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A New Way to Approach Spiritual Bypass

January 2, 2015

Mark Forman, PhD

First generation Integral applications are about the general application of quadrants, levels, lines, states, and types to a field – we might call this “big-picture” Integral application. Second generation Integral applications utilize this foundation and branch out to address more focused and granular application issues.

In the Certified Integral Therapist (CIT) Program, we work to ground our attendees in first generation Integral applications to psychotherapy and then augment them with second generation Integral applications. We believe we teach them in a unique, practical, and sophisticated way.

To provide a taste of the second-generation Integral concepts and applications in the CIT program, let’s address the idea of spiritual bypass: A now widely popular concept in the field of spiritual and transpersonal psychotherapy. In a recent interview, the creator of the concept, John Welwood, defined spiritual bypassing this way:

“[Spiritual bypassing is] a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.

When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits.”

While this is a wonderful definition – and Welwood’s work is rich and ground-breaking – I would suggest that the concept of spiritual bypass can be made clearer for clinical work. One reason we need more clarity is that spiritual bypass appears to be so common; it doesn’t simply arise as a problematic situation in some. In fact, I have met very few people, let alone serious spiritual practitioners, who don’t demonstrate a version of this at one time or another.

Just think about this for a second. How often do we hear people say phrases like “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle” or “Money is just a form of energy” or “Everything happens for a reason” or “Sexuality is really just spiritual” or “Death is just a transition” – and yet are clearly using these ideas to avoid confronting difficult and uncomfortable areas of life? Using spiritual concepts we don’t fully understand but that we want or would wish to be true is as human as it comes.

In the CIT program, we begin to clarify this topic by applying Integral concepts including states, stages, and types. And when we do, we see that what looks and sounds like “spiritual bypass” is not simply one thing, but is actually several different things, each of which has a different psychology and requires a unique clinical response.

Here are four categories that we use in the CIT program to expand the clinical concept of spiritual bypass. Of course, any individual may have to deal with more than one of these categories of bypass at the same time:

Expectable Bypass: Built into every stage of development is some capacity to objectively confront reality as it is and another tendency to add subjective elements of fantasy to it – to project or imagine what we would like life to be like[[i]]. This tension might be irreducible, since I would argue that humans require some reality and some fantasy even through to the very highest stages of growth. Whatever the case, we can expect that people will bypass certain hard truths or difficult challenges as a regular matter of stage capacity and as a normal part of development. It is entirely expectable. Our position clinically should be that everyone will do this from time-to-time, and that our challenges to clients showing this tendency should be deliberate and focused, not automatic. Such bypassing might not be a problem at all, but just a natural psychological tendency at work.

States-Driven Bypass: When a person has a powerful spiritual opening, or takes up an intensive spiritual practice, they often engage in a different type of bypass. They are likely to experience deep altered states and be so compelled by the states themselves that they will minimize many important aspects of life (such as money, relationship, sexuality, and so forth) in order to pursue a maximal ability to experience further states. This might be best likened to a biological drive, like hunger or thirst, which can capture and significantly alter an individual’s life trajectory. This drive will likely run its course in months or years – depending on what depth of states and insights are eventually attained – but this path is not pathological in-and-of-itself. We have to understand this as a unique clinical situation when we see it and support the client appropriately. This category of bypass is most related to the states element of Integral Theory.

Problematic Bypass: This is perhaps the classic form of spiritual bypass, in that a person is clearly using spirituality to avoid very pressing needs or aspects of self when they could likely do otherwise[ii]. This problematic bypassing is most likely driven by current crisis, early trauma, or by long-standing mental health issues such as depression or addiction. The person needs to escape themselves because their everyday experience has become so painful. While this problematic tendency can run its course over time, clinical support, challenge, and intervention are very often needed.  This category of spiritual bypass is related both to states (such as traumatic states or depressive states) as well as often stage elements of Integral Theory. That is, the tendency to problematically bypass is somewhat (though not entirely) more common at earlier stages.

Narcissistic Bypass: In this form of bypass, there is the melding within the person of strong narcissistic tendencies or narcissistic personality disorder with spiritual ideas, beliefs, or experiences. Here, significant narcissism can be understood as signaling an arrest at an early stage of development but also as being a “character style,” tendency, or type that one brings to each new stage. In this category, the person’s spirituality becomes a preferred vehicle for their narcissistic tendencies and allows them to avoid deep, underlying feelings of emptiness, shame, or unprocessed emotion. Lacking spirituality, it is likely that the person would find another outlet for their narcissism, so spirituality, while very significant in other forms of bypass, may not always be deeply felt by the person in this case. It may simply be his or her contextual or preferred mask. This is perhaps the most severe type of bypass and the most difficult to address clinically, since the person will often not see the existence of the problem or its negative life outcomes.

Hopefully readers will see the power of second generation Integral concepts and how these categories are directly applicable to working with spiritually interested clients. Each suggests a very different clinical response. This is something we see again and again: Utilizing the basic distinctions of Integral Theory, and bringing them to new areas of human psychology, opens up whole new vistas in our understanding of people. If you are interested in fully grasping this new way of seeing and being with others, please join us for the 2015 CIT Training!


[i] It is important and also possible to mesh the ideas of subjective and objective such that we see that they mutually influence and interpenetrate one another. So too do the concepts of fantasy and reality. Yet for many situations, and for much of our development, these concepts are useful to see in a polar way.

[ii] In the case of states-driven and problematic bypass, sometimes people are able to gain much greater equanimity and mindfulness during their time bypassing which they are then later able to apply to difficult life issues. In this sense, sometimes a bypass is a needed break from life issues in which the person is able to develop specific facets of the self. When bypassing is helpful and timely in this way versus when it has become a problem itself is a clinical, case-by-case judgment.

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