SPIRITUAL BYPASSING

In MINDFULNESS by Bo Heimann30 Comments

In the book Spiritual Bypassing, Robert Masters has written about an important wake up call to all people with spiritual inclinations. It is a wake up call that rings true, and is aligned with what genuine Buddhist masters have always taught: do not think you can jump to the top of the ladder.

Robert Masters points to a range of unhealthy traits that may arise from unfounded and non-guided spiritual training: Excessive detachment ability; One-sided focus on positive thinking; Fear of anger and artificial kindness; Neglect of emotions; Difficulty in setting limits; No interest in real psychotherapeutic work; An intellectual intelligence that is far ahead of the emotional and moral intelligence; Focus on the absolute rather than the relative and personal; Somewhat inflated ideas about their own cognitive level.

Is there an alarm bell ringing? Are you able to say that you are completely free? Every genuine master whom I have had the luxury of receiving teachings from has always stressed that we need to cultivate from the inside out. With the concept of bypassing, Masters describes how many so-called spiritual people is missing out on imperative psychological development. He compares it to being hoisted down to the mountaintop by a helicopter. We end up without a reliable or firm foundation. Our view is not deserved nor supported from within, but bought and achieved without the appropriate foundational work. We simply have to climb all the way to the top if we really want to be free.

In the book, he points to a number of ways in which we tend to use spirituality as a numbing escape route. Firstly, he points to the fact that there are no easy shortcuts, even though quite a few contemporary spiritual teachers and schools seem to think so. As it is said, we just have to be present in the now.

As Masters notes, it is nevertheless the case that not many of us can or will not accept that we are trying to cheat to work our way up to the mountain top. In our view, it is only sensible to bypass the difficult subjects and not use too much energy during that time. We like the big cognitive breakthroughs and the view from the top of the mountain. We do not enjoy the small steps, the daily practice, the yearlong studying or the thorough psycho-therapeutic work that is needed to get us up there without a helicopter. It should of course be painless, right? In this way, the misleading idea of a shortcut ends up as a dead-end street. Masters says that we would like to believe that we can do it all in half the time.

Secondly, he points out that there is an exaggerated positivism that thrives in spiritual environments. The truth is that most of us periodically are controlled by fear, anger, jealousy, hurt etc., have come to be labeled as negative emotions. So, we do not accept them. We are not able to contain those feelings, and so we shy away from dealing with them.

In the name of spirituality, we hide our dark sides in the shadows. Maybe we are mentally working with them. We do some noncommittal yoga on a rubber mat, or meditate a little. Masters compares this to paddling around in the shallow end of the pool. Unfortunately, we delude ourselves into thinking that this kind of work can really create lasting change.

True therapeutic work and true spiritual work, like genuine Buddhism, takes place in the really deep end of the pool. Buddhism is like plunging ourselves into the big ocean! He writes that genuine work is really, really hard and dangerous; and, he is right. It is not a nice, orderly process, but a messy and dirty affair that involves the body, emotions and cognitive knowledge.

Masters says that aversion or anger – one of the five kleshas, are especially exposed to a huge displacement culture; spiritual people are never angry, right? However, is it not anger that can lead us to say no to unhealthy relationships and circumstances? Masters points out that it is those of us who acknowledge our anger, and who are able to express it in a respectful manner to both others and ourselves, who are ultimately the ones in the best position to forgive others for their anger. When we suppress our anger, and behave as though we are never really angry, we carry it within us like a bleeding wound. Feelings of grief, shame, fear, loneliness, etc. are in similar fashion in bad standing with many spiritual people.

Another dogma in spiritual circles that Masters puts his finger on is the idea that we all do our best and have basically positive intentions. It may mean that we have a very difficult time with setting healthy boundaries, despite the fact that we may be quite obviously being treated with disrespect. We may let others abuse us for too long from a misguided idea that we should always be kind and compassionate. This excessive and misguided compassion for others is hardly distinguishable from the lack of respect and compassion for ourselves.

He calls us harmony junkies, which is basically governed by fear. This fear is not only for actual confrontation, but also the fear of not appearing as a righteous and good spiritual person. In this way, we allow unhealthy patterns and relationships to continue indefinitely. Also, if we cannot say no with power and meaning, our yes becomes fickle and weak.

