You may have noticed the term spiritual bypassing being used more frequently as of late. Or perhaps you’ve encountered it for the first time and are wondering what it is, exactly. The widespread social awareness and public outcry around racial injustice, which arose recently in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death, has called upon us all to take a deeper look at ourselves. As individuals, and as a society.
Among many other things, we’ve been challenged to reflect on whether our spiritual perspectives might be getting in the way of us really facing the uglier truths about what’s happening in our world. Are we avoiding the discomfort of personal and social unrest by seeking refuge in overly simplistic, spiritual antidotes? It’s a relevant question. And if we’re on the path of enlightenment, it’s healthy to give it some real examination.
But while current events have pushed the concept of spiritual bypassing forward, it’s not a new idea. And it’s not something that only impacts our social conscience. It can seriously impede our personal development, emotional healing, and even spiritual growth.
A Concept That Deserves Deeper Contemplation
That’s why today, I’d like to dive into this topic in detail. It’s far more complex than social media posts and other casual exchanges might imply. Which means it deserves a deeper contemplation if we want to understand what it is, how it might be working in our lives, and how we can avoid falling into its trap.
As so often occurs with complex topics, the term spiritual bypassing gets thrown around carelessly sometimes. When this happens, it’s often used with little connection to its intended purpose. (Which is, to support healing.) I’ve seen the concept used to shut people down and deem their voice irrelevant. And as I’ve witnessed this, it’s raised some concerns for me.
How We Approach Spiritual Bypassing Matters
First, as a spiritual person, I feel strongly that spiritual growth and healing can help remedy many of our modern ailments – from the personal level all the way up to the societal level. It would be a shame to see spiritual frames of reference pushed out of conversations about solutions entirely. Spirituality cultivates self-development that aligns with our highest intentions for how we want to show up and evolve as human beings. And, it encourages altruistic aspirations that work toward peace, justice, and the easing of suffering on our planet. The spiritual perspective is valuable and can be illuminating.
Secondly, spiritual bypassing arises when someone is struggling to process something difficult. It doesn’t mean they don’t care or they’re incapable of understanding. It just means they’re using a defense mechanism, or a coping skill they’ve come to trust to help them make sense of life’s challenges. When the term is used to condemn people and shut them down, this only reinforces the need for a defense mechanism in the first place. But, when we use it with respect for its intended purpose – to support healing – we can communicate in a way that helps them feel safe enough to see and feel what they’re attempting to bypass. (For tips on respectful & skillful communication, see my post on How to Mindfully Disagree.)
Why Talk About Spiritual Bypassing Now?
That being said, this phenomenon has surfaced in our collective conversation now for a reason. In order for us each to do our part in shaping a more enlightened and just world, we need to see our blind spots – individually and collectively – as best we can. And spiritual bypassing can indeed get in the way of that.
In this post, we’re going to look at the personal and social implications of spiritual bypassing, while staying true to the concept’s roots in self-compassion, compassion, and well-integrated healing. And I’ll be offering some simple steps you can take to gain self-awareness and shift the dynamic, if and when you notice it emerging.
What Is Spiritual Bypassing?
The term spiritual bypassing was coined in 1984 by John Wellwood. As a Buddhist teacher and existential/transpersonal psychologist, he helped pioneer the merging of eastern spirituality with western psychotherapy. This historical context sheds much light on how the concept is intended to be used. It’s a framework for supporting more integrated psychological healing and spiritual growth.
In Welwood’s own words, the term means:
a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.John Welwood
This inclination is something he noticed in the community of Buddhist practitioners, in patients who were working on themselves spiritually, and also within himself. In elucidating this tendency, he sought to encourage those of us on the spiritual path to resist the urge to use spiritual ideas and practices to glaze over the reality of our pain and suffering. By facing it head-on instead, we might find deeper understanding and fuller integration of our spirituality.
How Does It Work?
Bypassing occurs when spiritual ideals get elevated to the realm of absolute truth in such a way that our real, lived experience is somehow denied. Rather than doing the work of healing deep wounds, we may use these ideals to deny, devalue, or avoid meeting our more human needs – such as emotional bonding, love, and esteem. In other words, rather than risk opening ourselves to real human connection, and possibly get hurt, we adopt a more enlightened, spiritual way of relating to the world that doesn’t rely on human relationship.
