Spiritual Bypassing

What It Is and How to Avoid It

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People who use spiritual practices to avoid dealing with personal or psychological issues are said to be engaged in "spiritual bypassing." Spiritual bypassing is a kind of defense mechanism that uses spirituality to wall off unpleasant emotions and protect the ego. Spiritual seekers of all types, not just Buddhists, can fall into the trap of spiritual bypassing. It is spirituality's shadow. 

The term "spiritual bypassing" was coined by psychologist John Welwood in 1984. Welwood is known for his work in transpersonal psychology, which integrates spirituality and psychology. Welwood saw that many in his Buddhist sangha were using spiritual ideas and practices to avoid facing unresolved emotional issues and psychological wounds. 

"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 it," Welwood told interviewer Tina Fossella. 

Soto Zen teacher and psychoanalyst Barry Magid says that it is possible even for people with deep spiritual insight to be stuck in harmful behavior in their personal lives. This happens when insights are isolated into a kind of bubble and not integrated into one's everyday life and relationships.This results in a spiritual self that is cut off from the emotional self. Regarding a rash of sex scandals involving Zen teachers, Magid wrote in his book Nothing Is Hidden (Wisdom Publications, 2013):

"Not only did realization fail to heal the deep divisions in our character, more and more it looked as if for many people, and in particular for many Zen teachers, practice opened up bigger and bigger splits between an idealized compassionate self and a shadow self, where split off and denied sexual, competitive, and narcissistic fantasies held sway."

It's probably the case that we all engage in spiritual bypassing at some point. When we do, will we recognize it? And how can we avoid getting into it too deeply?

When Spirituality Becomes Shtick

Shtick is a Yiddish word that means "bit" or "piece." In show business it came to refer to a gimmick or routine that is part of a performer's regular act. A shtick might also be an adopted persona that is maintained across a performer's career. The personas used by the Marx Brothers in all of their films are great examples. 

It seems to me that spiritual bypassing often begins when people adapt spirituality as a shtick, or a persona, instead of practicing to get to the root of dukkha. They wrap themselves in a Spiritual Person persona and ignore what's beneath the surface. Then, instead of honestly dealing with their wounds, fears, and issues, John Welwood says, their spiritual practice is taken over by a "spiritual superego." They go about "making spiritual teachings into prescriptions about what you should do, how you should think, how you should speak, how you should feel."

This is not true spiritual practice; it's shtick. And when we repress negative emotions and urges instead of working with them honestly, they remain in our subconscious where they continue to jerk us around. 

Worst-case, spiritual seekers may attach themselves to a charismatic but exploitative teacher. Then they wall up the parts of themselves that are uncomfortable with his behavior. They get caught up in the role of good little soldier dharma students and don't see the reality in front of them.

Symptoms of Spiritual Bypassing

In his book Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us From What Really Matters (North Atlantic Books, 2010), Robert Augustus Masters lists the symptoms of spiritual bypassing: “…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.”

If you find that your precious spiritual composure shatters easily when stressed, it's probably shtick, for example. And don't avoid or repress emotions, including negative ones, but instead, acknowledge them and consider what they are trying to tell you.

If your spiritual practice takes precedence over your personal relationships, be careful. Especially if once-healthy relationships with parents, spouses, children, and close friends are falling apart because you are consumed with practice and the spiritual quest, this may be because you are not integrating your spirituality into your life but using it to wall yourself off from others, which is not healthy. And it's not Buddhism, either.

In some very extreme cases people get so lost in their spiritual bubbles their lives become an enlightenment fantasy. They may exhibit symptoms of psychosis or engage in risky behavior thinking their spiritual power will protect them. In Buddhism, enlightenment doesn't mean you won't get wet in the rain and don't need a flu shot.

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