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RebeccaMA

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Spiritual Bypassing

AVOIDANCE IN HOLY DRAG
Article by Robert Augustus Masters, PhD

Spiritual bypassing, a term first coined by psychologist John Welwood in 1984, is the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs. It is much more common than we might think and, in fact, is so pervasive as to go largely unnoticed, except in its more obvious extremes.

Part of the reason for this is that we tend not to have very much tolerance, both personally and collectively, for facing, entering, and working through our pain, strongly preferring pain-numbing “solutions,” regardless of how much suffering such “remedies” may catalyze. Because this preference has so deeply and thoroughly infiltrated our culture that it has become all but normalized, spiritual bypassing fits almost seamlessly into our collective habit of turning away from what is painful, as a kind of higher analgesic with seemingly minimal side effects. It is a spiritualized strategy not only for avoiding pain but also for legitimizing such avoidance, in ways ranging from the blatantly obvious to the extremely subtle.

Spiritual bypassing is a very persistent shadow of spirituality, manifesting in many ways, often without being acknowledged as such. Aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, lopsided development (cognitive intelligence often being far ahead of emotional and moral intelligence), debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow elements, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.

The explosion of interest in spirituality, especially Eastern spirituality, since the mid-1960s has been accompanied by a corresponding interest and immersion in spiritual bypassing—which has, however, not very often been named, let alone viewed, as such. It has been easier to frame spiritual bypassing as a religion-transcending, spiritually advanced practice/perspective, especially in the facile fast-food spirituality epitomized by faddish phenomena like The Secret. Some of the more glaringly plastic features of this, such as its drive-through servings of reheated wisdom like “Don’t take it personally” or “Whatever bothers you about someone is really only about you” or “It’s all just an illusion,” are available for consumption and parroting by just about anyone.

Happily, the honeymoon with false or superficial notions of spirituality is starting to wane. Enough bubbles have been burst; enough spiritual teachers, Eastern and Western, have been caught with pants or halo down; enough cults have come and gone; enough time has been spent with spiritual baubles, credentials, energy transmissions, and gurucentrism to sense deeper treasures. But valuable as the desire for a more authentic spirituality is, such change will not occur on any significant scale and really take root until spiritual bypassing is outgrown, and that is not as easy as it might sound, for it asks that we cease turning away from our pain, numbing ourselves, and expecting spirituality to make us feel better.

True spirituality is not a high, not a rush, not an altered state. It has been fine to romance it for a while, but our times call for something far more real, grounded, and responsible; something radically alive and naturally integral; something that shakes us to our very core until we stop treating spiritual deepening as a something to dabble in here and there. Authentic spirituality is not some little flicker or buzz of knowingness, not a psychedelic blast-through or a mellow hanging-out on some exalted plane of consciousness, not a bubble of immunity, but a vast fire of liberation, an exquisitely fitting crucible and sanctuary, providing both heat and light for what must be done.

Most of the time when we’re immersed in spiritual bypassing, we like the light but not the heat, doing whatever we can to distance ourselves from the flames.

And when we’re caught up in the grosser forms of spiritual bypassing, we’d usually much rather theorize about the frontiers of consciousness than actually go there, sedating the fire rather than breathing it even more alive, espousing the ideal of unconditional love while not permitting love to show up in its more challenging, personal dimensions. To do so would be too hot, too scary, and too out-of-control, bringing things to the surface that we have long disowned or suppressed.

But if we really want the light, we cannot afford to flee the heat. As Victor Frankl said, “What gives light must endure burning.” And being with the fire’s heat doesn’t just mean sitting with the difficult stuff in meditation, but also going into it, trekking to its core, facing and entering and getting intimate with whatever is there, however scary or traumatic or sad or raw.

We have had quite an affair with Eastern spiritual pathways, but now it is time to go deeper. We must do this not only to get more intimate with the essence of these wisdom traditions beyond ritual and belief and dogma but also to make room for the healthy evolution, not just the necessary Westernization, of these traditions so that their presentation ceases encouraging spiritual bypassing (however indirectly) and, in fact, consciously and actively ceases giving it soil to flower. These changes won’t happen to any significant degree, however, unless we work in-depth and integratively with our physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and social dimensions to generate an ever-deeper sense of wholeness, vitality, and basic sanity.

