For Spiritual Seekers (and Finders)

Spiritual Bypassing
Many people have had powerful experiences of their true nature, or Self. These experiences often come while engaging in a spiritual practice, participating in a religious service, associating with a spiritual teacher, or just walking in the woods or gazing at a sunset. These experiences are indisputably powerful and precious gifts of grace. They reveal a wondrous world of clarity, peace, joy and connectedness, a place in which usual daily concerns temporarily disappear.

After such experiences—or even long bliss-filled retreats—end, one of several things usually happens. Perhaps our self-critical voices become louder and harsher than ever when we find ourselves quickly stuck back in familiar destructive patterns. After all, we’ve directly experienced our true nature. So shouldn’t we be beyond these patterns already? Or, we decide that we’re really pretty special for having had such experiences, and harbor a secret belief that we’re on a higher level than the “unenlightened” masses. Or, we try to please the spiritual teacher and gain feelings of being worthwhile by throwing ourselves into “selfless” service for the teacher or community. Or, we project the perfect parent onto the teacher, ignore the voices of our discriminating powers, and become painfully disillusioned—even re-traumatized—when the teacher is revealed to be only human. Or, we disengage from significant aspects of our lives that presented difficulties—jobs or significant relationships—as a dramatic statement of seriousness of spiritual intent, or because of the recognition that, in the absolute reality, nothing ultimately matters. Or, we use the recognition that nothing matters as a reason to avoid the trouble of making a needed change like having an important confrontation, or getting the education needed to pursue a more satisfying career.

Our minds are enormously intelligent and wily. There are innumerable ways that we use true spiritual experiences and realizations to justify and reinforce unconscious human tendencies—and thereby cause suffering to ourselves and others. Psychotherapist, author and teacher John Welwood and others use the label “spiritual bypassing” to describe this use of the absolute truth to deny or disparage the relative truth of our humanness. Spiritual bypassing often involves avoiding needed emotional work or neglecting our basic human needs, feelings, longings and developmental tasks, such as engaging in a meaningful livelihood, and forming and maintaining a long-term intimate relationship. (See [Embodying Your Realization: Psychological Work in the Service of Spiritual Development] by John Welwood [link:].

Welwood makes the case that we may not be able to fully embody our absolute nature without resolving the conflicts that cause spiritual bypassing and limit access to the resources available through our relative human nature. He describes this psychological and emotional maturity as “individuation:”

If the absolute side of our nature—undifferentiated being—is like clear light, the relative side—or differentiated being—is like a rainbow spectrum of colors contained within that light. While realizing undifferentiated being is the path of liberation, embodying qualities of differentiated being is the path of individuation in its deepest sense: the unfolding of our intrinsic human resources, which exist as seed potentials within us, but which are often blocked by psychological conflicts.

While realization can happen at any moment, it does not necessarily lead, as we have seen, to actualization. Although I may have access to the transparency of pure being, I may still not have access to the human capacities that will enable me to actualize that realization in the world. I may not be able to access my generosity, for instance, in situations that require it, if it is obstructed by unconscious beliefs that reinforce an identity of impoverishment and deficiency. If these subconscious beliefs are not brought to light and worked with, generosity is unlikely to manifest in a full and genuine way. (p. 10)

Our (Beth and Linda’s) personal experiences with spiritual bypassing and our observations of this phenomenon in hundreds of others, including those with awe-inspiring spiritual power, inform and inspire our work at the Wakeful Living Center. We encourage spiritual seekers and finders alike to undertake the courageous inward journey of self knowledge, acceptance and integration that heals the pain at the root of spiritual bypassing. This journey provides the opening through which true spiritual recognition and realization can be embodied and actualized—lived. Welwood continues:

How fully the suchness of you shines through — in your face, your speech, your actions, your particular quality of presence— is partly grace, but also partly a result of how much you have worked on polishing your vessel, so that it becomes transparent. Thus individuation, which involves clarifying the psychological dynamics that obscure our capacity to fully shine through, is not opposed to spiritual realization. It is, instead, a way of becoming a more transparent vessel—an authentic person who can bring through what is beyond the person in a uniquely personal way.

… individuation is not an end, but a path or means that can help us give birth to our true form, by clearing up the distortions of our old false self. As we learn to be true to our deepest individual imperatives, rather than enslaved to past conditioning, our character structure no longer poses such an obstacle to recognizing absolute true nature or embodying it. Our individuated nature becomes a window opening onto all that is beyond and greater than ourselves. (p. 11-12)