Spiritual bypassing is a very persistent shadow of spirituality, manifesting in many forms, often without being acknowledged.– R. Augustus
What comes to mind when you think of ‘spirituality’?
You might picture beautiful temples, ethereal instruments, golden Buddhas, gardens and forests of paradise, the faces of enlightened masters, angels, mountain ranges, sunsets, or any number of other dazzling images.
While all of this is true and wonderful, many of us become intoxicated, distracted, and ensnared by these highly attractive images of spirituality, avoiding the darker, painful, and more demanding sides of such a path.
At its core, spiritual bypassing is like any other form of avoidance that rewards us with a false feeling of security and happiness, while undermining the deeper path of spiritual integration, transformation, and Oneness.
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Spiritual Bypassing: An Enticing Form of Escapism
What you resist, persists.– C. G. Jung
For a long time, I struggled with understanding what ‘true’ spirituality looked and felt like.
I would look in the newspapers and find ads from kooky-looking psychic women promoting their services, all the way to alluring internet courses dedicated to “ascending to the 5D.”
I would read new age books about “optimism” and esoteric articles about casting spells to attract love and prosperity. I’d devour videos and purchase materials on the latest spiritual techniques or newly discovered “ancient practices” purported to “change my life.”
But amidst all of this searching, I somehow never felt a connection with any of these findings. All of these ideas and practices somehow felt amiss: something, somehow, seemed intuitively off-center and “wrong” about them.
I’ve finally discovered why I’ve always felt this way about so many spiritual practices in the past few years. All of these practices had felt so “off” to me because many of them, instead of being authentically spiritual, were actually forms of spiritual bypassing.
The term ‘spiritual bypassing’ was originally coined by psychologist John Welwood in 1984. As he explained in an interview,
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.
As we can see, spiritual bypassing is largely about avoiding or trying to escape from the more tricky parts of life. This understanding leads us to form a clear definition of spiritual bypassing:
What is Spiritual Bypassing? (Definition)
To spiritually bypass is to use spirituality to avoid, suppress, or escape from uncomfortable issues or areas within life.
These issues could be the loss of a loved one, a relationship breakup, family problems, childhood abuse, loneliness, low self-esteem, self-sabotaging behaviors, fear, mental or emotional health issues, or any other problems life presents.
Examples of areas that can be bypassed include avoiding psychological healing of unhealthy attachment styles, environmental issues, topics of inequality (class, race, gender, sexuality, etc.), and so on.
To many people, spirituality becomes a sort of crutch used to help them stand back up again in the face of life’s turmoil – and often, this is necessary. We all need support at one time or another in our lives.
However, the problem comes when spirituality is used as a drug on which we become dependent to bypass the darker or more complex elements of our lives.
When spirituality is used as a defense mechanism to ward off the gremlins and demons of our existence, it actually becomes our greatest hindrance, preventing us from developing true courage, authenticity, and compassion; qualities that refine our souls.
While the use of spirituality can provide us with a solid wall to hide behind, in doing so it traps us in an all-is-blissful-and-perfect jail cell of illusions.
Further reading: 11 Warning Signs You’re Practicing Spiritual Materialism »
10 Types of Spiritual Bypassing
What gives light must endure burning.– V. Frankl (Man’s Search For Meaning)
The reality is that not everything in life is ‘love and light,’ as is the slogan for many spiritual seekers.
Pursuing the Light and living an enlightened and deeply interconnected existence is also about setting yourself on fire.
True spirituality is about creating an inferno of your false beliefs, illusions, desires, ideals, and prejudices. It’s about surrendering to the destruction of every limiting thing you ever thought and felt about yourself, other people, and the world, aka. ego death.
Spirituality is not always pretty. In fact, often, it’s the most shattering, tumultuous, and testing experience we can go through in life.
But only once we emerge from the embers of our destruction can we be reborn – like phoenixes – into new lives of clarity and peace.
The truth is that there are many types of spiritual bypassing that we sometimes don’t recognize (or refuse to recognize) in life. I have listed ten of the most common types below:
I) The Optimistic Bypass
We’ve all come across people in life who love to laugh and smile, yet seem to be forcefully optimistic. “Focus on the positive!” “See the glass as half full!” “Don’t let a frown get you down!” are some of the catchcries of these people who tend to use optimism as a way of avoiding the more sinister and troublesome realities of life. The optimistic bypass is often a side product of anger-phobia or else the inability to deal with negative emotions as a whole.
II) The Aggrandizement Bypass
The aggrandizement bypass is adopted by those who seek to feel enlightened, superior, or somehow “more awakened” in their spiritual development than others. Claiming to have reached a certain spiritual coveted milestone is a type of self-delusion that some spiritual seekers use as a way of masking their perceived deficiencies and insecurities (learn more about ‘Makyo‘). More commonly, this bypass is typically used by self-proclaimed masters, spiritual leaders, “kundalini awakened” yogis, and gurus to solicit a following (and make some good money!).
