Spiritual bypassing is a term introduced in 1984 by the late John Welwood. an American psychologist who was known for integrating psychological and spiritual concepts.
He defines spiritual bypass as “our tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”
He coined this term after noticing many people in the Buddhist community including himself, remained wounded despite their spiritual practices.
Another term he uses to describe spiritual bypassing
is “premature transcendence”.
In his words, premature transcendence is when we try to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. The problem with premature transcendence or spiritual bypassing is it’s difficult for us to truly experience a state of liberation when we are constantly weighed down by our unaddressed psychological wounds.
You might experience a spiritual high when you attend a spiritual retreat. But soon after you came back, the good feelings faded away quickly and things could actually feel worse for you. That’s because you have returned to all the triggers that weren’t previously present in your retreat.
Most of us don’t realize the real work and growth begins after the retreat, not during the retreat. More often than not, we blame the people around us for not being spiritually awakened enough, not realizing that we are the ones who have more inner work to do.
What Is Spiritual Bypassing?
Spiritual bypassing is using what you have learned spiritually to avoid human issues in life. But it is so subtle that it often goes unnoticed. In his book, Spiritual Bypassing, Robert Augustus Masters says the first step in working with spiritual bypassing is to see it for what it is and name it.
To help you have a better understanding of spiritual bypassing, here are two important elements of a spiritual bypass.
1. Spiritual bypassing is a form of avoidance and escapism.
Avoidance in itself is neither good nor bad. Imagine you are a child and you live in a family that is abusive, sometimes shutting off emotions that are too overwhelming for you to handle can actually be a good thing. It helps you to survive in the moment.
Most people begin spiritual practices such as meditation with the intention of helping them find relief and overcome their sufferings. There’s nothing wrong with this. Meditation does help to interrupt unhealthy thought patterns and reduce stress.
However, avoidance strategy isn’t always helpful in the long run.
Unaddressed emotional issues or trauma will eventually bring about a bigger problem in the future. When you don’t deal with your underlying emotions and reject those parts of yourself that you don’t wish to face (i.e. your shadow), you allow them to grow in the background.
One day, your problems might become too huge for you to handle. As you don’t practice dealing with your emotions regularly and cultivate equanimity, an unforeseen circumstance will easily knock you off your center.
Furthermore, the compulsive avoidance of pain can lead to addiction. Spiritual bypassing is similar to other forms of addiction. But instead of using something unhealthy such as drugs, alcohol, and entertainment to numb yourself, you are using spiritual practice. It’s just like how workaholics or exercise addicts use something that is supposedly healthy to repress their pain and avoid their problems.
2. Spiritual bypassing is a form of denial.
Perhaps something more insidious than avoidance is the aspect of denial in spiritual bypassing. Avoiding is okay if you acknowledge and recognize your problem.
If you face an intense situation in your life and you can’t resolve it right now, taking a break, putting your problem aside, and meditating could be a good thing. When you distract yourself and do something else first, you interrupt your habitual mental patterns. Later, when you come back to the problem, it might actually help you see the same situation with fresh eyes and in a new light.
But denial, on the other hand, is a refusal to see or admit the truth.
It’s a defense mechanism to prevent yourself from feeling pain. So instead of coming back to your problem later, you deny that the problem exists in the first place. You might feel angry or sad about something but you tell yourself you are not. You need love and attention but you don’t acknowledge your needs and deprive yourself. Or there’s an issue in your relationship and you ignore or minimize it.
The danger of spirituality bypass is not actually in the bypass itself. It’s when you have no awareness that you are doing so. People in denial often aren’t aware they are suppressing emotions. Deep down inside, they are afraid of feeling emotions and pain because they don’t believe they can handle them, so they don’t acknowledge their emotions and cover up their pain.
Why Spiritual Bypassing Is So Common?
If you realize you have been spiritual bypassing, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Spiritual bypassing is so common because all of our minds are programmed to protect us from pain and seek pleasure. The mind doesn’t recognize that working through some of the pain can be more beneficial than avoiding and denying them.
Also, once you have tasted the highest of high and know what spirituality can bring, you don’t want to go back to the same old you who was constantly suffering. However, what most people don’t realize is staying in this awakened state for a long period of time is not easy. It takes practice. A large part of us are still very human and we have human needs and issues that knock us out of our awakened state.
Sometimes, we will forget about our deep essence and shift from the spiritual perspective back to the ego perspective. That’s rather normal. Spiritual awakening or enlightenment is not a goal that once you reach it, you will forever stay that way. People fall in and out of the awakened state all the time.
People who spiritual bypass don’t truly understand what spirituality really is.
They treat spirituality like a mental concept or a goal to be attained.
Spirituality is not a mental concept your mind can grasp. People who spiritual bypass often use spiritual statements, jargon, and beliefs to explain, justify, and support their behaviors. They think that to be spiritual one has to perform certain actions and behave a certain way. But spirituality is not about following doctrines.
It’s a deep, inner knowing of the truth that you can only understand through your own experiences. It doesn’t need justifications to prove its validity. Every time you rationalize spirituality or take on a one-sided view, you get further away from the spiritual truth instead of getting closer to it. You become more attuned to your mind than your spirit.
In the following section, you will find a few examples of how people rationalize spirituality. These signs will help you know if you are spiritually bypassing and be more aware of it.
Signs and Examples of Spiritual Bypassing
1. You are not willing to feel all your emotions.
The most common example where people spiritual bypass is when they avoid uncomfortable emotions such as anxiety, resentment, loneliness, and helplessness. They overemphasize the positive and neglect the negative. They only want to feel emotions that they are comfortable with.
