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January 23, 2021

Spiritual Bypassing: The Misuse of Spiritual Tools.

The dark side of spiritual bypassing.

In the past, I wasted many years trying to overcome trauma from my teenage years by delving into what I thought were spiritual techniques that brought relief. When really, I was just hiding from my problems. I was unwittingly practicing so-called “Spiritual Bypassing.”

It took me years to realise I was wasting my time. In the end, I did inner work to deal with my trauma issues directly.

In my case, simple bodywork helped me to cry and somatically release the trauma. The old issues mostly evaporated within days. Eventually, after a year or so, I could move forward in life—free from the emotional injury I experienced.

I have only heard the term “Spiritual Bypassing” recently from friends. So, I looked it up on Wikipedia which says:

“Spiritual Bypass or Spiritual Bypassing is a tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, real world issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks. The term was introduced in the early 1980s by John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist. Clinicians in pastoral psychology have identified both beneficial and detrimental manifestations of behavior that could be described as spiritual bypass.”

“Spiritual Bypass” can be useful as a temporary way to avoid stress or a spiritual crisis. When people use it to find relief from the stress of real life situations, it is sometimes felt to be a better way of being. It is regarded by them, mistakenly, as spiritual progress through the use of mental discipline, breathing practices, and meditation.

Through these practices they may have closed their heart to recognizing dangerous traits in others. The blocking of emotions by mental discipline halts all further intuitive understanding of life. It hinders spiritual evolution. It is also a useful technique used by “malevolent gurus” in the creation of cults.

When I encounter people who claim that all people need to be tolerated in order to bring about peaceful coexistence, I am astonished. To exercise mental control to see dangerous things through rose-colored glasses is a coping mechanism that can help in the early stages of spiritual development. However, it’s not a sustainable strategy.

Tolerance is a noble practice, but it has its dangers, and the misuse of tolerance is a good example of the dangers of spiritual bypassing.

Over my long life, I’ve encountered many people who specialise in victimising those who try to cultivate tolerance and peace. It’s important to have limits on your tolerance of the behavior of such “bullies” if only for self-protection, and for the protection of others who might become the victims.

Martin Luther King unfortunately was killed by such a person. In 2021, the tolerance of President Trump and his ideas led to the attempted coup at the Capitol Building and the deaths of five people. Yet, there are some who think you should exercise mental discipline and be tolerant of all.

A more reasonable practice is to use the heart and be tolerant only of views that do not lead to the suffering of others.

Wikipedia says:

“When spiritual bypass is used as a long-term strategy for ignoring or suppressing unaddressed mental health issues, negative consequences can include “the need to excessively control others and oneself, shame, anxiety, dichotomous thinking, emotional confusion, exaggerated tolerance of inappropriate behavior, codependence, compulsive kindness, obsession or addiction, spiritual narcissism, blind allegiance to charismatic teachers, and disregard for personal responsibility.”

I’m encountering more and more avoidance of emotions in these COVID-19 times.

People, instead of dealing with unpleasant issues in their life, are turning to spiritual bypassing techniques. Loneliness is dealt with by exercising mental effort to block loneliness. Instead of dealing with the complex issues of life they instead try to never be upset about anything, including loneliness.

Even things that are well worth being upset about are discounted as simply showing that your mental control is lacking. They often exhibit a sense of superiority over others. They have mastered the “Spock” approach to life. Spock is a character from the TV show “Star Trek” who has no emotions. Mental discipline is used to overcome all emotions.

I am embarrassed to admit I was once a master of this approach. My nickname in high school was “Spock.” Spock was the Star Trek character who was purely intellectual and lacked emotions. I practiced meditation, breathing techniques, and yoga. For decades, I thought I was evolving and becoming wiser. Nothing upset me, but I had no heart.

More and more Buddhist psychologists are speaking of “Spiritual Bypass” and its dangers. I am not a Buddhist myself, but the Buddhist discussions of the topic were the deepest and most interesting.

Psychology Today says:

“Many of us know individuals who run away from problems by going on spiritual retreats. However, when these people return home, although they may feel enlightened for a short time, they are eventually triggered by the issues that sent them on their spiritual journeys in the first place. All the fear, confusion, and drama are still where they left them, and nothing has really been accomplished.”

People practicing these techniques are often critical of anyone who honors emotions. I’m an old-timer of 71, and it took me a lifetime to realise how spiritually important it was to be discriminating and not accept the behavior and views of everyone around me. I had to learn to be guided by the heart in my interactions with other people.

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