III) The Victim Bypass
When one becomes a victim of their gifts, or of other people, this takes away the pressure of responsibility for shaping a satisfying life and taking responsibility for one’s happiness – such is the case with the Victim Bypass. This type of spiritual bypass is often used by spiritual seekers who believe they have extrasensory gifts of some kind, but due to their gifts, they are unable to feel happy or healthy.
Identifying as an empath, for example, is sometimes a good example of this type of bypassing. As being an empath is a gift that’s all about sensing others’ emotions, this can be used as an excuse to behave in self-pitying, self-destructive, and volatile ways.
Other labels, like being a clairvoyant, an indigo child, a starseed, gifted healer, and so on, can often cause people to fall into the Victim Bypass trap.
IV) The Psychonaut Bypass
Many spiritual seekers explore the frontiers of the mind, the soul, and reality through the use of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, DMT, psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline, and other entheogens that expand consciousness. While psychoactive substances are a fascinating way of exploring reality, like any other drug, they can often be used to escape daily life and avoid committing to personal development and Soul Work.
V) The Horoscope Bypass
When we frequently look outside of ourselves for help and guidance, as in the case with horoscopes and psychics, we’re failing to tap into our inner wellsprings of wisdom and strength and are allowing external predictions to control the outcome of our lives. The Horoscope Bypass is typically derived from fear and mistrust of ourselves, fear of taking self-responsibility for our decisions, and resistance to flowing with life by trying to predict “what’s going to happen.”
VI) The Saint Bypass
As children, many of us were conditioned to believe that a “spiritual person” is always kind, compassionate, and saintly. In adulthood, many of us continue to repeat this story to ourselves, and sadly, it can create tremendous suffering.
The Saint Bypass is a reflection of extreme “black or white” thinking, promoting the underlying belief that spiritual people can’t have dark sides because that would make them “unspiritual.” This type of spiritual bypass is essentially avoidance of one’s Shadow Self (dark side) by overcompensating with the guise of a sweet and heavenly exterior. The martyr complex is a major symptom of this type of bypassing.
VII) The Spirit Guide Bypass
In some spiritual traditions, it’s a God who protects, in others, it’s an angel, animal, or an ascended being who takes care of us.
While at certain points in life it’s helpful, soothing, and supportive to feel ourselves taken care of by a spirit guide, we can’t let it become too much of a crutch.
Relying 100% on our spirit guide/s to give us all of our insight, all of our protection, and all our spiritual sustenance keeps us in a spiritually infantile state. In other words, we fail to develop strength of spiritual character.
Spirit guides serve to teach us rather than to babysit us.
VIII) The Prayer Bypass
Similar to the Spirit Guide Bypass, the Prayer Bypass circumvents personal responsibility by putting faith in a higher being to solve all of our problems and issues. While praying can be a healthy practice, it can easily become limiting and misguided. Sinking too much into passivity is an imbalanced way to live life and can easily lead to disaster. We must learn to take action and trust our own instincts as well.
IX) The Guru Bypass
The temptation to begin worshiping (knowingly or unknowingly) spiritual teachers means that we eventually forget the purpose of listening to them, i.e., to integrate the essence of their teachings.
By treating the words of a guru or master as the irrefutable truth and failing to think for ourselves, we fall into cult-like groupthink, and we’re starved of true spiritual growth and transformation on our spiritual journeys.
X) The Finger-Pointing Bypass
At some point on our spiritual quests, we begin to see through the lies, delusions, and crazy behaviors committed by our fellow human beings and this can make us angry, downhearted, and frustrated.
However, when we get caught up in “everything that is wrong” with the outside world and other people, dedicating our lives to the self-righteous quest of finger-pointing, this can be another form of spiritual bypassing.
Finger-pointing instills us with a false sense of righteousness, taking away the responsibility of looking inside and working on ourselves.
At its roots, the Finger-Pointing bypass is sourced in egocentric separation and fearful avoidance of our own shadows.
I’m sure there are many other forms of spiritual bypassing out there. But, at the very least, the above ten forms are the most common bypasses that we can easily observe around and within us.
How to Stop Spiritual Bypassing
Without deep and honest self-acceptance, the spiritual life rests on a dangerous psychological foundation and is nothing more than escape into a world of illusion. Humble self-knowledge is the most basic condition for any true spirituality.– John Monbourquette
The spiritual bypass is slippery, conniving, and is often disguised in robes of light.
It can take a lot of ruthless self-honesty – or what is known as spiritual discernment – to see through the lies we’ve been conditioned to believe or have told ourselves. But, rest assured, favoring the truth will help us greatly in the longterm.
So how do we stop spiritual bypassing? Here are some methods you might like to use:
1. Cultivate an open-minded attitude
Before uncovering any forms of spiritual bypassing that have wheedled their way into your life, you need to be open. You need to be willing to be wrong, misguided, or totally off the mark. Without that willingness to be open-minded, you’ll be fooling yourself. There will be no point in even trying to call yourself out because you’ll be shooting yourself in the foot before even beginning!
