“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.”
~ Robert Augustus Masters, Spiritual Bypassing: Avoidance in Holy Drag
“There are people who have an amazing knowledge of themselves…. But even those people wouldn’t be capable of knowing what is going on in their unconscious.”
~ C.G. Jung
I offer two maxims to guide the reader through this series of posts, which will cover some difficult and uncomfortable terrain.
- We are more driven by unconscious patterns and impulses than we realize.
- Spiritual Bypassing is common in New Thought spiritual communities.
The first maxim is one which can be seen as limiting some of what we are often taught in New Thought – that we can bring everything to conscious awareness and direct (or re-direct) any aspect of our lives using positive thinking. While our ability to change our unconscious mind is real, it is not an absolute; that is, we cannot empty our unconscious of its contents. The unconscious is too vast to bring fully into conscious awareness, and aspects of our inner psyche which affect everything from our perception to our decision-making, will remain beyond our awareness. At best, we can bring up what most needs to be healed and make the needed changes to develop a consciousness which is more of a representation of our best selves.
This brings up the idea of free will, and the degree to which we are completely free to perceive and decide, with no unconscious conditioning or biases affecting our seeming freedom to choose (LINK to Scientific American Article). As the most recent research shows (LINK), our unconscious conditioning has a greater effect on us than we realize – and must be considered as we do our spiritual and psychological practices. We must look deeper and more closely at ourselves or we miss the evidence of our unconscious conditioning and biases.
“Consciousness, no matter how extensive it may be, must always remain the smaller circle within the greater circle of the unconscious, an island surrounded by the sea; and, like the sea itself, the unconscious yields an endless and self-replenishing abundance of living creatures, a wealth beyond our fathoming. ”
~ Carl Jung, Psychology of the Transference
Ernest Holmes emphasizes the importance of using our conscious mind to program our unconscious, because the objective (conscious) reflects the subjective (unconscious) mind.
“The objective form to which we give our attention is created from the very attention which we give it. The objective is but the reflection of the subject state of thought. Life is a blackboard upon which we consciously or unconsciously write those messages which govern us. We hold the chalk and the eraser in our hand but are ignorant of this fact.”
~ Ernest Holmes
The first maxim is important in helping us to both understand the essence of the second maxim and to create a practice of compassion around our approach to it. Almost all spiritual bypassing is unconsciously driven; bringing this to the awareness of someone engaging in bypassing must be done compassionately to have the best chance of meeting a willingness to change within that person or persons. As we begin to address the second maxim, I encourage the reader to hold this in mind.
Regarding the second maxim, I am guided here, at least in part, by two articles which awakened something within me – some of which I was aware, and some of which I was unaware. In other words, more of my blind spots (LINK) became apparent. I think they are worth addressing here, both for my own benefit and for the benefit of those who read this, so an increased level of awareness may result. They are (both titles are hotlinks):
Spiritual Bypassing: Avoidance in Holy Drag by Robert Augustus Masters, PhD (he also authored a book with the same title)
When Spiritual Bypassing Meets Racism Meets Gaslighting, by Camille Williams – this article will be the focus of Part 2 of this series.
“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.”
~ Robert Augustus Masters, PhD
With this definition of spiritual bypassing in hand, we can begin to explore how it manifests within a New Thought setting. It is helpful here to have some knowledge of Spiral Dynamics™, especially the Green Level of Existence (LINK). Although bypassing can occur at any stage on the spiral, Green, because of its feelings-based nature, is particularly prone to several of the manifestations noted in Masters’ quote above, especially “overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries.”
So, spiritual bypassing is the opposite of authenticity. It is the often-unconscious desire to have everything appear to be what one desires at the expense of dealing with inner and outer realities. It can be used to stifle conflict or differing viewpoints (as in calling a group to prayer-treatment at the first sign of conflict); to deny realities such as financial lack or a decline in the capabilities of aging leaders; to maintain unconscious patterns of discrimination; or to create a false sense of security so that one or a group does not have to face a difficult reality or decision.
At its core, however, spiritual bypassing is a refusal to do the deep work necessary for true spirituality to express in a person or community. We are all, to one degree or another, terrified of the power within us. Bringing it forth in a more complete and authentic way, which most of us claim to desire, would also cause chaos in the order of our present lives. Nothing would be safe. Those in spiritual leadership are not free of this fear, nor are they necessarily more spiritually authentic than anyone else (LINK). In fact, much of what goes on in spiritual community is going through the motions of a surface piety to some theological principles while being careful not to upset the comfort zones of ourselves and others.
“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.”
~ Robert Augustus Masters, PhD
To be sure, everyone in a spiritual community is unlikely to want to live at that level. There are lots of reasons for this and finding even a handful of people who are willing to go deep into themselves and stir up shadow selves is a challenge. A spiritual community which can accommodate that smaller group within its larger community will have a source of richness missing in most communities. To do this requires attuned leadership who have credibility with those on a deeper and more authentic spiritual pathway. Such leaders are also rare.
“Is not the shadow of a group more than the sum of individual shadows, and might it not create a whole new dimension of unconsciousness?”
~ James Hollis, Author & Jungian Analyst
What is important to gain from this post is that spiritual bypass is common, it is mostly unconscious, and it is a big turn-off to those who seek authenticity in their spiritual leaders and spiritual community. It is also an obstacle to achieving significant mission-centric expression. Here is where we get to utilize our free will to direct ourselves in a more authentic direction. Leaders can empower their members to speak up when they suspect spiritual bypass, and train themselves and others how to compassionately respond when others are not being authentic. This approach will go a long way toward aligning a spiritual community to create #TheBelovedCommunity.
“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.”
~ Robert Augustus Masters, PhD
“The more ‘enlightened’ we believe ourselves to be, the vaster we discover that which remains unconscious.”
~ James Hollis, Jungian analyst
In Part 2 of this series, we will look at the more destructive elements of spiritual bypassing, the things which can tear a spiritual community apart.
As always, your comments are welcomed below. Please feel free to share this post with others who may be interested. If you like, you can sign up to follow the blog above and receive an email whenever a new post is published.
Copyright 2017 – Jim Lockard
NOTE: I used several quotes by Robert Augustus Masters in this post. At the time, I was generally unfamiliar with his work, other than an article on spiritual bypassing. I have since learned that he has admitted to abuse of students and members of a group which he led. I will not be referring to him or to his work again. – Jim Lockard October 2018