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Beware the trap of Spiritual Bypassing

by Anil Bhatnagar
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Beware the trap of Spiritual Bypassing
When we spend hours discussing scriptures, theories of enlightenment, spiritual gurus, and their miracles, we are just moving the pencil on the map instead of undertaking the journey!

Defining Spiritual Bypassing

John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, coined the term ‘Spiritual Bypassing.’ He defined it as the “tendency to use spiritual ideas, discussions, and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”

The Illusion of Spiritual Greatness

We can all believe we are great (or highly spiritual)—it is uplifting to think so. However, if people we interact with do not see this love in spirituality reflected in how our actions and behaviors impact them, we must re-examine our greatness. It could be just a self-serving illusion.

The Journey Within

How easy it is to locate where we are on a map and then move a pencil from there to a place, thousands of miles away, where we dream to be (say, from a small, desolate village in India to Los Angeles)! Not only is it easy, but it may also provide us with a momentary high that may not let us see—at least at that moment—that we are still where we were before moving the pencil.

When we spend hours discussing scriptures, theories, enlightenment, and spiritual gurus and their miracles, we may not realize it, but we are also just moving the pencil on the map. The confidence with which we narrate morally superior concepts often deludes us into thinking that we have arrived, even though we may not have even started.

Unbeknownst to us, this comforting illusion of having “arrived” bleeds out the reasons, motivation, and energy from our ambition to undertake the journey. Some of us may get addicted to the “high” we get from moving the pencil on the map and consequently fritter away a significant part of our lives doing just that—and many may never feel the need to undertake the actual journey.

“The noblest person you will ever meet is the person you think you already are.”

̴ Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Authenticity in Spirituality

Kaveri, a colleague, was one such addict. Like a parrot, she would talk indefatigably about how yogis could leave their physical bodies and travel to distant planets or what happens after death. Even though Kaveri (name changed) perceived herself as a spiritually evolved person, her behavior could not be farther from being so. She was arrogant, absent-minded, irresponsible, undisciplined, and unethical. No wonder her life, on all fronts, was in shambles. Her husband found her a short-tempered shirker and divorced her; her son felt lonely and unloved; her boss saw it difficult to trust her with any task; and she was constantly in and out of the hospital.

Unpleasant things can happen to anyone, but how we respond to them determines whether they are opportunities to reflect, learn, and grow further or the natural consequences of turning our backs on our responsibilities. Anyone who knew Kaveri also knew that hers was the latter case.

The Path to Authenticity

Spirituality is about living by our values and bravely confronting our shadow self; acknowledging, feeling, and transcending our inconvenient emotions; pursuing factual and moral truth by continuing to discard all that is not so, even when justifying these may be the more convenient option; building mutually empathetic and rewarding relationships; resolving problems; and shouldering our responsibilities responsibly.

However, like many of us, Kaveri unconsciously used these discussions to do the opposite: to distract herself from the feelings of guilt, frustration, and inadequacy she did not want to experience, the responsibilities of life she did not want to bear, and the hard work required to resolve the issues she wanted to escape from.

Anil Bhatnagar

John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist who coined the term ‘Spiritual Bypassing’, defined it as the “tendency to use spiritual ideas, discussions, and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”

A Mirror to Reflect On

Kaveri was incorrigible, and her illusion of being pure and sacred was impenetrable. She had found phrases to hide behind and ward off anyone who would like to show her a mirror: “Jesus also underwent so much suffering,” “Suffering is the nectar that cleanses the soul,” and “God tests and strengthens our faith through suffering.” Well, I do not blame her; it is the job of our cognitive intelligence to resist the inconvenience of change and justify the suppressed longings (and acts) of its master—the unconscious mind.

For me, to have the opportunity to watch Kaveri’s life so closely and so early in my life (I was in my early 30s then) was a blessing in disguise. It woke me up before I could become like her. The avoidable suffering she was undergoing and causing to others compelled me to use her life as a mirror to examine mine—and to this day, I continue to do so.

“Words could be windows, or they could be walls, too.”

̴ Ruth Bebermeyer

Recognizing the Pitfall

In the years that followed, I kept coming across people like Kaveri (sometimes I could recognize myself as one of them) who were using spiritual discussions and practices as a substitute for their transformation instead of a means to support it. I wondered why no one else noticed this behavior if it was so common and began researching it.

My research led to the work of John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, who coined the term “Spiritual Bypassing” for it in the early 1980s. His definition of spiritual bypassing is what we began this article with. 

The Journey of Self-Discovery

Remember, we can start our spiritual journey only from where we currently are—not from a place we would like to pretend we are at. It is not a journey that involves accumulating spiritual “toys”, retreats, labels, or accomplishments that our ego can brag about, but discovering who we are at our deepest core without all these. It is a process of inching towards the truth or who we are at our core by observing and progressively peeling away “onion-like” layers of everything that is neither us nor factually and morally valid.

