The following is excerpted from Spiritual Bypassing: When
Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters, by Robert Augustus Masters, available from North Atlantic Books.
Avoidance in Holy Drag: An Introduction to Spiritual
Spiritual bypassing, a term first coined by psychologist John
Welwood in 1984, is the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing
with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs. It is
much more common than we might think and, in fact, is so pervasive as to go
largely unnoticed, except in its more obvious extremes.
Part of the reason for this is that we
tend not to have very much tolerance, either personally or collectively, for
facing, entering, and working through our pain, strongly preferring
pain-numbing "solutions," regardless of how much suffering such "remedies" may
catalyze. Because this preference has so deeply and thoroughly infiltrated our
culture that it has become all but normalized, spiritual bypassing fits almost
seamlessly into our collective habit of turning away from what is painful, as a
kind of higher analgesic with seemingly minimal side effects. It is a
spiritualized strategy not only for avoiding pain but also for legitimizing
such avoidance, in ways ranging from the blatantly obvious to the extremely
Spiritual bypassing is a very persistent
shadow of spirituality, manifesting in many forms, often without being
acknowledged as such. Aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated
detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive,
anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous
boundaries, lopsided development (cognitive intelligence often being far ahead
of emotional and moral intelligence), debilitating judgment about one's
negativity or shadow side, devaluation of the personal relative to the
spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.
The explosion of interest in
spirituality since the mid-1960s, especially Eastern spirituality, has been
accompanied by a corresponding interest and immersion in spiritual
bypassing — which has, however, not very often been named, let alone viewed, as
such. It has been easier to frame spiritual bypassing as a
religion — transcending, spiritually advanced practice or perspective, especially
in the fast-food spirituality epitomized by faddish phenomena like The
Secret. Some of the more glaringly facile features, such as drive-through
servings of reheated wisdom like "Don't take it personally" or "Whatever
bothers you about someone is really only about you" or "It's all just an
illusion," are available for consumption and parroting by just about anyone.
Happily, the honeymoon with false or
superficial notions of spirituality is starting to wane. Enough bubbles have
been burst; enough spiritual teachers, Eastern and Western, have been caught
with pants or halo down; enough cults have come and gone; enough time has been
spent with spiritual baubles, credentials, energy transmissions, and
gurucentrism to sense deeper treasures. But valuable as the desire for a more
authentic spirituality is, such change will not occur on any significant scale
and really take root until spiritual bypassing is outgrown, and that is not as
easy as it might sound, for it asks that we cease turning away from our pain,
numbing ourselves, and expecting spirituality to make us feel better.
True spirituality is not a high, not a
rush, not an altered state. It has been fine to romance it for a while, but our
times call for something far more real, grounded, and responsible; something
radically alive and naturally integral; something that shakes us to our very
core until we stop treating spiritual deepening as something to dabble in here
and there. Authentic spirituality is not some little flicker or buzz of
knowingness, not a psychedelic blast-through or a mellow hanging-out on some
exalted plane of consciousness, not a bubble of immunity, but a vast fire of
liberation, an exquisitely fitting crucible and sanctuary, providing both heat
and light for the healing and awakening we need.
Most of the time when we're immersed in
spiritual bypassing, we like the light but not the heat. And when we're caught
up in the grosser forms of spiritual bypassing, we'd usually much rather
theorize about the frontiers of consciousness than actually go there,
suppressing the fire rather than breathing it even more alive, espousing the
ideal of unconditional love but not permitting love to show up in its more
challenging, personal dimensions. To do so would be too hot, too scary, and too
out-of-control, bringing things to the surface that we have long disowned or
But if we really want the light, we
cannot afford to flee the heat. As Victor Frankl said, "What gives light must
endure burning." And being with the fire's heat doesn't just mean sitting with
the difficult stuff in meditation, but also going into it, trekking to its
core, facing and entering and getting intimate with whatever is there, however
scary or traumatic or sad or raw.
We have had quite an affair with Eastern
spiritual pathways, but now it is time to go deeper. We must do this not only
to get more intimate with the essence of these wisdom traditions beyond ritual
and belief and dogma but also to make room for the healthy evolution, not just
the necessary Westernization, of these traditions so that their presentation
ceases encouraging spiritual bypassing (however indirectly) and, in fact,
consciously and actively ceases giving it soil to flower. These changes won't
happen to any significant degree, however, unless we work in-depth and
integratively with our physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and
social dimensions to generate an everdeeper sense of wholeness, vitality, and
Any spiritual path, Eastern or Western,
that does not deal in real depth with psychological issues, and deal with these
in more than just spiritual contexts, is setting itself up for an abundance of
spiritual bypassing. If there is not sufficient encouragement and support from
spiritual teachers and teachings for practitioners to engage in significant
depth in psychoemotional work, and if those students who really need such work
don't then do it, they'll be left trying to work out their psychoemotional
issues, traumatic and otherwise, only through the spiritual practices they have
been given, as if doing so is somehow superior to — or a "higher" activity
than — engaging in quality psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is often viewed as an
inferior undertaking relative to spiritual practice, perhaps even something we
shouldn't have to do. When our spiritual bypassing is more subtle, the idea of
psychotherapy may be considered more acceptable, but we will still shy away
from a full-blooded investigation of our core wounds.
