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What is Spiritual Bypass?

In the spiritual arena we can’t talk about self-awareness and self-development without speaking about ‘spiritual bypass’. Spiritual bypassing is a defence mechanism employed by the ego to hide behind spirituality rather than face the psychological and emotional issues that we hold. The term ‘Spiritual bypassing’ was introduced during the early 1980s by a transpersonal psychotherapist named John Welwood in his book Toward a Psychology of Awakening. According to him, spiritual bypassing can be defined as a "tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks."


Denial is a defence mechanism, a psychological response, which presents as a barrier to anxiety and perceived pain; it’s the minds way of stepping in and keeping us safe. Sometimes denial is conscious and deliberate, and at other times it’s unconscious and automatic, but either way, denial has a perceived benefit; we don’t have to feel our pain or face the consequences of it if we do.

 

What does spiritually bypassing look like in action?

 

The person who is spiritually bypassing actively avoids their emotions to deny the existence, and experience of their own pain. They will do everything they can to avoid their inner reality and in spiritual bypassing they will use the spiritual work, and word, to do so. Do you recognise yourself in any of the following?

 

Minimising or judging the feelings of others


Someone who is spiritually bypassing might tell a person in the face of a difficult time how they shouldn’t feel a certain way, or how they should just “Be more positive” because, “What we give out, we get back”. They may propagate the idea that suffering is positive and justify it by saying things like, “How can you know another person’s pain unless you’ve suffered it yourself?”. Their statements which invariably lack empathy, also demonstrate a judgement of others. Judging others, dismissing their pain, encouraging people to suppress their feelings, and telling people that “It could be worse”, and to “Stop being so negative”, are indicators that someone is attempting to bypass their own anxieties whilst often victim-shaming others in the process. Within the spiritual community the expression “Love and Light” is a statement also suggestive of someone spiritually bypassing. It’s very commonly said, and written on social media posts and emails, usually in response to someone experiencing some degree of suffering. When you see it written, and more specifically when it’s not accompanied by any tangible support, what’s being unconsciously communicated by them is, “Your emotions make me uncomfortable, so I’m going to take the high road and avoid them but will show you that I’m kind and spiritual in the process”. The spiritually bypassing person will see ‘negativity’ instead of seeing a person who is experiencing very appropriate emotions such as anger, shame, loneliness, and fear. They will refuse to see that these ‘negative emotions’ are often perfectly appropriate responses to difficult situations and are a part of the human experience.

 

Superficial spirituality


A person who bypasses may also behave in seemingly more ‘spiritual’ ways and present themselves to the world as spiritually wise, or even pious. They might hold the belief that if you’re truly spiritual you should never feel anger, never be upset, you must be compulsively kind, have the answer to every problem, and always be available to others. They may work really hard to show this version of themselves to the world and go to great lengths to protect this image. This “I should always be of service to others”, is often a defence against feeling their own wounds and in truth, the pull towards the spiritual arena can seem to be an excellent thing as it encourages the focus on everything external to them and they get to avoid their own emotions. For some people, being part of a spiritual community that encourages self-sacrifice and detachment can further propagate and encourage this behaviour. The danger in being THIS version of ‘spiritual’, is that a person may also be so identified with their own sense of spirituality that they can be excessively tolerant of unacceptable and inappropriate behaviours in others, and sometimes in themselves.

 

Avoidance of responsibility


Along the spiritual journey, we will inevitably be striving to ‘be’ something more than we were previously. As we evolve, we can sometimes feel a discomfort within us when we remember we’ve maybe lived life in ways which aren’t aligned to this current version of ourselves. We may have previously caused harm to others, said hurtful things, and been anything other than the definition of spiritual. When the resulting guilt or shame presents, a person may attempt to bypass it by denying how they feel and instead blame others for how they felt or behaved. It becomes the fault of their parents, their financial situation, or their lack of understanding, and whilst in part this may be true, when someone is bypassing, they tend to eschew responsibility. This avoidance of responsibility can also be projected into their spiritual work too. There may be occasions where things don’t go well or to plan, and they will then blame God, the Spirit World, the Angels, and even the Spirit Communicators rather than face their own anguish directly.

 

Spiritual superiority


Within the spiritual arena we are often demonstrating abilities and skills which for the most part, are not commonplace. We are seeing and hearing things that others can’t, and we are healing people of sickness when sometimes the medical profession has failed. The fact that we appear to be in a small minority of people who can do extraordinary things may foster feelings of specialness and superiority within us. As students it is possible and likely that we will see our teachers in some way as being elevated or superior to us. Ninth-century Chinese Buddhist monk Linji Yixuan famously told his disciples, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. This is not to be taken literally of course but instead acknowledges that nothing outside of us has all of the answers, including religion, teachers, or books. Yixuan is even suggesting that we should stop looking outside of ourselves for our answers at all and instead, go within. As a result of our aptitudes, achievements, and successes we may start to see ourselves as being superior to others but be cautious if this is true for you, you may be confusing feelings of superiority with the spiritual bypassing of your insecurities.

 

How to move beyond spiritual bypass?

 

The truth is, when we deny any part of ourselves, we’re denying the opportunity to move beyond limitation, and in some cases, this can cause further suffering. Anxiety is a ‘shrinking disease’, the more we face it, the more it recedes. It’s important to remember that whilst we work on our own healing, our discomfort doesn’t mean that we’re in danger, the uncomfortable feelings are confirmation that change is needed, and benefit is available by doing so. Whilst denial of our feelings may bring short-term relief from the crippling anxiety of facing reality, unless we accept and explore the parts of ourselves that we fear, the mind will continue to find more and more ways to defend itself against the perceived scary world. This eventually will make our outer world feel smaller, and our inner world more limited, whilst also encouraging our anxiety levels to increase.

 

Going close to the parts of us we fear, whilst uncomfortable, can be the most liberating and joyful experience we can have in our personal development and spiritual unfoldment. When we heal our unresolved issues and wounds the need to spiritually bypass reduces. There are a few things you can do to confront the tendency to spiritually bypass:


  • Tell yourself the truth about how you feel.

  • Avoid labelling emotions as good, bad, right, or wrong.

  • Remember that discomfort doesn’t mean danger.

  • Take responsibility for your actions, especially if they’ve caused harm to others.

  • Have compassion for yourself.

  • Seek professional help if necessary.

 

By working to eliminate spiritual bypass, not only do we get to live more freely and fully, but the courage it takes to face ourselves also builds emotional and psychological resilience meaning we are equipped to rise to any challenge life brings us. As more opportunities present to us, we are then able to explore them without the fearful and inaccurate responses that our minds create as an obstacle to our authentic growth.


In conclusion, personal development is about understanding ourselves. It’s about knowing who we are, understanding how we think and feel the way we do, and also being curious about the reasons behind our behaviours. Our self-knowledge is particularly important if we are to be working with people who have strong emotional needs such as the bereaved. In understanding ourselves we can then recognise how their needs may affect and impact us, and how our unhealed selves have the potential to impact them too.

 

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Maya Angelou

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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