Spiritual bypassing or the spiritual bypass is defined as: the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks”. The term was first introduced in the 1980s by John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist.
Spiritual bypassing is something which we can observe clearly in both religious, New Age/spiritual groups, where there is a distinct seperation between physicality and spirituality.
In this post I want to explore what spiritual bypassing is, provide some common examples and how we can avoid bypassing to the best of our abilities.
Examples of spiritual bypassing
Spiritual bypassing is often led by the spiritual ego. This ego isn’t actually distinct from the regular ego, instead it is where we frame our ego in a different light based on the information we have acquired, when our ego does arise we downplay it because we already believe we have surpassed it – it’s an inversion of spirit.
We are still seperated from others, resisting the present moment and holding deep attachments, but are able to put a metaphysical spin on things.
Avoiding negative emotion
A common mantra in the New Age or self-help community is ‘good vibes only’ or ‘focus on the positive’, where wellness is often defined as the individual pursuit of happiness. Sometimes this is more obvious and other times it is implied.
While the power of being able to maintain a positive mindset cannot be understated, we also have to be aware of where this can become inverted. Where positivity means ignoring reality or disregarding its existence altogether. This is often referred to as ‘toxic positivity’.
What people get wrong is conflating negative experience or negative emotion with an overall negative outlook. We can absolutely view a negative experience for what it is, without embellishing or downplaying it, without falling into a complete downward spiral.
Further along, we can actually take negative experience or emotion and transform this into something positive. However often without accepting and processing that negativity honestly first, we can’t transmute it, it simply stagnates and festers. While we might not be focused on this negativity, it grows unconsciously in the background.
This leads nicely into the next example.
Downplaying real-world struggles
When we are accustomed to avoiding our own negative emotions, it’s easy to start downplaying or ignoring real-world struggles.
We are likely to look at the problems in the world and dissociate ourselves from them. Viewing other people’s struggles as solely individual failures rather than structural issues (or a mix of the two).
When someone is feeling down, instantly reverting to positive mantras and platitutes. When looking at issues such as poverty, homelessness, violence, political corruption etc. always assigning some metaphysical explaination.
Chasing metaphysical experiences
Spiritual bypassing can be seen in many areas of spiritual development. For example, wanting to open your third eye in one week without addressing the areas where you aren’t perceiving things accurately. Wanting to have a kundalini awakening experience without addressing your emotional, mental or physical blockages.
I speak from experience here, when I first started researching these topics I wanted to have grand mystical experiences. I wanted to open my third eye, awaken my kundalini and communicate with spiritual beings. However I neglected my emotional and mental health in the process, I saw the spiritual aspect of my being as somewhat seperate or distinct from everything else.
All of these ‘end-goals’ can be reached in a rapid but incomplete manner, but to truly embody a new perspective it takes a deeper dedication of more time and focus.
Spiritual bypassing can hide behind phrases such as:
- “Good vibes only”
- “Focus on the positive”
- “What you think is what you attract”
- “Everything happens for a reason”
- “It was God’s plan”
- “Hapiness is a mindset”
This isn’t to say that none of these phrases have utility, rather they present one perspective on things. Sometimes we need a positive platitude, saying or explaination in order to motivate us to keep going. We might need a positive outlook to balance the negativity around us. It’s important that we can maintain a positive mindset in a lot of situations.
Context matters. Sometimes we need to be positively uplifted or to take a break from relentless hopelessness and negativity. Other times what we desperately need is to look at things with as much honesty as we can.
The dangers of spiritual bypassing
As we’ve discussed sometimes it is necassary and even helpful to bypass certain experiences. To honor our limits and capacity in confronting negativity. However the dangers of spiritual bypassing when adopted as a long-term outlook are much more insidious.
- Inability to take accountability
- A lack of personal responsibility
- Lack of self-care
- Blind following of teachers & gurus
- Deep-seated shame
- Lack of action on real-world issues
The dangers are largely when we take macro level spiritual concepts and apply them to micro level dynamics.
Inability to spot abuse
For example, the idea that everyone can act as a mirror for us. When we identify something bad in others this often reflects something within us – a fear, an aversion, a similiar characteristic. While this is true in a lot of ways, and perhaps if we zoom out enough it applies universally, sometimes we miss the red flags that are right in front of us.
This is a great way to reflect on how we are judging others, or assinging wrong-doing where there is none. However it can also become dangerous if we no longer have the awareness or language required to identify and confront abuse.
Ignorance of health problems
A hyper-focus on positive mindset and mantras can mean we neglect self-care. Where someone is experiencing deep-seated emotional issues or mental health problems, being encouraged to focus on solely on a positive outlook.
