A person boasting about how he doesn’t even notice other people’s skin color.
Another one proposing that all we need for a better world is love.
And finally someone claiming that we don’t need to take measures against any injustice, because God will take care of it in the end.
What do these 3 examples have in common?
They’re instances of spiritual bypassing.
The same phenomenon arises when a natural or man-made catastrophe has taken place, and social media feeds get flooded with “thoughts & prayers,” which has become the standard response in the face of tragedies. It’s a classic case of feeling you’ve contributed in a good way by merely expressing your sadness. Of course, due to the ubiquity of it, this phrase has lost any trace of meaning it ever had.
These types of phrases became just automatic slogans uttered to score points for your social image. But this behavior is not confined to the online space.
Let’s examine this phenomenon and see where it stems from and the ways in which it can be harmful, and perhaps what to do to combat it.
What is Spiritual Bypassing?
Spiritual bypassing, which can be traced back to Freud’s theories about the nature of religion, is a term coined by psychiatrist John Welwood, that refers to the tendency to use spiritual or religious practices to try and get beyond unresolved personal or universal issues.
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.
We could say about the spiritual bypasser that s/he’s too “heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” Although the person who engages in this behavior (most likely) considers themselves wiser and closer to the truth of reality, in actuality they are simply hiding their flaws under the veil of spirituality.
In his book Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us From What Really Matters, Robert Masters gives us a powerful visual metaphor to conceptualize premature transcendence. He asks us to imagine we’re living on Floor no. 5, having taken the elevator there, but Floors 1-4 are left unattended, and are slowing disintegrating due to us not taking the time to “clean the space.”
How Spiritual Bypassing Manifests
Spiritual bypassing can happen to the best of us. No one is immune. It’s likely most of the people who engage in spiritual or religious practices have fallen prey to this way of thinking. There’s something alluring and comforting about sidestepping your (or the world’s) messy aspects and trying to rise above them with this coping mechanism. It’s a way of lying to yourself by taking a “spiritual pill” and continuing to numb your emotions and disregard your pain as something that only “unenlightened morals” have to deal with.
Usually, spiritual bypassing happens because the reality that needs to be faced is too harsh and overwhelming. It’s uncomfortable confront our fears, insecurities and wounds head on, so we take shelter in the comfy realm of spirituality, an otherworldly sphere where “we’re all one,” “you’re perfect the way you already are” and “everything happens for a reason.”
Here’s the spectrum of spiritual bypassing as presented by Masters:
Aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, lopsided development (cognitive intelligence often being far ahead of emotional and moral intelligence), debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow side, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.
Those who engage in spiritual bypassing live in a kind of spiritual purgatory, a liminal space that exists beyond our imperfect reality, but still outside the truly spiritual embodiment of life, which would never dismiss the ugly aspects of our existence, but assimilate them into a holistic understanding of the world. As Masters would say, those people “like the light, but not the heat.”
The trappings of spiritual bypassing can look good, particularly when they seem to promise freedom from life’s fuss and fury, but this supposed serenity and detachment is often little more than metaphysical valium, especially for those who have made too much of a virtue out of being and looking positive.
Flavors of Spiritual Bypassing
- Forced equanimity. This can manifest as repression of strong negative emotions, especially anger or hatred. For those in the grip of spiritual bypassing,
- Premature forgiveness. In an attempt to be kind and non-confrontational, some may have the tendency to forgive others automatically, no matter gravity of their deeds.
- Blind compassion. The spiritual bypasser will wish everyone “love and light” regardless of the harm committed to them or others. Although this attitude may seem noble, it actually stunts progress and difficult conversations. People need love, but they also need to be held accountable for their actions. We can cultivate compassion without dissolving into a blob of universal acceptance.
- Blaming it on the Ego. The “ego” is the devil in spiritual communities, everyone blaming it for all our suffering and treating it as something that needs to be eradicated, instead of accepted and integrated into our being.
- Spiritual empty talk. Resorting to positive platitudes, such as “everything is unfolding exactly as it should” or “everything is perfect, nothing needs to be changed.”
- Fast track to enlightenment. Those trapped in spiritual bypassing will try to take the highway to an enlightened state, without actually making all the stops on the way. Stops like healing their pain, resolving their inner conflicts, understanding their shadow.
Spiritual Bypassing Negative Consequences
[I]t is believed that SB [spiritual bypassing] is a process that may damage the psychological well-being of an individual since it involves the utilization of spiritual life in a dysfunctional manner, generating a blockage in development, which may increase dysfunctional psychological symptoms.
Instead of illuminating our consciousness and awakening us to the ways in which we’ve been acting and responding to life’s events, an empty use of spirituality can pull a heavy curtain over our problems, making us ignore our human condition with all its flaws.
It can encourage avoidance of the problem, rather than a direct grappling with it, which is in direct contradiction to the pursuit of a spiritual life. Spiritual bypassing is like a numbing pill that helps us ignore our unresolved psychological issues, emotional traumas, and other pain caused by our past.
