Updated: Jul 9, 2022
In the current age of expanding consciousness, as more and more people are opening themselves to their spiritual natures, there is an unfortunate misconception that being spiritual (in any devotional practice or religious tradition) means never experiencing negative emotions or thoughts. The idea that having a strong spiritual connection with the Divine, or of being a true healer, makes one impervious to darker and heavier emotions, thoughts and feelings, is simply not true or really even possible.
In the 1980’s, John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, coined the phrase "spiritual bypassing” and defined it as a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks." He says that what happens with spiritual bypassing is a tendency towards rationalizing “premature transcendence” where we try to rise above the difficult raw human emotions and experience that need our attention before we have resolved or made peace with them, focusing on the desired awakening and liberation instead. Welwood says, “then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties and developmental deficits.” This is a common error made throughout various spiritual groups and communities, and with healers across many modalities. We can try to deny our human-ness, but what results is a sort of lofty, artificial pretense of transcendence. And what we dismiss remains unhealed within us.
Most likely all of us have met people who are confused by this ideal of what defines a spiritual person. They can be friends, teachers, parents, healers or religious figures. And we may have personally felt that we must push down any sort of unhappy feelings or thoughts so that we could be “liberated” by positivity. It is an easy mistake to make.
But we were born into human bodies and lives. And part of what makes us human is the ability to experience a wide range of emotions and thoughts, that naturally result when we undergo difficulty or pain as part of this human existence. Emotions are simply energy in motion. When we decide that, for example, sadness or anger are “bad” and joy and peace are “good,“ then we are placing a judgement on what is actually just a range of feelings natural to the human experience. This can encourage us to repress the heavier emotions, which causes the energy to stagnate and be held within the body versus flowing naturally through it when we process it in a healthy manner. This can have damaging effects to a healthy body system.
Taking this one step further, the experiences that cause us to have what are often regarded as negative emotions are actually an essential part of this human condition. We grow and learn through what challenges us. If we try to avoid what may be considered as negative feelings or thoughts, we are in effect stunting our own potential spiritual development and growth. We have the opportunity to become stronger, wiser and more resilient by facing difficult emotions and thought processes in order to feel our way through them; not by burying our wounds. This is the real challenge of transcendence. And, as we learn through the process of taking responsibility for our thoughts, feelings and emotions in a proactive way, our wounds can inevitably heal.
If we choose to ignore or bury what we judge as negative, the wound stays open and raw. Anything in the future that reminds us of or irritates that wound can unconsciously “trigger” us into reactivity in less healthy and even harmful ways. We cannot transcend what we have not healed within us.
Welwood says that sidestepping our psychological and emotional issues is dangerous because it “sets up a debilitating split between the buddha and the human within us.” The reason we are here in this lifetime is to embody what is divinely unique inside of us into manifest reality, to heal and grow through our wounds, and to shine our individual light of experience to better the world around us. Spiritual bypassing unfortunately disempowers us in this purpose.
We can choose to dig into the richness of our lives, experiencing the broad range of human emotion, gaining awareness of ourselves through our thoughts and feelings. We can make the conscious effort to resolve and make peace with what challenges us, knowing that everything the Universe places before us is intelligently designed to provide new opportunity for personal healing and empowerment. Because those great awakened teachers who have gone before us did not avoid their human suffering by prematurely transcending. They stepped into the fire of their challenges and were transformed by them.