This can manifest as disdain towards the use of medicine, therapy or physical illness. Which can lead to direct harm or encourage shame for those who require those approaches alongside a shift in mindset or daily habits.
Encouraging imbalanced systems of power
We might ignore and even encourage imbalanced systems of power. It’s all about individual vibration and individual focus, rather than a balance between the individual and community – interdependence rather than codependence.
When our focus is on our individual reality and individual outcomes, we might look at people who are struggle and blame them for their own circumstances (where this isn’t warranted). If we experience success, particualrly physical success, believing that anyone can achieve the same without examining our own advantages.
Lack of personal responsibility
A lack of personal responsibility can ensue when we place ourselves above people we consider to be low vibrational or asleep. When we are confronted with how our words or actions are harmful, we can dismiss this criticism as a lack of awareness. We can utilize spiritual language as a defence, dissmissing all critique as projection or lack of perspective.
Falling into spiritual idolatry or dogma
We can take on information from spiritual teachers & gurus without any discernment. Taking anything we hear from a spiritual teacher as gospel because we are idolizing or placing them on a pedestal.
How to avoid spiritual bypassing
I think we are all capable of spiritual bypassing because we all have a tendency to avoid difficult emotions and experiences. As humans we don’t have the capacity to take on and confront every negative emotion or experience, nor should we feel obligated to.
Sometimes we need to attempt to frame things in a positive way (even when that isn’t the case), or we need time to step back from the world’s problems. This is so that we have enough energy to do anything at all; if we were focused on all of the negativity around us we’d never get anywhere.
Spiritual bypassing becomes a problem when it is our go-to coping strategy, when we are avoiding pressing issues in our lives and the world over the long-term. It’s all about balance.
Acknowledge your shadow
The shadow self is the aspect of our being that we would rather pretend didn’t exist. It consists of all of our negative qualities, tendencies and patterns, but also positive attributes which we have been afraid to own due to fear or shame.
One of the reasons we try to bypass other people’s emotions or problems is because we have distanced ourselves from our own. If we haven’t addressed our own sadness, anger or avoidance, it is uncomfortable to witness someone else’s.
Shadow work is a practice of making the unconscious conscious through different exercizes. We can begin by acknowledging the shadow when it arises. When we feel unheard, unseen or unsafe, observing our initial responses and thought patterns. Bringing peace and acceptance to these reactions rather than shame or guilt.
Explore your emotions
I have used the term negative emotion or experience in this article many times for a specific purpose. While emotions or even experiences are not negative in themselves; sometimes having that language is important.
This is because we all know what negative emotion means: anger, greed, rage, sadness, fear etc.
Explore all of your emotions with acceptance, whether they feel negative, positive or neutral. At times it might be helpful to label our emotions, and other times we can just experience them as they are.
The key is to simply be open to exploring your emotions however they manifest.
Building community might seem unrelated to spiritual bypassing but I actually think it’s the main reason we resort to such behaviors.
Particularly in the modern age, spirituality and self-help have become intertwined. The focus on the individual has increased and the focus on community has decreased. We might not even be able to find a connected community of spiritual seekers where we live, and instead use the internet for this purpose.
This leads our spiritual practice to develop in a very individualized and often self-centered manner. Finding community doesn’t necassarily mean seeking out people who agree with us on these topics or have the same practices as us, particularly if that isn’t possible, rather finding people who we can lean on and who can lean on us.
Just because spritiual awakening is often characterized by isolation (and for good reason) this doesn’t mean we need to remain isolated just because we are on the spiritual path.
Spiritual bypassing stems from the belief that the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of our being are seperated or can be approached as such. We can ignore our physical, emotional and mental health in favor of spiritual evolution – this isn’t the case.
Embodiment involves practices that bring us back to physicality.
When you are absorbing information by spiritual teachers & gurus (including me) ask what resonates and what doesn’t. Ask how you can incorporate these new teaching into your daily life: to improve your work, relationships and overall wellbeing.
Incorporate rituals that include the physical body in your spiritual practice – resist keeping all of these teachings at a purely mental or intellectual level (where we are prone to ego-games).
On the spiritual path it’s so easy to go to one extreme or another. Working with these different aspects of our being in a balanced way is no easy feat!
Even on the topic of spiritual bypassing it can become easy to direct a lot of blame and shame. Where there is tension attached to this topic, ask where you can simplify things. Bring the focus to your daily practices and what you do know, build from there.
I hope this article was helpful for you, if you have any experiences with this sort of bypassing feel free to share a comment below.