Any spiritual path, Eastern or Western, that does not deal in real depth with psychological issues, and deal with these in more than just spiritual contexts, is setting itself up for an abundance of spiritual bypassing. If there is not sufficient encouragement and support from spiritual teachers and teachings for their students to engage in significant depth in psychoemotional work, and if those students who really need such work don’t then do it, they’ll be left trying to work out their psychoemotional issues, traumatic and otherwise, only through the spiritual practices they have been given, as if doing so is somehow superior to—or a “higher” activity than—engaging in quality psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is often viewed as an inferior undertaking relative to spiritual practice, perhaps even something we “shouldn’t” have to do. When our spiritual bypassing is more subtle, the idea of psychotherapy may be considered more acceptable but we will still shy away from a full-blooded investigation of our core wounds.

Spiritual bypassing is largely occupied, at least in its New Age forms, by the idea of wholeness and the innate unity of Being—“Oneness” being perhaps its favorite bumper sticker—but actually generates and reinforces fragmentation by separating out from and rejecting what is painful, distressed, and unhealed; all the far-from-flattering aspects of being human. By consistently keeping these in the dark, “down below” (when we’re locked into our headquarters, our body and feelings seem to be below us), they tend to behave badly when let out, much like animals that have spent too long in cages. Our neglect here of these aspects of ourselves, however gently framed, is akin to that of otherwise caring parents who leave their children without sufficient food, clothing, or care.
The trappings of spiritual bypassing can look good, particularly when they seem to promise freedom from life’s fuss and fury, but this supposed serenity and detachment is often little more than metaphysical valium, especially for those who have made too much of a virtue out of being and looking positive.

A common telltale sign of spiritual bypassing is a lack of grounding and in-the-body experience that tends to keep us either spacily afloat in how we relate to the world or too rigidly tethered to a spiritual system that provides the solidity we lack. We also may fall into premature forgiveness and emotional dissociation, and confuse anger with aggression and ill will, which leaves us disempowered, riddled with weak boundaries. The overdone niceness that often characterizes spiritual bypassing strands it from emotional depth and authenticity; and its underlying grief—mostly unspoken, untouched, unacknowledged—keeps it marooned from the very caring that would unwrap and undo it, like a baby being readied for a bath by a loving parent.

Spiritual bypassing distances us not only from our pain and difficult personal issues but also from our own authentic spirituality, stranding us in a metaphysical limbo, a zone of exaggerated gentleness, niceness, and superficiality. Its frequently disconnected nature keeps it adrift, clinging to the weight of its self-conferred spiritual credentials. As such, it maroons us from embodying our full humanity.

But let us not be too hard on spiritual bypassing, for every one of us who has entered into the spiritual has engaged in spiritual bypassing, at least to some degree, having for years used other means to make ourselves feel better or more secure. Why would we not also approach spirituality, particularly at first, with much the same expectation that it make us feel better or more secure?

To truly outgrow spiritual bypassing—which in part means releasing spirituality (and everything else!) from the obligation to make us feel better or more secure or more whole—we must not only see it for what it is and cease engaging in it but also view it with genuine compassion, however fiery that might be or need to be. The spiritual bypasser in us needs not censure nor shaming but rather to be consciously and caringly included in our awareness without being allowed to run the show. Becoming intimate with our own capacity for spiritual bypassing allows us to keep it in healthy perspective.

I have worked with many clients who described themselves as being on a spiritual path, particularly as meditators. Most were preoccupied, at least initially, with being nice, trying to be positive and nonjudgmental, while impaling themselves on various spiritual “shoulds,” such as “I should not show anger” or “I should be more loving” or “I should be more open after all the time I’ve put into my spiritual practice.” Fleeing their darker (or “less spiritual”) emotions, impulses, and intentions, they had, to varying degrees, trapped themselves within the very practices (and beliefs) that they had hoped might liberate them, or at least make them feel better.

Even the most exquisitely designed spiritual methodologies can become traps, leading not to freedom but only to reinforcement, however subtle, of the very “I” that wants to be a somebody who has attained or realized freedom (the very same “I” that doesn’t realize there are no Oscars for awakening). The most obvious potential traps-in-waiting include the belief that we should rise above our difficulties and simply embrace Oneness, even as the tendency to divide everything into positive and negative, higher and lower, spiritual and nonspiritual, runs wild in us. Subtler traps-in-waiting, less densely populated with metaphysical lullabies and ascension metaphors and far more discerning, teach non-aversion through cultivating a capacity for dispassionate witnessing and/or various devotional rituals. Subtler still are those that emphasize meeting everything with acceptance and compassion. Each approach has its own value, if only to eventually propel us into an even deeper direction, and each is far from immune to being possessed by spiritual bypassing, especially when we are still hoping, whatever our depth of spiritual practice, to reach a state of immunity to suffering (both personally and collectively).

As my spiritually inclined clients become more intimate with their pain and difficulties, coming to understand the origins of their troubles with a more open ear and heart, they either abandon their misguided spiritual practices and reenter a more fitting version of them with less submissiveness and more integrity and creativity or find new practices that better suit their needs, coming to recognize more deeply that everything—everything!—can serve their healing and awakening.