Therefore, strive to cultivate an open-minded attitude of humility. Remind yourself that it’s okay to be imperfect (we all are!). Most spiritual seekers – in fact, I’d dare say ALL seekers – go wrong at some point. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Embrace your flawed humanity and take steps toward greater spiritual expansion.
2. Examine the light and dark side of what you do
There’s a light and dark side to everything. Even if you struggle to find out what’s wrong with the spiritual activities or commitments you’re dedicated to right now, create hypothetical scenarios.
For example, if you follow a spiritual teacher that you love and adore, create a hypothetical scenario where that teacher betrays your trust or does something against your ethics. What then?
Ask yourself questions such as:
- “What could go wrong here?”
- “What aren’t I seeing?”
- “What’s the other side of this?”
- “In the past, how has this hurt someone?”
- “What warnings do people give about this activity?”
- “Is this hurting me in some way?”
- “Is this harming others in some way?”
- “How is this making me weak or dependant?”
- “Is there an opportunity for me to be taken advantage of here?”
Listening to your doubt is intelligent. Blind faith creates sheep, not a self-sovereign wolf. Dare to look at both sides of life. Honor the yin and yang of existence. Embrace the energy of both Shiva (the destroyer) and Shakti (the creator) within you.
Read more: 11 Traps Sabotaging Your Spiritual Growth »
3. Dare to face your cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance (CD) is a state of being where a person’s beliefs and behaviors don’t align.
CD generally happens to people who hold two contradictory beliefs and have a sophisticated spiritual ego. The result of CD is a sense of underlying uneasiness, anxiety, guilt, and like “something isn’t quite right.”
Those who carry a lot of cognitive dissonance tend to “explain away” their behavior (or that of others) and live in denial. Facing the truth is too painful, so reality is avoided, and a false reality is created instead.
CD often happens to members of cults, but can also occur in the general spiritual community. For example, a person might experience CD when they follow the principle of non-harming (Ahisma) but hit their children every time they get angry.
Other examples of CD include following a narcissistic spiritual teacher who says one thing and does the other, claiming to be a healer with special abilities but on some level knowing that it’s a pretense (and placebo), following a non-dual philosophy but being dogmatic about it, and so on.
Facing CD involves doing shadow work and examining places and behaviors in your life that don’t add up. This practice isn’t about shaming yourself or being “more perfect,” but being honest and clearing away any self-delusion.
4. Ask others for their honest opinions
If you have any close friends or family members (who you have a healthy and respectful relationship with), talk to them about your spiritual path. Ask them if they have noticed any spiritual bypassing tendencies within you. If they don’t understand what spirtual bypassing is, show them this article or explain it to them!
Then, once your trusted friend or family member is ready, consciously brace yourself (and your ego) by taking a slow, soft, deep breath for their response. If at any point you feel overwhelmed with an emotion like anger or defensiveness, thank them and tell them that you need a minute or two to process what they’ve told you.
Feedback from other people (who genuinely care about our wellbeing) is invaluable. But make sure it’s from people you trust. Don’t go asking someone you have a complicated connection with to divulge your spiritual bypassing tendencies. Likely, they’ll use it as an opportunity to hurt you in a backhanded way.
If you don’t have anyone you trust, you could try a trained spiritual counselor who’s familiar with spiritual bypassing or even an online group of kindred spirits whom you trust.
5. Face and feel your pain
Why does spiritual bypassing occur? The answer is that it helps us to avoid facing painful emotions such as grief, shame, rage, hatred, and terror.
Everyone wants to enjoy a sparkly spiritual high (that is ultimately short-lived) but no one wants to do the hard work of facing inner pain (that actually leads to longlasting joy, fulfillment, and peace).
Facing and feeling your pain is not simple. You’ll most likely require the help of a spiritual counselor or therapist – and ideally, they will be trauma-informed, as repressed pain stems from unresolved trauma.
Facing one’s pain is not a fun prospect for most people, hence why they avoid this work and keep using their spiritual bandaids. But the fact still remains: the pain needs to be dealt with sooner or later.
Practices that can help you face and feel your pain might include breathwork, bodywork (like yoga), spiritual meditation, mindfulness, keeping a journal, art therapy, expressive dancing, catharsis, inner child work, and many other creative or embodied practices.
Spiritual bypassing is a topic that I believe every book, course, website, teacher, and guru should incorporate into their methodology, without exception.
To think that spirituality is without its dark side is not only totally naive, but unequivocably dangerous. We absolutely need to practice spiritual discernment and recognize where we might be wrong or misaligned – and to do that, we need to face our pain and shadows.
In the words of psychologist and author Elaine N. Aron:
Real redemption or enlightenment, as much as it can be achieved in this world, comes through hard work that does not skirt tough personal issues.
It can be a deeply unsettling, even terrifying experience to tear down the veneer of illusion from our lives and stare into the face of truth.
But the spiritual path is a process of destruction and purification; it requires you to set afire all hidden illusions and falsities so that you can experience the liberating joy of awakening to your True Nature.
Tell me, what has your experience been like with spiritual bypassing? I’d love to hear any thoughts, feelings, or stories you have below.