We often turn to spiritual practices in times of difficulty and desperation, in the hopes of finding meaning, growth, healing, transcendence, and inner peace. Belief in God or gods is not a requirement for walking a spiritual path.

Spirituality could be described as an intuitive experience of a deep and infinite, heartful, energetic connection and unity with all that is. Some people may consider “all that is” the omnipresence of the Creator or God. Others may call it Spirit, Source, Presence, the Sacred or Divine, and some may choose not to name it.

When people are troubled they may also turn to psychology and psychotherapy because it deals with the mind, behavior, feelings, thoughts, and how we understand and make sense of the world.

At times of struggle with external challenges and/or internal psychological issues, childhood psychological wounds, and failing mental health, we may experience painful emotions, cognitive dissonance (mental conflict as a result of beliefs, values, and behaviors not aligning), and a sense of isolation and disconnection that can feel torturous!

At this point, instead of becoming intensely present, open-hearted, and welcoming to the opportunity to deal with the challenge and its underlying issues to invest in our psycho-spiritual growth, we often turn to comforting, busying, and distracting ourselves with just about anything to escape the internal agony or hell as quickly as possible—entertainment via our phones, social media, TV, sport, shopping (retail therapy), work, and perhaps food and substance abuse, high-risk behaviors, and possibly religious and spiritual rituals.

We are so skilled at avoidance that those of us following religious practices or spiritual teachings may unintentionally find ourselves using and abusing our spiritual ideas to spiritually bypass internal disharmony or encourage others to do so similarly, rather than face and process painful personal or social unresolved issues.

Hi-tech information and communication technologies flood us daily with the very worst of the worst (considered highlights!) news from around the planet. Updates on the pandemic, financial crisis, unemployment, growing inequalities, refugee crisis, racism, sexism, speciesism, gender discrimination and gender-based violence, crime and corruption, and the threat of global warming, climate disasters, and environmental destruction, to name but a few, and in addition to this we face our daily personal lives and responsibilities, with concern for the well-being of our dear ones.

It is a vulnerable time. This also gives us plenty of daily opportunities to exercise our psycho-spiritual muscles, and respond to issues that may for too long have been ignored or repressed.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”—Charles Dickens
“There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”—Leonard Cohen

Perhaps encouraging is that spiritual bypassing may not be something to eradicate, but to outgrow.

How do you know if you are spiritually bypassing?

Spirituality has been around for thousands of years. It was in the mid-1980s that the term spiritual bypassing was first used by Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Welwood, and became widely known with the release of his book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening.

This built on the concept of spiritual materialism, a term coined by Chögyam Trungpa in his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, originally published in 1973. 

Spiritual materialism is the belief that certain impermanent states of mind are a refuge from suffering, such as using meditation practices to create a peaceful state of mind, or using substances to remain in a numbed out or euphoric state.

What is spiritual bypassing?

In an interview with Tina Fossella, John Welwood says the following, “Spiritual bypassing is a term I coined to describe a process I saw happening in the Buddhist community I was in, and also in myself. Although most of us were sincerely trying to work on ourselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”

While the above words are often quoted, it is these words by Welwood that I find particularly illuminating, “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. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits. I see this as an ‘occupational hazard’ of the spiritual path, in that spirituality does involve a vision of going beyond our current karmic situation.”

We bypass or avoid uncomfortable emotions, painful feelings, issues, and unfinished tasks to our peril. The spiritual journey is holistic and it is ours to own. It is about heartful response-ability and being in full presence. It requires working through emotions and unresolved issues, not simply dismissing them with toxic positivity or for spiritual transcendent reasons.

That wonderful reminder, “What we resist persists’,” may fester if left unresolved, and stifle our growth and our lives, impacting people, the planet, and beyond for generations to come. Yes, what you and each of us do, does matter.

“If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.”—Henry Ford

As we grow in awareness and response-ability we can reflect compassionately on how we engage with life, and make wiser choices.

Don’t judge where you think others should be on their journey of awakening or accuse people of spiritual bypassing. As the saying goes “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes,” and even then, don’t judge—your judgment is yours, a reflection only on you…

In a crisis, should someone choose to do a yoga class, pray or meditate, to an uniformed onlooker, this may appear to be irresponsible and spiritual bypassing, when in fact coming to stillness and centering will likely enable them to find peace and act wisely.

Examples of spiritual bypassing

  • Living in the spiritual realm and not being present with what is. (We sometimes refer to this as being so spiritual that you are no earthly good, meaning that you are not able to able to deal with reality.)
    Seeing spirituality as separate from the physical plane (rather than all ultimately being one. Healing is the process of becoming whole again).
  • Feelings of entitlement, spiritual superiority, or “I’m special.” (You might find this alternative helpful in navigating life, “Everybody is special and nobody is special,”’ and see if that works for you.)
  • Feeling detached, a lack of interest in the world, distancing yourself in an attempt to avoid disturbing feelings (rather than practicing non-attachment which is to not overvalue the objects in your life and to live without mental fixation, rumination, and worry about outcomes. There is a distinction between indifference and non-attachment).
  • Frequent anger, or avoiding anger, and projecting negative feelings onto others rather than taking responsibility.
  • Pretending things are fine when they are not, living in denial, overemphasizing the positive, and avoiding the negative. (Rather we need to welcome all feelings and parts of ourselves—the spiritual journey is holistic and healing which could be defined as the personal experience of the transcendence of suffering. It can also be described as the process of becoming whole again, integrating your whole life—body, mind, and spirit.)
  • Using positive thinking in an attempt to overcome problems, or trying to rise above painful emotions (rather than being with and working through them).
  • Telling people that their traumatic events are a “learning experience” and that there is a silver lining behind every negative experience.