In the facing and outgrowing of spiritual bypassing, we enter a deeper life—a life of full-blooded integrity, depth, love, and sanity; a life of authenticity on every level; a life in which the personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal are all honored and lived to the fullest.

Article by Robert Augustus Masters, PhD

Link to Dr Master's excellent book on Spiritual Bypassing, here: http://robertmasters.com/book/spiritual-bypassing/

http://robertmasters.com
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Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA
“What gives light must endure burning.” -Victor Frankl

http://chainfreeliving.com
chainfreeliving@gmail.com
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Shellie

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Reply with quote  #2 
This article really hits the nail on the head. I have met too many people of the years that call themselves "spiritual" but are bubbling with rage just beneath the surface. They often parrot spiritual wisdom but don't truly live by it. Forgiveness is often a core tenet of many religions and spiritual practices. Unless you go through the pain of your complex and varied feelings first, true forgiveness and freedom will likely never come. Doing the psychological work is often very uncomfortable. I understand why people want to avoid it. But you won't get true spiritual development without doing this hard work.
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Shellie Krick, MSW
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RebeccaMA

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Thanks, Shellie. Very insightful. BTW:, I just learned that Dr. Master's has an entire book out on the subject of Spiritual Bypassing. Link here: http://robertmasters.com/book/spiritual-bypassing/

Quote:
Originally Posted by Shellie
This article really hits the nail on the head. I have met too many people of the years that call themselves "spiritual" but are bubbling with rage just beneath the surface. They often parrot spiritual wisdom but don't truly live by it. Forgiveness is often a core tenet of many religions and spiritual practices. Unless you go through the pain of your complex and varied feelings first, true forgiveness and freedom will likely never come. Doing the psychological work is often very uncomfortable. I understand why people want to avoid it. But you won't get true spiritual development without doing this hard work.

__________________
Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA
“What gives light must endure burning.” -Victor Frankl

http://chainfreeliving.com
chainfreeliving@gmail.com
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RebeccaMA

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Excerpt from Dr. Master's book on Spiritual Bypassing (link to book and below excerpt here: http://robertmasters.com/book/spiritual-bypassing/). - Rebecca

Excerpt

What Generates Spiritual Bypassing?

Pain comes with life, closely accompanied by our “solutions” to it, most of which are all about getting away from it, whether through alcoholic, narcotic, erotic, intellectual, material, egoistical, or spiritual means. The fact that these “solutions,” despite their analgesic/anesthetic capacity, only end up catalyzing more pain usually does little to stop us from pursuing them.

Our resistance to our pain amplifies it. The more we try to avoid it, the darker and more tenaciously rooted it becomes. But when we stop avoiding our pain, when we cease judging or fighting it, its presence starts serving rather than hindering us. In turning toward and becoming intimate with our pain, we cut through our suffering—and by suffering, I mean the dramatization of pain—realizing not only that if we really want the treasure we will have to face the dragon, but also that our encounter with the dragon ensures we will be ready or sufficiently mature to truly appreciate and make good use of the treasure. As such, the dragon is not blocking our path; it is an essential part of our path.

When we are in the grip of spiritual bypassing we want nothing to do with the dragon, viewing it as a lower-brain roadblock, a vestigial negativity that is but a projection of old fears, while at the same time portraying the treasure, whatever it is, as ours as soon as we believe it to be—and so the treasure and the conceptualization of the treasure become conflated.

In spiritual bypassing’s domain we are mostly marooned from the raw reality of our pain, numbing ourselves both to our deeper feelings and to the pain of others, disengaging to such a degree that our heart responds mostly only superficially to even the worst sorts of pain. This is detachment, but not healthy detachment! In healthy detachment, we stand apart from what we are experiencing without disconnecting from it. But when we anesthetize ourselves to our pain, whether fully or in part, we are not in a position to really embody compassion, which leaves us with a primarily intellectual sense of compassion. However eloquently we may speak of compassion, universal love, equanimity, and other spiritual virtues, these tend to remain abstractions rather than fully embodied principles. At such times we are removed from the rawness of our pain, but not in a way that permits us to focus more clearly on what is actually occurring.

When we are caught up in bypassing, we want the spiritual treasure without having to face the dragon, believing that any negative thoughts or emotions require no more than waving our magic wand of positive thoughts and intentions to be conquered. The dragon, however, cannot be so easily pushed aside! It is so easy to get negative about negativity, turning away from our pain and whatever else reminds us that all is not well, regardless of our beliefs to the contrary.

