Michael Reddy, Ph.D, CPC
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Saturday June 24, 2017
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Spiritual Bypass--Devotion as Avoidance

A long time ago, in graduate school, I read Phillp Kapleau's The Three Pillars of Zen. It was one of the first books by an American deeply into meditation.

three pillars of zenI was totally fired up by it and started sitting in "zazen" half an hour or an hour a day. Eyes open, staring fixedly at a spot on the wall, I was going to "empty my mind"—scale the spiritual heights and "get enlightened."

I was on the rebound from rigid Catholicism and childhood abuse, and was also doing martial arts at the time. So, it all fit nicely with the need I had to forget the pain. Maybe it would rescue me.

Seeing God Through
Clouds of Guilt and Pain

Six years later, after moving twice across the country for my first teaching jobs, all that continuous, somewhat unguided meditation reached a kind of flash point.

dark-and-lightI saw god all right, but with the overwhelming experience of light also came rushing back the entire onslaught of guilt and pain I had grown up with and was in flight from.

After 48 hours in and out of my body in what seemed like purgatory, the message was pretty clear. "Hey," god was saying, "how about slowing down and healing some of this pain in and around you? You're trying to skip the whole reason you incarnated."

Spiritual Bypass Creates a
Shadow Side You Leave Behind

Things to AvoidThat was my own, typically extreme experience of what is now known as "spiritual bypass." It's something that can happen to otherwise devoted people who slip into using spiritual activities or accomplishments to avoid important, typically traumatized parts of themselves.

Unwilling or unable to face this or that, because it hurts too much, our public selves climb some holy ladder, but leave our wounded parts awash in pain, fear, or anger. 

Just Another Dangerous Addiction?

But wait—is this just simply a bad thing? Do we start pointing fingers now? Hey there, friend, you need to check out an SBA group (Spiritual Bypassers Anonymous). After all, isn't a person's movement towards spirituality inherently better than one towards, say, drugs or violence?

Though that seems obviously true, the reality is less straightforward.


 Read On Here

What's Spiritual Bypass Look Like?

emotional facade maskWhat we are looking at here tends to manifest in various ways. We might see things like "detachment" based on emotional numbing, when instead it needs to be grounded in genuine presence. Or maybe it's glib "positivity" masking deep denial, or short sighted "compassion" that cannot give tough love when it is badly needed.

At bottom, a person who cannot acknowledge his or her own wound system does typically a poor job of resonating with anybody else's damage. So we might get teachers who guide students to "transcend" all their negative emotions, because they are "un-spiritual."

Though it is true that evolved beings can regard disturbing experiences with equanimity, they got to that point by moving through--not around or away from--their negative feelings.  So attempting not to feel the negative emotions is classic bypass teaching.

How Far Can This Go?

And some folks climb pretty far up their spiritual ladders while still in spiritual bypass. Then we get very high-level gurus, with a lot of personal and institutional power, whose unacknowledged shadow sides are dancing somehow with the shadow sides of their followers.

Maybe it's inappropriate sex, maybe it's undeserved oppression within the ranks of the group. Whatever form it takes, it has certainly brought about some spectacular, public falls from grace.

The best we can say here is this. Spiritual bypass happens when someone gets stuck in an early stage of spiritual development. Or perhaps more subtly, but quite seriously stuck in a later stage.  It’s a failure to address growth required somehow by one’s fate in life that pretends to “holiness.” It's good that it involves spirituality, and not some more directly harmful form of avoidance or addiction.

But it can do a great deal of real damage to innocent seekers and to the understanding of spiritual growth as a whole. Robert Master's book Spiritual Bypassing does a great job of unpacking various aspects of this condition.

The Indigenous, Shamanic Perspective--
What's Holy is Wholeness

But there's a larger cultural and planetary aspect to this question as well. After what I came to call my "endarkenment" (as opposed to "enlightenment") experience--I did slow down. Eventually, after reading Gopi Krishna (I don’t remember which book), I realized it was an explosion of kundalini energy for which I was woefully unprepared. Like pushing 50,000 watts through a broken stereo system. But I did get the message.

Twelve years, and several experiences with therapy and transformational trainings later—I apprenticed to native and mixed blood shamanic teachers. What a difference that was. There I was immersed in a far more deeply grounded, “embodied,” and collectively oriented form of spirituality based almost entirely on—surprise--getting well.

Let’s take a step back here and realize that intact indigenous cultures do not separate art, craft, food, shelter, and even sexuality from their spirituality. They are immersed in their “religion” all day every day, and not just on Saturday or Sunday in some special building. 

The individual, the tribe, and the world form one sacred web. Shaping an arrow or catching a fish are both just “holy” as doing a ritual.  And most of the rituals are about strengthening or restoring balance and order to the body, the soul, or the world.

In this context, my teachers told me, which is the deeper truth of our reality--healing is the only sort of power worthy of the name. Anyone can break things. The yangy abilities of invading European cultures to destroy wonderfully balanced ecosystems and impose dead end monocultures looks powerful, amazing even--but it cripples itself. It fails to understand the principles of an ecology that is as spiritual as it is planetary. 

To heal is to weave together yourself, your families, and the world in ways that promote adaptive resilience. Since all of these are webs, pushing or jerking them only rips the fabric. To be holy is to create wholeness. So make sure that getting well stays ahead of getting powerful.

Sounds a little different, doesn’t it?  In our Western religions, and even our early interpretations of imported Eastern spirituality, the goal was to personally get out. Either survive as an individual the “vale of tears” to be rewarded in heaven, or escape the wheel of incarnation with its attendant suffering forever. 

Sure you did “good works” to get there, or gave up sensory gratification. But in some sense, you did not so much lovingly engage with what surrounded you, but rather renounced it.

Of course, our early interpretations of Eastern spirituality were not the whole story. Seems like we blended them with our profoundly escapist mentality. Tonglen meditation, for example, breathes in the suffering of the world and breathes out a sense of space, comfort, and safety for those experiencing it. 

Perhaps this is not for beginners, but notice—it doesn’t leave much room for spiritual bypass.

ecological-crisis earth bootprint

Our bodies, our emotions, our communities, and the planet are all so neglected as to be on the verge of a profound collapse. The time for using the Mother Earth as a platform for private spiritual development has passed. And perhaps living on her that way was the ultimate cultural form of spiritual bypass.




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