The world isn’t all love and light, all the time. Our mindfulness practice is of no benefit to us or others if it keeps us in a fantasy realm of toxic positivity, where hardships are denied or ignored. Learn more about spiritual bypassing, and how to know when you’re guilty.
“You’re never in the wrong place. But sometimes you’re in the right place looking at things the wrong way.”
What is Spiritual Bypassing?
John Welwood, a psychotherapist and Buddhist practitioner, first coined the term ‘spiritual bypassing’ after he observed members of his own spiritual community using their spirituality as an excuse to avoid facing emotional difficulties, personal character flaws, or unmet psychological needs.
Each of us is an imperfect human. We carry with us emotional wounds, psychological issues and incomplete developmental tasks. These shortcomings cause us pain and suffering. This suffering is what brings many of us to the practice of mindfulness and spirituality. We want to feel better and we want to be happy.
We make a mistake, however, when we use our ‘mindful’ or ‘spiritual’ identity to bypass the real work these practices beg of us in favor of illusory perfection, enlightenment, or happiness. It’s a mistake to think the goal of mindfulness, or the role of spirituality, is to feel good all the time.
The true beauty of mindfulness is its ability to reveal the deepest and darkest hidden corners of our selves. Its power is its ability to coax our shadows into the light. First, we learn to notice and identify what’s there, then we kindly and mindfully address our needs. In this way, we heal, grow and attain a lasting, authentic happiness.
We’re no less mindful or spiritual if we’re not perfectly joyful all the time. The ability to embrace our full humanity, pain and mental afflictions included, is the gift that mindfulness gives. True healing begins when we mindfully turn toward our pain and either love it to death, or cut through it to reveal what’s truly at our core; contentment, freedom and peace.
“When transcendence of our personal history takes precedence over intimacy with our personal history, spiritual bypassing is inevitable. To not be intimate with our past—to not be deeply and thoroughly acquainted with our conditioning and its originating factors—keeps it undigested and unintegrated and therefore very much present.”
– Robert Augustus Masters –
What Spiritual Bypassing Looks Like
Spiritual bypassing is rooted in avoidance and repression. We aren’t always aware of that which we’re trying to escape. Spiritual bypassing need not be done with malicious intent. It can arise as a defense mechanism that allows us to avoid past traumas too painful to face. Spiritual bypassing manifests differently within each of us, and may appear as one or more of the following behaviors.
Toxic positivity is the tendency to pretend everything is ok when it’s clearly not. Avoidance of the negative is spiritual bypassing when spirituality becomes an excuse for compulsively looking on the bright side. Maintaining a keep-smiling-no-matter-what attitude encourages us to ignore our pain in favor of ‘staying positive.’ Platitudes such as ‘don’t worry,’ ‘let it go,’ or ‘good vibes only’ aren’t appropriate in every situation.
The problem with toxic positivity is that ignoring negative thoughts doesn’t make them go away. In fact, they grow stronger. Eventually, this bypassed negativity manifests in the world in very unskillful ways. Toxic positivity can also make us less likely to develop qualities such as empathy and compassion by training the brain to ignore our own pain and the pain of others. This is the very opposite of what we strive for along an authentic spiritual path.
Mindfulness and spirituality teach us to accept the negative as well as the positive. We can be happy without denying our full range of emotions. Learn more about acceptance, and what it really is, with the following mindfulness exercises:
Emotional numbing is similar to toxic positivity except in this case, it’s one’s own emotions that are ignored or repressed in favor of exaggerated detachment. Spiritual practices such as equanimity or non-reactivity are mistakenly defined as an idealized state of non-caring or emotional voidness.
Cognitive dissonance, which occurs when one’s feelings contradict their identity or beliefs, can also lead to the denial of emotions. In the case of spiritual bypassing, it’s common to avoid emotions that conflict with one’s identity as a ‘spiritual person.’ Negative emotions are often dismissed as un-spiritual, but positive emotions may also be numbed in an effort to appear stoic or ‘above it all.’
Those who display such robotic-like states are typically imbalanced in their cognitive and emotional development. Their intellectual understanding of things, including mindfulness and spirituality, is far more advanced than their grasp of emotional or moral teachings.
True equanimity is not void of feeling at all, but deeply imbued with love. The practice of equanimity teaches us to embrace and experience our emotions without reacting in a manner that causes future suffering. Learn more about equanimity with the following mindfulness resources:
Living in Fantasy
Saccharine happiness and emotional voidness require us to live in a fantasy world. The reality is that life is at times disappointing, painful, and devastatingly heartbreaking. To deny this is to deny the fullness of the human experience.
The refusal to acknowledge reality in favor of living with our head in the clouds is spiritual bypassing. Such individuals may devalue personal or worldly concerns in favor of remaining in their fantasy realm. Those who fall victim to this type of escapism may also tend towards other forms of escape, including drug use or magical thinking. Magical thinking occurs when we presume causal connections that simply aren’t true, suspending critical thought.
While reality is a complex subject in spiritual circles, it does exist. It’s of no benefit to us or anyone else to deny the relationship between actions and consequences. We must find balance within the paradox of reality. It’s true that heaven is on earth. But also, we live on a very real earth. Get grounded in reality with the following mindfulness resources:
Denial of Anger
The relationship between anger and spiritual bypassing is a complex one. Those trapped in a cycle of avoidance often exhibit fear of anger. Anger phobia can arise from a history of suppressed emotions or unresolved trauma. Those with a fear of anger may be fearful of their own anger, or the anger of others. Fear or avoidance of anger can manifest as people pleasing, lack of boundaries, conflict avoidance, or emotional suppression. These behaviors lead to resentments and stunt emotional growth.
