Spiritual bypassing, a phrase coined by the psychologist John Selwood, is the use of spirituality to avoid our painful feelings, unmet needs, and unhealed wounds. The psychologist Robert Augustus Masters believes it is very common. He writes:
Spiritual bypassing is a very persistent shadow of spirituality, manifesting in many ways, often without being acknowledged as such. Aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, lopsided development (cognitive intelligence often being far ahead of emotional and moral intelligence), debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow elements, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.
Spiritual bypassing happens when we are not yet ready to accept an aspect of ourselves. The un-owned aspect of self gets shoved into the shadow realm.
We are all a massively complex collection of voices and selves, some more self-serving, others more other-serving, each with different agendas. There is a Cherokee legend that says we must choose which wolf to feed; the angry wolf of the ego or the wolf of peace. We must, in every moment, choose what aspect of ourselves to feed. We endeavor to choose peace, yet we must also remain wolves, wild and free, rather than pliant like a lapdog. In the New Age some have sacrificed their wolf-ness in the name of excessive niceness. Our culture is uncomfortable with pain, grief, and other negative feelings, wanting only to discuss sanitized, pleasant emotions. This casts shame on grief, anger, and other less pleasant emotions, casting them into the shadows. If we never shine a light down there, these shadows can fester, and the denial mechanisms around them become more and more desperate.
We engage in spiritual bypassing when we are in denial of a fatal flaw that is glaringly obvious, or when we go deep into spiritual practices or philosophies, but we treat people poorly. Maybe abandoning a partner without honoring what we shared, or treating the cashier like a servant.
We engage in spiritual bypassing when we lie to ourselves about our desires and shadows; repressing them, rather than acknowledging and working with them. Or when we do deep medicine journeys that have the power to burst our egos, yet we instead use the wisdom gained to build up walls of the Ego’s denial-fortress even more.
The classic examples of spiritual bypassing within Christianity are those who show up at church on Sundays looking good yet beat their wives, or cover up for priests who molest children. However, the New Age has its own brand of bypassing. We in the New Age have dabbled in ancient spiritual paths since the 60’s, and gained much wisdom by looking to traditions, whether Buddhism, Hinduism or Shamanism, to become better people. Yet if we focus only on the techniques rather than facing the difficult of working with our pain, we miss the point. We need both the psychologist and the shaman to truly heal, or spirituality can become a band-aid on a deep wound.
Some people get panicked at the mere mention of the term “spiritual bypassing”. After all, we in the New Age want so badly to stick to the Love and Light frequency, while avoiding touchy subjects. Our western culture still holds the values of WASP ancestors, as we fail to speak obvious truths, be authentic, and stick up for the underdog. Perhaps we do this because we are trying to fit in, or to avoid an unpleasant moment, or to appease a powerful person, but when we don’t speak up for the victim of cult abuse, or racism, or for the outsider, or the betrayed, or the bullied, it is the victim that suffers. Victim-shaming is rampant in New Age communities. When people speak out against injustice, they are ignored or even shamed for their “victim consciousness”. They are told to just forgive, or to “focus on the positive”. This just adds more insult to injury.
When we dress up the Wrathful Dakinis as angels in white dresses, and ban Kali from the party, we find that we’ve turned away from the Goddess that birthed us, covered in sweat and blood and tears, and denied our own mother. This is the essence of Dominator Culture (aka patriarchy): denying the existence of the mother goddess, the body, and the lower desires, seeking rather to transcend it all, reaching a bland state of transcendent purity. New Agers and Christians may have more in common than we think, with our desire to transcend and ascend, rather than confront.
Also common to patriarchal spiritual institutions, from Christianity to the New Age, is to reward members for how well they follow the dogmas of the group. When a community such as this overlooks the flaws of its leaders in an effort to follow the dogma, they engage in spiritual bypassing, thus allowing terrible abuses to take place.
As we endeavor to become more conscious, rather than having to push memories behind the denial-curtain, we are able to keep them more intact. I believe that adults, as well as children, have repressed memories. We all do it to some extent. By choosing not to acknowledge or process unpleasant events and emotions, they cease to be recalled. Allowing us to move on without becoming paralyzed by traumatic events, denial exists for a reason. Discernment is the key, helping us to uncover the soul lesson the experience came to teach us, while helping us let go of the traumatic details irrelevant to our own integrity.
Through a disciplined endeavor to stay conscious and “stalk” ourselves, as they say in the Toltec shamanic tradition, the real work is not fancy breathing exercises or mantras, but honest self-examination. Stalking is the act of monitoring ourselves relentlessly and honestly, seeing ourselves as objectively as possible from the outside, instead of as our ego wishes to be seen. The more we can discipline ourselves away from the inclination towards denial, the more integrity we can embody.
A self-awareness practice can help us stalk ourselves to avoid the traps of spiritual bypassing. A regular meditation practice is a good step. If we can learn to be aware of our thoughts, to watch them without judgment, we can see what thoughts are controlling our behavior. Then we can start to check in with ourselves throughout the day, asking ourselves, “What am I doing? What are my motivations here? Am I being honest with myself and others?” Ultimately, it is more rewarding to be authentic, than avoid shadowed parts of ourselves. Sharon Salzberg has also referred to this sense of self-awareness and observation as, “spy consciousness.“
Learning to tune into our emotions is an excellent practice. The more we can face them instead of repressing them, the healthier we become. Also, practices for becoming more embodied are crucial, such as breathing deeply and consciously throughout the whole body. Moving from the core, and thinking more with the heart than the head will bring wisdom, compassion, and insight.
We can become more aware of the motivations behind our spiritual practice. Are we going through the motions, desperate to feel better? Does the practice feel authentic to the moment? Is the practice making us more compassionate towards ourselves and others?
Luckily, we are maturing beyond the trappings of spirituality into a more inclusive practice of true authenticity, the real work of being human, which is admitting our faults, forgiving ourselves and others, and becoming more discerning with our trust. May we see in the next age a new paradigm of balanced masculine and feminine, psyche and spirit, mind and body, light and dark- where the grace comes to meet the grit.