I have been a long-time seeker after, and finder of, what is referred to as Spiritual Awakening. As a consequence I have also indirectly been a long-term student of what is called “Spiritual Bypassing.”
What is Spiritual Bypassing? This term was originally coined by John Welwood who when asked about this in an interview said, “Spiritual bypassing is a term I coined to describe a process I saw happening in the Buddhist community I was in, and also in myself. Although most of us were sincerely trying to work on ourselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”
Let me say this. There is probably not any one of us who is interested in spiritual awakening that has not at some time engaged in this practice. I know I have and I know that I have been taught to practice spiritual bypassing. I think this is a normal part of moving through the spiritual journey but you can get stuck there.
As I do with most of my other posts, I list all the sections of this article so that you can choose to scan those parts that are of most interest if you feel you do not have the time to read the whole article. However, I encourage you to read it all as this is an important, even essential, aspect of inviting the awakening process.
So I list below what I have found to be 11 of the most common ways in which spiritual seekers and finders (including myself) engage in the comforting practice of spiritual bypassing. The reason we all do this is because we prefer to avoid the pain of emotional and psychological integration.
What we resist persists – Carl Jung.
List of 11 Spiritual Bypassing Practices
- The Ego Bypass
- The Literal Bypass
- The Body Bypass
- The Sexual Bypass
- The Positivity Bypass
- The Emotional Bypass
- The Group Bypass
- The Mantra Bypass
- The Affirmation Bypass
- The Intellectual Bypass
- The Guru Bypass
Then there will be the conclusion with a video on spiritual bypassing together with a list of resources.
So let us explore the spiritual byways that take you of the Highway to Revelation.
The Ego Bypass
This is like a spiritual mantra for some seekers. They avidly declare, “You have to get rid of the ego,” in order to become spiritually mature. Like many such statements this statement contains a deep kernel of truth.
I find that those who mouth this bypass mantra often have very woolly boundaries. There are those who take this literally and become etheric and disembodied. They have, as the spiritual teacher Richard Rohr, writing in Falling Upwards A Spirituality for Two Halves of Life not negotiated the 1st Half of Life very well.
The 1st Half of Life is to develop an ego. The 2nd Half of Life is to lose it. – Carl Jung.
In order for you to invite the Boundless experience of Spiritual Awakening you need to have clear ego boundaries. This is not only to protect you in the realm of the transcendental but it is needed in the everyday world of time and space.
Developing ego boundaries is the work of personal development. It is the very necessary work of alignment of the lower three chakras. Without this work you are like the young Hero Icarus who ignored the advice of his father. He flew too close to the Sun (enlightened experience) and fell to earth.
Getting rid of ego boundaries before you have become emotionally and psychologically whole (or at least to a large extent) is following the route of Icarus. There is a paradox that you have to KNOW and live. You can only let go of what you have.
Without an ego, and clear ego boundaries, you cannot really know the Boundless. You cannot surrender what you do not have. Surrender of the ego is an act of self-Love. It is not getting rid of but offering the totality of who you are to the Beloved.
This is very different to the practicing “getting rid of the ego” bypass.
The Literal Bypass
This spiritual bypass is so common. I was brought up on this bypass during my young life within a Christian teaching in Northern Ireland. This is were you are told that every word of a particular religious book, in my case The Bible, is to be taken literally.
It took me a long time to find any spiritual nurturance in reading or hearing Christian teachings in this way. It wasn’t until I found the writings of Joseph Campbell – The Power of Myth that I understood the words and teachings where to be understood as myth and metaphor.
Let me share an example here that I hope illustrates what I mean.
In the Old Testament there is the story of Moses leading the people from slavery in Egypt through the desert to the Promised Land. This is a story, that like many other Biblical stories never really did anything for me. I wondered how that story had anything to do with the challenges I face in the 21st Century.
Joseph Campbell unfolded this story for me and gave it meaning by insisting that is was not to be taken literally. Here is what he shared.
- Egypt – Your enslavement to the personal sense of self.
- Moses – The Still Small Voice Within.
- The Pharaoh – Your ego.
- 40 years in the Dessert – The spiritual Journey
- The Red Sea – The conversion of the Heart.
- Pharaohs Soldiers – The thoughts that pull you back into separation.
