Spiritual bypassing

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matt's picture
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Spiritual bypassing

Have you heard of the phrase, "spiritual bypassing?" It was coined around 1984 by John Welwood, a clinical psychologist who noticed in himself and others a tendency to use spiritual teachings and practices as a way to avoid unresolved emotional wounding. I was thinking about this and thought I'd share a few thoughts. How about you all?

Like any activity, spiritual practice can be used as a means to unfold and illuminate the mysteries of the sacred world, and it can also be used to avoid emotional pain, to shield oneself from unresolved feelings of all kinds, and as a way to stay safe from the unyielding realities of intimacy. Ironically, spiritual belief and practice can provide fertile ground in which we can escape the wild, untamed dimension of immediate embodied experience. This is not to suggest that you discard your most sacred spiritual beliefs and practices, but only to encourage you to engage in them with eyes wide open. There are an infinite number of ways that spiritual beliefs and practices can be used to secure ground for the ego, and endless, very subtle ways that ego can and does co-opt even the most sacred teachings and practices to fortify itself, to make up for early developmental failures, misattunements, and unresolved trauma, especially for those who lacked a holding environment where their emotional world could be mirrored and allowed to unfold.

Of course, many spiritually-oriented people dismiss the somatic-emotional world altogether, believing they are manifesting some sort of pure, transcendent, awakened reality rather than merely expressing their own unresolved trauma and organization. As a result, what is then transmitted, through these practitioners as well as their enlightened gurus and in the name of awakening and enlightenment, is simply more traumatic organization, and half-baked realization. It is not that difficult to look out into the contemporary spiritual landscape to see these dynamics in full force. The spiritual path has become a commodity, bought and sold on the open marketplace, with its endless fantastical promises and alluring siren songs of specialness.

It requires tremendous courage to look carefully at the subtleties of your relationship with spirituality as doing so often takes you directly into the end of your world, where a cosmic house of cards stands ready to crumble, taking down everything around you, including your most precious spiritual identities. In the wake of this revelation, many find themselves in profound disillusionment. But this is a most sacred disillusionment and it is none other than love breaking through, coming alive to restructure your reality with its movement. For many spiritual practitioners, to see the ways that the path has become yet another means by which to fortify a separate sense of self (all in the name of “having no self,” of course) is just well, not very fun, and is just not that interesting to many; there are just too many ego-level needs being met to allow this in. It is, in my experience, however, the most radical act of kindness, to yourself and others, to take the risk to see how these dynamics may be operating in you (as well as very much alive in your gurus). The path is endlessly seductive, can so easily and unconsciously support egoic process, and can be used to meet important developmental needs which were not able to be met in our early years. None of this is “bad” or inherently problematic; nor is it something that needs to be judged or something we need to become aggressive toward; again, it can be held and explored with compassion, care, and an open curiosity – fueled by the call to know what is true, what is real, more than *anything*. This holding, this kindness, this love, this awareness, can be and often is curative in and of itself.

Of course, what I’m suggesting here is not new. Many of the great siddhas, yogis, researchers, and clinicians have reported on this phenomenon for many years. As Chogyam Trungpa warned a few decades ago, guidance I believe worthy of frequent re-consideration, and in his ever-poetic style: “As long as we follow a spiritual approach promising salvation, miracles, liberation, then we are bound by the ‘golden chain of spirituality.’ Such a chain might be beautiful to wear, with its inlaid jewels and intricate carvings, but nevertheless, it imprisons us. People think they can wear the golden chain for decoration without being imprisoned by it, but they are deceiving themselves. As long as one’s approach to spirituality is based upon enriching ego, then it is spiritual materialism, a suicidal process rather than a creative one.”

Joe D
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spiritual bypassing

This is a fascinating topic. I think our bodies are not fooled at all by spiritual bypassing and in my experience my feelings only shout more loudly if I attempt to quiet them with affirmations and whatnot. To me there's no substitute for letting go fully into your felt experience of the moment, particularly when it is uncomfortable; I think that has to come first before any real liberation is possible.

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Spiritual Bypassing

Hello Matt, I was struck by your deep insights into this important question. There is a feeling of first-hand experience in it...

Having myself (whatever that means ;-) experienced the crumbling of the cosmic house of cards you speak of, I've come to see that the "bypassing" aspect of it is an incomplete description.
This can cause us to fall into the error of psychologism, thinking that some form of psychotherapy is all that is needed. Well, it may be needed in
some cases, but it's certainly not enough. It seems to me that another blatant, but strangely-overlooked aspect that accompanies spiritual bypassing is: "enlightened ego."
I was at first a bit shocked when Gangaji, whom I consider a very authentic spiritual teacher,
spoke to me of "the willingness to lose all your enlightenment". But then I saw that her emphasis is on your... inasmuch as it's my enlightenment, it's a
fiction anyway, and such "enlightenment" will be lost anyway, sooner or later. No one can possess enlightenment, in spite of venerable claims to the contrary.
One can manifest enlightenment --- and we do, often when we don't know it --- but to take that extra step of acquiring that manifestation as part of one's persona
iis the first step of error. And it seems to me that we, living in these extraordinary and unprecedented times are called to see through this error, and perhaps begin
a serious deconstruction of the spritual star-system also, inasmuch as such reputedly "enlightened" beings are set apart as having achieved something. The Buddhist
texts tell us over and over that there is no attainment in this...

Anyway, thanks for starting this discussion!

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