Spiritual Bypassing

Following yesterday’s reflection on the need to assimilate the feminine and masculine dimensions within ourselves, another post on integrating the different aspects of our lives. John Welwood has written some excellent books on the links between relationships, psychology and spiritual growth. He draws attention to the need to ground our selves in the vulnerability of our human condition, not run away from it.  He reminds us that we exist on different dimensions, including the key one of close relationships with other people, and notes the difficulties we can have in bringing our full awareness to that area.   A key concern of his is understanding how we relate to love. One term he uses is “spiritual bypassing”, which happens when we use the spiritual life to run away from our actual life, or from human, psychological work which needs to be done.

While many teachers are extremely warm, loving, and personal in their own way, they often do not have much to say about the specifically personal side of human life.  Coming out of a philosophy based on traditional Asian societies, they may have a hard time recognizing or assessing the personal, developmental challenges facing Western students. They often do not understand the pervasive self-hatred, shame, and guilt, as well as the alienation and lack of confidence in these students. Still less do they detect the tendency toward spiritual bypassing— 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, all in the name of enlightenment. And so they often teach self-transcendence to students who first of all need to find some ground to stand on.

In this way, spirituality becomes just another way of rejecting one’s experience. When people use spiritual practice to try to compensate for low self-esteem, social alienation, or emotional problems, they corrupt the true nature of spiritual practice. Instead of loosening the manipulative ego that tries to control its experience, they are further strengthening it.

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