Another issue is that of transcendence. Masters says, there is a fine line from what we can call proper transcendence of spiritual significance, and unhealthy dissociation from emotions, personality traits and trauma, which we do not like. The healthy approach is to transcend and embrace suffering and recognize the mistakes and errors of the negative qualities that we want to leave behind. Fleeing in avoidance is the unhealthy transcendence. Masters calls it dissociation dressed in holy robes. When we experience pain and sadness, or a broken heart from a partner’s disrespect, the spiritual bypass is to rise above it 
so that it no longer can be felt, rather than allowing ourselves 
to feel and express the emotions that are there. According to Masters, at its worst, the result combines a lack of connection to the body and the earth.

Masters wants us also to be aware of the popular non-duality trend: ‘All is one, and all is well. There is nothing you need to do, nothing you have to change, just be there in the now. Learn not to identify with your limiting stories about yourself. Realize everything is unity. And be free! It is so simple. Masters has only respect for the doctrine as such, and I shake my head with him, that it is put across to be a simple task like it is.

Masters suggests that we are free, and always have been, but we have simply forgotten our true nature. Unfortunately we prefer that there is no work to do on our personal plan; as if we suddenly do not have challenges with anxiety, anger, greed, shame, etc. The non-dual teachings are dangerous because the danger of forsaking our humanity, emotions and body is imminent. This misguided focus on the absolute, that there is no personality, body, and history, will actually often result in an intellectual escape from everyday life and personal development.

Masters’ book Spiritual Bypassing is a bit of a rude awakening to the spiritual environment. It is a call to take our lives and ourselves really seriously, just as all genuine Buddhist teachers have always done. According to Masters, spiritual bypassing separates us from our pain and personal issues so that they remain unaddressed.

Excerpted from Bo Heimann’s Freeing Your Mind – an introduction to Mindfulness and basic Buddhist philosophy.
Recommended reading: Spiritual Bypassing, by Robert Masters.

About the Author
Bo Heimann

Bo Heimann

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M.A. Leadership & Organizational Pshychology.
B. A. Journalism

Indendent consultant since 2004 – transformative and strategic development of people, teams and organizations.

I help leaders and employees to success in the post-capitalist reality, we are in the process of co-creating in these stormy and wild times of change.

In collaboration with the client , I create transformative courses and workshops for leaders and employees to strengthen the organization’s skills in order to support the business strategy.

I believe in the transformative learning set free of the normal classroom teaching; that we need to reflect, feel and sense in order to reach genuine insights; that the development of leaders and employees should be strategic so that their development supports the business; and that successful leadership is about creating meaning and trust.

I am inspired by the desire to raise our awareness and strengthen our ability to govern ourselves and others and create purpose-driven, sustainable and resiliente organizations.

I investigate, researching, asking to engage me in debate about, writes about and teaches psychology, philosophy, society and development organizations to help managers and employees to think bigger and act for the benefit of both themselves and their surroundings.

Photo by Friza Reihan, Indonesia.

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  1. Pingback: Facebook 2015 - Web pages | Pearltrees

  2. Really awesome article and very enlightening to me. I am actually coming from the opposite end – heavy shadow work and psychological perspective. Perhaps being a Scorpio has something to do with that, LOL, but I’ve often been about “doing the work”. I also have been of the mind that being spiritual is being who you really are in all your “glory” and your “shame”. I guess it could be called, “Being Real” (or a real as possible because sometimes I wonder, “What is really real?”). (I know. My mind is ever on the go–wondering.). I’m planning on rereading the article and checking out Masters’ book.

    P.S. I too did think the pictures didn’t fit the article, but not because of sexism, etc. When you mentioned perhaps different cultures perceiving things differently I realized, “Yeah. That’s it! In my culture, these pix would be expected in a Glamour Mag spread.”. It’s really interesting how different cultures perceive things, but also pretty cool and definitely interesting and a good “opener” to getting to know “the other”.

    Again, awesome! Peace!

    1. Bo Heimann

      Hi Dee,

      Thank you 🙂

      I think you will enjoy Master´s book. John Welwood ´Towards A Psychological Awakening´is another fantastic read, I think would fit you well.

      Best, Bo

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  4. Seema

    Hi Tara , I love the eyes in this picture and do agree they express honesty and sensitivity.

