(This is something that I have abridged and elaborated on that was written by John Welwood and appears in his book “Toward a Psychology of Awakening,” pp. 11-13)
THERE is a widespread tendency to seek out and use spiritual practices to bypass or avoid dealing with certain personal or emotional unfinished business—all of those messy matters and psychological wounds that weigh us down or hold us back. I call this tendency to attempt to use spiritual practices to avoid or illegitimately transcend and rise above both our basic human needs and fears, as well as our personal and emotional issues and developmental tasks, “spiritual bypassing.”
Spiritual bypassing is particularly tempting for people who are having difficulty navigating life’s developmental challenges. In a time and culture like ours, what once were considered ordinary marks of adulthood—earning a livelihood through dignified work, raising a family, keeping a marriage together, belonging to a meaningful community—have become increasingly elusive for more and more people. While still struggling to find themselves, more and more people are being introduced to spiritual teachings and practices of a dubious nature that attempt to convince their practitioners that the real world is significantly other than it is, and that certain developmental tasks are completely unnecessary.
As a result, they wind up misusing legitimate spiritual teachings—or using illegitimate and pseudo-spiritual escapist nonsense—to create a new “spiritual” identity—a false- or pseudo-self—which is actually just their old dysfunctional identity that was based on avoidance (of unresolved psychological issues), denial and escape (of or from these unresolved psychological issues and of life’s inherent difficulties and losses and developmental tasks), and impulsivity (a willful and habitual lack of self-control and discernment and solid thinking), repackaged in a new shiny guise that they can buy into and that they can try to convince others into buying into.
Used in this way, spiritual teachings and practices (or pseudo-spiritual practices and teachings) become a way to rationalize old defenses and reinforce old and avoidant habits and ways of reacting and responding. Many of the “perils of the path”—such as spiritual materialism, narcissism, delusions of grandiosity or excessive specialness, or groupthink (uncritical acceptance of a group’s ideology or of any spiritual teaching or practice*)—result from people trying to use spirituality to shore up or illegitimately mask (bypass) developmental deficiencies.
It’s not a stretch to say that just as the adult entertainment industry thrives on being able to exploit women who were abused sexually as children, so too the new age movement depends on exploiting women (and perhaps men equally) who were neglected or abused physically and emotionally and thus are so overburdened by unacknowledged past pain that they can nary handle any more stress and or any more reality and so they crave and seek out a philosophy of life that ultimately will turn out to be largely vacuous, soft-minded, feel good, escapist, and highly unrealistic. They end up courting the spiritual equivalent of romance novels. As Hazat Inayat Khan put it: “People are not only ready to profit by your wisdom, power, and greatness, but they are also eager to take advantage of your ignorance, weakness, and inability.” Not to mention our woundedness. And in this day and age in particular, people are lined up around the block ready to take advantage of our ignorance, woundedness, weakness, and flaws.
Legitimate spiritual and transformative traditions speak of three basic tendencies that keep us tied to the wheel of suffering: the tendency to reject what is difficult, very realistic, and or painful; the tendency to grasp onto things (teachings and practices included; this is what is meant by “spiritual materialism”) for comfort and security and support; and the tendency to desensitize ourselves so that we don’t have to face or feel the whole extent or depth or burden of our basic existential predicament—suffering, aging, disease, the body, loss, sorrow, pain, rejection, separation, isolation, lostness, anxiety, fear, and namely the fear of being overwhelmed or flooded by our own emotions and reactions.
Spiritual bypassing is symptomatic of the tendency to reject or avoid what is unpleasant and difficult—such as the sudden unexpected shifts and roller-coaster-like changes of the weak and underdeveloped ego. When a person isn’t strong enough or doesn’t feel him- or herself to be strong enough to deal with the inherent difficulties of this world—difficulties made all the more difficult by childhood wounds and abuses—then the person will try to find ways of illegitimately avoiding having to deal altogether with their personal issues and deficiencies as well as conditioning, habits, and reactions/reactivity.
This is a major pitfall of the spiritual path—attempt to avoid facing the unresolved issues of the conditioned personality. And attempting to avoid unfinished or even unstarted developmental tasks and the unresolved pains and wounds in our past is only what keeps us caught even more firmly in their grasp. Whatever we run away from runs us. Whatever we deny or suppress comes back to us as fate, as destiny. There is a part of us that would rather take it easy, sink into some comfortable and automatic groove, not have to think too much or too deeply or critically, and basically get through this life with as little effort and challenge and stress as possible. This leads to our common addictions—to mindless television and escapist books and blogs, consumerism, alcohol and drugs, even religion and pseudo-spiritual practices—these are all ways of numbing ourselves and avoiding facing reality and the rawness, the messiness, the difficulties, and the anxieties of being more fully alive and awake and present.
* As the Buddha put it:
Rely on the teaching, not on the person;
Rely on the meaning, not on the words;
Rely on the definitive meaning, not on the provisional;
Rely on your wisdom mind, not on your ordinary mind.
Do not accept any of my words solely on faith, Believing them just because I said them.
Instead be like an analyst buying gold, who cuts, burns,
And critically examines his product for authenticity.
Only accept what passes the (reality) test.