Spiritual Bypassing and How to Avoid It

Category: Buddhist Path

Learn what is spiritual bypassing and how to avoid it

What Is Spiritual Bypassing? Definition, Levels, and Examples

Most people turn towards meditation and a more spiritual life because they want to feel better. They desire a life of less stress, discomfort and pain, and want to connect to greater ease, wellbeing, joy and abundance. This is a very good reason to meditate. But sometimes life is just painful. The definition of spiritual bypassing is when we use our meditation practice to escape this truth, attaching to a toxic positivity instead, and avoiding true growth in the process.

Spiritual bypassing is defined as using one’s spirituality to avoid facing unresolved issues either on a personal, interpersonal or systemic level. The term was made popular in the 1980’s by the late John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist who observed the phenomenon in his own spiritual community.

Spiritual bypassing is an attempt to use one’s spirituality, or meditation practice, not to come to terms with reality as it is, but to escape, avoid or suppress reality. Spiritual bypassing examples may include the following:

  • Detachment without compassion. Mistaking indifference for equanimity, for example.
  • Avoidance of uncomfortable feelings. Attempting to use meditation as a means of avoiding or suppressing emotions, versus compassionately witnessing whatever arises.
  • Weaponizing your meditation practice. Claiming superiority or righteousness over those who don’t share your practice.
  • Erroneous expectations. Believing that meditation practice must always be a positive, joyful experience and never uncomfortable or challenging.

On an interpersonal level, spiritual bypassing may include dismissing someone’s boundaries, not allowing others to express or share negative or painful emotions, or suggesting passivity when action is required.

  • If this makes you uncomfortable, that’s something you’ll just have to deal with
  • Everything happens for a reason, look on the bright side!
  • Don’t let this make you angry, just be nice!

While the above statements aren’t harmful in every scenario, they can be when offered as a means of aversion. Boundaries, grief and anger serve a valuable purpose, especially when expressed in a healthy manner.

On a systemic level, spiritual bypassing may include statements such as ‘all lives matter because we’re all one’ or ‘I don’t see race because reality is non-dual.’ These statements aren’t wrong in the absolute sense, but in context they serve to perpetuate systemic harm and operate as a means of avoiding the pain of true growth and change.

Whenever spirituality is used as an escape, defense mechanism, or means of shielding us from the truth, it’s spiritual bypassing. No matter one’s religion or practice, we’re vulnerable to spiritual bypassing if we’re engaging in any form of aversion. And if we use spirituality to actually bolster our ego rather than diminish it, we’re engaged with spiritual materialism.

What is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity is a common manifestation of spiritual bypassing. Claiming ‘no bad days,’ ‘rising above’ our emotions or instructing someone to simply ‘vibe higher’ when they’re feeling bad is considered toxic because it’s harmful.

Meditation is not a means of manifesting a world in which hardship, challenge, discomfort, pain or suffering doesn’t exist. Instead, meditation can help us to remain present, grounded, kind and compassionate, despite our sometimes harsh circumstances.

Toxic positivity harms us because it prevents us from growing. To change anything, we must first be able to see it. If we’re using meditation to stifle versus expand our mindfulness (ie: I only see the good in everything), our practice will be very limited in its ability to benefit us.

How to Avoid Spiritual Bypassing & Toxic Positivity

We can deal with toxic positivity head on and do our best to avoid spiritual bypassing by implementing the following suggestions:

Meditate daily. By expanding our mindfulness with daily meditation we become more aware of our thoughts, emotions and patterns of behavior. Developing the skill of compassionate self-reflection is the first step in initiating real change.

Be mindful of aversion. Aversion, otherwise known as avoidance, suppression or escapism, can be insidious. Notice if there are particular emotions you never seem to feel. Observe the urge to fix yourself or others, where you feel the need to move on, where impatience arises, and when and how you seek to escape.

Allow for discomfort. Meditation isn’t always rainbows and unicorns. Sometimes, turning our attention inward can be quite painful. Within your window of tolerance, see if you can remain present as uncomfortable sensations, thoughts and emotions arise.

Avoid blind faith. We get in trouble when we think our meditation practice ‘should’ be any one way. Your practice and spiritual path is your own and unique to you. Avoid the ‘shoulds’ and ask instead, is this practice making me happier, does it make me feel better, am I growing, does it work?

Yes, you have blindspots. Accept the fact that we all have blindspots. By definition, we cannot see them. Relationships offer us a good opportunity to observe how our behaviors affect others. When people express that you’ve hurt them, be willing to believe them.

Make mistakes. A willingness to be wrong, to make mistakes, to apologize and forgive is a sign we’re softening in a good way, becoming more open-minded and open-hearted. When we know better, we can do better, but only if we let go of how we did things before.

Practice self-compassion. Meditation is not about achieving perfection. You don’t need to be perfect to be ‘spiritual.’ Practice giving yourself grace as you work through the challenges of turning towards your shadow self and transforming old patterns and habits.

Practice compassion. We can only sit with the pain of others to the extent we can do the same for ourselves. Sometimes, it’s easier for us to notice avoidance by observing our aversion to the imperfection of others. Likewise, we can strengthen self-compassion by working on extending empathy to others too.

About the Author: Sara-Mai Conway

Sara-Mai Conway writes articles about Buddhist meditation based on her practice and experience
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Her writing and teachings are informed by her personal practice and Buddhist studies. When not at her desk, she can be found teaching donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific Coast. Learn more about Sara-Mai Conway here.

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