Spiritual bypassing would have us believe that denial or avoidance of anger is the result of our enlightened state of being. But anger is not an emotion we must do away with. Like all emotions, it’s productive and useful in the right time and place.
Those with a spiritual blindspot may exhibit anger without realizing they do, and are often surprised when others react to their anger. Anger may also arise as a secondary emotion in response to avoidance of sadness or pain.
Mindfulness and spiritual practice help us become more aware of our emotions and what they have to teach us about where there’s room for growth. Improving our emotional intelligence also helps us relate better to the emotions of others. Learn to work with anger using the following mindfulness exercises:
A common symptom of spiritual bypassing is the inappropriate application of compassion. Blind compassion is rooted in fear, and results from a desire to avoid conflict or the appearance of not seeming ‘spiritual.’ Misguided compassion makes us too quick to forgive and allows for an unhealthy transgression of boundaries.
Compassion is equally corrupted when it’s defined as a hindrance, rather than a gift. It’s only ego-based compassion which experiences compassion fatigue, or causes us to become victims of our open-hearted nature. This type of victimhood is a bypass which allows us to retreat from relationships with others, or behave in self-harming ways.
True compassion is not blind, nor does it require us to be tolerant if someone’s actions are harming others. Sometimes, the most compassionate thing we can do is to offer a stern ‘no’ and tell someone their behavior is not ok.
A healthy mindfulness practice would have us recognize our hesitation to establish boundaries. We’d explore the emotions we’re avoiding by refusing to tell someone when they’re causing us pain. Learn more about authentic compassion and healthy relationships with the following mindfulness resources:
Avoidance of Responsibility
With spiritual bypassing, a healthy and balanced belief in a higher power instead becomes a means of foregoing personal responsibility. While faith in God’s will, fate, or one’s guru is valuable, these relationships become unhelpful when one uses them as an excuse to avoid acting responsibly.
It’s not the role of our teachers nor our higher power to micromanage the minor details of our lives. There’s a difference between praying for a piece of cake, for example, versus praying for the necessary ingredients to bake one. When things go wrong, we miss the opportunity to review our past actions when we chalk it up to fate.
Authentic spiritual practice makes use of guru figures to empower us to take right action in our own lives. Becoming attached to this figure or dependent upon them for continual hand-holding prevents us from developing real skills with which to solve our own problems.
Learn what healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher looks like, and how to balance faith with personal responsibility:
Self-Loathing & Self Aggrandizing
Those who aren’t ready or able to kindly face their own misgivings may harbor deep feelings of inadequacy, self-judgment, or self-criticism. It’s important to remember the goal of the spiritual path is not to be perfectly good, but to be perfectly free.
In an effort to seem enlightened and unaffected, spiritual bypassing can have us unnecessarily beating ourselves up or ballooning our ego. Both extremes keep us trapped in a pattern of black and white thinking in which we’re either all good or all bad.
In an effort to overcome our self-loathing, or as a means of avoiding real personal introspection, spiritual bypassers may come across as arrogant or pretentious. Delusions about having reached a higher state of being, and a stubborn self-righteousness about it, are in fact a defense mechanism that enables us to forego necessary and sometimes painful spiritual work.
In spiritual terms, ‘perfection’ is an ideal that’s more akin to ‘wholeness.’ Relaxing into true perfection requires us to drop our self-criticism, let go of comparisons, and to make room for what makes us vulnerable. Learn to let go of perfection with the following mindfulness exercises:
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.”
Three Steps to Prevent Spiritual Bypassing
Mindfulness prevents spiritual bypassing. Applying mindfulness to our spiritual practice with an open, curious and non-judgmental attitude, lets us continually observe where we are along the path, and where there’s still work to be done.
Spiritual practice requires a healthy balance of desire and acceptance. We desire to become more mindful, more compassionate, and more free, but we must also accept where we are today, and work within our window of tolerance in a healthy, self-compassionate manner.
Prevention of spiritual bypassing requires a continual process of (1) acknowledgment, (2) acceptance, and (3) work.
Spiritual growth begins with mindfully acknowledging where we are in the present moment. We must become aware of the patterns in our lives that are limiting our growth. By taking time to acknowledge emotions, character traits or behaviors that are being bypassed, we open ourselves to the possibility that these things can change.
Through mindfulness practice, we learn to be present with difficult emotions. We learn to honor them versus repressing them and we thereby give them the space they need to dissipate.
Through the mindful process of learning to accept who we are in the present moment, or even who we’ve been in the past, we become willing to make mistakes. We can laugh at our own ignorance, find humor in our cognitive dissonance, and resiliently move forward by letting go of who we once were, and stepping into the new.
Acceptance gives us the freedom to apologize, to make amends where appropriate, and to look back upon our past transgressions with compassion and open heartedness.
3. Do the Work
With a foundation in mindfulness and the capacity to acknowledge and accept, we can begin the real work of peeling away the layers of identity that keep us from connecting with our true selves. Shadow work refers to the process of integrating parts of our unconscious psyche that have been repressed or hidden. It’s the process of bringing what’s been repressed and hidden into the light.
Real spiritual work requires a willingness to embrace our full humanity, and the courage to move towards our deepest fears, repressed emotions, and unhealed wounds.
Working with our shadow requires us to be mindful of our blind spots, but also, to dare to honor our inner complexity. None of us are good or bad, black or white, yes or no. Turning towards our inner darkness is an embrace of the yin and yang of life. Without the darkness, there would be no light.
Continue your mindfulness journey with an exploration of the following resources:
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin –