I’ve been thinking about ‘spiritual bypassing’ this week, after it was mentioned by a friend of mine (Alex Beiner of Rebel Wisdom) as one of the shadow aspects of New Age spirituality. His remark made me reflect that it’s also quite obvious in Christian culture and in modern Stoicism.
The phrase ‘spiritual bypassing’ was invented in the 1980s by Buddhist teacher John Welwood, and then turned into a successful 2010 book by Robert Augustus Masters called Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us From What Really Matters.
Spiritual bypassing is a very persistent shadow of spirituality, manifesting in many forms, often without being acknowledged as such. [It means] employing spiritual beliefs to avoid dealing in any significant depth with our pain and developmental needs.
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.
Masters goes on:
Signs of spiritual bypassing at work are perhaps most commonly seen in the minimizing, superficializing, or outright negation of our shadow side and so-called negativity. Other behaviors include taking global or impersonal stands on clearly personal concerns, as when we might talk about the “fact” that everything is perfect, all unfolding exactly as it must, while we are talking to another in a demeaning way. Or in response to someone’s suffering we may say, “It’s all an illusion, including your suffering” or “It’s just your ego,” delivering one-liners with minimal feeling, much like newscasters reporting both the shallow and the deeply tragic in the very same professionally modulated tone of voice.
Spiritual bypassing has a particular issue with ‘negative emotions’ or ‘bad energy’. Masters writes:
there are negative things that we do with our emotions, but our emotions themselves are neither negative nor positive. They simply are.
Dealing with anger, for example, might mean acknowledging that you feel hurt and wounded and vengeful, before you immediately transcend into the pure ether of spirituality. Otherwise that anger will come out in other ways, like passive aggression or sudden helpless rage — see the ‘serenity now’ episode of Seinfeld for evidence.
Dissociation disguised in holy drag
We should be wary of being too quick to transcend the messy emotional shit of life, Masters suggests:
To transcend something is to go beyond it to the point of ceasing to identify with it, so that it becomes an object of our awareness. When this process is healthy, what’s been transcended is not excluded from our being (any more than clouds are excluded from the sky) but rather is “repositioned” and related to in ways that serve our well-being. When transcendence is unhealthy, what has been transcended is excluded from our being, resulting in escapism and disconnection. Where healthy transcendence embraces what’s been transcended, unhealthy transcendence avoids it, making a spiritual virtue out of rising above whatever is deemed “lower” or “darker” elements of our nature. This is dissociation disguised in holy drag.
If spiritual bypassing is lying to ourselves by cloaking our raw feelings in clouds of incense, closely related is spiritual bullshitting– when we clothe our basic desires and fears in spiritual language, and pretend we don’t have an ego and are just channelling the cosmos. Spiritual bypassing is lying to ourselves, spiritual bullshitting is lying to others, not being honest about what our ego wants.
When spiritual teachers say ‘I invite you’ for example, what they generally mean is ‘do this’. Or when a spiritual podcast asks me to be a guest speaker and says ‘interested to see if this resonates with you’, it’s a form of spiritual bullshit. Just say ‘I would like you to do this, do you want to?’
Or when the editor of a spiritual newsletter asks to print one of my articles, and says he can’t pay me but ‘I find when I gift my writing the cosmos manifests a reward in other ways’, it’s spiritual bullshit. You’re being cheap, man, don’t bring the cosmos into it.
It’s OK to have an ego, to have basic desires, fears and emotions. There’s no need to dress it up in yoga pants, sprinkle it with glitter, and call it Moonbeam. Just be real.
Now, these behaviours are by no means limited to New Age spirituality. You can also find it a lot in Christian culture, particularly in charismatic and evangelical culture.
Charismatic Christianity tends to be an overwhelmingly upbeat and positive culture. The moment you give your life to Jesus you are saved, your life is amazing, God cares for you 24/7 and is constantly sending miracles your way. Hallelujah!
