"I've known tons of people who have their 'higher self' going on... practising their yoga. But they're just ordinary people. Sometimes a little worse."
- Alan Watts
These days personal growth, psychology and mind-body-spirit integration are right at the forefront. Practitioners of all kinds are diving into psycho-spiritual education. This is obviously a good thing, right?
However, there is a growing concern regarding the prevalence of bypassing behaviours within the wellness community. Bypassing refers to the tendency to avoid or suppress difficult emotions, challenging thoughts, or uncomfortable aspects of life, often in the name of some "preferred" spiritual, emotional, or cognitive state of well-being. This can be especially relevant as we start to increase our vocabulary and have more experiences of insight. There can be a tendency to consider the naming of a pattern to be equivalent to processing it. A real shift requires actually feeling it through.
In this blog, we will explore various types of bypassing, related phenomena and discuss methods to avoid falling into these pitfalls. These subcategories are broken up in ways I find helpful, but is not an exhaustive list by any means.
In my quest for inner peace and well-being, I found solace in the practice of Tai Chi and Qigong. For nearly two decades, I turned to these ancient disciplines to calm my anxiety and restore a sense of balance. While these centring practices were hugely helpful, what I didn't know was that my reliance on them had inadvertently led me down the path of bypassing. Developing the ability to calm myself wasn't actually addressing the underlying issue (neither was learning to display a chill persona).
Spiritual Bypassing is the tendency to use spiritual practices and concepts to side step unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds or developmental tasks. (coined by John Welwood) People who hold on the spiritual bypassing are homeless. We are running away from ourselves. They are afraid to see reality as it is. In this way, spiritual bypassing is actually a form of dissociation.
Emotional bypassing occurs when individuals repress or invalidate their emotions, believing that certain feelings are undesirable or inconvenient. It often involves prioritizing positivity over authentic emotional experiences. Much of the positive thinking movement is guilty of this. This can also be seen as we rush to forgiveness or quickly turn to the comfort of "everything happens for a reason".
Super prevalent among therapists and coaches, this type of bypassing involves excessive reliance on intellectualizing or rationalizing. Often done subconsciously to avoid being with the felt-sense of the emotions or challenges. It hinders development by limiting deeper reflection and unfoldment.
Do you ever notice yourself seeking to explain your feelings by getting to the root cause or core wound? Like, "ah, I'm feeling like I'm not enough". If so, you may be intellectualizing the experience, and therefor bypassing. If we're not careful, cognitive therapy and/or coaching can add layers of this type of bypassing over time.
Ever fall into passivity when action is required? Ever hear someone reject another person's boundaries as "they're just being emotional"? Interpersonal bypassing often sounds like, "Look on the bright side" or "Just deal with it". Another example is people-pleasing, which is actually restricting your own needs in favour of external validation or conflict avoidance.
- Toxic positivity - "Tune into your light". The belief that one should always maintain a positive mindset, which can lead to emotional suppression and lack of authenticity. (anyone else know this yoga instructor?)
- Spiritual materialism - The tendency to use spiritual practices or beliefs to bolster one's ego, seeking validation, superiority, or external gains. It includes weaponizing your practice to gain some superiority over others.
- Psychonaut bypass - Many spiritual seekers turn to psycho-active plant medicines to boost their healing. It's important to remember that having an insight on psychedelics doesn't necessarily mean we've done the work of implementing that into our lives.
Methods to avoid bypassing
- Cultivate compassion and self-compassion - Practice understanding and empathy towards yourself and others. Acknowledging challenges connects us to our shared human experience.
- Allow for mistakes - Embrace humility and recognize that personal growth involves making mistakes, accepting our ignorance and embracing our "imperfections".
- Accept blind spots - Acknowledge that everyone has blind spots and biases (including you). Engage in self-reflection and actively seek feedback to broaden your perspective.
- Be mindful of avoidance - Develop awareness of your tendency to avoid discomfort, difficult emotions, or challenging thoughts. Notice when you're engaging in distracting behaviours and explore the underlying drives to distract.
- Allow Discomfort - Instead of avoiding or suppressing discomfort, practice sitting with it and exploring it. Use discomfort as an opportunity for growth and self-discovery.
We all have blind spots. I'm sure I still do. But the day I admitted my bypassing to myself was the start of a real transformation. It allows me to stop projecting on others and understand my own needs - including when I need help. The ease that has come is far beyond what any tool or tactic can dream of offering.
Progress Your Practice
Enjoy curated tools from trusted experts that I've used for my own healing and with clients.
- Listen: WATTSWAVE II: Kindly (5-min song)
Akira The Don presents the talks of Alan Watts with beautiful DJ mixes. (Album link)
- Read: Spiritual bypassing and how to avoid it (10-min article)
Mindworks presents a more Buddhist view of spiritual bypassing, examples and downsides.
- Read: Human Nature, Buddha Nature w/ John Welwood (20-min article)
An interview on spiritual bypassing, relationships and dharma.
If you have feedback or resources to share, please reply to let me know.
Thanks for being here.
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