- The Promised Land – Enlightenment
There are Christian groups funding the exploration to prove that the parting of the Red Sea was a physical reality. Better that they save their money and get clearer on the mythic invitation from such stories. After all that is exactly why the Master Jesus spoke in parables.
The Body Bypass
Body hatred is so common in many secular and religious organizations.
Again in the Christian teachings that were part of my upbringing in Northern Ireland one of the more vigorous teachings was about “The sins of the flesh.” It was like a mantra that formed the foundation of my religious upbringing from around age 10 to 16 years.
The word “flesh” was taken literally by my fundamentalist Sunday school teachers when it relates, not to the sense of physicality, but to the experience of the personal mind. Flesh, as St. Paul meant it, refers to the experience of separateness created by identification with the personal mind.
The word “sin” also relates to the experience of separateness and not to a set of moralistic behaviour. We all feel this separateness. It is not to be judged but to be transcended via the body and not away from the body.
The body is your temple. Keep it pure and clean for the soul to reside in. – B.K.S. Iyengar
In other groups such as the Krishna Consciousness Movement (ISKON) there is an emphasis on not living in a Material World but transcending the material world. This invites what the Karl Marx referred to in his writings as “Alienation.” As a result we see that we become alienated from our Mother Earth.
Rather than the focus being on spiritual embodiment, where the body and spirit are a dance, there is the emphasis on demonizing the body and sex in preference to the experience of the spiritual. This is so common that I have only really ever come across one group were it was not practiced. This was within the teachings of the Master Osho who emphasised embodiment and sexuality. Unfortunately so many of his followers confused sexuality with intimacy.
My first experience of this phenomenon called spiritual bypassing was when I was around twenty-two years old. I was living in Manchester in North of England. I felt lonely, having left my homeland in Northern Ireland despite the Troubles and went looking for solace. I found a meditation group being taught in a community hall on a Sunday morning. There was a lovely young woman there who I kind of lusted after.
I was informed by the caretaker that I should be very grateful because the meditation teacher drove all the way from Bristol to Manchester to teach. Bristol to Manchester and back is a very long drive. (200+ miles one way)
Was I grateful? Not really. My gut feeling told me that this young man, who was about the same age as myself, wasn’t all there. I would later recognize that he was etheric. He was so dis-embodied from practicing meditation that he didn’t even have a voice. I don’t mean that literally but he sat on the stage and no one could hear what he was saying.
The Sexual Bypass
This is another great invitation on the spiritual journey. It helps you avoid the more challenging journey into sexual and personal intimacy.
When I was training to become a Buddhist monk the guy training me (who was also sexually dis-embodied) advised me that I had a choice of either becoming an Order member or taking the lesser path with what was called “a spiritual hindrance.” This spiritual hinderance was my then time girlfriend who would later become my long-time partner and wife. We now giggle when I remind her that she is “a spiritual hinderance.”
She and I did not bypass what the writer and mystic Alan Watts referred to as “The Art of Flowery Combat.” We would spend days under the covers engaged in what we euphemistically referred to as our, “cycling holidays.” Our journey together was one of glorious flowery combat and the challenge of deepening intimacy which is really all about owning one’s own personal shadow.
In all the many different groups that I have journeyed with there have only been a very few where there has not been a sexual scandal of some sort that involved the abuse of the vulnerable. This is, I think, as a consequence of demonising the desires of the body in relation to the very powerful energy of sex.
Sex is raw energy. It has to be transformed, and through transformation there is transcendence. Rather than transforming it, religions have been repressing it. And if you repress it the natural outcome is a perverted human being. He becomes obsessed with sex. – Osho
The result of sexual bypassing is a de-sexualized body and repressed sexuality that comes out in inappropriate ways. I witness this with friends who have followed the, “Sex is for procreation only” advice of their guru or teacher.
Witness the ways in which so many famous teachers of spirituality have abused their position of power in sexual ways with students. This is the subject of a great book by Connie Zweig titled The Holy Longing -The Hidden Power of Spiritual Yearning
This is not to forget the scandal of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church that was hidden by that institution in order to safeguard its own position.
The Positivity Bypass
This is a particular bypass that I think I engage with. I kind of always see the class as more than half full. This bypass I think comes out of the teachings of the New Thought Movement and particularly the writings of Napoleon Hill who wrote Success through a Positive Mental Attitude.
