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Avoiding Spiritual Bypass Syndrome

Avoiding Spiritual Bypass Syndrome

When I first started “coming out” as a spiritual guy, so to speak, I was living in sunny San Diego, California. The West Coast seemed to be the birthplace of so much personal growth, and from this Midwesterner’s point of view, it always seemed they were about a decade ahead of the rest of the country on so many social issues and trends. As a kid, I had longed to live a bigger life, so I stocked my meager wallet, packed my bags, and talked my little brother, Michael, into driving to California with me.
My move out to California—and the start of my spiritual journey—lead to an important epiphany, and I’d love to share this “aha” moment with you.
When I moved out on my own, I began to explore what it means to live a happy life. I discovered that the first step to being fulfilled was being truly aware of what was going on in my own life. At first, the journey for me was like a roller coaster ride, with highly dramatic ups and downs. I would explore a new idea of how to approach love, health, or work/prosperity, and then in time, I would invariably hit a wall. Bam!
At times, it almost seemed as if the universe was working against me. I often wondered if doing this work was worth it. Why not just casually move through life without having to explore my limitations? On the surface it seemed like it would be much easier to just "get by." Yet I could not ignore that something in me longed for more.
Then one day one of my teachers helped me to figure out why I felt so frustrated. She looked me right in the eye and said I wasn’t being honest; that I hadn’t honestly assessed my current situation, and I hadn’t honestly assessed what I truly wanted. Without these two important steps, she assured me, I would continue to flounder. She jokingly diagnosed me with “spiritual bypass syndrome," where I was just jumping to the good stuff while neglecting to weed out the not-so-helpful stuff that was dragging me down.
Whoa. Although her diagnosis was tongue-in-cheek, I still had to take a deep breath. I suddenly had yet another item on my checklist of things to work on. Instantly, I realized how slippery a slope this so-called “spiritual path” could be.
Like most people, I just wanted to be happy. But in my haste to get there, I was overlooking all the foundational work that needed to be done in order to be happy from the inside out. As I reflected on my teacher’s words, instead of feeling uplifted, I began to feel unnerved to my core. Who wants to have to face all the messy, painful stuff that seems to tag along with us in life? I somehow felt that the foundation of my life would be rocked if I looked too deeply at my core beliefs and values. Who was I to change all that stuff? It scared me.
This might sound strange, but as I investigated my own fundamental values and beliefs, I felt like I was betraying my parents and my family. It seemed we all had an unspoken agreement to view the world in a particular way, and if someone were to change that, it would rock the boat—and no one likes the boat to be rocked. I didn’t want to be the boat rocker.
Yet, my goal was simple: to live a life of freedom, happiness, and joy. So, I listened to my heart (and gut) and got down to business. I began to keep a journal and have more honest conversations with the people around me who knew me best. To friends that I trusted, I would ask for an honest assessment of a particular situation (maybe a failed relationship, or perhaps a pattern at work that seemed to cause me lots of grief). It’s really easy in these situations to blame others and to play the victim. But even if we are being treated unfairly, we can learn so much by doing an honest assessment of how we got ourselves into that situation in the first place (take responsibility); what is really going on (reality check); and, how to navigate ourselves out of a tight situation (forgiveness is key).
Bringing mindfulness to our lives allows patterns to emerge. We begin to ask the harder questions: What do we truly want in life? What brings us joy and a sense of fulfillment? Are we coming from a place of integrity in life, work, or our personal relationships? Do our unconscious patterns make us happy?
So this takes us to my epiphany. What I learned is this: you need to know where you are before you can get to where you want to go. In fact, just understanding where you are can help you discover where you want to go, too. It provides contrast, and feelings of frustration can help you navigate to more solid ground.
Here’s a great analogy I share often with students in yoga class: Imagine you are in Chicago want to drive to San Francisco. You wouldn’t walk into a store and ask for a map from San Diego to San Francisco, right? But this is exactly what we do when we deny our current reality. That “San Diego to San Francisco” map might be perfectly good, but we still can’t use it if we are somewhere other than the starting point on the map.
Indeed, in order to get where we want to go, we need a map that starts exactly from where we are at that moment. So the next time you feel stuck, set yourself free by understanding your current reality. Then, you can masterfully navigate yourself out of a sticky situation and toward the best possible outcome in life.
May the pure light within you guide your way on. Happy travels!

Will Donnelly

Will Donnelly is a nationally recognized, certified yoga teacher and writer, and is the author of “Practical Yoga’s Wisdom for Everyday People: Essays & Inspiration for Life" (2017), a compilation of his most popular online essays now available at Will has been a pioneer in the field of yoga, developing Practical Yoga, and co-creating a yoga–reality series for fitTV (Discovery Communications, 2004). As a writer and teacher, Will encourages all students to trust their impulses and find their true voice. Will currently lives in Hawaii, where he leads weekly yoga and writing classes at Kalani retreat center. He also leads several popular Practical Yoga adventure and healing retreats throughout the year. Information on retreats, his book, DVDs and other inspiration to be found at

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Practical Yoga's Wisdom for Everyday People: Essays & Inspiration for Life 
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