If you are into self development and/or spirituality you can count on one thing: experiencing spiritual bypassing. Spiritual bypassing is incredibly common, and it ranges from being a temporary blip to a life-long defense mechanism.
Whether you are a coach, client, or work in an organization that uses coaching frameworks to enhance performance and wellbeing, learning how to recognize spiritual bypassing will help you stay (mostly) away from it, or to get out of it when you fall into it.
What does spiritual bypassing mean?
The term "spiritual bypassing" was coined by Buddhist psychologist John Welwood in the early 80's, who defined it as “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" - see here.
The most common way it shows up is a tendency to skip the uncomfortable by retreating into the “positive,” “spiritual,” or “universal.” Because these are not necessarily bad moves, you cannot recognize spiritual bypassing just by what is said. It is the context + what is said + timing that tells you whether an interaction/practice is spiritual bypassing or a helpful tool.
Can a non-spiritual person also fall into spiritual bypassing?
Yes. Even though the term was originally coined to describe what John Welwood had noticed in his own personal experience with Buddhism and in his practice as a therapist, you can be spiritual bypassing even as an atheist or as someone who is not particularly spiritual. A non-spiritual version of spiritual bypassing is to emphasize that feeling grateful, positive, calm, or solution-oriented is "good" while seeing all complaints, sadness, anger, etc. as "bad."
For example, you can recognize spiritual bypassing at work in a non-spiritual environment such as an office when an employee starts acting negatively because of triggered trauma or because they are the target of harassment and speak up about it, and are then judged or penalized for their reaction instead of receiving help. At the same office, on the other hand, someone who always appears optimistic or calm might be praised and promoted without noticing how their behavior is actually hurtful or dismissive of others' feelings and needs. It is easier to align ourselves with the person who on the surface seems to have it together, while dismissing someone as less "enlightened" or unprofessional because they express uncomfortable feelings.
But, and here's why this is so tricky, the opposite is also not true: just because someone is down, triggered, feels offended, or is more feeling oriented, it doesn't mean they have a "more valid" perspective. This can be the topic of a whole other post, just mentioning it here to make the point that what I am pointing to is an experience that cannot be boiled down to simple rules.
Is spiritual bypassing something you do to yourself? Or is it something other people do to you?
Both. We can be in the midst of our own spiritual bypassing when we use a spiritual practice in order to check out of, repress, or deny our problems. For example, meditation is a great way to calm the mind, but it can also be used to avoid taking action.
On the other hand, you might encounter a spiritual teacher, coach, or even sometimes a therapist (although more rarely) who does not feel comfortable with certain emotions and pushes you to feel better when you would benefit from processing your more "negative" feelings. One example I have personally witnessed is when someone in a spiritual community reported being bullied or harassed by a fellow member and was then treated as "less enlightened" or as "the problem" because they had "lowered everyone's vibrations." If others expressed support or concern, they were told not to be taken in by the negativity. This type of messaging happens more often than you think, especially in groups that practice self growth, spirituality, or are into high performance; this is why I am a big fan of noticing how any community deals with conflict. You can easily tell which group is headed for toxicity and abuse by the amount of spiritual bypassing present.
Some coaches inadvertently play into this when they always encourage their clients to have more understanding and empathy for their boss, colleagues, etc. In some cases, and for some clients, such understanding is not what is needed, and can in fact encourage them to stay trapped in a very unhealthy situation.
Remember, spiritual bypassing is caused by a good principle or practice being applied in the wrong context and/or at the wrong time.
What are some other examples of spiritual bypassing?
One of the most common examples of spiritual bypassing is the insistence on forgiveness.
Most of us probably agree that forgiveness is preferable to holding a grudge; forgiving someone who hurt you can bring peace of mind and a sense of relief even if you never talk to them again, and relationships last longer and are often healthier when both partners have a forgiving heart, etc. Because the practice of forgiving is incredibly healing, this type of spiritual bypassing can be difficult to recognize.
Remember that it is the context + what is said + the timing that tells you whether an interaction/practice becomes a form of spiritual bypassing. So, for example, a person who has been wronged (at whatever level) might benefit from feeling her anger, might need to spend time grieving the impact of her loss, or might benefit at a specific time not from forgiving but from taking action to defend herself.
The timing of forgiveness matters: you might be pushed into forgiving others before you are protected from their abuse, or you might not be ready to forgive until you fully process the impact of what happened to you and feel safer. Sometimes feeling that you “have to” forgive blocks you from focusing on your needs, your wellbeing, or on your joy and resilience. You might again fall into a version of self blame for what happened – this time because you cannot forgive and forget.
Another example of spiritual bypassing is focusing on Oneness and transcendental experiences without acknowledging differences, the messiness of being mortal, the consequences of past events, etc. A healthy environment will hold space for it all: it will acknowledge our common humanity and our different experiences, it will gently remind us of that part of ourselves that is untouched by trauma, while offering support, compassion, and patience for our pain, grief, desperation, rage, and doubts.
Spiritual bypassing can come from a place of judgement, discomfort, defensiveness, and “I know better” masked as spiritual knowledge and wisdom. It can make the coach, friend, guru feel better by feeling superior. Or it can be a way for them to avoid their own discomfort when listening to someone else's pain.
And let's be honest… a lot of us are less pleasant to be around when we are angry, depressed, confused, insecure, etc. What heals us is our own and others' compassion and ability to hold space for even that part of ourselves that feels messy, negative, insecure. What feels like it's “wrong” is the mind/body's attempt to protect and heal in the best way it can. Repressing, denying, or bypassing this process does not help, it can even in some cases retraumatize us.
But beware: not all venting, complaining, emoting is helpful or healing either. Some groups, individuals, and communities fetishize pain and emoting, feeling good only when conflict is analyzed to death, people "express their feelings," etc. We have to cultivate a deep practice to recognize true wisdom. While not the topic of this post, I could write just as much about well meaning professionals who invite people to identify with and hold on to their trauma, solidifying the negative feelings instead of helping their clients process them.
Being and non-being create each other.Tao Te Ching
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Radical acceptance and embodied presence
If you suspect you might have fallen into spiritual bypassing, there are two practices you can adopt to gently get out of it. The first is radical acceptance: you can practice accepting all of you, including all your emotions, in a loving and compassionate way. No fixing, no overcoming, no self improvement: just a gentle noticing and being with whatever feeling arises.
The other practice is that of feeling your body. You can do this at any time, when you are sitting at your desk, before falling asleep, or while taking a walk: feel your legs, your weight, your actual, embodied presence. And if emotions come up, feel them as well. Do not try to make them go away, and do not hold on to them either. Just let the process work itself while lightly being aware of it, without clinging.
If you are looking for a coach
There is no substitute for working with a coach (or a therapist depending on what you need) who can hold space for you just as you are: things really shifted for me when I found a coach who did not judge me, saw the part of me that was never touched by my trauma, and who held a loving and compassionate space for transformation even when I was feeling low.
If you are looking for a coach, therapist, or other professional in the healing field, look for someone whose presence feels compassionate, loving, related to you. Technique is secondary – if you feel judged, put down, pushed too hard, etc., that particular practitioner is not a good fit for you - even though their approach might be great for someone else.
I believe this is the next step in our work as human beings: to honor each other's inner wisdom, tap into our innate compassion for all living beings, and recognize each other's suffering, in all the forms it takes. This work starts with you right now, as you honor both your messiness and grace, leaning into your life and growing in your ability to transcend it - all at the same time; free from spiritual bypassing, and fully engaged with what is.