When Spirituality Disconnects Us From What Really Matters
Spiritual bypassing—the use of spiritual practices/beliefs to avoid dealing with painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs—is so pervasive that it goes largely unnoticed. In the tradition of the landmark book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa, Spiritual Bypassing casts a lucidly critical eye on our deeply entrenched misuse of spirituality, furthering the body of psychological/spiritual insight into how we use (and abuse) spirituality.
While other authors have touched on the subject, this is the first book fully devoted to explaining and working through spiritual bypassing, providing an in-depth look at the unresolved or ignored psychological/emotional issues that are often masked or marginalized through what we do with spirituality. “Spiritual bypassing is not something to eradicate, but to outgrow. Let us treat it as such, recognizing that real spirituality is not an escape but an arrival.”
A must-read for anyone seeking increased self-awareness and a deeper, more spiritually sound life, a life of full-blooded integrity and compassion, a life in which the personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal are all honored and lived to the fullest, a life in which we cultivate intimacy with all that we are.
“This is a wonderfully significant and important book, and is highly recommended. Its contents are truly mandatory for this day and age.”
— Ken Wilber, author of The Integral Vision
“This timely and penetrating analysis of spirituality’s shadow provides a much needed counterpoint for those who tend to get blinded by its light.”
— Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism without Beliefs
“There is much wisdom and good information in this book. Robert joins a growing number of wise teachers who understand that the personal and the universal must be combined to bring true and genuine spiritual awakening.”
— Jack Kornfield, author of A Path With Heart and After the Ecstasy, the Laundry
“The escape act and forms of denial and self-delusion that Robert Masters diagnoses as ‘spiritual bypassing’ have been with us for millennia — perhaps since our early ancestors first discovered psycho-spiritual experiences that seemed to relieve the pressures of living and dying. But the syndrome has become endemic in our frothy age of virtual everything — so we are all blessed by the appearance of this diamond of a book. Here a priest of our true wellness has distilled the blood, sweat, and tears of his decades of fervent triage work in the trenches of the bypassing into essences of truly healing wisdom. Every spiritual practitioner would do well to study Spiritual Bypassing again and again. So would every one of us who presume to teach any spirituality at all. Thankfully, it’s as much compassionate antidote as prophetic critique. May it be put to grateful use as long as the illness it treats continues to ravage human bodies, souls, and lives.”
— Saniel Bonder, cofounder, Waking Down in Mutuality, and author of Healing the Spirit/Matter Split
“Uncompromising and truth telling, this book is an antidote to spiritual obesity. What emerges is the call to psychological clarity as essential to the mature spiritual life. Here is soul fuel for those who would enter the road less traveled— the deeply examined life as part of spiritual practice.”
— Jean Houston, PhD, author of A Mythic Life
“Traversing the muddy waters of contemporary spirituality requires a willingness to meet its seen and unseen challenges with ruthless self-honesty and keen discernment. Robert addresses “the many faces of spiritual bypassing” with intellectual rigor, hard-earned insight, and emotional intelligence. It is a lucid, well- written, and practical guide for both new and seasoned practitioners on the spiritual path.”
— Mariana Caplan, PhD, author of Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path
“Robert Masters has given us a great gift — a tremendously useful guide to examining our tendencies to spiritual bypassing, clearly the most comprehensive and accessible treatment available of this crucial topic. His work is a great contribution to the ongoing integration of psychotherapy and spiritual practice, and to our understanding of the meaning of spiritual maturity.”
— Donald Rothberg, Ph.D., author of The Engaged Spiritual Life
“In Spiritual Bypassing, Robert Masters eloquently reminds us of something we have unknowingly misplaced on our spiritual journeys: Mother Earth. In our efforts to bypass our earthly challenges, we have disconnected from the Ground of our very being, seeking our wholeness on a pogo stick to the stars. In poignant and clarifying language, Robert calls us back home, confronting us with our avoidance, inviting us to find our spirituality in the heart/depths of our humanness. In an era where detachment models for spirituality are becoming dangerously prevalent, his inclusive message is of profound importance. It may not appeal to the part of us that wants the path to be easy, but it will speak loudly to the part of us that longs for the truth. I recommend it wholeheartedly.”