    Wonderful article and a food of thought for lot of modern teachers. There is no shortcut in spirituality , even in this modern world !

  5. Interesting article. I get the feeling you were presenting things quite generally, whilst this is beneficial for a wide and varied audience, some points are needed, context, clarity and precision. This seems to be common when psychology and Buddhism is mixed.

  6. I have been reading a book about the Korean Sohn master, Chinul. He makes a similar case, but in the language of his time. He advocates a “sudden awakening/gradual clarification” practice. Because the mind is already Buddha, one just needs to “awaken” to that fact. However, habits can be very powerful, so most of us still need to work through those even if we already are “awakened”. Those schools who advocate only a “sudden awakening” may be for students who have already clarified their minds in other lives (assuming a literal idea of rebirth). So, this isn’t necessarily at odds with “sudden awakening” found in Zen and Ch’an teachings. There are many practices, ancient and modern, that it would seem could help with that clarification.

  7. After reading this, I believe “Spiritual bypassing” is not bypassing at all really. It is just another catalyst for spiritual growth. It is all part of the work surrounding striving to find and then maintain the balance between love and wisdom. I have read that love without wisdom is martyrdom. But not that martyrdom was ‘wrong’. Martyrdom as simply an experience of a kind of imbalance between the two. It is quite natural, I know, to gather spiritual knowledge ‘thinking’ that rote practice is the path to spiritual growth or enlightenment or to proximity to divinity depending on your chosen path. But the experience of suppressing rather than observing and processing our ‘so called’ negative behaviors and feelings is in itself a teacher too! The spiritual condition of bypassing, cheating, and shortcuts assumes that being dropped onto the mountaintop is somehow not the “right” path. All catalysts–life situations–are “right paths” for those on them. We all find our way, in our own way and the need to point out that OUR way is the right way is so strong, even in the most “enlightened” teachers. I do believe that this book may speak to many people in a positive way–as I think the author is speaking of powerful personal truths, but my sense is it might shame many more into believing they are not “as enlightened” because they are “cheaters.” Can there really be any cheaters on a path to spiritual growth? And who is in the position to judge who is cheating? I know an elderly man in his 80s society might judge as mentally unstable. I find him quite lovely and eccentric. He recently sent me a family Christmas letter his sister puts together. In his little section it read: “This year I learned to play the drums and guitar. I made some recordings. I burned the recordings and now I listen to the ashes. Sometimes you are not aware of your own enlightenment.” below it he wrote to me in his own hand; “Far Out, eh?” Far out indeed. Maybe the truly enlightened are unaware of enlightenment at all, about their own or the progress of others. Thank you for the thought provoking article. I have pondered this in my heart for a long time, and enjoyed every minute of it.

  8. Pingback: Atajos espirituales || Bo Heimann | Dharma en español

  9. Absolutely wonderful article! It is a point I try to convey and your article states it in a beautiful way. I just might get the book. Wrong pictures for me though (and for many others it seems, despite your good intentions).

    Stephane
    Vice-president, creation. Minimal Media
    Graphic Design teacher, CDI College

    1. Bo Heimann

      Thank you Stephane – yes, do read the book! Regarding the pictures, I find all the turmoil about them serves a purpose 😉

      Hugs, Bo

  10. Look at ourselves, as humanity, where are we now at present?
    On point of annihilating ourselves at any given moment.
    Isnt it our own doing?
    Isn’t it time that we, each one of us, look within ourselves? The world is not out there.
    The culture we have created is destroying us. Ist it apperant yet?

    We take physical phenomenon of manifestation granted. Big Bang! As a ‘ thing’.
    What is the source of this thing? The scientists are trying to find the source of the thing in an ultimate ‘thing’. —- God Particle! And what they have come up with ?
    ‘ No – Thing’, from where the particle appears and disappears into!
    The concept of Infinity does not fit into scientific measures. They talk of Singularity as an ultimate measure.
    Isn’t this measure body and mind? And can it discover its source which could be beyond measure ?
    To look for other possibilities we have to discard the psychological experiences and knowledge we have accumulated over the millenniums.
    The question is what tools we are going to use? If not the body/mind!

