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Spiritual Bypassing

David Cowles

Jul 4, 2024

'Spiritual Bypassing is a species of bad faith. It relies on platitudes to mask feelings; it flees conflict and tolerates injustice.”

A colleague recently introduced me to the concept of ‘Spiritual Bypassing’. The phrase was unfamiliar, but the practice itself required no introduction. I immediately recognized myself as a regular practitioner.

Once upon a time, the world was Voltaire’s Garden (Candide). Except for the excesses of the industrial revolution, like child labor, crushing poverty, and environmental degradation, God was in his heaven and all was right with the world.

Then came the existentialists! Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus showed us just exactly how horrible life really is. It’s absurd; and we must face it with dread, nausea, and angst – unless we succumb to soporific bad faith

Spiritual Bypassing is a species of bad faith. It relies on platitudes to mask feelings; it flees conflict and tolerates injustice. It appears to follow the trajectory of the Serenity Prayer…

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

…but it doesn’t. It settles for ‘resignation’ (instead of serenity), ‘apathy’ (instead of courage), and ‘spiritual pride’ (instead of wisdom). 

According to John Welwood (Toward a Psychology of Awakening), Spiritual Bypassing is a "tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks."

Proper spirituality has a lot to contribute to our quality of life. It does not inoculate us against anger, sadness, or grief but it places such experiences in a broader and more hopeful context. Ideally, spirituality can prevent anger from turning violent, fear from becoming dread, sadness from becoming depression, grief from becoming despair, and frustration from becoming anxiety.

Spiritual Bypassing, on the other hand, represses so-called ‘negative emotions’. Worse, it makes the person feel unworthy because they have such emotions. It’s a vicious cycle: I feel bad and now, on top of that, I must feel bad for feeling bad. False spirituality can exact a heavy toll. Healthy spirituality, on the other hand, lets me experience my emotions as wisdom helps me situate the events triggering those emotions in a broader context. 

How do you know if you’re a Spiritual Byepasser? Well, ask yourself, “Do you ever say any of these things?”

  • I avoid feelings of anger because Scripture mandates forgiveness.

  • I thank God that I am not like those cretins that are tormenting me.

  • She’s in a better place now.

  • She’s here with us, watching over us.

  • You (or I) must have done something to deserve this ill fortune.

  • Think positive thoughts only.

  • I am not focused on the here and now; my mind is on the hereafter.

  • This (tragedy) is God’s will…part of his plan. Everything happens for a reason. It’s a blessing in disguise.

Or just ask yourself, “Is my spirituality helping ease someone else’s pain or burden or is it just making me feel better?”

There is a persistent thread in Western culture linking good fortune with virtue. In the Grail Legend, the devastation of the land and the infirmity of the King go hand in hand. In the Book of Job, the so-called ‘comforters’ never cease trying to link Job’s misfortunes to imaginary misdeeds, past or future, his own or his children’s.

Sidebar: In the end, Job’s comforters are severely chastised by God: “My anger blazes against you…You have not spoken rightly about me as has my servant Job.”

Even today, though we know better now, we can’t help ourselves. We instinctively link material prosperity, physical beauty, and good health with God’s favor and/or our own virtuous living. Our bodies are no longer ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’; now they are idols to be worshiped. So, we buff them, tan them, oil them, and then gaze upon them lovingly. 80 is the new 40! 

Dreaded negativity plays a crucial role in the World according to both Existentialism and Process Philosophy, two of the 20th century’s most important philosophical movements. Novelty begins with the realization that the Actual World of events falls short of the Ideal World of values. Liberation (e.g. the Exodus) begins when judgment is executed ‘on the gods of Egypt’.

Sidebar: Spiritual Bypassing is often accompanied by an excessive focus on self-actualization. The term itself implies that a ‘self’ existed prior to its being actualized.  A neat trick. It also suggests that it might be possible to actualize something other than ‘self’. Like what? 

True: I do actualize myself; but my ‘self’ is whatever I actualize. There is never the slightest disconnect, not even la differánce, between what I actualize and what I am. 

Spiritual bypassing can have a variety of adverse effects in the real world – on ourselves, on others, and on the relationships we have with others. Spiritual Bypassing isolates its practitioner from the real world, from the experience of agency, from real emotion, and from the feelings of others. As such it is a powerful barrier to personal growth; it functions as anti-spirituality in our psyches. 

Remember, there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ emotions so avoid labeling them as such. Remember too that the World cannot move forward, towards Value, without rejecting aspects of the status quo. There’s no Exodus without the plagues!

Anger is a normal emotion and a perfectly reasonable reaction to many events and situations. It means that there is something wrong and that action needs to be taken to fix a situation or mend a relationship. Authentic spirituality doesn't suppress valid emotions just because they're uncomfortable. 

Most perniciously, Spiritual Bypassing can be used to justify the status quo: “Everything has a reason, it’s God’s will, it’s part of the plan.” In one stroke the deep emotions of another have been trivialized and your own apathy and quietism have been justified. My ‘neighbor’ is suffering but guess what? It’s all about me…as usual. Welcome to the Spiritual Bypass. 



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