"Whatever you resist, persists" Carl Jung
Anyone who has lived for any length of time knows that life can be raw and messy and painful. It is full of twists and turns, peaks, and valleys and often a lot of dissatisfaction. Yes, there is a lot of beauty along the way, but despite this, we tend to gravitate toward negativity and suffering to say the least. We do all manner of things to try and stack the deck, so we are in control and comfortable. In fact, I am going to go out on a limb and say that pain and suffering (both physical and emotional) is what leads many of us to spiritual practice. Somehow, rather than simply attending to the uneasiness, we keep bobbing and weaving our way through life. It was renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung who said, “whatever you resist, persists.” Which is to say that the more we resist these painful emotions and ways of being in our lives the more it seems they show up. Enter a term called “spiritual bypassing.” Perhaps it is a sign of the times we are living in, with so much unrest socially and politically in our internal and external world, but there seems to be a resurgence and attention placed on the phrase and the process. If you are new to spiritual practices this term may be new to you, but if you have been involved in spiritual practices or community for some time, I suspect you have heard and are quite familiar with this term by now. In any case, I will provide a definition of spiritual bypassing, give some examples of what it may look like in action and provide some tools for working with it if you feel you are caught up in this cycle that is no longer serving you.
In the off chance that you have not heard of “spiritual bypassing” this is a term that John Welwood coined in the early 1980’s. In his classic book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation (2002), he described a process he saw happening in the Buddhist community and in himself. While he believed that most people were authentically attempting to work on themselves, he noticed “a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”
While John Welwood lays claim to the term, many others have also commented on this all-too-common part of our spiritual journey. For instance, psychotherapist and Yoga teacher, Mariana Caplan, began to write about this topic as she saw her clients and students become disillusioned by their spiritual teachers, communities, and practices. She suggests that spiritual bypassing can happen on all levels of spiritual development from the beginner on the path to the advanced yoga practitioner. I want to reassure you, there is nothing to be ashamed of or defensive about here, she also says, everyone does it to some degree or another. We come by it honestly in an effort to discover ourselves and in full disclosure, there have been times I have noticed it in myself; like when by dad was diagnosed with, and eventually died of cancer. I told myself things like:
I believe this narrative; I also acknowledge that there was a subtle disconnect from my emotions and the pain I did not want to feel at losing someone I loved. It was protecting me from an agony that I was unable to hold, digest or bear witness to in the initial stages of grief.
While people strive to find and know themselves, many are introduced to spiritual practices and teachings and somehow are encouraged to give up personal agency and abandon themselves along the way. As a result, they end up using spiritual practices to create a new spiritual identity, which is actually an old dysfunctional identity based on avoidance of unresolved psychological issues, repackaged in a new guise (John Welwood, 2002). Here are a few of the highlights and pitfalls that this new persona can reinforce and rationalize:
Simply put, it is a type of arrested development and a sidestepping that is done to avoid the underlying pain of one’s life, rather than facing it head on and attending to what we have experienced or what is right in front of us. I want to be clear; I understand there are many reasons why spiritual bypassing may be used as a type of “shock absorber for the soul” (CS Lewis) when we do not have the capacity to hold what is painful in ourselves or others. And truth be told, you may not even realize that you are in a cycle of bypassing because it posits that it is possible spiritualize the pain and suffering away through things such as prayer, chanting, mediation, movement, and positive thinking – but at the end of the day, we can run, but we can’t hide. Eventually there will be a moment of reckoning when we are called to look in the mirror and attend to the pain. Of course, first, we need to know when we are caught up in the cycle of spiritual bypassing and observe ourselves in the act.
Honestly, we may be able to see it in others before we see it in ourselves. Think back to a time you had something negative happen and you went to a Yoga class (or somewhere else) and perhaps shared it with the instructor, and they said something like, “everything happens for a reason or at some point you’ll look back and have learned something from this or God never gives us anything we can’t handle.” While this may be true on the absolute level, on the relative level, did you feel seen or heard? Did you move through the pain and suffering faster? Did you feel validated?
You may still be asking what does spiritual bypassing look like in real life?
Here are a few examples:
Not only can Spiritual bypassing be dangerous and harmful it tends to absolve people of taking any responsibility for their poor or destructive behaviour in the name of spiritual ideas such as:
While these examples may hold spiritual or philosophical truth, I am suggesting that when we catch ourselves relying on spiritual excuses for questionable or poor behaviour, it is an opportunity to take responsibility and accountability for our actions.
Change is never easy, but here are a few tools that can be used to move you away from spiritual bypassing if this is no longer serving you. Now, I realize a couple of these tools are going to sound contrary to what I have been discussing throughout these musings but stay with me.
In the initial stages of our spiritual evolution, bypassing can actually be a useful tool to point you in the direction of spirituality or spiritual principles. It can be beneficial to have something bigger than yourself when there is a feeling or a sense of scarcity to move you in the direction of generosity for example. It is hard work sifting through emotions, so sometimes a spiritual bypass can buy you the time that is needed to hold a loss that you need to grow into. It is equally important though that as one matures, and practice ripens that you catch yourself and be honest when you are using spirituality as a shield to not feel your feelings. When you can do this, you are moved into a more genuine way of being able hold and accept the complexities of life both beautiful and messy and imperfect from moment to moment. For me, even if I am not living up to my desired potential of who I am and where I want to be in life, it points me in the direction of my spiritual values, and I seem to land somewhere in the middle where I am able to learn and reflect and hold what is uncomfortable in me.
Meditation is another beautiful entry into observing what is unresolved in the heart and mind. When practiced as a deep befriending of yourself rather than an escape from your life it can be miraculous. You can approach meditation with a sense of gentleness and curiosity. You can commit to developing a willingness and an interest to say with your experience in each moment, whatever that might be, rather than striving to become a perfect meditator. There is no struggle to become peaceful as you practice moment after moment to accept whatever arises. In doing so you create space in the mind that is free from judging. There are no good thoughts to cultivate or bad thoughts to banish. There is an opportunity to look honestly and objectively at the events of your life. In the space there is a chance to look at things such as spiritual pride, which is another facet of bypassing that attempts very hard to confirm that you are in fact spiritual. In this space you are presented with many options that lead to growth through the vulnerability of bearing witness to and holding your own tender heart.
Finally, and probably the most conventional and profound antidote to spiritual bypassing, is to dig in and do the psychological work that it takes to digest the painful experiences in your life. Most often this is done with a qualified therapist who can help you unearth and understand unresolved developmental trauma. Everything is a mirror for the unresolved parts of ourselves we are not willing to face or acknowledge. If not attend to, relational wounds will be played out repeatedly in spiritual communities and relationships unconsciously. Psychotherapy coupled with a spiritual practice can provide the container necessary to feel whatever arises in a safe and supported way. It is not for the faint of heart, it takes honesty and often times a lot of hard emotional work, but it is a fire worth walking through.
Is spiritual bypassing in and of itself bad? The short answer is, NO! In fact, John Welwood also said that spiritual bypass is a natural part of human development, and it is not only reserved just for spiritual communities. However, while it may even be less harmful than other coping strategies, it can lead to some negative outcomes that hamper personal growth and creates an inability to blossom into one’s full life potential. It is possible to attend all the spiritual retreats, read all the spiritual books, speak about spirituality all day long, chant, meditate, practice asana (physical postures) and still not work through emotional issues. Make no mistake, I do these things regularly and they continue to be exceedingly important and beneficial practices that bring tranquility and peace. They create enough space in my mind and body so I can look at things more objectively and digest the events and experiences of my life, both negative and positive. But it is possible to get stuck here driving basic human needs, wants and emotions underground. Sooner or later the proverbial chicks come home to roost and when they do, we are reminded to acknowledge and embrace our humanness alongside our spiritual aspirations to go beyond ourselves. Not only can this be liberating, “bringing these two together can be tremendously powerful” (John Welwood).
Hello, beautiful people. My name is Tracy Chetna Boyd (she/her). Among other things, I am a Yoga educator and Yoga Therapist, specializing in Yoga for Cancer. Although I have many teachers, my primary teacher is Baba Hari Dass. I have a deep belief in people’s ability to change, forgiveness, redemption, and the teachings, wherever they come from. Small talk has never been my forte. I am a person who is comfortable living in the weeds of the human condition, while keeping my heart open and the big picture in perspective. I hope this sets the tone for the musings I'll be sharing from time-to-time.