Spiritual bypassing can also happen when we’re afraid of feeling the full range of our natural, human emotions. To avoid this discomfort, we may turn to spiritual concepts and practices. For example, the Buddhist teaching on non-attachment might be used to avoid facing the deep pain of grief. Or, to deny the loneliness felt from a lack of healthy human relationships. Meditation might be used to withdraw from the messier realities of life, and the uncomfortable emotions that can arise as a result. Meditation’s relative quiet, neatness, and ability to control one’s own experience might feel safer.
Additionally, a sense of having it together spiritually – which can grow into moral superiority – can bolster an otherwise low self-esteem. However, because the real work of processing through esteem issues hasn’t been completed, this boost isn’t fully incorporated. A nagging self-doubt or self-deprecation may persist beneath the surface. To uphold esteem, a need to pass judgment, or to look down on others from a holier than thou perspective, can arise.
We Are Spirits Waking Up In Human Form
Spiritual bypassing assumes the whole point of spiritual awakening is to transcend our humanness. This zealous pursuit denies and avoids the messier parts of our human experience, in favor of an ideal of perfection. The problem, of course, is that we are in fact human, so long as we’re alive on this planet. No matter how much we may resist certain aspects of our humanness, they persist. And so long as we resist reality in favor of an ideal, we experience a level of inner conflict.
We are not just humans learning to become buddhas, but also buddhas waking up in human form, learning to become fully human. And these two tracks of development can mutually enrich each other.John Welwood
This is a powerful statement. What Welwood’s talking about here is fully embodying our spirituality. Rather than running or hiding from the full spectrum of our human experience, he’s suggesting we face it directly. Acknowledge it. Feel it fully and see it clearly. Including the painful stuff, whether it be relics from our past or something arising right here, today. When we do this, we find true transcendence.
To transcend means to go beyond. So often as spiritual seekers, we interpret this to mean evolving beyond the limits of our human form. We want to shed our skin, so to speak, and identify with our formless spirit. But if we haven’t truly processed through old wounds – if we’ve only turned away from them and the discomfort they bring – then we haven’t truly gone beyond them. They’re still controlling us through fear and avoidance, whether we realize it or not.
This is how spiritual bypassing not only limits our personal development and emotional healing, but it can also stunt our spiritual growth.
Social Implications of Spiritual Bypassing
While Welwood’s primary motivation for exploring spiritual bypassing was to help individuals find psychological health and a more fully integrated spirituality, he also discussed how it can undermine groups of people. Specifically, the Buddhist sangha, or community of practitioners he belonged to. He observed how individual members resisting the healing of deep wounds, and tending to deny their real human needs, could lead to problematic dynamics within the larger group.
For example, people’s real needs might not be communicated or met within the group. The sangha, then, would not be serving its purpose. Avoidance of feeling one’s own emotions might keep one from truly acknowledging the suffering of another. This might lead to a lack of true compassion within the group dynamic. Additionally, he noted that when people seek to have their esteem needs met through spiritual attainment, it can give rise to judgmental attitudes. (The holier than thou mentality mentioned earlier.) Or, to vying for special attention from a community leader.
All of this makes for an unhealthy spiritual community.
Our Human Interconnectedness
Over time, the concept of spiritual bypassing has been extrapolated to much broader social groups. As I already noted, we’ve recently seen it applied to the worldwide issue of racial injustice. But how can such a deeply personal phenomenon extend to – and possibly impact – such a large group of people? If we’re not personally engaging in racist behavior, how can we possibly be spiritually bypassing this concern? And what about other pressing social problems? How might spiritual bypassing impact how we’re responding to issues like the environment, the plight of refugees, human trafficking, poverty, etc.?
These are important questions to ask ourselves. Because we don’t live in a vacuum. We’re connected in so many intricate ways to other humans on this planet, from the level of family all the way up to our shared, global existence. Our choices – what we say and do – ripple out, touching other lives and shaping our shared reality. And this is more true today than ever, as the Internet and social media have exponentially expanded the social reach of each individual.
Spiritual Bypassing & Compassion
There’s a LOT of suffering in the world. It’s hard enough to bear the burden of our own. But when we attempt to sit with the reality of even one segment of the world’s suffering, it can feel overwhelming. And if we’ve found a way to limit real contact with our own suffering, it can be really tempting to apply that technique to all suffering we encounter.
Spiritual bypassing – in the larger social context – means avoiding, denying, or otherwise minimizing the real lived experience of other humans, by applying spiritual concepts that keep us from really having to sit with it. In the case of Buddhism, this might look like wrapping the pain of racial trauma in the neater packaging of the truth of suffering. Without touching the felt experience of that suffering in a compassionate way. With Christianity, it might show up as a retreat into God’s will. Without fully exploring what we can do to affect change. In New Age spirituality, it might manifest as a desire to voice only positive messages. Without acknowledging the truth (or value) of painful or charged emotions.
