I have been thinking about the importance of paying attention to Spiritual Bypassing lately. For those of you who don’t know this term, its originator, Buddhist psychologist John Welwood, defines it as, “a tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” I heard the term first in a class I took from John in about 1980. This last month I have also been teaching from a chapter in the book Not Always So, in which Suzuki Roshi warns against spiritual bypassing when he says, “As long as you believe ‘my practice is egoless,’ you stick to ego, because you stick to giving up ego-centered practice.”
I think there are several ways in which folks who are involved in spiritual practice do this, each of which is an attempt to wall off unpleasant emotions or other aspects of their shadow side. These include 1. Emotional numbing/repression (i.e., “I shouldn’t be having these feelings. They’re not “spiritual.”) 2. Overemphasis on the positive. Japanese Buddhism reflects a politeness and focus on avoiding confrontation as well as a desire to not stand out that was not present in Chinese Buddhism, and is generally not healthy psychologically in our culture. 3. Anger-phobia 4.”Idiot compassion,” a term coined by Tibetan Buddhists. If you end up drained and exhausted from helping people, you’re probably engaging in this. 5. Weak boundaries. Do you get lost in or afraid of someone’s pain or their expectations of you? Many years ago I left my home state of California. I didn’t realize until I had been in Minnesota for some years that this was partially an attempt to escape my father’s expectations. It did help me, however, to develop a healthy separate self.
If once-healthy relationships with parents, spouses, children, and close friends are falling apart because you are consumed with practice and/or the spiritual quest, this may be because you are engaging in one or more spiritual by-passing behaviors. Let’s remember that the personal and spiritual are not really separate and pay attention to what our negative emotions are trying to tell us. Let’s also notice when we are imprisoned by the constraints of a “spiritual superego,” by making spiritual teachings into prescriptions about what you should do, how you should think, how you should speak, how you should feel. It’s my deep belief that the only “shoulds” which are healthy are those which support our authenticity. Through our meditation practice we can see how we are walling off our own afflictive emotions. If we do this in a non-judgmental way we may develop a tenderness for the shadow side of ourselves and others. Then we can rest in in our heartmind, which is simultaneously the heartmind of the universe.
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Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher