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Beware of Spiritual Bypass

Why do we avoid rather than accept?

There are so many promises out there that this path or that practice will allow you to live in a perpetual state of bliss while achieving all of your goals and becoming rich and thin in the process. And who doesn't want that?

Over the years, I've become fascinated with the ways in which we try to feel endlessly good. We've gotten progressively more skillful in our methods: turning away from drugs or alcohol to alter our consciousness and turning towards things like self-help books, meditation, yoga, prayer, and special diets. In some ways, we are now spiritually distracting ourselves from our feelings — but thinking that we are walking a healthy spiritual path.

This experience is called spiritual bypass. 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 more about checking out than checking in—and the difference is so subtle that we usually don't even know we are doing it.

The shorthand for spiritual bypass is grasping rather than gratitude, arriving rather than being, avoiding rather than accepting. It is spiritual practice in the service of repression, usually because we can not tolerate what we are feeling, or think that we shouldn't be experiencing what we are feeling.

There is a shadow side to almost every positive thing we can do for ourselves, including spiritual practice. All spiritual and psychological tools can be used in a "willful" way. For example, sometimes self-care is actually about taking care of ourselves: unplugging from too much work and plugging into more balance and harmony. But sometimes, under the guise of self-care, we are really just checking out: denying what's happening and how scary it feels to show up for life.

At this point, people usually ask me about a particular spiritual practice, hoping that their belief or experience with spirituality does not fall prey to spiritual bypass. Or they tell me that when done properly, their spiritual practice is about connection, greater consciousness, and acceptance. To these people, I reply that spiritual bypass is an equal opportunity defense mechanism. It is more related to what we as human beings do with spiritual practice than it is related to the practice itself.

Every tool for spiritual and psychological development has a purpose, and conversely, a place where it's of no help whatsoever. Nothing is a panacea. We know that vitamins will not cure loneliness, but in other less obvious ways, we think that one pursuit will give us what we want in every area of life. We think that these practices should afford us freedom from the messiness of life, as though perfection is an attainable standard. We especially feel this way about spirituality. After all, isn't spiritual practice about accessing higher realms of consciousness and transcendence?

If you have found a way to transcend the human condition, my hat is off to you. Truly. But for the rest of you who continue to wrestle with emotional growing pains, I am spreading the news about spiritual bypass as a reminder that we are not supposed to rise above it all. We can't out-run our own feet. We can't out-think our own brains. We can't override this human operating system that we live and breath in every hour of every day, freeing ourselves of pain and problems. Not perpetually anyway.

We need to remember that spiritual practice and emotional growth are not about achieving a particular quality of feeling ("good"). Being a human being on a spiritual journey isn't about getting cash and prizes all the time. It is about being in the present moment, whatever it happens to look like. What are you experiencing right now? And how about now? Can you be present to all of your feelings without any one of them defining you?

There is something very necessary about being who and where you are. I understand that this is a tall order. If I become present to who I am, all of me, there is a lot there that I usually don't want to see. For most people this consists of shame, anxiety, anger, loneliness, self-loathing, our "dark" side, and the list goes on. Come on, who really wants to be present to all of that? But the more that I have tried to rise above it, or turn my back to it—the more it has lingered there, waiting, almost growing in size. So finally, I had to turn around and face it. And the most amazing thing happened (and continues to happen). It didn't swallow me whole like I thought it would. In fact, by recognizing the "dark" stuff that was there, I could finally experience and own what was "light." I could really believe the good stuff once I took responsibility for the stuff that didn't look quite as shiny on the outside. These are the real fruits of spiritual and psychological development. We stop running from ourselves, and start loving ourselves.

Can you be a spiritual person and have a bad day? I think the answer is, yes. I would love to hear your personal stories of how spiritual bypass has infiltrated your thinking about spirituality. Let's take the shame out of our unrealistic expectations by sharing our experiences. Let's remind others that spirituality can help us rest in the human condition. And let's be kind to one another as we navigate the inherent challenges of being mind, body, and spirit.

Copyright by Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D., 2011. All rights reserved. Any excerpts reproduced from this article should include links to the original on Psychology Today.

Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist and author of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice.

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