It’s true that everyone desires happiness, peace, and freedom. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel better. However, if you only allow yourself to feel positive, then you are not being true to yourself and your emotions in the moment. As humans, we will experience various types of emotions at different times. To numb certain emotions is to judge and repress a part of us and our human experience.
Furthermore, emotions are neutral and merely information.
They are neither positive nor negative. They just tell you where you are right now in terms of vibration. People who integrate spirituality into their lives will cultivate equanimity and develop a greater capacity to feel, hold, and embrace all emotions. At the same time, they don’t get carried away by their emotions and are able to move through their emotions much quicker.
People who spiritual bypass think that to be spiritual, one has to be positive all the time. So even when they are not feeling good, they fake positivity and pretend that everything is okay. But the repressed emotion needs an outlet to express itself. So oftentimes, people who spiritual bypass find themselves unconsciously reacting to the circumstances around them. For example, they might have sudden, emotional outbursts that are not typical of them.
2. You have a particular fixation on what a spiritual person should or shouldn’t do.
People who spiritual bypass often feel superior to others. Some people call this spiritual narcissism. They think they have arrived at a higher level of being and they are more spiritual than others, so they are always right and better than the rest.
Usually, they hold certain beliefs about what a spiritual person should or should not do. For example, they might think they are more enlightened than others because they meditate more, read more spiritual books, or go to spiritual retreats more times a year than others.
Or they might judge others for watching mindless TV programs, having negative emotions, not able to cope with their problems, not being compassionate or spiritual enough, being too greedy with money, etc. These are things they don’t allow themselves to do or things they judge themselves for doing.
Creating a superior spiritual identity for yourself is an ego trap.
When you create a superior spiritual identity or you are self-righteous about the concept of enlightenment, you are separating and disconnecting yourself from the rest, which is exactly what the ego wants.
People who are truly connected with the spirits will know that everyone has a spirit no matter how awakened or enlightened they are. All of us are interconnected and belong to the same source. There is no such thing as being more spiritual or less spiritual. Everyone is spiritual even though we are evolving at a different pace or in a different area of their life.
One doesn’t become spiritual only when they resolve all their trauma and issues. Judging others for being worse than us is just a denial of our own shadow.
3. You don’t realize you hold contradictory beliefs.
People who spiritual bypass often feel a need to justify their spiritual beliefs or use spiritual statements to rationalize their actions. That’s because they don’t completely believe the spiritual truth.
For example, someone can say, “All is well.” or “The Universe has my back.” to rationalize they are okay when they are in tough situations. But yet, they are super worried or unsettled about the future. Or they believe they are unconditional love. But then, they still hold animosity towards certain people.
Your spirit knows the truth but your mind isn’t convinced.
Someone who is deeply connected to their spirit will not have such fears or emotional resistance. Not only do they trust the Universe but they also know for sure that whatever happens, it will be the best for them. They know it in every fiber of their body, mind, and spirit. It’s not just a mental concept, they embodied it.
Of course, as mentioned before, as humans, we will find it difficult to stay in the spiritual perspective for long. So it’s okay that we get pinch-off of our alignment from time to time or have contradictory beliefs. The key is to be aware of it instead of denying it.
Spiritual bypassing occurs when we don’t embrace both spiritual and personal truths. Even though the former is an absolute truth, we have to accept and respect where we are now in our spiritual journey.
4. Your spiritual practices don’t help you connect with your spirit.
Why does someone who meditate or do yoga daily end up spiritual bypassing while the other person doesn’t? It all boils down to your intention of performing spiritual practices.
If you practice spirituality to escape your problems, then you miss the essence of spiritual practice. Spiritual practice is not a tool for you to get detached or dissociate from your life. It actually helps you feel more alive instead of numb.
Furthermore, the purpose of practicing spirituality is to practice spirituality. You don’t practice only when you have a problem or something you want to fix in your life. You practice spirituality to connect with the spirit within and to remind you who you really are.
Practice spirituality even when you are feeling good,
not only when you are feeling bad.
When you are connected deeply to your spirit, you see things from a different perspective and you intuitively know how to navigate your obstacles. Even though spiritual practice can offer you relief or help you solve your problem, this is just the by-products. The essence of spiritual practice is not in the “doing” but in the “being”.
Also, if you practice spiritual merely as a ritual to help you fit in with your spiritual community or you have a lot of pride in the number of spiritual practices you do, then it’s just a means for you to feel accepted, belonged, or superior. Doing so only serves the ego, not the spirit.
5. You are not in your body most of the time.
Sometimes, people think that spirituality is all about transcending the physical body. So they use psychedelics such as Ayahuasca or other spiritual practices to help them and going to another realm of time and space.
Yes, from a spiritual perspective, we are not our body, mind, and emotions. Unfortunately, some of us misinterpret this spiritual truth as our body is not important, so we think there’s no need to take care of our bodies and cater to our human needs. But too many out of body experiences only result in spiritual bypassing and dissociation, not enlightenment.
Spirituality is not only about transcendence.
It’s also about embodiment and integration.
It’s about bringing heaven to earth. After you go up and connect with the spiritual dimension, you have to come back down into your body and integrate the spiritual perspective into your life. If not, you are just escaping your life into another reality instead of living your life fully in the present moment.
Even though we are not our body, mind, and emotions. As humans, we still have a body, mind, and emotions. It’s not something we can deny. We have to learn to live with this paradox that we are spirit but yet we are human too until we pass on and move to the next stage of our lives.
Moreover, the spirit is most felt inside the body, not outside the body. It’s only when there is contrast can one fully experiences itself. Just like how a droplet of water doesn’t feel itself when it merges with the ocean, our spirit doesn’t feel its existence when it’s merging with the Universe all the time. We need our human experience and boundaries too helps us to experience our spiritual essence more fully.
Featured Photo Credit: Olga