If you’ve had a look at my Substack blog, you’ll know that I’m pretty critical of some aspects of the wellness industry. At the core of what I’m saying is the concept of spiritual bypassing. It’s something we have all been or still are guilty of and it’s not something to be ashamed of. But it is good to know what it is, so you can start to recognise it and begin to address it.
Light without the heat
Psychologist John Welwood in 1984 first used the term to describe avoidant behaviour. Robert Masters (RM) in his book on the subject, says that spiritual bypassing occurs when we like the light but not the heat. When we use spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with “our painful feelings, unresolved wounds and developmental needs” (RM).
Our society is so focused on avoidant strategies that it is hardly surprising that modern spirituality has fallen into this pattern. Alcohol, social media, consumerism, work, entertainment, information overload; our modern world is designed to distract us and numb us to our pain. Modern spirituality is mostly used in the same way – to make us feel good, to forget our worries for a while, and to help us cope.
What does it look like?
Robert Masters provides a really useful list of ways in which spiritual bypassing can manifest. They “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 side, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.”
In some people spiritual bypassing is really obvious. In others it remains masked or plays out more subtly. For years I was able to carry off being mostly non-reactive and emotionally subdued as being super cool from all my meditation. When it comes to spiritual bypassing, we need the courage of being really honest with our self.
The language of spiritual bypassing can be easier to spot. Watch for phrases such as “don’t take it personally”, “negative emotions”, “I don’t get angry”, “negative people are toxic”, “speak you truth”, “it’s all an illusion”, “any problem you have with someone else is all about you” and so forth. Overdone niceness, lack of grounding or spaciness, premature forgiveness and emotional dissociation also belie it.
Why does it matter?
We mostly sell yoga these days as a way to relax and to boost our health. And it’s true that an hour on your mat can leave you feeling great. It helps you manage your stress and boosts feelings of well-being. But what use is that if an hour later you’re subconsciously triggered and the best you can do is suppress how you’re feeling? Or if you keep repeating the same behaviours that are stressing you or damaging your health in the first place. Just as you wouldn’t put a band-aid on a tumour, our spiritual practice shouldn’t just paper over the cracks like a bandage halo.
The primary intention of a yoga practice is to become sattvic or harmonious. We can all act like this on our mats but, if we’re honest, it rarely survives contact with the outside world. The teachings of yoga call on us to be aware of and transform our samskaras. These are imprints caused by habitual patterning. In this way we relieve our suffering. It also calls on us to balance the koshas or panchamaya, the illusory nature of our narrative of who we are. The vayus, which relate to our energy bank account, includes apanavayu, elimination of our waste. This is not limited to bodily waste but also includes our baggage, unprocessed emotions and thoughts and the narratives that drive them. The yogis use the word ama to refer to waste both physical and psycho-emotional.
Teaching yoga in this way, isn’t popular! Most people just want a good old stretch and to feel better for a couple of hours. Imagine a pub where the barman asked “why are you drinking?” each time he served a pint! But yoga is all about awareness. If we are offering genuine healing, addressing the unconscious and calling out spiritual bypassing has got to be part of it.
This can be extremely triggering for some people and not everyone is ready for it. What we’re talking about is looking into our shadow self, those parts of us we don’t want to admit having. As we become quieter and more self aware in our practice, with courage we can look at our darkness. We can start to become whole. To embrace and integrate our “less spiritual” traits. To become authentic. not trapped in Holy Drag as Robert Masters puts it.
Many teachers and therapists out there are spiritual bypassers themselves. Certainly there was a moment when I was one of them. I have been extremely lucky through further training and a deepening practice to identify my own avoidant strategies. To start to look into my shadow. I am also very fortunate to have an extremely able mentor with whom I can talk. He helps me stay on an even keel as a teacher. To identify shadow aspects present within class settings and especially in 1-2-1 class relationships. I have a long way to go; this work is never quick.
One thing is certain, yoga is not all love and light and namaste. It’s sometimes dirty work that requires commitment, courage and honesty. No amount of “positive thinking”, chanting, or waving a sage stick will deliver the results you really desire. Authenticity, love and life lived to the full is reached through the light AND the dark.
Being aware of spiritual bypassing is the first step. Being honest enough to recognise it in our self is the next. Sometimes it feels to me like we live our life like a play of two acts. In the first act, we fill our backpack with habits, narratives, coping methods, unfulfilled needs and unhealthy relationships. In the second, we start to empty it. Some people leave after the first act. Some hang around for the intermission, that first foray into spiritual practices and beliefs that makes you feel good and wakes you up a little. Now you can choose to stay in the foyer bar drinking, perhaps even throw a cape over your backpack and try to forget it’s there. Or you can hear the bell calling time, return to your mat and do the work required of the second act.
For more reflections on spiritual bypassing in the wellness industry, check out The Reluctant Yogi blog on Substack.