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Spiritual Bypassing & Spiritual Growth

Woman sitting crossed legged with tibetan bowl and incense
Setting the Space for a Practice Session

I have now been practising yoga and meditation for more than half of my life, and teaching for the last 10 years.

My journey started mostly out of a strong resistance to ‘life’, as it looked from my perspective as a teenager growing up in working class England. Psychedelics and the exposure to spiritual teachings and ideas far beyond my capacity to comprehend inspired me to start seeking a way to deeper meaning and significance.

In the early days, my ‘spiritual practice’ was mostly a practise of resisting the experience of myself. I was basically punishing myself, seeking another, deeper, better version of myself that I could, maybe one day, actually accept. This struggle came with just enough breakthrough moments, ranging from deep peace, to dissolving into nothingness to overwhelming ecstatic bliss, that I assumed I must be doing the right thing.

Eventually, I understood that something was off. I was practising. A lot. I was having apparently ‘deep’ experiences. But why weren’t the basic things getting easier. The same issues in relationships, the same sense of withdraw from others, the same painful sense that something was not quite OK that just didn’t seem to budge.

Internally there was a knowing of, what seemed to me to be, some of the deepest truths of this existence. Yet externally, I felt further from my life, less trusting of it and of the people around me. There was a wall of pride about knowing something special that kept a kind of distance between me and those around me. Later I understood that this pride was actually a way of protecting myself from seeing the parts of me that were 1) out of alignment with that deep inner knowing and 2) too raw and painful to face openly at that point in the journey.

The shell was more or less decimated by a crazy relationship. I remember having to give a lecture on the yogic principle of non-violence in a course on yoga in front of at least 60 people, immediately after a shamefully verbally violent argument with that partner.

It took a few years to pick up the pieces after that relationship ended.

In the process of learning to forgive and embrace myself, I learned a lot about human psychology; about the development of patterns and behaviours in general. Specifically this whole process taught me a lot about the subconscious dynamics of spiritual practice.

Spiritual Bypassing

Any creature would avoid discomfort where possible. It’s natural to seek safety, security and harmony in whatever ways our capacity to comprehend our life allows us to. Whether that means more food, greater power, higher status, or as in the case many ‘spiritual seekers’, an inwardly easier to wear, outwardly more respectable or elevated self image.

Some use spiritual ideas, like ‘everything is love’ or ‘we’re all one’, to try to avoid looking at crunchy and complicated, dysfunctional personality patterns or difficult emotions. Others prefer excessive emphasis on spiritual practice to try to bury or get rid of the things that we would be too ashamed to let someone else see.

Either way, the underlying unrest at the core of the human experience for so many seekers is carefully hidden behind a facade of the new, better spiritual ‘me’ that they would rather be.

This actually happens quite a lot. The facade lasts as long as the person creating it can sustain the energy output necessary to avoid the things that they are trying to hide.

Sooner or later, a relationship gone wrong, a personal financial crisis, the death of someone dear, or some other unexpected dose of reality will shatter the facade. What was buried will be brought to the surface.

An Obstacle to Spiritual Progress?

I don’t think that’s the right question.

Spiritual bypassing has become quite the buzz word in spiritual communities. The term seems to get thrown around quite a lot as a kind of nasty judgement plastered all over fellow seekers, teachers. I’ve even heard some of the most profoundly inspiring non-dual teachings be posted as ‘bypassing’.

Some people think that this presents an obstacle to spiritual progress. Personally I see it more as a interim coping mechanism.

If we look deeper than the surface level of many of today’s spiritual platitudes, what we actually discover are radically confronting concepts and teachings. Teachings that literally demand the dismantling and death of the personality structure.

From that perspective, some degree of avoidance, hiding, pretending to ‘be there’ already make sense. Indeed, how many ego’s walk willingly to their own death?

Spiritual Aspiration = Spiritual Growth

Like I said before, I have just over 10 years experience guiding mostly quite new seekers through intensive courses in non-duality, yoga, meditation, tantra etc. Something i have noticed is that as long as there is genuine spiritual aspiration, even if it’s mixed in with the avoidance patterns, then sooner or later (usually sooner) the facade breaks and the work is done.

Woman meditating/praying with a big smile
Genuine Aspiration is Key to Spiritual Growth

Here’s another important observation. In the case of those who use intensive (tending towards dissociative) practices to suppress their pain, it happens very often that the tendency to dissociate actually does produce quite profound spiritual experiences.

While the means may not be very healthy or sustainable in the long run, the experiences tend to engender the capacity to see the self deception (admittedly this is a very painful part of the process). It also happens that after burning for a while in the agony of self deception, it is exactly the trust or inspiration generated through those experiences that imparts to the seeker the courage and clarity to eventually face those ‘demons’.

Difficult Journeys Foster Deep Hearts

Coming back to the question of so called ‘bypassing’ being detrimental to spiritual growth.

In the end, it’s just part of the experience of spiritual growth for many many people. In fact, I think to a certain extent most people grow through at least a small amount of this tendency.

Actually in the long run, growing through difficulty cultivates wisdom, compassion and incredible depth of insight that just doesn’t come to those born with a spiritual silver spoon in their mouths, so to speak.

Sure this isn’t the ‘ideal’ approach. But if you’ve practised spirituality for more than 5 minutes you know quite well that nothing unfolds according to the ‘ideal’ standards we might read in a book or speculate over. In reality, progress is doing whatever you can with what you have and trusting that the wisdom to work your way out of the inevitable missteps will be born as a result of the dedication to truth, even if the methods are sometimes imperfect or the growth seems slow.

In the End, It’s Better Not to Judge.

Spiritual aspiration is the transforming factor. The righteous judgement of what spiritual practice is and how it should be done and what it should look like has no real place in the conversation. I’ve met people who are like outspoken activists in the fight against ‘bypassing’. Their righteous ideals might sound great, but ill make a wager, whatever criticism that person makes so strongly against a teaching or teacher or community, will most likely be the hypocritical hole they find themselves in when their own spiritual righteousness comes crashing down.

In the end, what matters, is not what ‘they’ are doing. The bottom line is can you love?

Can you keep your heart open and love unconditionally, even if a person is avoiding themselves, even if there is a big swollen ego that smells like bad eggs, even if the person is a bit of an as*****e. Are you capable of empathy, without superiority and condescension?

Another Personal Vingette

I don’t say this simply as a cliche.

In my own experience, there was a moment when I was in the middle of facing the things that I had never allowed myself to see, where I had a close friend. I had been working with this person for a while and we got to know each other quite deeply. At some point we were discussing our friendship and were able to be quite open about the judgements we had of each other and the places where we could see that we were out of alignment.

One day, while in solitary retreat I was contemplating a feeling that had been growing in the background for a while. There was a direct and unmistakable sense of unconditional love, a sense that even though this person could see all the s**t, they loved and trusted me anyway. Opening to this was a deeply healing experience, and something I had scarcely been able to allow into my life until that point.

This was a pivotal moment for me and marked a subtle yet profound shift in my understanding, the echoes of which I can still feel unfolding in me now.

If you really care for that persons well-being, love them. Anything else is just your own ego projected outwardly anyway.


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