The term “spiritual bypassing” was coined by psychologist John Welwood in 1984. He defines it as using spirituality—intentionally or unintentionally—to avoid emotional trauma, pain, and “developmental needs.” In layman’s terms, spiritual bypassing is when we “like the light but not the heat” of spiritual and religious beliefs and practices. Those engaged in it often do so unawares, using the guise of spirituality to numb themselves, becoming dependent on spirituality to make them only feel better rather than to offer them a more grounded “radically alive and naturally integral” spiritual practice.
While those of us engaged in spiritual bypassing may like the light but not the heat, those who reach any level of spiritual maturity eventually see what Victor Frankl stated: “what gives light must endure burning.” As we will see, using spiritual practices to go into and heal what we may have originally numbed ourselves from, is the only true way to an integrated, sustainable spirituality. Spiritual bypassing, in a nutshell, is lack of a integrated, unbalanced practice of spirituality, which tricks the practitioner into thinking that they are much more developed and enlightened than they actually are. Spiritual bypassing takes place in all paths on all levels, from beginners all the way to those who hold high positions of knowledge and/or power. These obviously are the most dangerous, because they hold so many others’ futures and well-being at stake.
Aspects of spiritual bypassing include the following:
—exaggerated attachment from worldly concerns
—emotional numbing and repression
—over emphasis on the positive
—blind or overly tolerant compassion,
—weak or too porous boundaries
• Exaggerated detachment from worldly concerns and overemphasis on the positive. Exaggerated detachment is when spiritual practices are used for escapism and disconnection from the world in which we live. It is when we get “seriously psyched about rising above whatever is difficult or painful,” to the point of ignoring important personal issues that may need to be dealt with. We become afraid to become more intimate with what are deemed to be our “lower” qualities (e.g. anger, depression). These lower qualities become so shunned they are “only handled with spiritual tongs...dropped into sterilized vats brimming with affirmations, meditational tranquility...” (Masters, 31) Another related area is when we tend to slap the title of positive on negative on emotions and feelings without discernment. In reality, emotions and feelings aren't negative or positive; they are neutral, and it is our relationship to them and how we react to them which is negative or positive. For example, there may be a situation where anger may be completely justified, and it is how one vents that anger which can be considered positive or negative. For one to allow the anger to be released in a constructive way would be very different than that same person punching someone in the face.
• Blind or overly-tolerant compassion. This second aspect constitutes patterns of fleeing from any form of confrontation—such as learning how to say no—which can result in a dysfunctional or addictive relationships. Blind compassion “reduces us to harmony junkies,” and makes us under the impression that anger or confrontation might be perceived as “unspiritual.” Much of this blind compassion stems from our fear of judging others. In reality, while we may constantly judge others, what we do with those judgements is what really matters, much in the same way as how we deal with feelings and emotions matters, not the feelings or emotions themselves. (22)