Spiritual bypassing is largely occupied,
at least in its New Age forms, by the idea of wholeness and the innate unity of
Being — "Oneness" being perhaps its favorite bumper sticker — but actually
generates and reinforces fragmentation by separating out from and rejecting
what is painful, distressed, and unhealed; all the far-from-flattering aspects
of being human. By consistently keeping these in the dark, "down below" (when
we're locked into our headquarters, our body and feelings seem to be
below us), they tend to behave badly when let out, much like animals that have
spent too long in cages. Our neglect of these aspects of ourselves, however
gently framed, is akin to that of otherwise caring parents who leave their
children without sufficient food, clothing, or care.
The trappings of spiritual bypassing can
look good, particularly when they seem to promise freedom from life's fuss and
fury, but this supposed serenity and detachment is often little more than
metaphysical valium, especially for those who have made too much of a virtue
out of being and looking positive.
A common telltale sign of spiritual
bypassing is a lack of grounding and in-the-body experience that tends to keep
us either spacily afloat in how we relate to the world or too rigidly tethered
to a spiritual system that seemingly provides the solidity we lack. We also may
fall into premature forgiveness and emotional dissociation, and confuse anger
with aggression and ill will, which leaves us disempowered, riddled with weak
boundaries. The overdone niceness that often characterizes spiritual bypassing
strands it from emotional depth and authenticity; and its underlying
grief — mostly unspoken, untouched, unacknowledged — keeps it marooned from the
very caring that would unwrap and undo it, like a baby being readied for a bath
by a loving parent.
Spiritual bypassing distances us not
only from our pain and difficult personal issues but also from our own
authentic spirituality, stranding us in a metaphysical limbo, a zone of
exaggerated gentleness, niceness, and superficiality. Its frequently
disconnected nature keeps it adrift, clinging to the life jacket of its
self-conferred spiritual credentials. As such, it maroons us from embodying our
But let us not be too hard on spiritual
bypassing, for every one of us who has entered into the spiritual has engaged
in spiritual bypassing, at least to some degree, having for years used other
means to make ourselves feel better or more secure. Why would we not also
approach spirituality, particularly at first, with much the same expectation
that it make us feel better or more secure in various areas of our life?
To truly outgrow spiritual
bypassing — which in part means releasing spirituality (and everything else!)
from the obligation to make us feel better or more secure or more whole — we must
not only see it for what it is and cease engaging in it but also view it with
genuine compassion, however fiery that might be or need to be. The spiritual
bypasser in us needs not censure nor shaming but rather to be consciously and
caringly included in our awareness without being allowed to run the show.
Becoming intimate with our own capacity for spiritual bypassing allows us to
keep it in healthy perspective.
I have worked with many clients who
described themselves as being on a spiritual path, particularly as meditators.
Most were preoccupied, at least initially, with being nice, trying to be
positive and nonjudgmental, while impaling themselves on various spiritual
"shoulds," such as "I should not show anger" or "I should be more loving" or "I
should be more open after all the time I've put into my spiritual practice."
Fleeing their darker (or "less spiritual") emotions, impulses, and intentions,
they had, to varying degrees, trapped themselves within the very practices and
beliefs that they had hoped might liberate them, or at least make them feel
Even the most exquisitely designed spiritual methodologies
can become traps, leading not to freedom but only to reinforcement, however
subtle, of the "I" that wants to be a somebody who has attained or realized
freedom (the very same "I" that doesn't realize there are no Oscars for
awakening). The most obvious potential traps-in-waiting include the belief that
we should rise above our difficulties and simply embrace Oneness, even as the
tendency to divide everything into positive and negative, higher and lower,
spiritual and nonspiritual, runs wild in us. Subtler traps-in-waiting, less
densely populated with metaphysical lullabies and ascension metaphors, and
cloaked in the appearance of discernment, teach non-aversion through
cultivating a capacity for dispassionate witnessing and/or various devotional
rituals. Subtler still are those that emphasize meeting everything with
acceptance and compassion. Each approach has its own value, if only to eventually
propel us into an even deeper direction, and each is far from immune to being
possessed by spiritual bypassing, especially when we are still hoping, whatever
our depth of spiritual practice, to reach a state of immunity to suffering
(both personally and collectively).
As my spiritually inclined clients
become more intimate with their pain and difficulties, coming to understand the
origins of their troubles with a more open ear and heart, they either abandon
their misguided spiritual practices and reenter a more fitting version of them
with less submissiveness and more integrity and creativity or find new
practices that better suit their needs, coming to recognize more deeply that
everything-everything!-can serve their healing and awakening.
If we can outgrow spiritual bypassing, we might enter a deeper life-a life of full-blooded integrity, depth, love, and sanity; a life of authenticity on every level; a life in which the personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal are all honored and lived to the fullest.
May what I have written serve you well.
Copyright © 2010 by Robert Masters. Reprinted
by permission of publisher.
Teaser image by leolintang, courtesy of Creative Commons license.