  11. Thanks for a great article. My own experience is that spiritual bypassing can happen almost by accident e.g a shock of some kind that leaves one egoless for a time. Never the less the earth comes back to us even if we attempt to leave it most often. I was and still and am after a number of years still feeling the aftershock of such an experience and it has led to what I feel has been a long road of suffering for some of the reasons mentioned. And, as is often mentioned, great gifts of change.

    One of the gifts has been greater adaptability. Another is recognition of habitual behavior.

    Which allowed me to adore the photography and wallow in distraction for a moment. Unhindered. Cheers.

    1. Bo Heimann

      Hi Phil,

      Thank you! Yes, it is so isn’t it – bypassings leaves us thinking we’ve got it? 😉
      Oh, the sweet, unhindrered and clear presence….but the truth is that it’s based on rejections, suppressions and denials… Someday we’ll wake up to that as well. For some of us it’s a harsh and tough waking up. No time to lose!

  12. Thank you for this!
    Consciously working with my own spiritual bypassing has been transformative in my life and my practice, and I have to keep working a it. I started by reading Welwood — good interview here: in a course at the Interdependence Project in NYC, and I, too, have seen and heard Brad Warner bring this up as well. Embodied practice, such as mindfulness of body/mindfulness of feelings meditation, as well as some of the work Reggie Ray does at DharmaOcean, has been vital to me in this regard. Reggie Ray’s stuff is particularly intriguing; he’s an old Trungpa student and accomplished vajrayana teacher and a very heady, intellectual guy–who wound up doing really, really deep work with embodiment.

    1. Bo Heimann

      Hi Ellen,

      Thank you for bringing forth other sources of inspiration – yeah, Trungpa´s still around isn´t he!? 😉

  13. I’ve see other teachers make the same point. Brad Warner (hardcorezen.info) returns to this point often on his blog: no shortcuts. I think we need to take the time to see into our own habits of though, feelings, and attachments. Otherwise we end up with a sort of “dry cognition,” in which we have the ability to perceive the Absolute, but no true “gut feeling” for it. Ironically, this seems to contradict the traditional “sudden enlightenment” teaching often found in Zen schools. But without some kind of steady, routine practice, there is no point in having a view of the Absolute. Even Dennis Merzel, author of the “Big Mind” process, cautions his students that zazen (meditation) is indispensable. Without practice, he says, “…It will just become a fond memory.”

    1. Bo Heimann

      Hi Barry,

      Thank you – yes, I like to think that no genuine master ever talked about short cuts – and that they exactly can lead us to what you call ´dry cognition´(if not even worse states….).

  14. I also question the use of these photos. They have nothing to do with the text.

    1. Tara Trinley Wangmo

      Dear Lois. I was considering using a picture of the sky with clouds, like Masters’ book cover, but I thought “not again”. I felt a human face with an artistic touch would be more suitable. Also I was happy to feature an Indonesian photographer.

  15. Frans Stiene

    Love it, thank you.
    Sharing it right now.

    Indeed Erik, we have to approach life playfully. I see this too in many spiritual practitioners and teachers, they become way too serious, but the teachers of old have a wonderful playfulness about them.

  16. Erik Pema Kunsang

    The feminine symbolizes sensitivity. Young stands for being open-minded. The makeup is perhaps for the uneasiness of being oneself, perhaps for a playful approach to life.

  17. Why these photos. I suppose my discomfort with them is a sign of my need to further investigate the nature of my mind. But I would have had a deeper connection with the words if I was not distracted by the images.

  18. Seriously inappropriate and manipulative pictures accompany this otherwise okay article. Would be mystifying except for #becausesexism.

    1. Tara Trinley Wangmo

      Dear So Over That. Well, the photos are not what I call sexism. As responsible for the artwork at LEVEKUNST, I didn’t have any manipulative agendas. On the contrary, her eyes express sensitivity and honesty, agendas which are necessary to go beyond spiritual bypassing.

    2. Bo Heimann

      Thank you So Over That for taking this up – I´m happy to back Tara on this. Knowing her for years it´s obvious for me that she – like me – has no sexism whatsoever intended. I wonder if there´s somethin culturel in play here? Both Tara and I are Danes…are we percieving things diffently due to diffent cultural markers?

      Best wishes,
      Bo

    1. Bo Heimann

      Thank you, Helena! Of course Masters is the one to credit – and behind him Jonh WelWood who coined term.

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