This focuses on the power of the personal mind to positively impact the circumstances of your life. Like many of these invitations to bypassing this one has a kernel of truth within it but it also needs to be grounded in the real.
This bypass emphasizes the power of the personal mind. It is driven from the ego and the conscious mind. The real change, however, does not come from accessing the conscious mind but the subconscious and super conscious mind.
The positivity bypass ignores the power of the unconscious. It also ignores the fact that we live in a world of duality. What is positive for one may not be positive for another person, place or time. At one point in history it was a positive to own slaves. This greatly impacted your ability to feel prosperous at the expense of another human being.
This bypass ignores the need to do what is called Shadow work. This subject was covered by Debbie Ford in her book The Dark Side of the Light Chasers – Reclaiming Your Power, Creativity, Brilliance, and Dreams.
By denying our dark side, we reject these aspects of our true natures rather than giving ourselves the freedom to live authentically. Here she shows that it is possible to acknowledge and accept our so-called weaknesses, proving that these qualities may be important, hidden strengths.
Real positive thinking happens when you trust the Universe to think through you. This is beyond your dualistic overthinking personal mind. Positive thinking can be a way of avoiding the need to clearly establish boundaries that ask you to be less than sweet which for many is not at all spiritual.
The Emotional Bypass
I think that of all the bypasses that are shared here this is the one that is the most common. It is the reason why John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypassing.” It arose, I think, out of the Buddhist teaching of detachment.
For those who are uncomfortable about feeling their feelings the idea of detachment is one that is very attractive. However, like many spiritual teachings from the East the teaching of detachment is mis-interpreted by the Western mind.
Detachment is not about detachment from feelings but from emotional reactivity.
Feelings are neutral. What is not neutral is the judgement that we often attach to them. In Christian teachings this is represented by the metaphor of eating of the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil. – not to be taken literally as most Christians do.
The founder of Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) now Triratna Buddhist Community found a strange phenomenon when he returned to England to teach Buddhist meditation. This was after two decades and more of having done so in India. He found that when he taught the Western student’s mediation that many of them seemed to become more and more detached but not in the way he normally understood that experience.
It took him a long time to understand why this was. In a very enlightening talk he gave he shared that what Western students where practicing was detachment from detachment. They, he said, were already detached from their emotions and were attracted to the idea of detachment because they would not need to feel anything painful. Detachment they thought was the way to bliss.
The spiritual journey is an invitation to awakening to union. It means that you heal the separateness you feel from the One Life. This is something that you heal through feeling and not through the avoidance of painful emotional experience.
You can’t heal it if you don’t feel it – Radical Forgiveness: A Revolutionary Five-Stage Process to Heal Relationships, Let Go of Anger and Blame, and Find Peace in Any Situation – Colin Tipping.
As a result Sangharakshita taught a meditation deeply focused on learning to feel from the heart called the Metta Bhavana.
The Group Bypass
This is, I think, one of those spiritual bypasses that every spiritual seeker will experience. This is the power of the group dynamic to take you on a journey that is detrimental to the unfolding of your soul.
Each and everyone of us long to belong. It is such a wonderful feeling when we belong to a group of like-minded and heart centred individuals. We no longer feel so isolated and alone. This can be your experience for a long time.
Then comes the time when you feel you and the group are not so much in alignment. Usually you have grown beyond the dictates of the group and are beginning to find your own unique way. This has been called “The second arising of faith.” It is no longer a faith in a dogma but faith in your inner KNOWING. It would be nice if you were sent on your way with well-wishing and blessings.
In my personal experience and my experience with friends this is not the case. If you chose to leave you are then considered an outsider. You are no longer a devotee. I have a Krishna Consciousness friend who decided to follow the teachings of a different Krishna Consciousness guru. Over night his friends of more than thirty years left him.
If you belong to a Christian group you are no longer a true Christian. The group closes and then you have a choice. Do you return to the group and be welcomed back (with conditions) or do you leave and follow the promptings of your inner teacher?
This is one of the very real challenges of the spiritual journey. We so want to belong. If we have not done the work of integrating our shadow self then we will face our primary fear of abandonment. We will sell our soul for the sense of belonging. However, nothing will be the same. You and the group will to some degree will feel betrayed.
