"Spiritual bypass" is a term coined by the psychologist John Welwood. In an interview with Tina Fossil, Welwood defines a spiritual bypass as when the goal of spiritual awakening is used to try "to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it." He warns that this "leads to a conceptual, one-sided kind of spirituality where one pole of life is elevated at the expense of its opposite: Absolute truth is favored over relative truth, the impersonal over the personal, emptiness over form, transcendence over embodiment, and detachment over feeling."
I know how easy it is to go in this direction. I used to constantly seek more good feelings, more spiritual understanding, more wellbeing, more bliss, more, more, more! I was spiritually greedy. I didn't see this as just another ego trip. I thought I was on to something. It even worked temporarily for me. I saw that I could manipulate my emotional experience by focusing on positive thoughts, and I would feel better. However, as a long-term strategy it did not work. It became the albatross around my neck, a psychological burden that became painful rather than uplifting. In my work with both coaching and therapy clients, I see I am not the only one who experiences the burden this way.
In order to try and have good feelings all the time, we have to constantly monitor and manage our thoughts. This is draining and more than a full-time job. When I recently encouraged a coaching client to simply allow his thoughts to be and to not try to change them even if they were negative he was shocked. He said, "This sounds like old-school therapy." The type of old school therapy he was referring to focused on catharsis. It glorified emotional expression, thinking that was the catalyst for healing. I wasn't asking my client to feel his feelings for the sake of it. What I was pointing to was his innate resilience and wellbeing.
We all have the innate intelligence inside of us that helps us to stabilize when we get out of emotional balance. We don't have to take on the responsibility of managing our emotional experience. We can trust that no matter how intense our emotional experience may be, we will move through it unless with keep the experience alive by fueling the thinking, and even then, there will be times when we get exhausted from doing that and experience a reprieve. In therapy this is often labeled as a "flight into health". This is perceived as an avoidance tactic for doing emotional work. An alternative hypothesis is that flights into health are the emergence of our natural state of wellbeing. They are a genuine experience of the innate mental health that resides inside of each one of us and can be used as reference points for letting us know we are moving in the right direction.
However, when we actively engage with our negative thoughts and find evidence that makes them look more real, we can prolong our painful experience. Another more insidious way to fuel our thinking and make it appear like something substantial is to resist our emotional experience. In so doing we are automatically resisting the thoughts that are responsible for the feelings. This only makes the thoughts look more real and less illusory. As Carl Jung said, "What you resist persists."
If I am feeling sad and I don't want to feel sad so I distract myself from my sad thoughts by focusing on "nice" thoughts, the choice to distract myself from the sad thoughts only gives the sad thoughts more weight. By trying to avoid them, I believe there is something to avoid. When there is the illusion of a mirage on the road, I don't say to myself, "I better take an alternate route. I just washed my car. I don't want to get it wet." I know my car will be fine because the mirage of water does not exist. Any difficult emotional experience is just like the mirage. It feels real, like the mirage looks real, but it is the result of an illusion. As soon as the illusory thoughts pass, I will feel fine again.
No matter what, whether I am fueling or accepting my negative thinking, the one constant is that I am, just like we all are, designed to stabilize. Our natural state is wellbeing. There is no need to put pressure on ourselves to feel good, because that is what is always going to be there once any negative thinking clears up. For me, this is the healing. It is not in the catharsis.
It is in the understanding that I am safe, that my wellbeing is found inside of me, and I have the capacity to drop into it. I may not be able to do it on command, but I will reconnect with it at some point independent of my circumstances, independent of my history, independent of how destabilized I am. The freedom for me is knowing that I have a foundation of love that lies within me, no matter how much I by into my illusion of feeling separate from it. I know it is there, and not just there, it is me. Wherever I go, that consciousness is my consciousness even if I can't feel it in the moment. I believe this is true for all of us, so check it out for yourselves.
Knowing that I am love, no matter what my thoughts, feelings or behaviors are, I don't have a problem with experiencing anger, feeling sad, being immersed in hurt, weighed down by self-doubt or paralyzed by insecurity. I don't know why we have such a diverse range of human emotions. I do know when I am suffering, I am caught up in believing the illusion of my own self-created thoughts, and I do my best not to do anything. Instead, I let it inform me as to what my state of consciousness and resulting clarity is.
Even if I am really troubled, perhaps I am caught up in a rage, feeling the depths of despair, or in the height of insecurity, I do my best not to resist or distract myself from the experience. It makes sense to me that there is nothing for me to do other than be myself in that moment. I do my best not to hurt myself or others at the time. I sometimes even fail at this task; usually with those I love the most. One of my teenage daughter's told me the other day she has a grudge list against me with three items on it. My hope is that she will eventually see that her grudge hurts her more than it hurts me, but in the meantime, I honor her experience and know that she, like the rest of us is essentially love. Her true nature doesn't judge what she thinks, feels or does. Why should I?
If the truth of who we are is unchanged by our ups and downs, it seems to me that getting better at surfing my human experience is a worthy learning curve to be on. As more than one of my teachers has said, "Enjoy the highs, and ride out the lows gracefully." I don't fully understand the purpose of our human experience, but it seems to me that it is a vehicle for waking up to our loving nature more fully. I trust the innate design of the unfolding and do my best not to mess with the settings. Even though my ego does get the better of me at times, I recognize more often when I am in judgment of my experience and thinking there is a better way that feels more comfortable. I see that trap earlier and recognize it for the con that it is. Whenever I go down that road, it always ends up being more effort than it is worth. It just delays the inevitable experience I was trying to deftly avoid, and it is usually three times bigger when I get there. Not because it is real, but because I have made it so.
There is a kindness in the human design that is in service to us. That kindness is not just for us -- it is us. That is the foundation from which to keep a perspective on this wild and precious life.
Rohini Ross is a psychotherapist, a leadership consultant, and an executive coach. Rohini facilitates personalized three-day retreats to help individuals, couples, and professionals connect more fully with their true nature and experience greater levels of wellbeing, resiliency, and success. You can find out more about Rohini’s work on her website, rohiniross.com.