Life is suffering. Existence is bondage to bodily experiences of emotion, excrement, illness, pain, and death. Dharmic spirituality posits this fundamental reality of suffering as inherent to our very being. The importance of this teaching is apparent in its scriptural placement; it is the Buddha’s First Noble Truth and the first line of the Sāṃkhya Karika. These traditions begin with the premise of suffering as it is the nature of reality itself. Evidence of this wisdom is observable in our life by simply witnessing our fluctuating mind and by stepping out into society. Suffering has many expressions; ubiquitous today are the COVID-19 pandemic, mass shootings, sexual violence, police killings of unarmed Black men, human trafficking, environmental destruction, systemic racism, misogyny, animal cruelty, murder of transgender peoples, political unrest, and white supremacy. There was a nationwide, collective eruption of anger after the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. This was expressed through strident demands for social justice, protests, riots, and militarized police force to suppress them.
Nobody wants to suffer and everyone wants happiness. Sensitive, inquisitive people run away from conventional society and toward spirituality for solace. Spirituality is sold as a solution for discomfort, anger, and sadness. Enlightenment, the effervescent outcome of spiritual practice, is highly desirable for practitioners who seek peace of mind. It promises to eliminate suffering in the mind-body-soul for a permanent state of peace, love, and happiness. Practitioners from all faith traditions are motivated to cultivate a sense of goodness within themselves, unlike what is apparent in the human environment. This has resulted in an insidious effect of spirituality used as a bypass for emotions and experiences deemed as “negative.”
A study of anger, as an example of “negative emotion,” reveals more clues on the spiritual practitioners’ tendency for bypass. Anger is popularly known as one of the seven deadly sins. Spiritual bypass of anger is understandable to some degree; within the Dharma traditions, anger (dveṣa) is an addiction (kleśa). It is one of the three root poisons (viṣa) along with greed and delusion, which fuel suffering in saṃsāra. Anger suppression is often taught as a spiritual teaching to achieve acceptance into heaven and higher states of being. It is depicted as a trait of the antagonist, rather than the protagonist in popular storytelling. This is especially true for the spiritual community, which tends to avoid anger believing it to be “bad” or “taboo,” despite references to its aptness in the Bhagavad Gita and other various scriptures. Spiritual liberation and anger are treated as antipodal opposites without our conscious awareness.
Clinical psychologist John Welwood describes spiritual bypass in his book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation, published in 1984. He wrote,
Starting in the 1970s, I began to perceive a disturbing tendency among many members of spiritual communities. Although many spiritual practitioners were doing good work on themselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual practice to bypass or avoid dealing with certain personal or emotional ‘unfinished business.’ This desire to find release from the earthly structures that seem to entrap us—the structures of karma, conditioning, body, form, matter, personality— has been a central motive in the spiritual search for thousands of years. So there is often a tendency to use spiritual practice to try to rise above our emotional and personal issues—all those messy, unresolved matters that weigh us down. I call this tendency to avoid or prematurely transcend basic human needs, feelings, and developmental tasks spiritual bypassing.
Spiritual bypass effectively creates the illusion of transcendence. It naively sweeps our shadows – those “messy, unresolved matters” that make us uncomfortable – under the rug. It stores the causes and conditions of suffering out of sight. In the darkness, these hidden parts of ourselves take on different forms and appearances. They become a source for the persistent continuation of cyclical suffering, fed by the habits of ego. As a result, spirituality itself becomes an obstacle for liberation. Practices meant for inner transformation become less effective. Yes, anger is an obstacle for liberation, but avoiding it can also lead to emotional blockages that limit our spiritual progress toward enlightenment. Practice requires radical honesty and understanding of our humanity.
Suffering is an unavoidable teacher on the path. It offers wisdom in its nuances. Even anger can serve as a beacon that brings light to injustice, the causes of suffering, and our direct contributions to its perpetuation. Spiritual bypass isn’t simply avoiding our own suffering; it is also the neglect of pain felt by other sentient beings. We must be mindful of how spirituality can easily be manipulated by the ego to turn our gaze from suffering.
Hidden History of Spiritual Bypass
This phenomena of spirituality used as bypass is not personal or new. It extends into power dynamics found throughout history in capitalism, societies, religious organizations, and governments to turn the gaze from systemic suffering. In fact, the modern culture of spiritual bypass has historical roots shaped by colonial oppressive tactics to subdue an entire class of warrior sadhus.