With every spiritual path, there’s a potential to fall into the trap of spiritual bypassing. That’s because bypassing is a psychological process – not a dogmatic or spiritual one. Even at the larger level of social issues, the individual’s fundamental desire to avoid uncomfortable realities is the motivating factor.
Compassion asks us to feel someone else’s pain. If we haven’t found a way to hold space for and process pain, real compassion is difficult to offer. If we have old wounds we haven’t healed, or aren’t willing to look at, we can find it too triggering or uncomfortable to face – and empathically feel – the suffering of others.
Why Does Compassion Matter?
None of us has the answers to the world’s problems. Nor do we have the power to change – on our own – the complex, systemic factors that often drive them. This fact alone can make spiritual bypassing a powerfully appealing coping mechanism. However, just like avoiding our own wounds and emotions can’t make them disappear, sticking our heads in the sand when we’re faced with big, social issues won’t do any good either.
Two things happen when we embrace compassion instead of bypassing. First, because we’ve allowed the suffering of others to touch our hearts, we feel intrinsically motivated to do SOMETHING. And something is almost always better than nothing. If we all do something, we can affect measurable change.
Secondly, bringing compassion to the issue shifts the way we communicate about it. We’re more open to listening. And this allows the person who’s suffering to feel heard. This is one small way to alleviate suffering. Through listening, we also become more informed, which means we can make better choices and learn how we can realistically help. Compassion can also help us avoid saying something – however well intended – that might minimize the other person’s suffering.
Compassion isn’t the whole answer to spiritual bypassing, but it’s a big part of it. We’ll look more at how it helps in the coming sections.
How To Avoid Spiritual Bypassing
As I’ve said many times here on my blog, we are a body-heart-mind-spirit system. All of these parts of our self work together to inform and create our holistic human experience. So, if we want to avoid the trap of spiritual bypassing, we have to allow the other parts of our system to come into contact with – and PROCESS – the circumstance at hand.
Of course, this can be uncomfortable. The stuff we typically want to skip over is the life-material that makes us feel overwhelmed, vulnerable, and/or powerless to initiate change. It’s often painful in some way. Maybe it’s triggering an old wound, challenging us to see ourselves (or something we value) in an unfavorable light, or forcing us to acknowledge something we don’t have control over. There are many factors that can make us want to avoid giving our mental or emotional attention to an unsettling reality.
However, not looking doesn’t mean the troubling thoughts and emotions disappear. Jumping to a purely spiritual response may feel good temporarily, but our un-examined psychological impulses still exist. They’re just now working beneath the radar, motivating our actions and responses subconsciously.
What’s more, when we skip over these vital parts of our being to find a spiritual solution, we miss out on the unique perspectives our feeling self and thinking self have to offer. Maybe we won’t find resolution through one, or even both, of these parts of our self. But we’ll likely find something of value. Maybe even a piece of a solution. A piece we wouldn’t see if we looked only through the lens of our spiritual worldview. At the very least, by allowing our heart and mind to chew on it for a little, we won’t accumulate more undigested (or suppressed) psychological baggage.
What To Do Instead of Spiritual Bypassing
To avoid spiritual bypassing, all we have to do is make the choice to examine any given circumstance with these other parts of our self before we seek a spiritual solution. The graphic below illustrates this process:
The reason it’s important to process a situation with your feeling self and thinking self before your spiritual self is that our spiritual concepts tend to be more generalized and abstract in nature. If we bring an emotionally charged issue to our spiritual self first, we likely can find some spiritual truth to apply to it that will take the sting of emotion out of it. This makes connecting to the emotional reality of the situation afterward more difficult.
Likewise, our thinking self has an arsenal of tools it can use to deflect painful emotional experiences. They’re called defense mechanisms. Spiritual bypassing is considered by some to be one of them (albeit a healthier form), but they all work in some way to protect us from feeling something we don’t want to feel. So if we want to process something that has emotional charge, we need to start with our feeling self.
Note: Before moving on, I would like to point out that if you struggle with significant wounds and/or psychological issues, working with a counselor is recommended. As I said before, spiritual bypassing is a complex phenomenon. A counselor can offer a safe space where deeper issues can be explored and processed with professional insight and guidance.
