People who use spiritual practices to avoid personal or psychological problems are said to engage in “spiritual bypassing.” Spiritual bypassing is a kind of defense mechanism that uses spirituality to ward off unpleasant emotions and protect the ego. All kinds of spiritual seekers, not just Buddhists, can fall into the trap of spiritual bypassing. It’s the shadow of spirituality.
The term “spiritual bypassing” was coined in 1984 by psychologist John Welwood. Welwood is known for his work in transpersonal psychology, which integrates spirituality and psychology. Welwood saw that many in his Buddhist Sangha used spiritual ideas and practices to avoid unresolved emotional problems and psychological wounds.
“When we move past spiritually, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanity before fully facing it and coming to terms with it, Welwood told interviewer Tina Fossella.
Soto Zen teacher and psychoanalyst Barry Magid says that it is possible even for people with deep spiritual understanding getting stuck in harmful behaviors in their personal lives. This happens when insights are isolated in a bubble of sorts and not integrated into everyday life and relationships. This results in a spiritual self that is cut off from the emotional self. About a series of sex scandals involving Zen teachers, Magid wrote in his book: Nothing Is Hidden (Wisdom Publications, 2013):
Not only did realization fail to heal the deep divisions in our character, it increasingly seemed that for many people, and especially for many Zen teachers, the practice was opening ever-widening rifts between an idealized compassionate self and a shadow self, where divisional and denied sexual, competitive and narcissistic fantasies predominated.’
It is likely that we all engage in spiritual bypassing at some point. If we do, will we recognize it? And how can we avoid going too deep into it?
When Spirituality Becomes Shtick
Shticki is a Yiddish word meaning ‘bit’ or ‘piece’. In show business, it involved a gimmick or routine that is part of a performer’s regular act. A shtick can also be an assumed persona that is maintained throughout an artist’s career. The personas that the Marx Brothers use in all their movies are great examples.
It seems to me that spiritual bypassing often starts when people adapt spirituality as a shtick, or a persona, rather than practicing getting to the root of dukkha. They wrap themselves in a Spiritual Persona, ignoring what lies beneath the surface. Then, instead of honestly dealing with their wounds, fears and problems, John Welwood says, their spiritual practice is taken over by a “spiritual superego.” They are about “making spiritual teachings into recipes about what you should do, how you should think, how you should speak, how you should feel.”
This is not a real spiritual practice; It is stupid. And when we suppress negative emotions and urges instead of honestly working with them, they stay in our subconscious where they keep dragging us around.
At worst, spiritual seekers can become attached to a charismatic but exploitative teacher. Then they clothe the parts of themselves that are uncomfortable with his behavior. They get caught up in the role of good little soldier dharma students and don’t see reality in front of them.
Symptoms of Spiritual Bypass
In his book Spiritual Bypass: When Spirituality Detaches Us From What Really Matters (North Atlantic Books, 2010), Robert Augustus Masters lists the symptoms of spiritual bypass: “…excessive detachment, emotional numbness and suppression, too much emphasis on the positive, anger phobia. Blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, skewed development, debilitating judgment of one’s negativity or shadow side, devaluation of the personal versus the spiritual, and delusions of they have come from at a higher level.” Cognitive intelligence is often far ahead of emotional and moral intelligence.
If you find that your precious spiritual calmness shatters easily when you’re stressed, it’s probably shtick, for example. And don’t avoid or suppress emotions, including negative ones, but instead acknowledge them and consider what they are trying to tell you.
If your spiritual practice takes precedence over your personal relationships, be careful. Especially when once healthy relationships with parents, spouses, children and close friends break down because you are consumed by exercise and the spiritual quest, this may be because you are not integrating your spirituality into your life, but using it to shield yourself from others, which is not healthy. And it’s not Buddhism, either.
In some very extreme cases, people get so lost in their spiritual bubbles that their lives become an enlightenment fantasy.
They may show symptoms of psychosis or engage in risky behavior, assuming that their spiritual strength will protect them. In Buddhism, enlightenment doesn’t mean you don’t get wet in the rain and don’t need a flu shot.