When the British first landed in India, they encountered a variety of yogis – not just the romanticized, peaceful, unconditional loving kind we imagine today. Naga yogi warriors were described as a “terrifying force” who were loud, unstoppably tenacious, experts in martial arts combat, drank the blood of their enemies, and wielded weapons like swords, arrows, cakras (a disc-shaped weapon), and eventually guns. They traveled in large, swift droves together and conducted business with conquerors and laypeople alike.
In the West, people assume yoga to be peaceful because of Gandhi’s discourse on ahimsa and non-violent revolution without knowledge of Hindu scriptures or the existence of warrior sadhus. These ascetic warriors have a long history in India that goes further back than the Moghul period. Kings and yogis worked together to conquer lands and rule. In these texts, princes were often initiated as yogis, and pursued a life of kingship and spiritual renunciation. Spiritual practitioners have a long history of engaging in the material world of economics, war, kingdoms, and oppression in India and beyond.
British manipulation of Indian laws, demilitarization of these yogi warriors, criminalization of yogis by John Hastings of the British East India Tea Company stifled and made the angry ascetic invisible. It was a strategic, political move to strip yogis of their power, influence, and threat to the British regime. Scholar William Pinch writes,
The Company needed a modern sadhu: a priestly monk unconcerned with worldly power and given over to religious contemplation and prayer. In retrospect, it can be argued that with the gradual removal of armed monks from territories controlled by the Company in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, north Indian monasticism turned inward, away from worldly martial pursuits and toward more aesthetic, devotional, and literary accomplishments.
The British adapted the less threatening indigenous ideal of the non-violent ascetic from Dharmic traditions as a manipulative tool to erase the warrior ascetic and subdue the masses. The orientalist image of the docile, gentle yogi became romanticized by the West as a fixed quality of “goodness” and the spiritual identity over time. Warrior sadhus disappeared into history, away from the popular Western understanding of yoga. Negative emotions, like the anger of warrior sadhus of the past, became perceived as uncivilized, barbaric, and non-spiritual. The ideas that emerged from this history linger on through spiritual bypassing and emotional suppression.
Spiritual Bypassing in Modernity
Modern spiritual culture and technological advances have also influenced and encouraged spiritual bypassing. I’ll provide several examples of phenomena that contribute to spiritual bypass in modernity: 1) “woke” is trendy, 2) “good vibes only,” 3) the spiritual ego, 4) white fragility, 5) the information age, 6) neo-liberal capitalism, and 7) the disintegration of the guru-student relationship.
“Woke” is slang terminology to describe elevated awareness; a person that is “woke” is an individual that knows truth, speaks on the nature of reality, or is knowledgeable of profound spiritual concepts or social issues. Merriam-Webster added “woke” as an entry in 2017, due to its prevalence on social media. “Woke” is short for “awake,” as in, “I was sleeping and now I’m awake.”
According to search data collected by Google, the usage of “woke” has grown exponentially, as shown in the following graph.
The origins of this modern linguistic trend is unclear. Merriam-Webster speculates that spikes in this trend were fueled by social and racial justice issues following the death of Michael Brown in 2014, indicating the rising awareness of hidden systemic oppression of BIPOC in the United States. This metaphor of awakening, however, to describe enlightenment or self-actualization has been present for centuries in Dharma traditions. The usage of “woke” in popular culture is not necessarily an indication of sincere spiritual collective enlightenment or knowledge of social justice issues. It may simply indicate that the appearance of “knowing” or “awakening” has become the newest fashion of what is deemed as “cool” or “vogue.”
This has its benefits. It indicates progress and the rise of interest in topics of systemic racial, sexual, and gender inequities. However, it does not necessarily mean that the people who use this term are actually aware of the nature of reality, genuinely empathize with the experience of oppression, or have become awakened beings. No matter how well spoken or groomed a so-called “woke” person may appear, suffering – and anger – will follow.
This appearance of knowing or being “woke” is quite accessible in the information age where answers, be they true or false, can be discovered with a series of key words and click of a button on the internet. The highest teachings of all spiritual traditions are conveniently available for anyone to study and muse on. For example, we learn in Mahayana Buddhism that everything is ultimately empty on the absolute level. But what does this teaching really mean if we haven’t realized it? Simply knowing the words that describe the nature of ultimate reality is not an indication of enlightenment, but rather it is an intellectual exercise or inflation of appearances without actualization. It is an illusion or misapprehension of spiritual illumination without the real effort or tapas (discipline), time, and commitment to attain realization.