We become more and more spiritually awake when we become more and more aware of our spiritual slumber; that is, all that is not so spiritual in our lives. For example, awareness of our arrogance makes us a little humbler, and awareness of our unkind acts makes us a little more kind. Embracing this journey, remember that your spiritual path truly begins when you choose to love yourself, nurturing the most profound relationship with your inner being.

man with wings

We can all believe we are great (or highly spiritual)—it is uplifting to think so. However, if people we interact with do not see this spirituality in how our actions and behaviors impact them, we must re-examine our greatness. It could be just a self-serving illusion.

The Danger of Pretense

In contrast, when we pretend that we are pursuing and doing all the good things, it is the best time for our unconscious mind to do all that is forbidden; it knows that we are looking elsewhere. And it is a slippery slope. Once we develop the illusion that we are sacred, pure, and one with God, and close to the celebrity guru, and hence “already almost perfect,” it becomes difficult to see or examine how much suffering we may be causing to others and ourselves in the shadow of the light we think we are moving towards.

Most narcissistic tyrants and terrorists have two things in common. One, they nurture the illusion of being pure, perfect, “know-it-all,” invincible, and sacred, and two, they feel entitled to special treatment because they think they are the chosen ones—relatively far more superior, important, and divine than others. They never admit their mistakes or ignorance or examine their actions and behaviors from others’ perspectives.

“Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.”

̴ Robert Heinlein

The Mark of Authentic Spirituality

Therefore, one of the crucial characteristics that define our authentic spirituality is the ability to look back at ourselves from the eyes of those whose lives we impact through our actions and behaviors—and to modify the latter if we would not like to be at the receiving end of their consequences. For example, if you would not want to be the animal being exploited and killed because someone (that is, you, the human) values their momentary pleasure more than the extreme forms of pain and suffering that you (the animal) must undergo, consider examining, not justifying, its necessity. This process of introspection brings us closer to our authentic self, fostering a deeper understanding of our spiritual journey

Final Thoughts

Despite the positivity with which we may think of an apple (fresh, tasty, and nutritious), the thought of that apple remains what it is—a mere thought! It does not become the natural physical apple with those desired qualities. Likewise, talking about lofty spiritual theories does not change our reality.

The part of the brain that drives 98 percent of our responses operates according to our habits. It does so unconsciously and independently (and often in defiance) of our knowledge, ideals, or professed values. Therefore, irrespective of how much we may like to brag about the latter, they have little value unless we transform them into unconscious habits through deliberate, conscious practice.

We change not when we know but when we own the gaps between what we know and what we do and seek to close them through relentless self-observation and correction. Change rarely comes from knowing per se; it comes from feeling that the perceived pain of the status quo is way more unbearable than the pain of making efforts.

The Sculptor of Self

Have you seen how a sculptor steps back to get an overview of the work in progress and then returns to it to correct what needs correction? He keeps doing this until the statue looks exactly like the one in his mind. If we are still alive, we are both a work in progress and its sculptor. As the “spiritual” sculptor, our mission is to keep observing, practicing self-love and self-acceptance, and painstakingly removing from within us all that is not truly us (or spiritual) until we arrive at and become the awakened being we are at our core.

“Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think and do is for yourself—and there isn’t one.”

̴ Wei Wu Wei

Photos courtesy: lonerwolf.com and Koolshooters/Pexels

Questions to Stay on Track

Here are some questions you could ask yourself now and then to stay on track and keep you from spiritual bypassing:

  • Right now, am I finding the easier path of talking instead of doing?
  • Will the priorities and values that reflect how I spend my time, money, and efforts make me proud on my deathbed?
  • If everyone starts doing what I am doing now (and how I am doing it), will it make a better world for all sentient beings?
  • Am I developing the habit of looking back at my behavior and actions from their consequences for myself and others and making them my best before executing them?
  • Am I treating people I meet during the day the way I would like to be treated?
  • Instead of declaring myself a kind or sensitive person, do I care to notice when I behave unkindly or insensitively?

In my conversation, was I keener to establish my empathetic oneness with my interlocutor or my relative superiority?

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4 comments

Dr. Bijal Maroo October 2, 2023 - 9:01 am

Thought provoking as it sheds light on the games the ego plays on us so that we fall off the home-coming journey

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Suzy Singh September 29, 2023 - 12:29 pm

Very well written Anil. Refreshing reminder of how important it is to practice what one preaches or fancies.

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Ramesh Sharma September 28, 2023 - 10:17 am

I know Anil for more than a decade as a person as well as a professional trainer. I can bet he is simpler than his writings, his inner connection is deeper than the meanings his write-ups appear to convey. He is more of a practicener than preacher. He is inspiring, he is personal yet impersonal. It’s a treat to interact with him.

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Sanjay September 27, 2023 - 1:30 pm

Very well written! Your ability to convey such complex issue in a relatively easy to read piece, demonstrates not only your communication skill, but also the mastery over the subject. It is a subject on which you appear to have contemplated a lot and engaged with a variety of perspectives. It all comes out in this excellently written piece. And then you unexpectedly end it with a flourish – when readers would expect more to follow!

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