Spiritual Bypassing: An Interview with John Welwood

John Welwood has studied, taught, and written about the relationship of psychotherapy and spiritual practice for thirty years.  He is currently the editor of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology and author of Journey of the Heart.

In an interview in the Spring issue of Tricycle, Welwood discusses the concept of “spiritual bypassing” which he presented three decades ago:  http://www.tricycle.com/interview/human-nature-buddha-nature.  According to Welwood, spiritual bypassing is the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”

Both eastern and western world views implicitly or explicitly elevate spirit over flesh, absolute truth over relative truth, and the impersonal over the personal.  Welwood says such an attitude is fraught with danger:  “One might, for example, try to practice nonattachment by dismissing one’s need for love, but this only drives the need underground, where it is likely to become acted out in covert, unconscious, and possibly harmful ways.”

We’ve all seen that dynamic play out in headlines of scandals involving both eastern gurus and western clergy.  Other consequences of an exclusive focus on the transcendent are less dramatic but far more pervasive.  I once attended a talk presented by a large organization that teaches eastern spiritual practice.  The group is well regarded – never a hint of scandal.  During the Q&A following the talk, one young woman said, “I cried when cat died recently.  Was that okay?”  Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief when the speaker said yes.

Is it all right to be myself?  Is it all right to think what I think and feel what I feel?  Not if the focus of practice is transcendence of all that is messy in the human condition.  Welwood has seen a lot of this in his therapeutic practice and says:

One Indian teacher, Swami Prajnanpad, whose work I admire, said that “idealism is an act of violence.” Trying to live up to an ideal instead of being authentically where you are can become a form of inner violence if it splits you in two and pits one side against the other.

For anyone interested in or engaged in spiritual practice, this is a worthwhile article to consider, as John Welwood tries to articulate the vision of a spiritual discipline that aims to fully develop both “poles” of our nature, the human and the divine.

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