How to Know if You’re Spiritually Bypassing

By Jonathan Toniolo on Wednesday May 18th, 2016

How to Know if You’re Spiritually Bypassing

Can Spirituality Damage your Growth?

I first heard about spiritual bypassing on one of my favorite podcasts, The Duncan Trussell Family Hour.

For those of you that haven’t had the privilege of hearing Duncan orate, it’s kind of like listening to a raspy hybrid of Alan Watts and Jim Breuer — wise enough to capture your attention, with a certain stoned goofiness that keeps it all playful.

Duncan talks about spirituality in nearly all of his interviews — most guests will happily indulge him in doing so. Naturally, spirituality is a big reason why people tune in to the podcast. So it took me by surprise when he mentioned that spirituality, as a set of ideas and practices, could actually be selfsabotaging.

Spirituality, as a set of ideas and practices, could actually be self–sabotaging.Spirituality could actually be self–sabotaging.

Spiritual bypassing, a term coined in the early 1980s by psychologist John Welwood, refers to the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing
 with uncomfortable feelings, unresolved wounds, and fundamental emotional and psychological needs. The concept was developed in the spirit of Chögyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, which was one of the first attempts to name this spiritual distortion.

According to teacher and author Robert Augustus Masters, spiritual bypassing causes us to withdraw from ourselves and others, hiding behind a kind of spiritual veil of metaphysical beliefs and practices. He says it “not only distances us from our pain and difficult personal issues, but also from our own
 authentic spirituality, stranding us in a metaphysical limbo, a zone of
 exaggerated gentleness, niceness, and superficiality.”

We hide behind a kind of spiritual veil of metaphysical beliefs and practices.We hide behind a kind of spiritual veil of metaphysical beliefs and practices.

My Own Bypassing

In Masters’ groundbreaking book, Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us From What Really Matters, he writes:

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 side, devaluation of the personal relative to the
 spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.

Before listening to Duncan wax lyrical about this, I never imagined there could be such subtle and complex consequences of pursuing spiritual matters. And thinking that I, a cautious and sincere spiritual seeker, could be suffering such consequences seemed equally absurd.

But after reading the detailed description of symptoms, I knew it applied to my situation. I realised that at a certain point in early adulthood, I had perverted spirituality into a defense mechanism — a mechanism that enabled me to disavow any negative quality or behavior in myself.

spects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated
 detachment, emotional numbing and repressionSpiritual bypassing includes exaggerated
 detachment, emotional numbing and repression.

I recall a few specific patterns taking place:

  • Whenever I became anxious, I would immediately reach for the nearest Eckhart Tolle or Alan Watts text on my bookshelf. Instead of sitting with the anxiety and checking in to see if it was coming from an innocuous source, I would quickly find refuge in spiritual philosophy.
  • I would strive to maintain the appearance of someone who is constantly at peace with oneself, even though inside I may have felt like the weight of the world was crushing down on my soul. This kind of faux spirituality had a complete stranglehold on my speech and behavior and caused intense cognitive dissonance.
  • Whenever I had done something hurtful or wrong to another person, I would rarely take responsibility for it. I deflected that responsibility by saying things like “that person just needs to grow spiritually” or “it’s just an illusion anyways” — all in a naïve tone reminiscent of the time I thought I was a bonafide professor of quantum physics.
  • The process of realising when you’re to blame in any given situation is no easy task. But spiritual bypassing enables one to ignore that difficult process altogether. It led me to believe I was always right because I was more “enlightened” than all the ignorant sheeples who just couldn’t see the damn light. But the harsh truth of this spiritual arrogance is that I was ignoring the pain I caused in others because I was ignoring a similar pain in myself.
    I strived to maintain the appearance of someone who is constantly at peace with oneself.I strived to maintain the appearance of someone who is constantly at peace with oneself.

    Reinforcements From Our Culture

    Masters writes:

    Part of the reason for [spiritual bypassing] is that we
 tend not to have very much tolerance, either personally or collectively, for 
facing, entering, and working through our pain, strongly preferring 
pain-numbing “solutions,” regardless of how much suffering such “remedies” may 
catalyze. Because this preference has so deeply and thoroughly infiltrated our
 culture that it has become all but normalized, spiritual bypassing fits almost
 seamlessly into our collective habit of turning away from what is painful, as a 
kind of higher analgesic with seemingly minimal side effects. It is a 
spiritualized strategy not only for avoiding pain but also for legitimizing
 such avoidance, in ways ranging from the blatantly obvious to the extremely 

    The subtlety of recognition seems to be the root of why this affliction is so widespread and under-diagnosed. Psychologist Ingrid Mathieu also notes this subtlety in her article Beware of Spiritual Bypass:

    Although the defense looks a lot prettier than other defenses, it serves the same purpose. Spiritual bypass shields us from truth, it disconnects us from our feelings, and helps us avoid the big picture. It is more about checking out than checking in — and the difference is so subtle that we usually don’t even know we are doing it.

    Part of the reason for spiritual bypassing is that we
 tend not to have very much tolerance for pain.We
 tend not to have very much tolerance for pain.

