Spiritual bypassing—A pervasive shadow of spirituality

For many of us, finding a spiritual path has become a critical part of our journey towards growth and transformation. Often, however, a spiritual practice can be turned against ourselves. It can serve a defensive function, thereby impeding integration and growth. Spiritual bypassing, short SB, is a defensive process whereby we use a set of spiritual and/or esoteric concepts and practices to forgo basic psychological work by prematurely exiting either inner immediate experience or the encounter with the world. Spiritual bypass shields us from the Truth. Over the years, its become clear to me--by virtue of my own journey as well as working with countless people in spiritual communities-- that it is very easy to engage in SB—I would go so far as to say that it has become endemic. The number of ways in which we engage in spiritual bypassing is virtually limitless.

Why have we accumulated a thick and nasty spiritual shadow? First, over the past 40 years, information on spirituality has become readily available combined with an concomitant increase in awareness of the downsides of religion. Spiritual practices are now a commodity. Akin to over-the-counter analgesics, SB fits neatly into our collective habit of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Secondly, furnishes us with two distinct payoffs: The primary benefit of SB is that it protects us from the unpleasantness of our wounding and the chaos/messiness of life. A secondary gain is derived from the ways it can be utilized to legitimize the “why” we are employing it (rationalization). This further fortifies the structure we attempt to transcend.

Both operations can appear to be glaringly obvious in others, but yet they can also be extremely subtle. No matter where we are on our journey, we all have engaged in this in one way or another. The people I have come to trust for spiritual guidance can be counted on one hand. I noticed that all of them either have a formal personal recovery journey and/or are practicing psychotherapists/healers. What all of them have in common is an intense encounter with the inner shadow which allowed them to marry powerful spiritual approaches with the wisdom and the understanding of deep inner emotional work. Most people who immersed themselves on this path did not do this voluntarily--they were initiated, thrown into the fire of disintegration. In my case, the lions den.

I once had a dream in which a friend of mine was ascending to a mountain top. Beautiful, I thought to myself. What beautiful vistas might reveal themselves up there. Much to my dismay, I was not following this path. In contrast, I was descending into a scary and dark underground cave. It wasn't hard to contain my enthusiasm about this dream, but it proved to be more difficult to understand its meaning and significance. Ascension was in so many ways a much convincingly purer, more peaceful, and less contradictory way of being. Needless to say, it took years of inner integration. Much, much longer than anticipated. Every fiber on my being challenged to the core. Learning to hold space and find love and faith in the unlit places of the human psyche. Full exposure to the unknown, learning to embody the formless chaos as love burns and obliterates the obstructions to Truth.

No surprise that we so desperately seek refuge in a transcendent place in face of inner soreness and pain. No wonder why we place so much hope that ascension to an unconditioned reality beyond reveals our unbroken nature. Yet abandoning ourselves without actually meeting face to face with what is alive in and around us won't calm the raging fire within. Never. Rushing to grow up to soon and quickly is a sign of immaturity. One cannot escape a place we have never been to. And a broken cup will never hold and contain the hydrating elements for your soul. No amount of effort and action will overcome this simple truth--it will only add frustration.

It takes an infinite amount of love and generosity to be afforded the opportunity to experience this world--an astonishingly perfect playpen to evolve and grow. It might be wise to come down from the mountain to find out what this world has to offer.

Perhaps you have grown tired of the nonsense and feel a desire to get real, ready to expose the shadow of spirituality. Burst the “bliss” bubble. Rip away the spiritual veil. Come out of the metaphysical limbo. The spiritual shadow remains unconscious until it is brought to light by sincere engagement with it. It will not want to be seen and it won't be revealed without a fight. It is subtle--a trickster. Letting go of something is virtually impossible unless you can see it for what it is. While the SB defense may appear a great deal prettier than other defenses, in essence, it serves the same purpose. The potential for damage it can cause, however, may be greater than all other defenses combined.

In my experience, the only robustly fruitful approach is the honest, related, intimate encounter with oneself and another human being. Inner work carried out in a container wherein our emotional wounding can be felt and explored. Solo or group spiritual practice, such as mindfulness and meditation exercises, can bring immense benefits to us, yet they can also become perfect recipes for detachment and avoidance. Many spiritual practices can be helpful and perhaps necessary but utterly insufficient if we are to strive for an embodied spirituality--a spirituality that is grounded, sincere, and authentic--fully related to two aspects of life--divine and human reality--one present within the other. And the human side of this coin does include the physical/somatic (body-instinctual), emotional/mental (psyche) and interpersonal (relationships). Surprise, surprise.

This essay was written in service to those committed to using the full spectrum of what is immanent in this world as a portal to a reality beyond, the transcendent. There is no greater joy for me that to live and embody Truth as I understand it, committed to supporting those whose honeymoon with superficial spirituality has ended. I fully embrace the mystery that this human incarnation has to offer.