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“The” Question + Spiritual Bypassing

 August 10, 2019

In June I visited the Bay Area to work on new tracks and participate in a 4-day Integral Unfolding retreat.

I’m very lucky to have a beautiful and welcoming home in which to stay while in town. One evening I returned from the retreat and got to meet my host’s Zen teacher who was spending the evening. I had heard of this man-  John Tarrant for some time. In a previous visit I meditated with his sangha (community). However, this was the first time we’d met in person. John was jovial, and brought lightness and a poetic sense to potentially dark topics (like death). 

Born in Australia, John is the founder of the Pacific Zen institute, a Ph.D. psychologist, author and poet, and a “western” Zen teacher with a bent toward he “meditation in action”

My host told John I founded a school to teach sacred chant and transformation. He asked me to share about this school.

I told him… “I’m in a big question around:

  1. How to take an authentic spiritual practice from the East,
  2. Filter out the cultural trappings from the essential practice,
  3. Help the essential practice find a functional fit in our current society, and
  4. Have the practice show up as relevant to Westerners.” 

With a twinkle in his eye he exclaimed… “that’s THE question.” 

Like Prometheus with fire, we have been given a very powerful gift. It is our responsibility to use it well and appropriately.

Spiritual Bypassing

Given John’s background I was not surprised to discover that he was not only living in this question, but also using the Integral Framework of Waking Up, Growing Up, Cleaning Up and Showing Up to help his students identify and minimize spiritual bypassing.

I recall how in 2014 I almost gave up on this work after a difficult, confusing and unsatisfying summer teaching Kirtan Leaders in Boulder. I wondered if it was even possible to teach Kirtan Leadership in a way that aligned with my core values. A few weeks later I came across Spiritual Bypassing by Robert Augustus Masters. This book helped me make sense of my difficult experiences, and left me feeling optimistic around training Kirtan Leaders. I had found the missing piece.

The term Spiritual Bypassing was coined by Buddhist psychologist and author John Welwood in 1984. Within his Buddhist community Welwood “noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”

Masters explains the draw of spiritual bypassing: “spiritual bypassing fits almost seamlessly into our collective habit of turning away from what is painful, as a kind of higher analgesic with seemingly minimal side effects.” Spiritual bypassing is a strategy for not only turning away from pain, but also for legitimizing such avoidance. In his words, “Spiritual bypassing is a very persistent shadow of spirituality.”

Around this time the Integral Philosopher Ken Wilber began referring to the aim of Integral practice as:

  1. Using spiritual practices to WAKE UP,
  2. Using psychological practices to GROW UP,
  3. Using shadow practices to CLEAN UP,
  4. Using multiple intelligence practice to OPEN UP
  5. Giving ourselves permission to MESS UP (so we can learn)
  6. And, all of this is so we can SHOW UP in the domains of self, relationship, work and nature. 

Spiritual bypassing happens when we use spiritual practices to wake up (or bliss out) while ignoring our adult development (psychological practices) and shadow work.

Shiva Bypassing + Vishnu Bypassing

Empowered with these insights I was able to see two distinct forms of spiritual bypassing. The Shiva version is aversive- an attempt to transcend the messiness of the world. The Vishnu version is addictive- an attempt to extract as much yummy experience and bliss from the world as possible.

Buddhist psychologists call “Vishnu bypassing” the realm of the hungry ghost. Author Gabriel Mate writes, “The inhabitants of the Hungry Ghost Realm are depicted as creatures with scrawny necks, small mouths, emaciated limbs and large, bloated, empty bellies. This is the domain of addiction, where we constantly seek something outside ourselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfillment. The aching emptiness is perpetual because the substances, objects or pursuits we hope will soothe it are not what we really need. We don’t know what we need, and so long as we stay in the hungry ghost mode, we’ll never know. We haunt our lives without being fully present.”

While Welwood rightly saw the danger of aversive transcendental bypassing in the “Shiva oriented” Buddhist spiritual community, in the more “Vishnu oriented” yoga and Kirtan communities I tend to see folks falling prey to addictive forms of bliss bypassing.

How To + Who Is?

How can we avoid falling prey to the very common trap of spiritual bypassing? At Kirtan Leader Institute we not only work with students around “HOW TO” lead Kirtan, but also work with them around “WHO IS leading Kirtan.”

We cannot operate under the assumption that we are immune to spiritual bypassing. We need to take seriously the notion that the tendency to spiritually bypass is so strong, pervasive and invisible that it is inevitable we do it on occasion. We need to notice the desire to spiritually bypass and, as Masters writes, attempt to interrupt “the impulse to turn away from our pain, numb ourselves and expect spirituality to make us feel better.”

We need to face into our limitations, broken parts, psychology, patterns, tendencies, shadow parts and do the difficult work so we can generate “a more authentic spirituality.”

Some of the tools for adult development and shadow work that we use include:

  • Somatics
  • Enneagram
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Inner Critic Work
  • Generative Conversations
  • Drama and Empowerment Triangles
  • Parts Work
  • Centering practice

And much more…

As we say… come for the music, and stay for the transformation.