Emotions do not go away. They get trapped in the body and can even lead to mental and physical illness.
Robert Augustus Masters defines spiritual bypassing as “the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.” Spiritual bypassing is not only seldom discussed but also downright celebrated. Spiritually bypassing teachers have sold millions of copies of their books, and because the practice encourages us not to feel our painful emotions, these teachings can make us feel better … temporarily. They might even save our lives if we’re actively addicted, suicidal, wrestling with an eating disorder, or otherwise trying to cope with our pain using unhealthy strategies that, although intelligent in design, can wear out their usefulness and cause us (and others) harm.
The problem is that emotions do not go away; they get trapped in the body and can lead to mental and physical illness. And spiritual bypassing tendencies are not sustainable. They function as a stopgap measure—a kind of emergency relief that might serve as balm on wounds too bloody to treat. But spiritual bypassing doesn’t heal. To put it in the terms of this book, the practice might transfuse life force into you in the short term—and this can help you cope and give you a boost—but it won’t plug the leaks, no matter how many hours per day you meditate.
It’s not easy to be a sincere spiritual practitioner and avoid spiritual bypassing. Some of the most famous spiritual teachers in the world actively promote and glorify it. Entire New Age movements and megachurches are devoted to preaching and practicing it. We tend to exalt those who seem to have transcended natural human emotions such as anger, jealousy, or grief as if achieving a state of dispassionate equanimity is evidence of enlightenment or holiness. We even deify them or call them saints.
This reveals one of those paradoxes of healing. It’s true that we can get so enmeshed in our painful emotions that we lose touch with our spiritual essence and the potential peace we can experience when we remember our true nature. It’s true that there is a spiritual dimension where we are not our bodies, we are not our emotions, we are not our egos or identities—we are far more expansive than these earthly realities. It’s true that transcending our earthly reality and visiting this spiritual dimension can provide a rest from the suffering of the human experience and offer temporary pain relief. It’s true that contacting the unconditional love of the ground of being, which we can experience in deep levels of meditation, might help us heal and aid healers in transfusing energy into us. However, it is also true that bypassing certain emotions can put us at risk of abuse, interfere with our self-care and protection, and predispose us to illness. It’s true that all human emotions are valid, necessary, and potentially helpful when we know how to translate them into emotional intelligence.
John Welwood summed up this paradox of spiritual bypassing: “Absolute truth is favored over relative truth, the impersonal over the personal, emptiness over form, transcendence over embodiment, and detachment over feeling.” He also says, “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.”
Favoring the “absolute” over the relative is the primary problem. The truth that we are not our bodies and we are not our emotions—we are more than these small human personalities—is free from stain. It does not mean there is no relative truth. The bliss-hunting spiritual bypasser risks getting hooked on the absolute view the spiritual teacher is peddling. It’s not that the absolute truth isn’t true; it’s just not the only truth. But absolute truth is so seductive, and relative truth is so messy. It’s tempting to buy into half of the paradox, which feeds the healer or teacher’s ego even as the unhealed wound in the student festers.
People good at spiritual bypassing might come across as calm, kind, helpful, and peacemaking types. They tend to be docile and people-pleasing, cooperative and gentle, easygoing, and mellow. They also tend to get chronic illnesses that don’t respond to conventional medicine, and they’re more likely to die young—the reason I address this practice in the context of becoming miracle prone.
Spiritual Bypassing Tendencies
Do you recognize these spiritual bypassing tendencies in yourself?
- Aversion to any emotion not deemed “spiritual”
- Anger-phobia that resists calling for a clear and firm intolerance of hurtful behavior
- Difficulty expressing a firm, clear “No”
- Toxic positivity to the point of fakeness in situations where grief, anger, sadness, jealousy, or disappointment would be natural
- Premature forgiveness rather than expecting others to be held accountable for harmful behaviors with a healthy process of making apologies, amends, or other measures to ensure that harmful behavior ceases
- Exaggerated tolerance of abusive people and behaviors
- Weak or porous boundaries
- Spiritualizing “boundarylessness,” mistaking unhealthy fusion as a mystical experience
- Excessive niceness to the point of being unable to take a firm stand or protect oneself from abusive relationships
- Trouble staying firmly grounded in earthly reality (tends to prefer mystical experiences like meditation visions, astral travel, spirit guides, channeled beings, medicine journeys, and other multidimensional experiences to the exclusion of being fully present in this dimension)
- Avoidance of all judgment to the point of being unable to discern abuse
- Exaggerated acceptance of situations in which a clear stand and a firm “No” are necessary
- Failure to extend compassionate care to people suffering from legitimate victimhood, bypassing with aphorisms like “Get out of your victim story” or “Your soul is growing” or “Everything happens for a reason”
- Emotional numbing and repression
- Tendency to lose empathy in the face of other people’s legitimate distress if others are expressing emotions the spiritual bypasser has repressed
- Prioritizing transcendence over presence and feeling normal emotions—responding to painful life experiences with aphorisms like “We are not our bodies; we are not our emotions” or “We are beyond this reality”
- Immersing oneself in spiritual practices while ignoring social justice issues or even practicalities such as earning a living or parenting
Excerpt adapted from SACRED MEDICINE: A Doctor’s Quest to Unravel the Mysteries of Healing, by Lissa Rankin, MD. Sounds True, April 2022. Reprinted with permission.