As we move forward on our spiritual path, we’re sure to encounter many obstacles. Some difficulties may appear plainly, easily recognized with clear pathways for how to address them. Other barriers may be harder to identify, and even harder to solve. The tendency to slip into spiritual bypassing, a state where we avoid or deflect our true feelings, is one such obstacle.
In the Higher Self Yoga tradition, we discuss how knowing oneself is the path to awakening. As Higher Self Yoga founder Nanette V. Hucknall writes, “It is only when we truly understand ourselves that we are able to achieve meaningful transformation and spiritual growth.”
With this in mind, we can see how our tendencies to ignore our true feelings can be detrimental to our spiritual process. Here we’ll discuss what spiritual bypassing is, how to detect it, and how to use the Higher Self as a pathway out of this debilitating derailment.
What is Spiritual Bypassing?
Think about a time when you were struggling to move forward on your spiritual path and you found comfort and solace through a series of teachings or practices. This is, of course, a perfectly natural response to difficult times, but when we avoid the emotion by retreating to an elevated state of spiritual evasiveness, we treat spirituality as a kind of coping mechanism.
It is common that we use these teachings and ideas to adopt a kind of “spiritual personality,” which is actually just an updated version of our previous struggling selves but in the guise of a new identity. In short, we are still avoiding the beliefs that are at the root of our unresolved issues. We haven’t addressed the cause of our dysfunction; we’ve only created an elaborate new approach to evading it.
It is here where we find our definition of spiritual bypassing: spiritual bypassing occurs when we leverage transcendent ideals to avoid the reality of the difficulties of our true, felt experience.
How does Spiritual Bypassing Come About?
The definition of spiritual bypassing first appeared back in 1984 in the classic psychological text, Toward a Psychology of Awakening by clinical psychologist and psychotherapist John Welwood.
Spiritual bypassing, he says, is a form of the tendency to “turn away from what is difficult or unpleasant, such as the vicissitudes of a weak ego: if you do not feel strong enough to deal with the difficulties of this world, then you find ways to transcend your personal feelings altogether.” And this tendency, he suggests, is a particularly common pitfall for modern Westerners. He describes the occurrence 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.”
Welwood noticed the tendency in his work with Western, Buddhist practitioners who were newly immersed in the teachings. He observed, both in his students and in himself, how those on the spiritual path often succumbed to the urge to use their newfound teachings and practices to glaze over the reality of their own pain and suffering, instead of relating to it head-on. He could see these students rested in a place of “elevated, ultimate truth” rather than addressing pain to reach a deeper, fuller, more integrated spiritual self.
Why Spiritual Bypassing is Relevant Again
Welwood’s observation aligned itself with the arrival and popularization of Buddhism, meditation, and yoga in the West. Now that just about every spiritual teaching has an online presence, we have newfound access to a mind-boggling amount of spiritual information, practices, and teachings. The dawn of what is being named the “Now Age”, the integration of wellness in classrooms and workspaces, is evidence of a kind of metaphysical renaissance taking place in our world.
Strangely, it is in this climate that the temptation to slip into spiritual bypassing becomes the most prevalent. This is compounded by copious amounts of social and political unrest we experience in our day-to-day lives. Avoidance and repression are the bedrock of this tendency, and those responses are most likely to arise in times when we feel overwhelmed by the uncertainties in our times.
In that same thread, on the whole, we have a cultural tendency to default to the path of least resistance. We tend to seek comfort, which creates a low tolerance for the real work of spiritual engagement. When we bypass, we are choosing to embrace the more superficial aspects of a cultivated spiritual persona, in place of the power of true personal growth because to the outsider, they may appear to be quite similar.
Compassion for the Bypassing Self
At this juncture, it is worth remembering that the tendency to bypass is one of self-defense. In other words, we veer into spiritual bypassing when we are struggling with something that is so difficult for us, we feel the need to construct defenses and adopt coping skills. As we encounter the challenges of our life, we learn to utilize behavioral reactions that become habitual. This doesn’t make us bad people, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t care, or that we are not capable of real bravery. Rather, it simply means that we have learned to cover up problems for the sake of moving our lives forward.
We should have great compassion for ourselves as we recognize and confront the ways in which we avoid real growth. It is a challenging and complex time, complete with strong cultural shifts that invite distraction and avoidance.
While we do need the medicine of reality to break free of this stifling pattern, we should simultaneously offer ourselves the care and compassion necessary to move past it.
How to Recognize Spiritual Bypassing in our Practice
There are a number of clear, emotional signals that may alert you to the presence of this avoidance technique. Anger, particularly internalized anger, stems from suppressing emotions instead of addressing them. Societally, we are experiencing a healthy reorganization of our relationship with anger, as organizations, protests, and movements form in response to the maddening, problematic political stagnation of the status quo. While this may feel destabilizing, messy, and chaotic, in many ways, it is more sane to react than to bury the response, deep down, unrecognized.
Similar to anger, depression can be a sign of repressed emotions. Depression occurs when we (quite literally) depress all our feelings as a means of avoiding difficult emotions as they arise. In this pattern of depression, we become incapable of experiencing any emotion, and our life shuts down around us.