— Jeff Brown, author of Soulshaping
“In Spiritual Bypassing, Robert Augustus Masters offers a wake-up call — more of a shout — to those of us who have unwittingly fallen prey to all manner of promising and seductive antidotes to our pain and suffering in the form of detached spiritual teachings and New Age magical thinking. The book is a sobering and powerful reminder that our present embodiment, in all its flawed, messy humanness, cannot be conveniently sidestepped, and so invites us inward to a face-to-face encounter and embrace with the raw truth of who we really are. Masters’ unique and at times disarming prose style blends a poetic sensibility with a surprising stark clarity that points us to “What-Really-Matters.”
— Eliezer Sobel, author of The 99th Monkey: A Spiritual Journalist’s Misadventures with Gurus, Messiahs, Sex, Psychedelics and Other Consciousness-Raising Experiments
“There is much hard-won wisdom in this work. Spiritual Bypassing is a detailed, point-by-point description of how so-called spirituality can be used by some to actually avoid individuation, adulthood, and the daimonic. When Carl Jung noted that “neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering,” he hinted that, especially for the Western psyche, spiritual practice itself can be just such a sneaky neurosis. This insightful, firm, confrontive yet compassionate book promotes and encourages the complementary marriage of spiritual practice and psychotherapy, recognizing that they are—and, at best, have always been—basically two integrally related sides of the same existential coin: The most profound psychotherapy is essentially spiritual; and the deepest spiritual quest includes some depth psychology. Neither approach can be excluded on the unpredictable path toward selfhood. But even the powerful fusion of spirituality and psychotherapy cannot offer transcendent perfection. Selfhood or spiritual enlightenment is never about escaping or distorting inner or outer reality to serve our egos, but requires lovingly accepting and embracing reality as it is and on its own terms.”
— Stephen Diamond, PhD, author of Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity
What Generates Spiritual Bypassing?
Pain comes with life, closely accompanied by our “solutions” to it, most of which are all about getting away from it, whether through alcoholic, narcotic, erotic, intellectual, material, egoistical, or spiritual means. The fact that these “solutions,” despite their analgesic/anesthetic capacity, only end up catalyzing more pain usually does little to stop us from pursuing them.
Our resistance to our pain amplifies it. The more we try to avoid it, the darker and more tenaciously rooted it becomes. But when we stop avoiding our pain, when we cease judging or fighting it, its presence starts serving rather than hindering us. In turning toward and becoming intimate with our pain, we cut through our suffering—and by suffering, I mean the dramatization of pain—realizing not only that if we really want the treasure we will have to face the dragon, but also that our encounter with the dragon ensures we will be ready or sufficiently mature to truly appreciate and make good use of the treasure. As such, the dragon is not blocking our path; it is an essential part of our path.
When we are in the grip of spiritual bypassing we want nothing to do with the dragon, viewing it as a lower-brain roadblock, a vestigial negativity that is but a projection of old fears, while at the same time portraying the treasure, whatever it is, as ours as soon as we believe it to be—and so the treasure and the conceptualization of the treasure become conflated.
In spiritual bypassing’s domain we are mostly marooned from the raw reality of our pain, numbing ourselves both to our deeper feelings and to the pain of others, disengaging to such a degree that our heart responds mostly only superficially to even the worst sorts of pain. This is detachment, but not healthy detachment! In healthy detachment, we stand apart from what we are experiencing without disconnecting from it. But when we anesthetize ourselves to our pain, whether fully or in part, we are not in a position to really embody compassion, which leaves us with a primarily intellectual sense of compassion. However eloquently we may speak of compassion, universal love, equanimity, and other spiritual virtues, these tend to remain abstractions rather than fully embodied principles. At such times we are removed from the rawness of our pain, but not in a way that permits us to focus more clearly on what is actually occurring.
When we are caught up in bypassing, we want the spiritual treasure without having to face the dragon, believing that any negative thoughts or emotions require no more than waving our magic wand of positive thoughts and intentions to be conquered. The dragon, however, cannot be so easily pushed aside! It is so easy to get negative about negativity, turning away from our pain and whatever else reminds us that all is not well, regardless of our beliefs to the contrary.