The Bible has a lot of very dark and sad stuff in it — the Book of Job, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Black Friday — but you wouldn’t guess that from contemporary Christian music, which is 80–90% upbeat and positive songs, according to one study.
Life is so incredibly amazing there’s simply no room for any darker emotions in charismatic Christian culture. So if you feel sad, lost, disorientated, angry, depressed, panicked and so on, you better bury that shit. As the Book of Mormon song goes:
Turn it off, like a light switch
Just go click!
It’s a cool little Mormon trick!
We do it all the time
When you’re feeling certain feelings
That just don’t seem right
Treat those pesky feelings
Like a reading light
Even if you’re genuinely trying to grapple with difficult emotions, the nice Christians around you might (just like spiritual people) belittle your emotions or respond with banalities like ‘maybe just try to appreciate everything Jesus is doing for you, mkay?’ (This is a good video on spiritual bypassing in Christian-land).
This extreme emotional avoidance is not very healthy at all, and it leads to difficult emotions or trauma manifesting in other ways, like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Just as you can find Christian Bypassing, so too you can find Christian Bullshitting — cloaking your own selfish desires in Christian terminology. Particularly your sexual desires, which can a strong undercurrent in charismatic churches, because it’s such a repressed and preppy culture. Beneath the clean-cut preppy surface, the libido is seething. But it comes out as Christian bullshit. Like the guy at my church who went up to a woman and said ‘the Lord told me in prayer we should be together’. Bullshit, man, just be real and say you fancy her, don’t bring God into it.
Finally, I want to talk about Stoic bypassing. This is when your conscious intellectual mind is committed to Stoicism, and you’re very adept at talking the Stoic talk, but your actual emotions and desires are just as unregenerate as ever.
You can use Stoicism, in this instance, as a means to shut down your own difficult emotions, dismiss them as ‘not rational’, dismiss even your own physical sensations, and retreat to the citadel of your intellect. Good luck with that.
Or you may encounter ‘Stoic bullshitting’, when a person cloaks their own selfish desires in Stoic language, and don’t admit that they’re angry or horny or offended or vengeful or whatever. They pretend they’re a perfectly rational computer while their emotions seethe beneath the surface.
I remember, for example, an ugly legal battle that took place in the last year of Albert Ellis’ life — he was the neo-Stoic founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (the earliest form of CBT). He’d built up the Albert Ellis Institute and poured millions of dollars into it, but in his old age, the board of the Institute kicked him off the board and refused to pay his medical bills. It was a very nasty fight, and I still remember the head of the board quoted as saying — through gritted teeth — ‘if only rationality would prevail’. The head of the board was tried, a few years later, for embezzling several million bucks from the institute, by the way. Rationalize that punk!
What’s the cure for all this bypassing and bullshitting?
Be honest. Be honest that you have an ego, desires, fears, pride, genitals. Be honest that you are trying to make money, there’s nothing dirty about that. Be honest that sometimes you’re horny, nothing shameful about that either. Be honest that you’re sometimes angry, afraid, bitter, resentful, jealous, competitive, even petty. In other words, you’re a fallible human being, not a gold statue of the Buddha.
Masters suggests we should go down, descend into our emotions and our body and accept them, rather than always trying to transcend into cosmic oneness. He hopes that, after the honeymoon period of bullshit spirituality is over, a new era of ‘authentic spirituality’ can begin. He thought that new mature spirituality might have been dawning, when he wrote his book a decade ago. It didn’t help when he himself was exposed as having been an abusive cult leader in the years before he wrote his book.
A new era of ‘mature spirituality’ is not entirely obvious in the the shiny era of Instagram Spirituality. When there are such strong market incentives to carve out and monetize a spiritual persona for yourself, even realness can become a pose. #realness
PS if you’re neither reading this and you’re neither spiritual, Christian or Stoic, don’t worry! There are plenty of other ways to bypass your emotions. Have you tried workaholism? Or gadgets and gaming? Or over-intellectualism? Junk food? Or porn? One of these is bound to work.