The post is part of the series: The Four Horsemen of Spiritual Ego.
Spiritual bypassing was identified by John Welwood in the early 1980s. Welwood’s experience as a transpersonal therapist and Buddhist teacher gave him a unique insight into how spirituality can become an escape mechanism. Despite good intentions, Welwood noticed “a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” He adds:
“When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits. I see this as an ‘occupational hazard’ of the spiritual path, in that spirituality does involve a vision of going beyond our current karmic situation.”
Genuine spiritual practice supports development, whereas spiritual bypassing causes stagnation. It creates a Pandora’s box of unaddressed issues, lurking in the shadows of the psyche. Welwood noted how he’d regularly see Buddhist clients, some who reached esteemed heights as teachers, who had spent decades avoiding their core wounds. “My observation is that the dharma practitioners who are most opposed to doing psychotherapy are the people who need it the most,” he added.
A genuine spiritual practice opens you to approaching these wounds with balance and acceptance, the qualities required to heal them. However, spiritual bypassing is an act of self-deceit, a way to convince yourself that avoidance of these wounds is a sign of development. Fear of confronting the shadow is understandable, and deserving of compassion. It takes courage. The paradox is that these are the parts that have to be seen and accepted in order to transform.
“What spiritual bypassing would have us rise above is precisely what we need to enter, and enter deeply, with as little self-numbing as possible,” Robert Augustus Masters writes in Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters. “To this end,” he adds, “it is crucial that we see through whatever practices we have, spiritual or otherwise, that tranquillise rather than illuminate and awaken us.”
The two tracks of human development
“We need a larger perspective that can recognize and include two different tracks of human development— which we might call growing up and waking up, healing and awakening, or becoming a genuine human person and going beyond the person altogether. We are not just humans learning to become buddhas, but also buddhas waking up in human form, learning to become fully human. And these two tracks of development can mutually enrich each other.”John welwood
We’re at a crossroads of mutual enrichment. Mainstream psychology is built upon the material worldview, and ‘experts’ risk dismissing healthy spiritual practices. A psychologist with this outlook may ‘psychologically bypass’ the validity of spiritual experiences. Equally, many modern spiritual movements are trapped in spiritual bypassing, and neglect psychological work. A spiritual teacher without grounding in psychology may overlook complexities of the modern mind.
A spiritual practice that neglects the realities of daily living, or a psychological approach that neglects the realities of the human spirit, are both incomplete. Work on both tracks of development — growing up and waking up — should be undertaken simultaneously. Fortunately, we live at a time where guidance for both is easy to access.
There is another ego trap to be aware of: the claim that people who talk of spiritual bypassing just don’t get it. Working on the two tracks of development doesn’t minimise the potency of spiritual practice, the point is to avoid premature transcendence. Overcoming spiritual bypassing is liberating, because it allows you to see the psychological barriers, or unhealed emotional wounds, that prevent your journey toward wholeness.
Examples of spiritual bypassing
Some psychologists argue that temporary spiritual bypassing is a healthy coping mechanism. From my experience, this is the case. Leaning heavily toward one extreme, such as prioritising spiritual development and not focusing on the psychological, may have its benefits from time-to-time. The approach, then, isn’t zero tolerance, but a gentle awareness of when this mechanism is imbalanced.
Awareness isn’t straightforward, as spiritual bypassing adapts to different practices, contexts, environments, and belief systems. Below are examples to highlight its variety and complexity — equanimity as escape, non-attachment as a lack of empathy, non-duality and the waking up imbalance, oneness at the expense of twoness, the blind spot of romance.
Equanimity as escape
According to Buddhism, attachment to impermanent ‘objects’ is suffering, as desires (taṇhā) develop, leading to an endless cycle of avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. Equanimity (or non-attachment) is a way to escape this cycle. Yet there are ‘near-enemies,’ indifference and apathy, which masquerade as equanimity, but are harmful or unskilled.
Equanimity is incredibly useful. It cultivates a balanced approach to all experience. It allowed me to evolve and set a whole new context for my inner-world, transforming my healing and growth in ways that weren’t possible before. But there are stumbling blocks when learning how to apply the teaching. Such is the paradox of spiritual ego, intellectual equanimity is attachment, because it comes from the desire to avoid pain, rather than be present to it.
Intellectual equanimity is a form of escape. Retreating from the world is necessary at times; to strengthen practice, or dedicate time to cultivate insight without external distraction. You may need to make changes in your environment, or avoid things that aren’t good for you. But the ego identity of being non-attached, ‘above’ or ‘unaffected’ by the world, becomes a near-enemy that leads to suppression, avoidance mechanisms, or even nihilism.
Non-attachment as a lack of empathy
A spiritual ego formed from non-attachment and applied to the interpersonal mirrors psychopathy; if all is one and suffering is an illusion, why does the suffering of someone else matter? If everything is a lesson, I can treat this person how I like, and they’ll learn and grow from it. Combined with spiritual narcissism, this enters a dangerous territory ripe for abuse, gaslighting, victim-blaming, and a lack of responsibility.
In Buddhism, non-attachment is inseparable from compassion. As a practice, compassion opens the heart to the fullness of life’s beauty and pain. Equanimity doesn’t deny this fullness, but allows us to hold it in spaciousness. When this practice is disembodied and detached from the heart, compassion becomes intellectual. The mind can’t hold that beauty and that pain, so instead short-circuits, shuts down, and the ego claims indifference to uphold its image.
