In the 1980’s Buddhist teacher John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypassing”. Basically, the gist of this concept is that people can and do use lofty concepts, claims, and states of being to avoid dealing with the raw emotional experience that comes with a wide range of hardships and challenges. The challenges may be external–like debt–or internal–like grief or anger. Interpersonally or relationally, the emotional turbulence we unconsciously attempt to avoid through spiritual bypassing can range from feeling sad after a moment of misattunement to feeling utterly lost in the immediate aftermath of an affair.
“Rising above” the sometimes unpleasant shenanigans of human relationships, and the pain they cause us, is very, very tempting. It’s human nature to want to avoid pain. From birth, and possibly even in the womb, we instinctively move away from discomfort. Emotionally, there’s a similar tendency. How many of us delight in the possibility of fully experiencing our vulnerability in the wake of a rejection, or rising and falling on the waves of grief after a loss, or opening up to the depth of accumulated anger we’ve accrued in a dead-end job, or after years of someone else’s hurtful words and actions?
Spiritual bypassing is a special brand of avoidance, because it looks good from the outside. Often, it feels protective to the person who engages in it. It’s a mask that can be worn, not just to convince other people of something, but to convince ourselves that we’re better off than we are, farther along in the process of healing, transcending or forgiving. And because spiritual bypassers often appear to be embodying traits and behaviors that are socially sanctioned, it can be hard to spot. Who wouldn’t want to be generous? To forgive? To behave the way enlightened people are portrayed as behaving, with a look of neutrality on their faces and wise words coming out of their mouths?
But spiritual bypassing is truly overrated. It’s a fancy way of putting your own necessary and potentially healing emotions on hold. If there are things that make you angry, it’s important to recognize your anger and treat it as you would something valuable and worth mindfully experiencing. This way, you can respond to the situation you’re in authentically and make changes. If you’re sad and hurt because a lover broke up with you, the only way you’re going to be able to truly move on is to allow yourself to feel what you feel, whether that’s grief, hurt, loneliness, or vulnerability. Sending your lover pictures of you meditating in an ashram as you thank them for helping you transcend your attachment to carnal love is an elegant self-deception.
Here are three ways to recognize spiritual bypassing, and steps you can take to stop it.
- Take note of the reflexive ways you feel, behave or react in difficult or painful situations. For example, if you get tragic news, do you automatically wax philosophical and talk about how there’s an “upside” to the tragedy? If so, experiment with dialing back your automatic reaction and asking yourself what you would feel if you weren’t compelled to be so positive, philosophical, wise, or spiritual?
- Notice if you typically rush to apologize, find explanations, or make logical sense of what might otherwise seem senseless or confounding. Spiritual bypassers will often struggle to gain or regain control by skipping over the messy uncertainty of emotional processes so they can get back to the security of “knowing.”
- What’s your relationship to helplessness? Spiritual bypassers rarely experience helplessness. They always find a way to “do” something that takes away the pain of not knowing what to do. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel helpless, at times. It’s a part of being human. Breathe through helplessness rather than rushing to cover it up with the illusion of control.
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