The dangers of spiritual bypass

I’ve had quite a few clients who have a spiritual practice but who are finding that that is not enough to cope with some personal challenges. 

They may meditate or pray regularly, and perhaps attend a church, Buddhist centre or some other spiritual group. And yet they do not seem able to shake the problem that brings them to therapy – which could be a relationship issue, anger management, addiction, depression or some other problem that seems intractable.

It sometimes turns out that these clients have had a ‘spiritual bypass’. This phrase, coined by psychotherapist and Buddhist John Welwood, applies when a person seeks to avoid dealing with unresolved personal  issues from the past. Instead they use their spiritual practice to try and be ‘above it all’ and strive to be good, kind, generous, forgiving etc.

Obviously there is nothing wrong, and in fact a lot to be praised, in being kind, generous or forgiving. The problem arises, however, when these become ‘rules’ or positive injunctions.

In that case we can end up suppressing the ‘non spiritual’ parts of ourselves – our anger, jealousy, envy or even sadness.

In an interview available on his website*, Welwood says: “We often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalise 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.”

A common aspect of people with a spiritual bypass is compulsive helping or rescuing. This is because many spiritual texts, whether of an established religion or ‘new age’ type beliefs, promote putting others first. Believing too rigidly in this teaching can lead people to devalue their own needs and feelings, in favour of helping others.

But this kind of helping or caring can actually cause indirect problems, both for the helper and the person being helped. The helper may feel resentment if their help is not being sufficiently appreciated, while the person being helped may pick up on this expectation and feel patronised.

Another common  problem is attitudes to anger. While many of us, spiritual or not, struggle with how to relate to angry feelings, it can become a major issue for people who have been taught that anger is somehow unspiritual or unloving. 

Of course, unthinking or chronic expression of anger can create many problems and we need to reflect on what may be underneath these feelings. But viewing this emotion as somehow a problem in and of itself can lead to negative consequences. 

One of my favourite books on the tension between spiritual values and the messiness of everyday life is Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. In this he quotes an advanced Buddhist practitioner, who returns from a long spiritual retreat.

“Some months after [my spiritual retreat]…came a depression, along with some significant betrayal in my work. I had continuing trouble with my children and family too. Oh, my teaching was fine, I could give inspired lectures, but if you talk to my wife she’ll tell you that as time passed I became grouchy and as impatient as ever.”

For such people it can be difficult to acknowledge that their spiritual practice may not been enough to tackle some of these recurring problems and that they have somehow ended up using their spiritual practice to maintain their neuroses.

None of this is to say that having a spiritual practice is at all unhealthy – the opposite in fact. It’s more about the way that we engage with a spiritual practice. It can be tempting to think that now we have a road map to meaning and fulfilment, that all we have to do is give ourselves fully to this practice and our problems will be solved. 

The reality is that we also may need therapy to help us in some of those areas where our spiritual practice doesn’t seem to have the answers or may have, in fact, made the problem worse.

*www.johnwelwood.com

Kornfield, Jack, 2000, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, Random House, London.