the learning necessary for spiritual growth and the full expression of life. The true purpose of life is learning, healing our wounds, accepting, growing, advancement, unfoldment, and expansion.