What Is Spiritual Bypassing?

Those of us who have been on the spiritual path for a while have probably heard of the term “spiritual bypassing.” But it’s only recently that I realized how widespread it is, and how many different forms it may take among various types of spiritual practitioners. What is spiritual bypassing?

What is spiritual bypassing?

The term was coined in 1984 by John Welwood, who is a clinical psychologist and a Buddhist practitioner. As a pioneer in integrating psychological and spiritual work, he asked:

  • What is the relationship between Buddhist awakening (“satori”) and the kind of change and growth that comes out of psychotherapy and psychological work? Are they the same thing? Are they overlapping? Or are they completely different things?
  • What he found was that many people wind up using spiritual practice as a substitute for facing their psychological issues and unconscious wounds. They know something isn’t right, but want to be free from suffering, and turn to the “dharma” to feel better.

In “Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation,” he said people tend to operate mostly in one of three realms:

  • Personal: those who do psychological work to figure out what’s going on with their self.
  • Interpersonal: those who do the marriage and family thing, all about relationships.
  • Suprapersonal: those who are into meditation, spirituality, our transcendent nature.

The human experience is designed to bring all three realms together in one vast domain. That means we need to embody our transcendent nature, to bring it down into our human form and personal interactions. Otherwise, spirituality (or religion) becomes one pole of life that is set against or cut off from the other pole of life (humanness), which is spiritual bypassing.

“We’re a mix of spirit and matter, you could say heaven and earth, the conditioned, the unconditioned, form and emptiness, formless. We’re the bringing together of these two completely different levels of reality—form and formless—and so our life is a tremendous opportunity to actually work with that paradox and unfold it.” – John Welwood

What generates spiritual bypassing?

Robert A. Masters said spiritual bypassing is about the avoidance of pain, and using spiritual practices and beliefs to legitimize such avoidance. It is the shadow side of spirituality, and something we need to outgrow. It’s much more common in our culture than we might think.

  • Almost all of us try to get away from dealing with painful feelings, unresolved wounds and developmental needs. Our “solutions” may include alcoholic, narcotic, erotic, intellectual, material, egotistical, or spiritual means, which often create just more pain.
  • The greater the fear of pain, the more extreme the spiritual bypassing “solutions” are.

Here are some examples of the forms of spiritual bypassing in different areas of life:

  • Lack of grounding or in-the-body experience (e.g. being spaced out, dizzy, forgetful)
  • Emotional numbing and repression (e.g. avoid, deny or repress hurt, grief, shame)
  • Anger-phobia (e.g. confuse anger with rage, aggression, hostility, violence)
  • Blind compassion (e.g. misguided tolerance of abusive behavior, avoiding confrontation)
  • Overdone niceness (e.g. false humility, false flattery, can’t say no to others)
  • Overemphasis on the positive (e.g. New Age thinking, imbalance in positive polarity)
  • Underdefined, overdefined or ambiguous personal boundaries (e.g. stuck or merged)
  • Lopsided development (e.g. cognitive intelligence far ahead of emotional, moral, or spiritual intelligence)
  • Exaggerated detachment (e.g. overly passive, impersonal observer in the periphery)
  • One-sided spirituality (e.g. devalue the personal relative to the impersonal/spiritual)
  • Judgment about one’s shadow side or negativity (e.g. “negative” emotions are “wrong”)
  • Harsh self-judgment (e.g. spiritual superego with spiritual “shoulds”)
  • Grandiosity (e.g. delusions of being “special” or more “enlightened”)
  • Underdeveloped compassion or empathy (e.g. poor attunement to self or others)

Additional forms of spiritual bypassing are summarized below (click to enlarge Figure):

Fig-SpiritualBypass-Revised2

Note: Based on the work of Robert Masters (list), John Welwood (figure), and other sources.

How do we outgrow it?

Masters said spiritual bypassing is worth outgrowing to begin authentic spirituality. That happens when we stop turning away from our pain. Our honeymoon with spirituality ends.

  • What have we been avoiding? Why? We need to learn to recognize spiritual bypassing and name it, as it happens. We know the journey is the teacher. We’re in it for the long haul.
  • Every situation is part of our apprenticeship, sorrows and joys alike. Instead of trying to get rid of something we don’t like about ourselves, we can see it, accept it for what it is.
  • For example, anger doesn’t disappear as we evolve and awaken. Anger serves us and helps us protect our boundaries. Anger with heart clears things that no longer belong in our life.

Our path is about intimacy with ALL that we are rather than transcendence. No fireworks, no applause, no grandiosity, no rushing or pushing things, as Masters put it. The longing to be fully awakened will still be there, but without the desperation and ambition seen in the past.

Final Thoughts

The point of this post is to increase our awareness and understanding about the subtle and gross forms of spiritual bypassing, which is part of our spiritual journey. As Masters wrote:

“There are no Oscars for awakening. True spirituality is not a high, not a rush, not an altered state…but a vast fire of liberation, an exquisitely fitting crucible and sanctuary, providing both heat and light for the healing and awakening we need.”

Once we become aware of spiritual bypassing, we can start to notice it, catch ourselves in the act. As we continue to work on ourselves (using any number of self-help and psychospiritual tools to heal our wounds), we will integrate polarities and outgrow spiritual bypassing sooner or later. We’re all works in progress. Incarnation is about the journey, not the destination.

The human experience is unique in that it provides us with the widest spectrum and the largest number of emotions and consciousness states along with individualized free will that allows us to play with them all in the personal, interpersonal and transpersonal realms.

“Spiritual practice is not just sitting and meditating. Practice is looking, thinking, touching, drinking, eating, and talking. Every act, every breath, and every step can be practice and can help us to become more ourselves.” – Thich Nhat Hahn

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For more information, please see:

John Welwood: Human Nature, Buddha Nature: On spiritual bypassing, relationship, and the dharma (see ‎www.johnwelwood.com/articles/TRIC_interview_uncut.pdf & John Welwood Articles and Interviews on his website)

John Welwood: Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation, 2012

Robert Augustus Masters: Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters, 2010

Anodea Judith: Eastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to the Self, 2004 & New Home – Sacred CentersSacred Centers | Tools for Conscious Evolution (website)

Richard Rudd: Gene Keys, 2009 & Gene Keys Network | Living Library (website)

Don Riso & Russ Hudson: Home – The Enneagram Institute & Learn the Enneagram – The Enneagram Institute & Free Riso-Hudson Materials – The Enneagram Institute, Personality Types, 1996 & The Wisdom of the Enneagram, 1999

Bernhard Günther: Spiritual Bypassing, Relationships and The Shadow | Wake Up World

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