“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.

  1. We are more driven by unconscious patterns and impulses than we realize.
  2. 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




  1. This is such a timely piece Jim. You always find those niggly spots for ME and point to such good links for expansive investigation. This subject is one I have thought about for years as I’ve grown in the SOM and other New Thought philosophies. I am grateful to see this kind of message showing up in places of leadership outside of Religious Science and others as people practice these Principles in so many ways. Thank you again for your clear, common sense approach to it all. You are a fabulous down to earth messenger and I really appreciate what you offer. Blessings and Happy Memory Making, Patty

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Jim
    Spinoza was onto this in 1650, which is why he was ostracized from the Jewish community. Neal Grossman picked up on it in his book “The Spirit of Spinoza, Healing the Mind.” This is the text for a class I’m developing on “Emotional Freedom,” dealing with our hidden programming.
    Bill Arrott

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  3. This is so helpful, Dr. Jim. I am in the midst of awakening our congregation to the fake fact that we are a Philosophy that says, we can just be “positive” and all is well. Coming to Celebration on Sunday and getting an energy boost for a moment and then going back to life as usual doesn’t change one’s life. Yes, I must go deeper. Spiritual by-passing by making positive statements while my subconscious is contradicting everything I am saying does not “change” my life. The Swami at the Hindu Monastery here said the Spiritual Life is a difficult life. This is so true. It takes great introspection, practice, and willingness to dig up beliefs, continual forgiveness, self-love, and more to truly delve into our own souls and bring forth our healing. I started this process over 20 years ago and still work on it everyday. The gift is a deeper understanding of myself and my connection to the Divine. The journey is so worth it, as it takes me deeper and deeper into the richness of all of me and all I have experienced to bring me to this place in Consciousness. Thank you for this further awakening to what’s been on my mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am forever in gratitude for your work. Even the offers that stick me in the parts I have not yet chosen to heal.
    Thank you for all of who you are, and for all of what you do.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jim I have been dealing with a stroke that destroyed the vision in one eye. I doubled down on the positive and endeavored to see a clear and positive picture of my life from this moment on. It went very well for a week or so until I fell off the cliff that I had built with my spiritual bypass. Only after gathering my thoughts and emotions at the bottom of that cliff did I have an inkling of the process of healing and wholeness. Yin and yang. My bypass was built and was functioning in the yang while the yin was all but being ignored. I realized that to really begin healing I needed to achieve balance between these two profound forces. Thank you for giving me a term and diagnosis of my situation so I can balance both sides to go forward in my healing. And life goes on….what an adventure!

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  6. Excellent, Jim. We chose Masters’, “Spiritual Bypassing, When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters” to launch our study group, The Journey, for many of the same reasons you write about. We wanted this to set the tone for the group and send the message that this group was safe space to dive deep. It takes a lot of courage to be willing to look deeply into all of our experiences, especially those we label as bad.

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  7. I love how you dare to speak the truth, Jim Lockard. I have witnessed this spiritual bypass phenomenon so often over the years on my own spiritual journey…within myself, within my friends, within my clients, and within teachers and leaders. In fact, it is rampant. I have come across spiritual guru types telling others what to do when they themselves were doing the opposite…in fact even wreaking harm onto others in their addiction to power and sex. I had studied for short periods of time on two separate periods of my life with self-proclaimed “swamis” whom followers bowed to and gave over their personal power to…something that always made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. But I myself have been attracted to some of the beautiful rituals and ceremonies, and I have to be careful not to be taken by all the bells and whistles which might just be another way of sidestepping the real work. Beauty always grabs me, but it too can be smoke and mirrors.