I am not against belonging to groups. However, I have always left them when the time came to move on especially when the group dynamic began to dictate to me the way in which I should think, believe and behave. There are usually invitations to seduce you into deeper involvement. In one group I was promised that I would then become privy to the “Secret Inner Teachings.” I didn’t renew my connection after the end of that term of teaching.
The Mantra Bypass
I love singing mantas. I love especially to sing in large groups. It is so enlivening and I cannot recommend it highly enough. There is, however, what I refer to as the Mantra Bypass.
Let me share with you a story. I was once invited to attend at a Hare Krishna Festival at the Innis Rath Temple in Co. Fermanagh Northern Ireland. I went with my wife, my friend and niece. We crossed to the island on a ferry and everyone was ushered into the large room to listen to a talk by a very young Hare Krishna devotee.
He spoke for about thirty plus minutes. It wasn’t to my mind a very good talk as it wasn’t focused enough. However, at the end he summarised the talk in a sentence. He said, “All you have to do is chant the Hare Krishna Mantra and you will be happy for the rest of your life.”
I couldn’t allow that to go unchallenged. The result was that I felt lucky to get off the island alive. One devotee was so enraged that I thought he might assault me.
I have long associations with Hare Krishna devotees many of who I love dearly. What I can say about them, and they know I say this, is that after 30 years of chanting the Hare Krishna Mantra they still have issues around sexuality and embodiment.
I chant and sing mantras. I love it but get real. Chanting mantras in order to impact you psychologically is to my mind spiritual by passing. It is avoiding the necessary work of integrating the shadow personality that would throw you of a boat because you challenge the idea that chanting mantras is the be all and end all of human happiness. It isn’t.
The Affirmation Bypass
This is another common spiritual bypassing practice. I think that affirmations work but not in the way that people intend them to work. Affirmations will, if you are alert, give you feedback about the degree to which you are engaging in resistance.
We engage in the practice of affirmations because we feel one way and not the other way. The key word here is “feel.” Affirmations are an attempt to override a strong subconscious feeling that we have about ourselves through the use of the intellect.
It is the equivalent of trying to hide that seven eights part of the iceberg that is below the surface. Affirmations are a way of trying to kid yourself into feeling one way over another. It isn’t, in the opinion of the writer even very smart.
I have tried affirmations but find that they do not work. Most people will find the same. It is practicing the house divided against itself technique. It is so much better to learn to practice the invitation of being affirmed by the Universe.
This will radically change the way that you think about yourself. You will be affirmed by the very Presence that you are. Using affirmations confirms your belief in the supremacy of the logical personal mind. Your personal mind cannot override what your subconscious mind will not allow you to feel.
You can affirm, “I am beautiful and everybody loves me, “as recommended by Louse Hay till the cows come home but you are setting up a counter energy because in reality you really believe the opposite. You are trying to move from one polarity to another. It is better to learn to enter the feeling of being unloved (Shadow work) and allow yourself to free up the unconscious energy that keeps you locked into a false sense of the personal self.
Rather than affirmations you would be better to engage in Yoga Nidra with a practice of Sankalpa. This takes you beyond the rational thinking mind and gives you access to realms of Being where you begin to embody what you are created to affirm.
The Intellectual Bypass
This is such a common way of avoiding the challenging shadow work involved in embodied spirituality. It is where you study the process of the spiritual journey and because you have read and studied the words that you think you KNOW what spiritual awakening is.
It is like the man who has studied giving birth and then travels the world speaking to mothers about the experience. It isn’t to say that what this man has to say is not valuable but he can never claim to be a mother (a KNOWER).
There is a famous book on Christian mysticism entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. It is a very short book and challenging to read. However, it invites awareness of the fact that spiritual understanding and wisdom arise from beyond the KNOWN. In my book Awakening to Love Powers, Signs and Practices for Living the Authentic Life I share the necessity of learning to distinguish between: –
- Not Knowing and
The person engaged in intellectual bypassing usually will not acknowledge that what they are speaking about is not from direct personal experience. It is simply information. They have not taken the challenging journey into the silence of not knowing in order to bypass their personal mind in order to be known through.
