What Is Spiritual Bypassing? 7 Steps To Avoiding Toxic Spirituality

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What Is Spiritual Bypassing? 7 Steps To Avoiding Toxic Spirituality

What is spiritual bypassing? You may not recognize this term, but it's been around since the 1980s.

According to John Welwood, the Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist who coined the term, spiritual bypassing means having a "tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks."

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A strong spiritual practice can provide you with resources and tools to stay calmer and more centered in your life, especially during times of stress.

Breathwork, meditation, prayer, walking in nature — what could be the downside of that?

Having a positive outlook and maintaining hope are two keys to better health as a whole — except when they are used to cover up, avoid, minimize, or deny a problem that needs to be resolved.

This then becomes something called “spiritual bypassing,” rather than an authentic spiritual practice. 

Pseudo-enlightenment is not really enlightenment at all.

While spiritual enlightenment is the expressed goal of the practices and ideas of the seeker, pseudo-enlightenment that covers over your anger, your secrets, and mistakes is not really enlightenment. 

That is more like trying to put a Band Aid on a wound that wasn't cleaned first: The dirt is still there and can even lead to infection.

Spiritual bypassing is a strategy used to avoid painful realities. 

Just like the ghosts that keep reappearing to haunt fairytales, Shakespeare, and your dreams, the ghosts of your unfinished business will continue to emerge until they have been acknowledged, resolved, and perhaps even befriended.

You may know spiritual seekers or “workshop junkies” who frequently run to the next guru or newest practice seeking answers. 

They may feel better for a short time, but frequently find that they cannot maintain the high they got following the latest retreat they attended or book they read.

Spiritual bypassing skips the hard work of deep healing.

During times of high anxiety or social unrest — like we are currently experiencing — spiritual bypassing becomes more common.

However, this leads to a compensatory coverup, rather than resolution. Spiritual bypassing skips the hard work of really confronting your own demons, mistakes, and family legacy burdens and doing the real work of deep healing.

A patina of whitewash cannot heal the wounds of growing up in an alcoholic family, or with an abusive parent, or a long history of being bullied at school, or subject to ingrained systemic racism.

Here are 7 steps you can take to avoid spiritual bypassing and make sure you find authentic spirituality.

1. Focus on the here and now.

Learn to identify when you're recycling a past hurt or catastrophizing an imagined future.

2. Create a mental "field" to keep negative thought patterns out.

Then, practice using an image such as a bubble or a containment field to remove negative thought patterns and externalize them.

3. Acknowledge that good and bad can both exist.

In the Buddhist symbol of yin and yang, the white swirl of the yin contains the black dot of the yang, and the back swirl of the yang contains the white dot of the yin.

Pretending that something is “all good” doesn’t make it so. There is both good and bad in the world, often in the same situation or person.

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4. Know that you are on a path.

Except for moments of delicious grace, you do not stay in an enlightened state. As the Dalai Lama said, “After enlightenment, the laundry.”

5. Strive for balance in your life.

Find a healthy balance between being connected and detached from yourself, others, and ideas.

6. Listen to your dreams.

Your dreams contain unadulterated truths that the censor of your waking mind has not yet contaminated with judgement.

7. Use a dream journal.

This is to both record your dreams and to incubate new and healing ones. Spend a few minutes before bed writing down the healing, enlightenment, or resolution you desire, and then end with a question about how to attain it.

Write down the dream you have, then receive on the same page: Some of the answers to your questions will be embedded therein.

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How do you do the real work of resolving triggers and patterns?

Continuing to be easily triggered and struggling with uncomfortable emotions is often a signal of a spiritual bypass.

We have patterns in our lives we repeat until we become aware of them, continuing to fall into the same hole. Only once they have become conscious do you have choices.

The work of clearly seeing these patterns or "ghosts" involves addressing the root cause of your anger and fear.

Where did you learn to swallow your true feelings? Where did you learn never to truly trust anyone? Where did you learn that grace and forgiveness were for others, but not for you?

You can move the root sources of your pain up from their buried depths in your unconscious through good therapy, strong dreamwork, and a real commitment to get down into the mess.

All genuine relationships — even ones with ourselves — have and slog through the mud.

Working through the issues, whether or not the people you struggle with are currently in your life or even on this Earth, frees you to be able to really use the spiritual practices without avoiding reality or denying issues.

Sitting in meditation where you name the feelings without judgment and with compassion for yourself and the others is also a path of healing.

Sylvia Bornstein, noted meditation teacher, recommends that you say to yourself, “Sweetheart, you’re suffering. I’m so sorry.”

Self-compassion is one of your hardest and most important lessons.

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Linda Yael Schiller, MSW, LICSW is a body, mind, and spiritual psychotherapist, consultant, and international speaker. For more on how she can help you, look into her book, Modern Dreamwork: New Tools for Decoding Your Soul’s Wisdom, or visit her website.

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