    Sometimes spiritual practices – such as meditation and contemplation – can lead us to look into the hidden stuff as it comes up, and then we can start the healing process. But often because humans refuse to deal with inner messes or with being uncomfortable, much of it gets denied and just stuffed back down. The so-called practices just become other escape routes from authentic living (as I was saying about ceremonies). Like cleaning the house before company arrives by throwing things in drawers and closets, (I’ve done that), we pretend to be positive, decluttered, clear and true. It’s a process though, and awareness is the first step. I also really liked that statement about free will not being free if we’re reacting from unconscious patterns. Truth. Thank you once again for sharing great wisdom and depth and possibly “unpopular” perceptions amongst some of our spiritual communities and just with us humans overall.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Spiritual By-Pass or Spiritual Life | Love Changes everything

  9. Jim
    You have developed the ability to bring to the fore very uncomfortable observations on our spiritual community (and I am well aware that your work has a much larger reach) and “truths” that are indeed difficult/upsetting to absorb. I have believed for some time that one’s spiritual path if followed “religiously” would, at some point, necessitate leaving the community that a lot of one’s spiritual growth took place in. I believe your essay touches on some of the reasons that such a move is needed. If the leadership of a spiritual community can deal with the energy that comes from those (a few) who raise the issues in your essay then indeed it can be the seeds of a richer community, however many spiritual leaders may not have the energy or the time to deal with the myriad of issues that “comes with the territory” of this kind of authenticity–and I say that without any disrespect to the leadership of the spiritual community involved with this kind of behavior.

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  10. As far as I can ascertain – Religion is something people believe in when having gone to Sunday Service – Church for years – and/or Mom & Dan teaching what they have learned – and down hill from Monday on down hill until one goes back to church again the following Sunday – If they miss a Sunday or two it’s a bit more of a high for them, because maybe something got missed in the Sundays that were missed and NOW it’s more of a hype. Spirituality on the other hand is a “Found Connect” when having checked out the other beliefs – something new has been founded by an individual – maybe by someone who has had little or no religious programming. We go to grade school to learn to read and write – Spirituality on the other hand is learning to let go of what we have learned in school. Now I don’t mean to throw the Baby out with the bath water – there are certain things we find that are keepers – but, it’s the “FEELING” that goes along with the keepers. Still small voices, little nudges, gut feelings. “Spiritual Bypass” is tricky & oh yeah ……Malpractice Big – because – sounds like it – maybe it feels like it – how can I be sure…you can’t push the River – give it time and hopefully you will find your way amidst all the false profits and – “You Will Know” In time – Maybe next time around!!! …….(Good Questions Dr. Jim)

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  12. Pingback: On Spiritual Bypass | A Practitioner's Path

  13. I so agree with you. Helping people see those shadows has been my life work, and so many times people are afraid to see the negative they need to learn from. By not allowing yourself to look deeply, you prevent maturation of the human mind. We cannot heal what we refuse to see.
    Thank you for this great article. We grow most from what is below the water of an iceberg/subconscious mind. Betty

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  14. Thank you so much for putting this message out here so clearly, Dr; Jim! This message is crucial for all of us who are on a spiritual path and hope to share with others what I feel is a necessary leap in consciousness if we are to make it through this most challenging time in history. To me, it is an either/or within a both/and consciousness….that says, something like, “Either evolve or die (go extinct)!”
    So, yes, this is urgent and yet, as with all things, we cannot take ourselves too seriously and we cannot spread this message out of our own sense of fear about what may or may not happen if our message falls on deaf ears, so to speak. We do the best we can, and then must surrender it all to ALL. I applaud your persistence and courage to keep on keepin’ on with this important work. And I continue to take my cue from you as I follow your leadership.

    I think that one of the major roadblocks for many to be willing to go deep into the unconscious and do the hard work of bringing forth all those things that are in SHADOW, is because we have been conditioned to believe that LIGHT =GOOD and DARK =BAD. And this belief is a tough one to crack, for whatever reason. If we can step back, and look to Nature and to what our ancestors believed, we will see that these polarities are not tied to a moral judgement of how things “should be” but a much more authentic connection with the cycles of nature and how Great Mother has such capacity to hold ALL things in Compassionate, Unconditional LOVE. When you realize the benefits of going into the darkness, and allow things to follow a more natural cycle of Birth, Life, Death and Rebirth, then you begin to lose some of the fear surrounding the Dark Side. Doing Shadow work, while challenging, at times scary and not particularly how one might choose to spend their time, because it doesn’t “feel good:”….it is also some of the most rewarding and deeply satisfying work we will ever do. And it generally is not something that you do just once, but you begin to find ways to include this as part of our daily spiritual practices.

    I look forward to hearing what more you have to say on this subject.

    Blessed BE,
    Marjorie Shalita


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