Last week, John Welwood, the prominent psychotherapist and author in the transpersonal-psychology field, passed away. Among other things, Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypassing,” and this might be a good time to honor him and his offerings.
In his classic book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening, which was one of my textbooks during my doctoral program, he defined spiritual bypassing as using “spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks.” The goal of such practices, he claimed, was enlightenment.
This practice might feel as if it’s more and more prominent these days—at a time when there seems to be a great deal of unrest and uncertainty in our internal and external worlds. The foundation of spiritual bypassing is basically avoidance and repression; and for some individuals, spiritualityserves as a way to rise above or handle the shaky ground beneath. When spiritual practice is used to compensate for challenging traits such as low self-esteem, social isolation, or other emotional issues, Welwood said, they corrupt the actual use of spiritual practice. In other words, using these practices to cover up problems seems like an easy way out, as opposed to working on the actual issues and etiology of the challenges.
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.
One woman who was raised by a narcissistic mother claimed that for most of her life she’d swallowed her anger and just tried to be the “good girl.” She rarely lashed out and kept it all in. At an early age, she started practicing Transcendental Meditation and read spiritual books as a way to calm her during difficult times. When she approached middle age, a friend suggested that she seek the assistance of a therapist so she could work on her underlying issues, which were not only causing problems in her relationships, but led her to engage in spiritual bypassing. During therapy, she learned that it was much healthier to voice her opinions and not keep them bottled up inside. Telling others how she felt wasn’t something that she’d learned as a child, and habits that are ingrained early on are often difficult to change. But when she started voicing her thoughts, this woman not only felt better but realized that it benefited all her relationships. After addressing these issues, she continued her spiritual practices of meditation, prayer, yoga, healthy diet, exercise, and grounding—all modalities that supported her transformation rather than replacing it.
Welwood also stated that anger is an empty emotion or wave that arises in the ocean of consciousness, often without meaning. This feeling can also lead to spiritual bypassing. Anger often stems from suppressed emotions that are not addressed, and it can become overwhelming. When taking the time to acknowledge the types of challenging emotions that are being bypassed, we learn how to handle them. The most effective thing to do is acknowledge the emotion, sit with it, and honor it without repressing it, as the Buddhists do. Basically, don’t give it any power. Others like Ingrid Clayton, in her article, "Beware of Spiritual Bypass," (2011), claim that spiritual bypassing is a defense mechanism and although it looks different than other defense mechanisms, it serves the same purpose.
Welwood said that many clients came to him with some impasse in their lives that their spiritual practice was unable to penetrate or help, whether a personality issue or a relationship problem. He was always amazed by the fact that although these individuals may have practiced sophisticated spiritual practices, they often did not practice self-love.
After attending numerous spiritual retreats myself and meeting many leaders in the field, I’ve learned the importance of compassion for myself as well as for those who present themselves as challenges. My father used to say, “You never know how people feel until you walk in their shoes,” and his old-fashioned wisdom continues to ring true three decades after his passing.
Some signs of emotional bypassing:
Clayton, I. (2011). "Beware of Spiritual Bypass." Psychology Today. October 2.
Welwood, J. (2000). Toward a Psychology of Awakening. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.