Why does spiritual bypassing occur?

Spiritual bypassing helps us avoid facing painful emotions such as grief, hatred, rage, shame, and terror. As we see from the examples of spiritual bypassing listed above, we practice avoidance when we feel insecure, fearful, vulnerable, disconnected, overwhelmed, and threatened.

Spiritual bypassing may act temporarily to shield us from dealing with extreme emotions and circumstances.

If spiritual bypassing is not something to eradicate but to outgrow, we understand that spiritual bypassing happens more frequently in the earlier days of our spiritual journey. As we evolve and embody our awakening, we can be present (with all that is) with uncomfortable emotions and feelings, and not practice spiritual bypassing.

“Modern child-rearing leaves most people suffering from symptoms of insecure attachment: self-hatred, disembodiment, lack of grounding, chronic insecurity and anxiety, overactive minds, lack of basic trust, and a deep sense of inner deficiency. So most of us suffer from an extreme degree of alienation and disconnection that was unknown in earlier times— from society, community, family, older generations, nature, religion, tradition, our body, our feelings, and our humanity itself.”
-John Welwood

Why is it hard to tell if you are spiritually bypassing?

  • It is normalized in society and goes largely unnoticed.
  • It is sometimes couched in well-meaning words.
  • When you are less aware (not present), it is easier to respond in a habitual manner, which includes spiritual bypassing.
  • When you are in victim mode, you are likely to blame rather than take responsibility.

As per John Welwood, in modern times, “most of us suffer from an extreme alienation and disconnection that was unknown in earlier times.”

Discover the hidden opportunity to transform spiritual bypassing

Spiritual bypassing, as a temporary approach to coping with a crisis, is not necessarily regarded as unhealthy. Some have argued that certain behaviors considered “spiritual bypassing” may be an inescapable phase of spiritual development.

In the long-term, what we suppress is likely to create internal disharmony, confusion, and imbalance, and limit our capacity for a deeper, authentic, more meaningful life. There are a variety of negative consequences of spiritual bypass and it may be addressed with various forms of modalities ranging from embodied presence or psychotherapy.

Transformational opportunities present themselves as milder day-to-day discomforts, and then often as repeated episodes. If continually repressed, these growing mental discomforts may emerge later on as a mental breakdown (a period of extreme emotional and mental stress in which you are unable to perform normal day-to-day activities) compelling you to address the then crippling need for change and healing—which is the process of becoming whole again, integrating your whole life—body, mind, and spirit.

How to confront tendencies of falling into spiritual bypassing

When you find yourself in a difficult situation, be it personal or in the presence of someone else facing a crisis or challenge, before avoiding or distracting from the crisis, or resorting to clichés, keep an open mind and ask yourself whether the action you are about to take, or what you are about to say, is really going to bring comfort or insight, or, is it just a means of dismissing a tough circumstance so that you can feel better.

Ask yourself, “What aren’t I seeing?” to consider the light and dark sides of a situation. Add shadow work to your spiritual practices to explore the unconscious aspects of your personality.

Face your pain and cognitive dissonance. Remain centered, open-hearted and present. Awareness or presence is never avoidance. Allow yourself to fully feel what arises. You can only resolve that which you allow yourself to feel.

While psychotherapy helps to bring problems to mental processing, cognitive awareness, and understanding, this can be an endless journey as the more you delve into your issues, the more you will discover.

Mentally understanding a situation does not necessarily give you a sense of peace with it. At some point, you may find that you step from mental processing and mind identification into a state of awareness, or presence.

Without repressing any issues, they may no longer feel as important or all-consuming, they have been transcended. You may experience a lightness of being, as some difficulties subside and dissolve. Allow yourself to feel what arises with awareness and presence, and you will become aware of insights and have understanding.

If you find yourself getting drawn back by painful thoughts into mind identification, gently return to awareness and presence. Practices that can help may include breathwork, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, centering prayer (which is being still and resting in God’s Presence), journaling, art therapy, free movement dance such as 5Rhythms, psychotherapy etc.

Remind yourself that emotional states are temporary and try to view them with awareness, acceptance, and presence. Uncomfortable feelings are an opportunity for transformation. Through openness and curiosity, they inspire growth and action. To live a full life is to embrace a variety of experiences knowing that we’ll handle whatever comes our way.

The spiritual journey is one of awakening and becoming whole. Let’s be present in challenging moments, honor, experience, process what arises within us, and heartfully and consciously evolve.

The two poems below are helpful reminders to practice welcoming what arises.

The Guesthouse
This being human is a guest house.Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,some momentary awareness comesas an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,who violently sweep your houseempty of its furniture,still, treat each guest honorably.He may be clearing you outfor some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,meet them at the door laughing,and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,because each has been sentas a guide from beyond.

The Welcoming Prayer
Welcome, welcome, welcome.
I welcome everything that comes to me today, because I know it’s for my healing.
I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations, and conditions.
I let go of my desire for power and control.
I let go of my desire for affection, esteem, approval, and pleasure.
I let go of my desire for survival and security.
I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person or myself.
I open to the love and presence of God and God’s action within. Amen.
—Father Thomas Keating