A mature spirituality embodies compassion. It honours the golden rule: treat others how you would like to be treated. Harming another is harming oneself. This is why Buddhist loving kindness first includes the self, followed by those you love, an acquaintance, and someone you dislike, before expanding to all beings. It takes effort, but it’s worth it. A weak link in the chain of compassion makes it conditional to the mind’s judgement (of who deserves compassion, and who doesn’t) and risks short-circuiting to indifference.
Non-duality and the waking up imbalance
People can crave ‘higher’ or altered states of consciousness to escape their shadow. The pursuit of self-realisation without focus on growing up overlooks the wider context of such teachings; a culture where spiritual seekers would renounce the world, abandon their relationships and duties, and go all-in on waking up.
Few of us are in the environment for this. Most of us have to be in the world, to integrate spirituality rather than compartmentalise it or keep it separate from the rest of our lives. The nature of nondual teachings overlook humanness because its focus is realising the eternal self. It’s not designed to teach you how to grow up, and can become a convenient way to avoid looking at everything self-realisation promises to transcend.
Seeking enlightenment, or instant transformation, can be motivated by a desire to be permanently ‘above’ or ‘unaffected’ by the world — in other words, eternally indifferent. Remarkable transformation and life-changing insight is part of the spiritual path. But for the vast majority of people, breaking free of hold habits is intense, repetitive work. Although meditation and self-enquiry support breaking free, this process also asks for psychological work and the development track of growing up.
Oneness at the expense of twoness
Another awakening imbalance is a misuse of the notion of oneness. People learn of wise sagas who dissolve into fields of cosmic bliss, and relinquish becoming a person. These claims are not strictly untrue, but they are incomplete. As Ram Dass reminds us: “just because you are seeing divine light, experiencing waves of bliss, or conversing with Gods and Goddesses is no reason to not know your zip code.”
Separation is a relative truth. Although interconnection is a spiritual truth, it’s clear from that state of the world that separation, polarisation, and hostility are the leading cause of pain and destruction. Each of us has our subjective trauma, psychological patterns, belief systems, and ways of relating. Platitudes like ‘all is one’ or ‘you are me’ are often used to avoid the difficult work of learning how to communicate and care for eachother.
Conceptual oneness neglects ‘rules of separation’ such as privacy, boundary setting, and individual wants and needs. People who wish to mature in this dimension may be labelled as unspiritual, or unevolved, unable to see the interconnection behind all experience, or ‘caught up’ in duality, by those trapped in this form of spiritual ego.
The blind spot of romance
“Identifying oneself as a spiritual practitioner becomes used as a way of avoiding a depth of personal engagement with others that might stir up old wounds and longings for love. It’s painful to see someone maintaining a stance of detachment when underneath they are starving for positive experiences of bonding and connection.”John welwood
Welwood’s wisdom applies to all relationships, but romance is the biggest blind spot. In terms of sexuality, spiritual bypassing can lead to enforced celibacy or indulgence. Either are fine if authentic. But celibacy from judgement or shame toward sexual needs, or hedonism from a fear of commitment or intimacy, means there’s work to be done. When these imbalances mix with power dynamics, and other forms of spiritual bypassing, there’s a risk of psychological, spiritual or sexual abuse, so common in many groups, including Buddhist and yoga communities. A charismatic guru may exploit their students by projecting their unintegrated sexual desire under the facade of spiritual teaching.
Aside from sexuality, spiritual bypassing avoids the deep work required to build an intimate, loving, trusting relationship with another. Romantic love is one of the biggest distractions on the spiritual path. Many project their divine potential and desire for union and wholeness onto a romantic partner, and this has to be seen, and relinquished, in order to develop a healthy, co-supportive spiritual relationship.
The mature approach to spirituality
The poet in me is drawn to engaging with experience, not rising above it. In my mind’s eye, this is symbolised by a recurring vision, where I’m on a train, heading along the direct path of awakening. Looking out the window, I delight in the different terrains; lush jungles, bustling city-scapes, ancient lands with long-lost treasures, mountains and valleys. I feel the desire to stop, to get off the train, to explore, to take up a call to adventure.
A mature spirituality embarks on the journey of self-discovery, whilst developing an awakening practice. It allows a symbiotic relationship to form, the psychological and the spiritual supporting the evolution of wholeness. It allows practices such as compassion, forgiveness, and loving kindness to be embodied, not intellectual ideas. It provides a spacious context for troubling thoughts, or the work to heal trauma. Welwood explains:
“Sincere meditators have a leg up on the psychological work because they’ve already developed mindfulness and some commitment to truth. I love to work with this kind of practitioner because they actually move faster. And their mind is more developed. They’re sharper. They just need a little help and a little coaching to guide them in a slightly different direction, and then they usually move forward. They learn to take the presence or openness that they’ve developed on the zafu, and apply that openness and presence to their subconscious psychological material, their feeling life, or their relational life. They learn to allow their psychological unfinished business to reveal itself more fully, instead of just going toward pure awareness, or pure openness.
Mindfulness cultivates space for emotional awareness and psychological flexibility. This is a solid foundation for inner work. Welwood calls this ‘applied presence,’ which mirrors the ethos of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The beauty is, the more distance we have from our own psychological make-up, the more room we have to explore without getting lost in the landscape.
The wider repercussions are significant. A mature spirituality integrates wisdom from a place of heart. It doesn’t gravitate toward ecstatic states, nonduality, God-like status, or reject the Earthly as ‘just’ an illusion, but meets the world head-on, witnessing it in all its beauty and all its pain, all its successes and all its shortcomings, holding the tension of all that complexity, all that conflict, in a space of loving awareness, and says: how can I help?
Next: Spiritual Narcissism