Lastly, and perhaps most strangely, a spacey, almost bliss-like emptiness can arise in our life as a result of spiritual bypassing. We may notice we are incapable of connecting with the world around us as we default to an almost dream-like style of existing. We become detached to a degree that we are adrift even from ourselves, lost in a pattern of distraction and indifference.
Related: 3 Steps For Dealing With Anger
Signs of Spiritual Bypassing
One of the difficulties with identifying and addressing spiritual bypassing is that it is elusive in nature. With that in mind, here are some tell-tale signs that you may be engaging in this tendency:You have a difficult time focusing on the here and now, especially tasks that take place in the day-to-day reality of your life
- You notice an urge to shift into dreamier, “higher” states of consciousness where less is expected of you in the material realm
- You have a tendency to overemphasize the positive, even at the expense of relating to real and present challenges
- You retreat to a sense of personal pride, bordering on the self-righteous, resting in a realm where your existence as an “enlightened person” overpowers real, felt emotions, and even compassion for others
- You notice a detachment from important areas of your world such as friendships, personal goals, and critical responsibilities
- Misdirected anger arises at unexpected times and at disproportionate levels
- When encountering challenging scenarios about the future you default to an unspecific, detached idealism
- You have frequent bouts of cognitive dissonance, where the response that arises in you is out of sync with the issue at hand
How to Break Out of the Cycle of Spiritual Bypassing
Identifying the tendency towards avoidance is in itself a huge step towards releasing this crutch. In that spirit, be sure to give yourself ample time to explore the ways in which you engage in avoidance. If recognizing the pattern is the first step, defining your version of the pattern would be the second.
Once you have a clear understanding of how you bypass, make it a practice to begin noticing when you bypass. Become an expert at uncovering the nuances of where you may shift your consciousness when you encounter a difficult emotion. In this process, be sure to act kindly, gently, and compassionately towards yourself. This is not an exercise in chastisement. Play with your capacity to exercise positive, constructive self-discipline. In many ways, this balance between engagement and gentility is the crux of how to solve the obstacle of spiritual bypassing.
Lastly, and most importantly, we must create a tolerance for emotional processing. When difficult emotions arise, we must stay firmly in the experience of our feeling self. In bypassing, we were shifting out of the sting of the emotion by swinging into our experience as a spiritual being. While we can certainly apply a spiritual truth to the situation at hand, we must not do so at the expense of missing the lesson of the emotion. A good rule of thumb to tell if you are properly applying your spiritual tools is to make sure that the teachings are supporting you in processing the emotion so that you can extract a lesson. it should not replace the emotional reality of the situation.
How the Higher Self Can Support You in Moving Past Spiritual Bypassing
The path towards spiritual evolution and true growth is riddled with challenges and obstacles of all kinds. We must become skilled at staying dedicated to our journey and continuing to compassionately move ourselves forward to discover and awaken our true selves. When we look at ourselves in a comprehensive, non-judgmental way, we enrich our understanding of the human experience, and it is here that evolution occurs.
The Higher Self is the ultimate tool we have for uncovering our true selves. The Higher Self is often called the “Wise Being Within”, meaning here that we have an infallible guide who we can go to in moments where we sense it is possible to grow. As we work to move beyond our limiting coping skills, defense mechanisms, and behavioral patterns, our Higher Self cuts through with the wisdom, grace, and knowledge of your highest calling.
Communicating with the Higher Self is in itself a practice in surrendering to our greater purpose. The more we develop this relationship to the Higher Self, the more we choose to shed layers of learned behaviors, like spiritual bypassing, that may not serve us and to prioritize instead the truest expression of who we are meant to become.
An Exercise for Working with the Higher Self
The Higher Self Yoga tradition employs a unique method of meditation, self-reflection, and practical application. The teachings of this tradition are well suited to foster spiritual growth in a real-world setting. The tradition does not shy away from difficult emotions such as those we might choose to avoid in spiritual bypassing but rather, uses the power of the Higher Self to identify and resolve such issues.
In her books on the Higher Self, founder Nanette V. Hucknall often employs exercises such as the one below, that can be used in conversation with the Higher Self. Below is a series of questions you can ask your Higher Self to uncover how you may be using avoidance to prevent yourself from true spiritual progress.
For a greater understanding of how to use the below prompts in communication with the Higher Self, consider taking our free class, Connecting to the Higher Self: The Guided Experience in order to learn more about these powerful exercises.
Step One: Enter a meditative state by sitting in stillness, following your breath, and resting in the space between your thoughts.
Step Two: Connect to your heart chakra by bringing your attention to the center of your chest and resting in whatever feelings arise from there.
Step Three: Visualize your Higher Self, imagining your heart connecting to the heart of your Higher Self. Feel its energy flowing towards you until you know you are in sync with your highest guide.
Step Four: Ask your Higher Self the following questions: What emotions or experiences am I habitually avoiding? Why am I so reluctant to relate to these emotions? How can I overcome this reluctance and integrate these experiences?
Step Five: After you have thanked your Higher Self and released the visualization, journal your findings and provide yourself with a plan for moving past any bypassing you may have uncovered in your conversation.