The first step for avoiding spiritual bypassing is to allow yourself to sit with whatever it is you’re contemplating and allow any emotions that might surface to be felt. This means to feel them in your body, as well as to identify what it is you’re feeling. You want to do this without placing judgment on the experience, such as good or bad. Observe it as simply what is. This is called mindfulness.
If any thoughts come up, observe them too. But try not to shift fully into thinking mode. Maintain contact with what you’re feeling emotionally. If you experience a powerful resistance to an emotion, you might explore that resistance some. What’s causing it? Or, if you’re finding it difficult to feel emotion, you might explore that. What emotion might someone else feel when contemplating the situation? What’s keeping you from feeling it?
As you’re exploring your emotional response, be compassionate and kind with yourself. Allow space for whatever you’re experiencing, instead of looking at it through the lens of what should or shouldn’t be happening. If the situation you’re contemplating involves other people, extend compassion to them as well. Try to touch within yourself the place of hurt that can relate to their suffering.
Instead of Spiritual Bypassing, Do This…
If you find sitting with your emotional response begins to feel too big or too painful, shift to a compassion practice. Start with offering compassion to yourself, for whatever it is you’re experiencing. You might say something like the following, inwardly to yourself:
I see my suffering. And I hold myself and my suffering in my heart of compassion with love and kindness. May my suffering be eased.
You can then gradually open your heart to feeling compassion for anyone else involved. And repeat the above intentions for them.
In doing this, you’ve allowed your feeling self to come into contact with – and in some way process – the issue at hand, instead of spiritually bypassing it.
From my perspective as an existential psychologist, feeling is a form of intelligence. It’s the body’s direct, holistic, intuitive way of knowing and responding. It is highly attuned and intelligent. And it takes account of many factors all at once, unlike our conceptual mind, which can only process one thing at a time.John Welwood
After allowing your heart to respond to the situation, take some time to examine it with your mind. Consider what you know, as well as what you might not know. To really understand, do you need more information? If so, where can you find it?
Reflect on what preconceived ideas or beliefs you might hold. How rigidly are you gripping them? Could you benefit from opening your mind to evaluate different perspectives?
What actions might you be able to take? If you’re experiencing resistance to taking action, explore what’s holding you back.
Just as with your emotional processing, look at all of this through the lens of curiosity instead of judgment. Curiosity keeps the mind open, while judgment tends to limit what we’re willing to see.
Instead of Spiritual Bypassing, Do This…
If the problem or situation you’re contemplating seems too complex, disturbing, or overwhelming, set it aside. You don’t have to solve it or come to a solid conclusion about it. Leave room for the experience of not knowing.
Often times, we jump to spiritual bypassing because we can’t tolerate having an unresolved problem lingering in the air. Or, we don’t like how it feels to not be able to wrap a complex issue up in a neat little box that makes sense to us. We want to file it away in our minds under the label of some abstract, spiritual truth. In this way, we can go on about the business of our lives without feeling unsettled.
The problem is, doing this shuts down further analysis. Even when new information is presented to us, we tuck it into this file we’ve already created. And because we place great value on this higher spiritual truth, we don’t tend to reexamine something we’ve already decided it has satisfactorily resolved.
After exploring something with our thinking self, it’s okay to leave it unresolved. We can put it in our mental file titled I’m not sure what to do with this or Need more info. This allows us to come back to it, continue to learn, and remain open to solutions we haven’t discovered yet.
Once we’ve explored our troubling circumstance with our heart and mind, we can bring it to our spiritual self. Because we’ve accessed the unique perspectives of our feeling and thinking selves – instead of bypassing them – any spiritual insight we gain can be integrated more fully into these other parts of our self. We can see more clearly how our spiritual wisdom and practices can support emotional and mental well-being – our own, as well as others’.
We have a more holistic understanding of the situation and how we relate to it. Which means, we can better grasp how to truly embody our spirituality through our words, actions, and interpersonal relations.
The spiritual path is rigorous. While it can bring incredible peace, wisdom, courage, and many other higher attributes, it requires us to continually examine and refine ourselves. The more honestly – and bravely – we undertake this self-examination, the more clearly we see ourselves. And, the more we can actively embody the spiritual concepts we hold as truths.
(All of the John Welwood quotes I shared in this post are taken from an interview with him in a 2011 issue of Tricycle Magazine. It’s an enlightening read. If you’d like to dive in deeper, you can find it here.)
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. I’d love to hear what you’ve experienced with spiritual bypassing and/or any insights you might have on this topic. Have a beautiful, blessed day!