    Considering our culture generally shuns negative emotions, it’s no surprise many of us respond to those emotions with repression.  Prominent manifestations of repression, such as alcoholism and drug addiction, are forms of relief whose conspicuous quality makes them easier to identify and intervene. Spiritual bypassing, while seemingly more benign, is much more difficult to notice because it’s guised in the appearance of wholeness and wisdom.  It’s much harder to recognise our repression when we’re chanting “Om Shanti” on a regular basis or repeating positive affirmations that “everything is okay” or “all is love.”

    Yoga, meditation, psychedelics, prayer, affirmations, deeply engaging with the present moment, etc. are all incredibly powerful spiritual tools if used appropriately. But sometimes, and if we’re not careful, those things can end up masking deeper issues lingering both inside and outside of us.

    Spiritual Bypassing is a manifestation of repression, as is alcoholism and drug addiction.Spiritual Bypassing is a manifestation of repression, as is alcoholism and drug addiction.

    To me, spiritual bypassing is fundamentally about taking a so-called absolute truth — such as “everything is okay” — and using it to ignore or deny relative truths — such as the grief we feel when we lose a loved one, or the shame that arises when we fail at something important. On the personal and interpersonal level, sometimes everything isn’t okay. And that’s okay.

    That may seem trite, but in the context of spiritual bypassing, it’s a platitude that I feel requires frequent repetition.

    Before we can heal our pain, we have to be honest about it and accept it — which is ideally what spirituality should help realize. As Masters suggests, this is certainly easier said than done and requires a level of vulnerability which most of us are uncomfortable with.

    Nonetheless, if we grant validity to the many claims that spirituality is shaping the evolution of humanity, it seems wise to confront the intricacies of our own bypassing sooner rather than later. Doing so could not only prevent years of developmental stagnation, but also help implement new angles of self-awareness that our world so desperately needs. Acknowledgment and acceptance were the first major steps for me, and I sense a deeper spirituality is following in their wake.

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.

Words By Jonathan Toniolo

Originally posted on High Existence




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Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters by Robert Masters


12 Responses to How to Know if You’re Spiritually Bypassing

  1. I really appreciate this article. I now know what many less evolved spiritual seekers don’t know. I’m just kidding. Even if time is an illusion (I believe that it is), I don’t know how to function without it. I perceive that there are some things I think I know about my existence, (including that it it not “mine”) that I didn’t know previously. However I often think and act based on old conditioning. I prefer not to do that. The Universe is infinite and all good. The property of the Universe I call me, has its preferences. I prefer to be more aware of when I act on old conditioning that is lacking in compassion for my self and others so I can better accept that this happens, (frequently) and to then stop it.

  2. A wonderful and so needed article for all the ones involved into the Spiritual Adventure. Although none of us can really avoid all the traps of the spiritual adventure and inner explorations, been equipped to recognize them is a PLUS for not fooling our self because we can rarely fool others! This article could have been quoted by the French Master Arnaud Desjardins in his book “La Voie Et Ses Pieges ” The Path and its Traps.” Thank you and Blessings for your Sincerity and non-biased Clarity.

  3. Overjoyed to see & read this today. Was just discussing “spiritual bypassing” at lunch yesterday with a friend and colleague, with a nod to John Welwood. Saying how prevalent it is on social media with glib platitudes like “Choose love not fear”, etc. Grateful to you for mentioning the more current writers about it, Jonathan. You totally nailed the pitfalls. And thank you for your transparency. Bravo!

  4. We’ve all done it for one reason or another if only to avoid the tougher roads less traveled or just plain out of habit. Remember though, if you witness your friend, or your client for that matter, in what appears to be “spiritual bypassing” be certain you have permission from them and through prayer you seek Spirit/God and spiritual authority to explore and deepen your probe. The ocean could be deeper than you think. Sometimes spiritual bypassing has roots in places you might not want to go or you would rather you did not have to be a witness to. So don’t assume you know what you are dealing with and don’t assume they are ready to deal with it. Patience and a healthy respect for human defenses are key for every spiritual practice, as well as for professional or personal relationships. Otherwise, you create more harm than help, or if you would rather choose to call it, you create karma for yourself. Energetically, if you’ve not the capacity from your own spiritual growth place to transform the energy, it will stick to you instead and trigger your own fears. There you have it.
    Dr. Susan Taffer 1.30.2018

    • Wow. Thank you, Dr. Taffer. You have just given me good advice about dealing with a 50 yr old friendship where SB has created an imbalance in the relationship that is too hard for me. I’ve been crushed to realize my position and wanted to understand how to move forward and still protect my boundaries, our friendship? – as there has been a paradigm shift in the right direction for me, but not necessarily for this friendship.
      Wendy Cooper

  5. So helpful. I feel I was in an abusive relationship where spiritual bypass was used as a tool to gaslight by my partner. They were/are unable to take responsibility for their actions, and the reason being was always they had solved the problem or “healed” through spiritual work. This was disqualified my feelings as I did not have the same level of spirituality, thus the problem was never addressed.

  6. Thank you for the interesting article. There is definately some important information here. However I am not too quick to seriously take sited words from Robert Augustus Masters. He has some real seriously unhealthy behaviors he has indulged in and harmed many with. Both in his past and present. Please do take a look at the website I have posted here.

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