by Suzie Chick
Spiritual bypass has been described as a persistent shadow of spirituality. And just like with our own shadow material, this bypass state needs to be acknowledged and ultimately integrated as a key part of our search for spiritual development and wholeness. Without such integration, the gap or split remains, moving us further away from our authentic selves.
What is spiritual bypass?
The term “spiritual bypass” was originally coined by psychotherapist, John Welwood in 1984, expanding upon the work of Buddhist master, Chogyam Trungpa on spiritual materialism.
In a nutshell, spiritual bypassing is the use of spiritual practice as a defence and denial against dealing with personal pain. Nigel Hamilton refers to it alchemically as “false sublimatio” (to ascend before dealing with our inner consciousness) or a type of premature transcendence as Welwood calls it. Spiritualism is used as a cloak to hide, with no real personal growth taking place, a kind of Transpersonal rationalization, as described by Cortright.
Spiritualism is used as a cloak to hide, with no real personal growth taking place
People can fall into bypass as a means of avoiding or hiding from unfinished business. For example when difficult emotions start to come to the surface through therapy and instead of working through the dark stuff, a spiritual personal identity is created leaving the human issues neglected, compartmentalized and unintegrated. The psychological work is left incomplete and therefore retreats into the shadows, causing distortions in the sense of self. Bypass essentially is a way of hiding from one’s own truth.
There can be various different types of spiritual bypass, but some of my personal favourites are:
The aggrandizement bypass – those who present themselves as superior, enlightened beings in order to avoid their personal insecurities. I have experienced this type of bypass in a group situation. I noticed that this bypass type allowed for a great distance to emerge between us and this so called awakened soul, as we couldn’t possibly understand what they were experiencing. It was an effective way of disconnecting from others and shutting down.
The guru bypass– this is when we might heavily rely on the teachings of a spiritual guru as our mantra for dealing with any difficult feelings or situations. Having a mentor etc. can be very useful but when we become dependent, we begin to lose sight of ourselves and our own spiritual identity. Take this type of bypass too far and add a narcissistic and delusional leader, and you have the makings of a potential cult and/or religious fundamentalism, (I’d highly recommend the excellent documentary Holy Hell (streaming on Netflix) for a harrowing example of this).
The finger-pointing bypass – This type of bypass presents itself in literal finger pointing. All that is wrong with the world is someone else’s fault (so there’s an avoidance of taking responsibility). We embody a false sense of righteousness and avoid pointing the fingers at ourselves and owning how we may be part of the problem (and also part of the solution). It’s a way of delaying growth and a powerful form of procrastination.
The emerging gap
Of course the irony of bypass is that on the outside, we seem to be all things spiritual, but underneath our avoidance is causing us to more further away from our authentic spiritual selves. We essentially are digging ourselves an even deeper hole than the one we were trying to avoid. A viscous circle ensues. What’s worse by blocking out our negative emotions, we can also numb our positive ones too, and so the personal cost of bypass becomes even greater.
As John Welwood puts it, bypass “sets up a debilitating split between the Buddha and the human within us”. Some argue that the reluctance of some psychotherapists to recognize spirituality in their work exacerbates this gap.
When we enter this state of bypass, a gap emerges between our spiritual practice and our self-development (when the two things should be aligned for true growth). As John Welwood puts it, bypass “sets up a debilitating split between the Buddha and the human within us”. Some argue that the reluctance of some psychotherapists to recognize spirituality in their work exacerbates this gap. This is where I strongly feel Transpersonal psychotherapy can play an important role in uniting the two strands of growth and the spiritual. Ironically I feel that the Transpersonal is inherently more vulnerable to spiritual bypass but also can be the healing form in bringing together personal growth and a person’s soul nature. The Transpersonal could be both part of the problem and the solution.
I believe that social media contributes towards bypass also.
One issue, which contributes to bypass, is our predetermined view of spirituality. Bypass allows our spiritual self to be controlled and contained, where as spirituality can be just as messy as everything else. I believe that social media contributes towards bypass also. Images of bronze calm yogi’s sitting in lotus, on a serene beach with not a hair out of place, shows the pretty side of the spiritual, ignoring the tough personal work that goes into experiencing this state for real. The abundance of such intoxicating images adds to our fantasy of spirituality and almost encourages people into bypass.
An occupational hazard
Welwood argues that this state of bypass is an “occupational hazard” of walking our spiritual path. So is it inevitable that all of us who seek spiritual transformation will suffer this malaise at one point or other?
Researching this topic has got me wondering whether I too have suffered with this affliction. There have certainly been moments in my personal journey where I have felt scared of processing some of my experiences and emotions, and so I have searched for a quick fix to avoid sitting with my pain For a heady soul like me, bypass plays into my preference to do something rather than to be with my discomfort. I looked for solutions in books and spiritual writings hoping that some pearls of wisdom would lift me up from my pit of despair. Or I have turned to obsessive meditation in order to disassociate and berate myself when I can’t reach that perfect moment of tranquility. John Welwood cites meditation as a classic bypass vehicle explaining, “For those in denial about their personal feelings or wounds, meditation practice can reinforce a tendency toward coldness, disengagement, or interpersonal distance”. Upon reflection, I would now describe my avoidant behavior as a type of bypass. I still feel that I have the capacity to return to this state as and when I try to hide from difficult feelings, so I need to mindful of this.
For a heady soul like me, bypass plays into my preference to do something rather than to be with my discomfort.
So maybe bypass is an inevitable part of our spiritual growth. As we grapple with what spirituality means to us as individuals, maybe it’s natural for us to get confused along the way and fall into this type of behavior. I sense it’s incredibly easy for us all to fall into this ‘ego trap’ of bypass, especially when starting out on our journeys when everything is new and scary and our incomplete selves feel a little fragile. We search for external meaning to avoid pain and ease anxiety and fear, but as Linji (a Zen Buddhist monk) said, “if you meet the Buddha, kill him”, as no true meaning can come from outside of ourselves, the Buddhahood is already within each of us to search and discover.
As therapists, if we can acknowledge our own bypass experiences and capacity, then this will assist our work with clients when they may too take this dead-end path along their journey.
Thankfully this bypass state doesn’t normally last for long as often the universe conspires to wake us up from our metaphysical limbo (as described by author Robert Masters). Ironically the very peace which is sought moves further away from being realized, as the repressed psychological material lies beneath and becomes harder and harder (and more exhausting) to deny. Eventually the spiritual façade cracks and the unconscious takes control.
A recent example I came across, was a client who was avoiding their painful reality by holding onto meditation and a strict new diet regime, but then they experienced a powerful dream involving a key family member and this forced them to acknowledged their truth, and so the therapeutic work could begin.
Cortright recommends a sensitive and gentle exploration when a client is in bypass and to avoid naming it as such (as this may cause the defence to become stronger not weaker). Staying with the client’s world and experiences and holding onto our unconditional positive regard, over time the bypass defence will fade with the emergence of the true self.
When I started out on this exploration, I saw spiritual bypass as something that happens to other people (that old defence chestnut). But now having acknowledged my own bypass experiences and capacity, I am able to reframe my prior misconceptions.
In a sense, we should welcome spiritual bypass as an inevitable part of our development. It’s understandable that we try to avoid difficult emotions by trying to find a quick fix band-aid when in reality we need our wounds to be left open to heal over time. A bypass illustrates that something is bubbling under the surface and that an edge of discomfort has been reached. As long as we can be mindful of the gap, which may emerge, between our personal issues and our spiritual practice, then the bypass state can be repositioned as a positive marker on the road to personal growth.