Turning toward our pain is an act of radical caring—and not just caring for ourselves—because in doing so we cease to fuel our avoidance and those addictive behaviors we have used to keep ourselves removed from pain. In turning toward our pain, we also, however indirectly, turn toward others’ pain, both on the personal and collective level, (in both personal and collective contexts), and so our compassion for others deepens and widens. Turning toward our pain is about bringing into our heart all that we have rejected, ostracized, disowned, neglected, bypassed, shunned, excommunicated, or otherwise deemed as unworthy in ourselves. Our heart has room for it all. We are all faced with considerable challenges, not the least of which is our personal and collective conditioning. To be able to relate to our conditioning rather than simply identify with it is much more than just an intellectual undertaking, requiring that we turn toward and enter the very pain out of which much of our conditioning arose.
And that turning toward, that courageous choice to become intimate with our pain and its roots, asks for much, much more than just a mere belief in or parroting of what we’ve been taught or read about our true nature. To emerge from our pain, we have to enter it.
The greater our fear of pain, the more extreme our spiritual bypassing “solutions” tend to be. We may, for example, present ourselves as having special spiritual status, on a continuum between grandiosity (inflated somebody-ness) and faux humility (inflated nobody-ness). This is akin to the excessive control often craved by those who grew up having far too little control. We may find ourselves very uncomfortable with the presence of other’s pain, especially emotional pain, because it resonates, however quietly, with our own submerged pain, pulling it closer to the surface. When we are caught up in spiritual bypassing, our reluctance to acknowledge and feel our own pain keeps us standing apart from the pain of others, perhaps offering such spiritual bon mots as, “Tell me what you’re getting out of creating this for yourself” or “It’s perfect that this is happening” or “Stop living in the past” or, perhaps most commonly, “It’s your karma.” Anything to keep distance—plenty of distance.
Not all spiritual bypassing so blatantly avoids pain; the dance of avoidance can be done with great subtlety. Consider, for example, spiritual practices that advocate observing whatever arises with mindful attentiveness: these are not in and of themselves indicative of spiritual bypassing, but in the teaching to simply be an impartial witness to whatever is arising, there is a danger of becoming an overly passive or impersonal observer, thereby generating an excessive kind of detachment.
We might find a sense of reassuring comfort in doing such practices, which make a spiritual virtue out of standing apart from what is occurring, safely removed from any significantly close contact. Of course, this is not the fault of the practice but of how it is being employed and perhaps taught. As meditators, we may assume we are sitting with our pain—observing it moment-to-moment—when we in fact may just be sitting on it, using our witnessing capacity to keep it at a distance rather than becoming more intimate with it.
If a meditative technique is primarily used to avoid pain, spiritual bypassing is occurring. However, using meditation to ease pain or reduce its intensity does not necessarily signal spiritual bypassing but rather a kind of relaxation that allows us to enter more deeply into our life. Expanding our boundaries and softening around our area of pain gives it more room to breathe and stretch, more space to show itself in its various dimensions. Once our pain is a little less sharp, we can direct our attention into it, getting to know it from deep inside. The healing of pain is found in pain itself.
Contrary to what we tend to believe, the more intimate we are with our pain, the less we suffer. Often when we say we are in pain, we are not really in our pain, but only closer to it than we would like. We are then in fact still outside it, still removed from it, still keeping our distance. By consciously and compassionately entering into our pain and cultivating intimacy with it, we begin to find some real freedom from our suffering. Our hurt may remain, but our relationship to it will have changed to the point where it’s no longer such a problem to us, and in fact may even become a doorway into What Really Matters.
The point is not to romanticize the awakening power of pain any more than it is to bewail the presence of pain. Real freedom does not mean the absence of pain but rather fully embracing our pain without getting lost in its dramatics. This means, fully facing whatever dragons are guarding the treasure we seek. And what are dragons but the archetypal presence of that which scares or appears to threaten us, not just from outside but from within? To reach the treasure we must face and encounter whatever dragons are guarding it.
In the beginning we may view our dragons—whatever shape they may take—as hindrances, problems, or inconveniences. Later on, however, we will come to view them not as obstructions on the path but rather as an essential part of the path. The path to what? To that for which we most deeply long. Establishing ourselves on this path means letting go of our suffering until there’s nothing between us and our pain. This journey is ours to take. And if we choose to take it, we take it not just for our sake but for everyone’s, as the more deeply we heal, the more of a life-giving force we become for others.
May we face our dragons and through our encounters with them find the healing, awakening, and freedom that is our birthright, realizing that our work is not to be freed from our pain but to be freed through our pain.