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Beware of the spiritual bypass

Professor of social psychology Roos Vonk about another pitfall: using spiritual techniques to avoid mental pain. “That's your feeling, I'll leave that with you. Since my spiritual retreat I can do that. So wonderful to be liberated from all those feelings.”

Ggrrrrr... That's my feeling when someone talks to me like that. That affable superiority! Ah, my anger must be because I have not yet attained that wisdom. Or has the person secretly followed the spiritual bypass without realizing it? That means, as the word implies, avoiding difficult paths. People who do this imagine that they have transcended their egos, empathize with the feelings they envision, and act as if they really have. They believe that they are spiritually liberated, when in reality they are only using spiritual techniques to nourish their egos or avoid unpleasant feelings. They do the dance moves without actually dancing inside. Like spiritual narcissism, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman calls it a form of pseudo-transcendence.

You could see spiritual development as a journey: a long journey with bumps, obstacles, highs and lows, in which you sometimes have to make sacrifices to progress, for example leaving part of your luggage or entering unknown territory that you are afraid of. You may encounter deep canyons that you will overcome in order to continue your journey.

Someone who applies the spiritual bypass covers parts of the journey, but - when it really comes down to it - does not surrender to what comes his way. At a deep ravine, he looks across and imagines he is already there. As a result, he already feels something of the liberation he expects to experience there. But he did not go through the ravine, did not investigate what he would encounter there. He has not made contact with his own psychological unfinished business.

Unwanted feelings are relativized away. They will 'disappear by themselves', after all, according to the teaching: everything flows. That spiritual enlightenment means that nothing touches you anymore (“I don't have those emotions anymore”) is a big misconception. True spiritual development leads to you being more in touch with the world around you and therefore being touched more.

Another common feature of the spiritual bypass is a lack of personal responsibility. If someone else is angry or criticised, that's the other person's fault. The bypass also offers an escape route when it comes to breaking unhealthy habits: 'it will change itself when the time is right' - so you don't have to kick alcohol, drugs, nicotine, working too hard and so on.

A healthy spiritual life involves an integrated, balanced development on all levels; psychological, physical, cognitive, emotional and interpersonal. That creates openness, curiosity, awareness of one's own thoughts and feelings, no matter how pleasant they are. According to researchers, the spiritual bypass occurs when a person "attempts to heal psychological wounds only on the spiritual level and avoids the important (often difficult, painful) work on the other levels."

The Tibetan cleric Chogyam Trungpa called this form of self-deception a huge obstacle to enlightenment. He called it "cheap," a sign of contempt for the human intellect.

The illusion of enlightenment hinders true personal and spiritual growth, but fortunately it does not have to be permanent. The spiritual bypass can be a phase in the spiritual development that people escape once they become aware of it.

By making contact with the desire to get rid of unpleasant feelings, and with the resistance to plunge into the ravine - the adventure with unknown end - without even knowing where the other side is, you discover where you really are.

Text: Roos Vonk.
Source: Psychology Magazine.

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