“When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it.”
The term “spiritual bypassing” was coined by Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Welwood in the early 1980s.
Welwood describes it as the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks”.
In recent years, the idea has gained widespread traction. It has taken root and propagated in spiritual circles, and has quickly become part of the vernacular of postmodern spiritual practice. It’s seen as one of the many pitfalls of embarking on a serious path.
There’s no doubt that spiritual bypassing is real, and can have negative consequences when it becomes just another avoidance behaviour. However, some therapists have made the observation that it is not necessarily always unhealthy.
It is thought that spiritual bypassing can simply be a temporary coping mechanism in response to intense “spiritual emergency” – the disorientation that can occur when an individual experiences a profound challenge to their normal self-sense, often because of a spontaneous spiritual experience.
Some research even suggests that behaviour characterised as spiritual bypassing is actually a normal and inevitable stage of spiritual evolution and development – a refutation of the widely accepted narrative that all spiritual bypassing is by definition negative.
But there is yet another, more radical, way to look at spiritual bypassing. Enlightenment in the traditional sense is the total and final escape from the suffering of Samsara, so from this perspective spiritual bypassing is actually the whole point.
In deep meditation, parts of our everyday functional perception seem to literally go offline, bypassing our thoughts and emotions and freeing us from neurotic self-concern – if only temporarily.
From a certain perspective, the whole point of enlightenment is to undergo a permanent shift of attention, in which the ceaseless preoccupation with the content of the mind – thoughts, emotions and experiences – is replaced with an ecstatic gnosis.
In this talk, Andrew Cohen explores the phenomenon of spiritual bypassing, and the challenges, contradictions and paradoxes of working with a serious spiritual path.
Andrew CohenResident Teacher
Andrew Cohen is a spiritual teacher, author, cultural visionary and inspirational speaker. His work has been acclaimed by luminaries from all walks of life, from academics to philosophers to spiritual pundits.
Andrew has become known for his willingness to boldly cast aside the sacred cows of the spiritual world. His work grapples with demystifying the wealth of knowledge found in the great wisdom traditions, and with making enlightenment deeply relevant to a post-modern audience.