Turning toward our pain is an act of radical caring—and not just caring for ourselves—because in doing so we cease to fuel our avoidance and those addictive behaviors we have used to keep ourselves removed from pain. In turning toward our pain, we also, however indirectly, turn toward others’ pain, both on the personal and collective level, (in both personal and collective contexts), and so our compassion for others deepens and widens. Turning toward our pain is about bringing into our heart all that we have rejected, ostracized, disowned, neglected, bypassed, shunned, excommunicated, or otherwise deemed as unworthy in ourselves. Our heart has room for it all. We are all faced with considerable challenges, not the least of which is our personal and collective conditioning. To be able to relate to our conditioning rather than simply identify with it is much more than just an intellectual undertaking, requiring that we turn toward and enter the very pain out of which much of our conditioning arose.

And that turning toward, that courageous choice to become intimate with our pain and its roots, asks for much, much more than just a mere belief in or parroting of what we’ve been taught or read about our true nature. To emerge from our pain, we have to enter it.

The greater our fear of pain, the more extreme our spiritual bypassing “solutions” tend to be. We may, for example, present ourselves as having special spiritual status, on a continuum between grandiosity (inflated somebody-ness) and faux humility (inflated nobody-ness). This is akin to the excessive control often craved by those who grew up having far too little control. We may find ourselves very uncomfortable with the presence of other’s pain, especially emotional pain, because it resonates, however quietly, with our own submerged pain, pulling it closer to the surface. When we are caught up in spiritual bypassing, our reluctance to acknowledge and feel our own pain keeps us standing apart from the pain of others, perhaps offering such spiritual bon mots as, “Tell me what you’re getting out of creating this for yourself” or “It’s perfect that this is happening” or “Stop living in the past” or, perhaps most commonly, “It’s your karma.” Anything to keep distance—plenty of distance.

Not all spiritual bypassing so blatantly avoids pain; the dance of avoidance can be done with great subtlety. Consider, for example, spiritual practices that advocate observing whatever arises with mindful attentiveness: these are not in and of themselves indicative of spiritual bypassing, but in the teaching to simply be an impartial witness to whatever is arising, there is a danger of becoming an overly passive or impersonal observer, thereby generating an excessive kind of detachment.

We might find a sense of reassuring comfort in doing such practices, which make a spiritual virtue out of standing apart from what is occurring, safely removed from any significantly close contact. Of course, this is not the fault of the practice but of how it is being employed and perhaps taught. As meditators, we may assume we are sitting with our pain—observing it moment-to-moment—when we in fact may just be sitting on it, using our witnessing capacity to keep it at a distance rather than becoming more intimate with it.

If a meditative technique is primarily used to avoid pain, spiritual bypassing is occurring. However, using meditation to ease pain or reduce its intensity does not necessarily signal spiritual bypassing but rather a kind of relaxation that allows us to enter more deeply into our life. Expanding our boundaries and softening around our area of pain gives it more room to breathe and stretch, more space to show itself in its various dimensions. Once our pain is a little less sharp, we can direct our attention into it, getting to know it from deep inside. The healing of pain is found in pain itself.

Contrary to what we tend to believe, the more intimate we are with our pain, the less we suffer. Often when we say we are in pain, we are not really in our pain, but only closer to it than we would like. We are then in fact still outside it, still removed from it, still keeping our distance. By consciously and compassionately entering into our pain and cultivating intimacy with it, we begin to find some real freedom from our suffering. Our hurt may remain, but our relationship to it will have changed to the point where it’s no longer such a problem to us, and in fact may even become a doorway into What Really Matters.

The point is not to romanticize the awakening power of pain any more than it is to bewail the presence of pain. Real freedom does not mean the absence of pain but rather fully embracing our pain without getting lost in its dramatics. This means, fully facing whatever dragons are guarding the treasure we seek. And what are dragons but the archetypal presence of that which scares or appears to threaten us, not just from outside but from within? To reach the treasure we must face and encounter whatever dragons are guarding it.

In the beginning we may view our dragons—whatever shape they may take—as hindrances, problems, or inconveniences. Later on, however, we will come to view them not as obstructions on the path but rather as an essential part of the path. The path to what? To that for which we most deeply long. Establishing ourselves on this path means letting go of our suffering until there’s nothing between us and our pain. This journey is ours to take. And if we choose to take it, we take it not just for our sake but for everyone’s, as the more deeply we heal, the more of a life-giving force we become for others.

May we face our dragons and through our encounters with them find the healing, awakening, and freedom that is our birthright, realizing that our work is not to be freed from our pain but to be freed through our pain.


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Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA
“What gives light must endure burning.” -Victor Frankl

http://chainfreeliving.com
chainfreeliving@gmail.com
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