The intellect is absolutely bankrupt. It has nothing of its own, all is borrowed. And that´s the difference between intelligence and intellect. – Osho
There is the story of the Indian professor who wanted to talk with Ramakrishna about philosophy. When they met the Professor expounded and quoted from the most revered texts. Ramakrishna kept asking him one question, “All and good my good Sir but what is your experience?” In the end the Professor had to admit that he had not had any direct experience of what he professed.
I have had so many different people come to my door as Professors. They can quote word and verse from the text that they read but get them to explain what it means and the reply will be, “The Bible says this, the Koran says this, the Dhammapada says this. Or Osho says this, Krishna says this, Jesus says this. It is all intellectual knowledge. It is not grounded in the revelatory experience of direct KNOWING that is true conversion.
This is why the Tao says, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” St. Francis of Assisi said it in a different way. He said, “Go out into the world and preach the gospel. If necessary, sometimes use words.” He was more interested in preaching from Presence – silent inner KNOWING than in long winded sermons that were part of my every Sunday by intellectuals who clearly loved to hear themselves speak.
The Guru Bypass
I have heard it said so often by different people that one cannot progress spiritually without a Guru. Yet I have met with different teachers who are Gurus and I wouldn’t want to follow them. I think this is because the Western mind is so focused on individuality. It isn’t like the Eastern mind that has the long tradition of following the Guru and Master.
I have followed different Gurus and non-Gurus. I have loved them all and they have taught me so much. But I was never their disciple even when I wanted to be.
I remember meeting with a quiet remarkable man when I lived in India. He seemed eternally young and when he laughed, which was often, the earth shook. He lived in one room and when he exited the front door his garments never had a crease in them. I asked him if he would teach me. His reply was short, “Tony I couldn’t teach you. You are too arrogant.” I felt very hurt and left.
There have been so many people, some who are deeply committed spiritual teachers who have been disowned by their Guru. The spiritual teacher Andrew Harvey was told by his Guru Mother Meera that he should give up being homosexual.
And the best thing a spiritual seeker can do is to avoid gurus. – Dr. Steve Taylor The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening.
I think that in the West the reason for the Guru/Disciple connection has less to do with the process of spiritual awakening and more to do with the need of the disciple. Dr Steve Taylor writing in Psychology Today puts it this way: –
Guru worship takes his worshipers back to that infant state. As long as the disciple is in the care of the guru, all is well in the world. They feel safe and secure, just as children do in the presence of their parents. They give up responsibility for their own lives and pass it on to the guru, just as children do. And the guru is a perfect being, who cannot behave unethically. He can accumulate millions of dollars, own 93 Rolls Royce’s, have his own armed security team, and regularly humiliate his followers, but they will always find some excuse for this appalling behaviour, in the same way that children will refuse to believe that their parents can do wrong. The disciples will claim that the guru’s abuse and cruelty is a form of ‘divine play’ or a way of testing their followers.
Here he is clearly speaking about Osho (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) who I still love and will probably make excuses for. However, I never experienced him humiliating his followers although I felt it strange that it ended up where he had his own armed security team.
For a really interesting documentary on the guru disciple relationship as experienced by the Western mind I highly recommend the recent Netflix program Wild Wild Country. I could so easily have gone to Oregon to be part of the community called Rajneeshpuram before it descended into anarchy and violence.
The Spiritual Bypassing Conclusion
Spiritual Bypassing is so common yet I think many people are still not be aware of this detour. We, who are on a spiritual journey, will probably detour at some stage. It is, I think, best if we are at least intellectually made aware of these detours.
Here is one of the very few YouTube videos on the subject. There are others but as a trained public speaker I cannot listen to them given the many umms and ahhs that the speaker includes. It drives me to spiritual distraction.
Spiritual Bypassing Recommendations
Spiritual Bypassing Resources
Here are some of the books that I have read and recommend related to the subject: –
- Spiritual Bypassing – When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters – Robert Augustus Masters, PhD.
- Rude Awakening: Perils, Pitfalls, and Hard Truths of the Spiritual Path – P. T. Milberger
During the writing of this book I was able to research the following material.
- Spiritual Bypassing in the Contemporary Mindfulness Movement – Carla Sherrell & Judith Simmer-Brown – Naropa University
So that is it for me. I hope you found this useful. Would love to hear if you have experienced any of the above practices on your spiritual journey. The list I have shared above is not exhaustive.