Avoid Spiritual Bypass

Roger works hard at his office job. But he hasn’t got the promotion he deserves and feels anxious about it. Instead of conveying this to his manager, he goes to the church on Sunday morning and prays quietly. Years have passed and Roger is still in the same situation. Most of you will feel sorry for Roger and think that he is a God-loving, nice human being and he should get a promotion as he prays to God regularly. But you fail to see the reality. Roger is using a “Spiritual Bypass” to escape from the real challenges of his life. Roger’s boss clearly knows the strengths and weaknesses of Roger. He knows Roger will fail in the role of a senior manager as he lacks certain qualities required for the senior role. His lack of certain qualities and areas of improvement have been clearly discussed between him and his boss. Yet, instead of addressing his weak areas, Roger chooses to just pray. While nothing is wrong in praying, Roger is actually using it as a “Spiritual Bypass” and that is the problem of Roger’s praying to God.

Many of you are doing that unknowingly. A spiritual bypass is a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks”. The term was introduced by John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist. Spiritual bypass can be addressed with various forms of psychotherapy, including focusing and motivational interviewing.

Spiritual bypassing causes us to withdraw from ourselves and others, hiding behind a kind of spiritual veil of metaphysical beliefs and practices. It not only distances us from our pain and difficult personal issues, but also from our own
 authentic spirituality, stranding us in a metaphysical limbo, a zone of
 exaggerated gentleness, niceness, and superficiality.

People resort to spirituality to avoid difficult or painful emotions or challenges. They tend to suppress aspects of their identity and needs and stall their emotional development. Spiritual bypass is a defense mechanism. Although the defense looks a lot prettier than other defenses, it serves the same purpose. Spiritual bypass shields us from the truth, it disconnects us from our feelings, and helps us avoid the big picture. It is so subtle that we usually don’t even know we are doing it. Can you be a spiritual person and have a bad day? I think the answer is, yes.

Several ways that this spiritual bypass may show up can include:

  • Anger avoidance
  • Devaluation of feelings versus lauding of spiritual principles
  • Emotional numbing and repression
  • Over-emphasizing the positive
  • Judgment of others for feeling those “negative feelings”

The solution to spiritual bypass is acceptance of our own thoughts and feelings. Ask yourself what feels hard about acknowledging that there’s anger, rage or jealousy inside of you? Where and when did you learn that these feelings, behaviors, or ways of being are “not okay”? What do you imagine might happen if you let yourself feel this or do this yourself? Safely and appropriately, work on allowing yourself to feel more of what you’ve denied, live out more of what you hate in others, or own the parts that you’ve tried to tuck away.

Remember that there is no such thing as perfect life. As long as you are alive, you will face struggles in your life of various types. You are suppose to face these struggles and transcend them instead of escaping them. Never use spirituality to run away from your responsibilities. 

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