Every once in a while, you hear a term that perfectly describes something you’ve experienced but didn’t have a name for. That’s how I felt when someone used the phrase “spiritual bypass,” coined by psychologist John Welwood in the 80s. He defined it as a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”
Bypass is a trap for people who go to church a lot, read spiritual books, go on retreats, and have a regular spiritual practice. In other words, people like me—and if you’re reading a spiritual blog, maybe people like you. We bypassers tend to value transcendence over embodiment, ‘spirit’ over flesh, idealism over reality. We try and rise above the painful and chaotic experiences of life, because spiritually mature people aren’t supposed to struggle with all that. They’re somehow above it.
Authentic spirituality always says, Yes, go on that spiritual journey and find the part of you that belongs utterly to God—but never forget that you are just a regular man, an ordinary woman. You have deep needs for love and secure attachment. You have a selfish will. You have all kinds of hungers, and your sexual nature lies embedded in your body and soul (think of all the disgraced famous preachers and gurus who tried to “rise above” this). Real spirituality sees no split between body and spirit, sacred and profane. It doesn’t try to deny things like grief or anxiety or addiction or boredom. The path to freedom and joy lies through our very real human struggles, not in bypassing them.
I remember a man who once came to me for counseling, someone I knew to be a deep spiritual seeker. He was showing clear signs of depression, but when I probed that painful spot, he brushed it off with a little laugh. He wanted to talk about improving his prayer life, being more faithful in church attendance and signing up for a class we were offering at the moment. I wish I’d had the language then to say, “Have you ever heard of spiritual bypass?”
Are you spiritually bypassing?
Question #15 “What If I’ve Lost My Way?” comes Tuesday March 28.