When you’re driving on the freeway taking the bypass around a busy city may be wise. But, on the Spiritual journey taking a bypass is usually unwise-- it gives you the illusion of progress, but in reality it just goes around in circles!
Spiritual Bypassing is defined as “The use of spiritual beliefs or practices to avoid dealing with painful feelings, unhealed wounds, and developmental needs.”
An example of this in the Christian tradition is the common practice of avoiding the painful experience of dying to the ego and living as Christ did, by believing that “Christ died for my sins, so all I have to do is believe in him and I will be spared the difficult work of actually living what he taught.”
In the Buddhist tradition we may encounter meditation practitioners that honestly believe they are practicing equanimity, (and they may want you to believe as well) but in reality they are using meditation as way of avoiding painful emotions. They may look very spiritual, but they are actually hiding from themselves. I call this becoming the “Counterfeit Buddha”!
Spiritual Bypassing exists in all traditions and in all spiritual practices. It is not necessarily the failure of the teaching or the teacher; (although a skillful teacher is savvy to this phenomenon) it is simply one example of the myriad (and often quite sophisticated) ways in which we attempt to avoid painful feelings.
Like the moth circling a candle flame, we are “attracted to the light, but repelled by heat.” We are attracted to the freedom and the power that can be found through spiritual practice, but we are repelled by the pain that must be faced in order to find that freedom. Spiritual Bypassing is one way that we “circle the flame.”
The pain that arises on our spiritual journey is not inflicted upon us by the practice; what we feel is pain that is already there--and probably has been there for a long time. We have found many ways to insulate ourselves from that pain. Spiritual practice penetrates and gradually dissolves that insulation. The insulation must be removed because the same insulation that protects us from our pain also obscures our true nature and blocks our experience of real freedom.
How can one avoid the spiritual bypass? The first step is to recognize when we have started to take it. The ego does not want us to see this. The spiritual bypass can camouflage and shape-shift itself into many forms; we have to stay awake and to be alert.
Begin by looking for some the “road signs” of the spiritual bypass:
· + Unwillingness or inability to feel your feelings.
· + Feeling “stuck” in your spiritual growth.
· + Goal-seeking; trying to be “successful” in your practice.
· + Gripping your beliefs very tightly.
· + Focusing on appearances.
Look at how you may be holding on to certain beliefs or habits. Those beliefs and practices are not necessarily bad or untrue —but the question is how we are using them? We may be holding on to them as a shield or armor that protects us against some underlying anxiety or discomfort. Ask yourself, “What might I be avoiding? What would I have to feel if I were not gripping this belief so tightly?”
The second step is to relax the grip on your beliefs. You don’t have to give up a belief forever—just “put it on the shelf” for now. The issue here is not the veracity of your belief but rather how you are using it. You may be right about something but if you use that belief to avoid some part of yourself then it will not lead you to freedom. A belief can be helpful or harmful depending on how it is used.
The third step is to face and feel the underlying feelings. Feel the physical sensations and feel the emotions that arise when you momentarily let the belief go.
A story from the Zen tradition: The master’s child died and he was weeping profusely. His disciples approached him and said, “Master, do you not teach that all is impermanent and that death is an illusion? The master nodded, “Yes.” Then, “Why are you crying?” The master replied, “I am crying because I am sad.”
We often think of spiritual growth as a process of ascension--and in one aspect it is, but it is a process of descending as well. In general, the growth process works like this: we have a taste of expanded awareness, a glimpse of a higher dimension, but before we can permanently grow into the next stage above we must complete the unfinished business from our past—from the level below where we are now. The journey from Consciousness to Super-consciousness involves a trip thru the Subconscious. As author Ken Wilber might put it: “We may wake up, but before we can fully grow up, we must first cleanup.”
Real growth is not to “transcend and deny” --it is to “transcend and include”. To grow beyond human nature does not mean negating human nature; true growth is inclusive. Transcending ego does not mean negating the ego, but expanding beyond it. You then experience the ego as a functional vehicle rather than being all that you are.
The spiritual bypass is an attempt to grow-up before we clean-up; it doesn’t work for very long! True growth is not to “transcend and deny”- it is to “transcend and include”. To grow beyond human nature does not mean negating human nature; it means facing and embracing all the elements of our human nature.