The nature of the problems we spiritually bypass can vary. We could be talking about personal problems relating to one’s life, such as relationships or a destructive pattern of doing certain things. Another category can involve societal issues, born out of systemic injurstices or the history of a population, like racism. And finally, we could be talking about the world at large, with its unpredictable events, be them natural or man made (like an earthquake or a terrorist attack).
Whatever the nature of the problem, the response is usually similar. Spiritual bypassers will tend to invoke a grandiose or noble reason why certain event happened the way it did, or attribute religious connotations to the situation, as a way of justifying it, but also of treating it as a source of wisdom. However, because their “explanations” are so far removed from the actual reality of the problem, there is no actual lesson to be drawn from them. Moreover, this kind of “spiritual washing” (akin to greenwashing or whitewashing), can create real damage in the lives of the people affected by the problem in question, because invoking spirituality is not a legitimate way of addressing the underlying issues.
By spiritually bypassing certain problems or human conditions, the people who engage in it think they do 2 things: 1) rise above our flawed human nature by providing an enlightened perspective and 2) encourage others to connect with that perspective and sidestep the real growth that needs to happen, both on an individual and societal level, in order to find a solution.
Spirituality can be used as a coping mechanism, a way to circumvent one’s psychological state because it may be rife with negative emotions and instead resort to dismissing one’s reality in “service” of a higher truth, which although it may be there, doesn’t help in any way with addressing the person’s problems. There’s a sense of irony in the logic of spiritual bypassing. Although its victims espouse the Oneness of the universe, the unity and interconnection of the fabric of reality, they will in the same breath divide their emotions into positive and negative, judge their reactions to life events and categorize their experiences into good or bad. No so much Oneness anymore, huh?
Those who ardently believe in Oneness and nonseparation tend to divide rather than unify, separate rather than integrate, detaching themselves from whatever they deem to be lower or less evolved or negative.
David Forbes describes in Mindfulness and Its Discontents a rather emblematic case that meets all the requirements for a textbook spiritual bypassing story. At the 2014 Wisdom 2.0 summit in San Francisco, a group of protesters demonstrated against the harmful impact Google had on the infrastructure and housing crisis in the city. The spiritually minded participants weren’t particularly pleased with reality hitting them in the face, so they got rid of the protesters and carried on with their mindful business: a meditation session. This clearly shows a disregard for the ugly reality and the desire to continue living in an idealized spiritual environment, guarded off from “nasty” people who demand justice. We can’t have that. But we’re happy to meditate on the situation.
How to Stop Spiritual Bypassing
Combating spiritual bypassing depends on all of us. Every person who considers themselves spiritually minded and tries to integrate spiritual practices into their life needs to be aware of the pitfalls of this tendency and also look out for it in others.
Cutting through spiritual bypassing means turning toward the painful, disfigured, ostracized, unwanted, or otherwise disowned aspects of ourselves and cultivating as much intimacy as possible with them.
But before we tackle spiritual bypassing, it’s important to get clear on the difference between the relative and the absolute.
The Relative and the Absolute
I hinted to these two “realms” in the paragraphs above, but I haven’t actually spelled it out. It’s time to do this, because this difference may illuminate the confusion many well-intended spiritual people are prey to.
Our human experience can be divided into the Relative dimension and the Absolute dimension. In our everyday life, we experience the Relative as a self that’s separate from the world, while the Absolute is an integral view of the whole, a state of being that doesn’t discriminate and that’s one everything, also known as non-duality.
Spiritual people usually “aim” for embodying Absolute view of the world, ending up rejecting the Relative everyday reality. We must not demonize either of these aspects. Dismissing the Relative sphere of existence and only embracing the Absolute, without properly embodying the Relative, can have harmful consequences. These two are like the sides of a coin. They can’t be separated and crucially, one is not “better” than the other. Thinking this is another instance of separation, something that a spiritual bypasser is presumably trying to avoid.
Many of the manifestations of spiritual bypassing result from people trying to circumvent the Relative world, shooting for the blissful embrace of the Absolute. They espouse we’re all the same and differences in sex, religion, race or nationality don’t matter. But they do matter in the “lowly” Relative world. And failing to see this or pretending it isn’t true doesn’t help anyone.
Tying it all together
By now, I think the solution revealed itself. Spiritual practices and the journey they accompany us on shouldn’t come at the expense of engaging with the raw side of reality, especially because true growth happens by unveiling the darkest corners of our selfhood, not brushing them under the rug. True enlightenment is embodied and rooted in reality, not floating above it, on a cloud of blissful ignorance. A genuinely free person won’t reject the chance to face their pain and learn from it, instead they’ll integrate it into their being.
Ultimately, to combat spiritual bypassing we must be willing to confront all our issues, pains and traumas, as well as those of our friends and partners, to integrate them into our being, rather than expel them as “undesirable.” Only then, will we be truly free.
Spiritual bypassing by Robert Augustus Masters
Mindfulness and its discontents by David Forbes