The combination of the notion of being “woke” and the information age pseudo-omniscience has resulted in “spiritual” self-deception, as it were. The ego has become inflated on the identity of being “spiritual.” I believe the suppression of anger is a symptom of this “spiritual ego” that seemingly knows everything, tries its best to be a “good” person, and asserts power through delusion and confident ignorance. In this scenario, the ego grows unsuspectingly into spiritual narcissism without self-reflection, and remains subject to afflictive emotions like anger. Obliviousness denies the opportunity to honestly examine one’s own feelings, unconscious influences of implicit bias, and stories produced by the ego of oneself, others, and society at large. The consequences and dangers of spiritual self-deception is the sacrifice of truth – that we feel angry, do not know what anger is, who we are, or what the nature of our very existence is.
“Good vibes only” is a phrase that describes the preferential inclusion of only positive and friendly emotional expressions. It rejects any expression that is discomforting. Like the slang term “woke”, the popularity of this phrase is reflected in social media, art work, journalism, music, signs, and group interactions. “Good vibes” in Google search data indicates a rise in popularity of this phrase as seen below.
The rise of “good vibes only” culture is a symptom of spiritual bypass sustained by neoliberal capitalism and white supremacy. Yoga brands profit off of white consumer comfort; prior to summer 2020, corporations and sanghas avoided sensitive social topics like white supremacy, privilege, systemic racism, and the unjust murder of Black Americans, which were associated with strong emotions of white fragility (emotional defensiveness), anger, anxiety, and fear. “Good vibes only” supports an emotional equilibrium of spiritual practitioners in “a cocoon of racial comfort, centrality, superiority, entitlement, racial apathy, and obliviousness, all rooted in an identity of being good people free of racism. ” Yoga scholar Andrea Jain notes,
The loneliness in the drive for salvation remains the force, I think, behind neoliberal capitalism, exhibited through the constant demand to display one’s perfection and the promises of perfection made through consumer branding. It fits, in other words, within the long-established tradition of Protestant-capitalist self-improvement, a staple in numerous religious and capitalist texts. This occurs, in large part, through acts of cultural appropriation, resulting in…an orientalist fantasy of enlightenment-ethics.
After the protests and riots of summer 2020 in response to George Floyd’s death, yoga corporations and sanghas became more vocal than ever before about civil rights, oppression of POC, and anti-racism. I believe this shift was driven by a transformation of consumer consciousness; it was no longer profitable to remain silent around issues of racism, injustice, and white supremacy. Capitalism supports the exploitation of social and environmental justice issues to drive sales. Public relations efforts maintain the image of “wokeness” or ethics through performative gestures, branding initiatives, and written statements with minimal action.
The classic symptom of bypass is marked by the incongruence of appearance, intention, and action. This distinctive quality has resulted in an illusion of transcendence and an overemphasis on false appearances. LGBTQ+ Pride is a prototypical example of bypass driven by capitalism. Corporations paint themselves in rainbow colors with language of support to create the appearance of inclusivity, while funding political candidates and lobby groups that actively fund anti-gay policies and promote discriminatory rhetoric. Initiative from corporate brands is rooted in profit, rather than an earnest desire to fuel equitable change. Like the British East India Company, modern corporations and governments wield spirituality as a tool for profit while perpetuating issues of systemic injustice, oppression, discrimination, environmental destruction, and white supremacy.
Individuals also prematurely transcend their shadows through the illusion of appearances. Morality or goodness, especially for the spiritual seeker, is held dear as an expression of the ego identity narrative. When the identity narrative is challenged, the spiritual ego flares up its defenses. This becomes especially apparent in conversations about anger and racism. Racists and “angry people” attract similar labels. Racists are bad, ignorant, bigoted, prejudiced, mean-spirited, old, and Southern. Non-racists are good, progressive, educated, open-minded, well-intentioned, nice, young, diverse, and Northern. DiAngelo states, “Within this paradigm, to suggest that I am racist [or angry] is to deliver a deep moral blow – a kind of character assassination. Having received this blow, I must defend my character, and that is where all my energy will go – to deflecting the charge, rather than reflecting on my behavior”
When your self-image does not match how you are viewed publicly, you may feel impelled to protect yourself. This moral blow carries layers of guilt and shame for white spiritual practitioners who have close family members and friends who exhibit white superiority in their language, behavior, and political choices. Guilt has a pay-off of avoiding responsibility. Psychologist and spiritual teacher Dr. David Wolf writes, “Instead of honestly looking at my responsibility for what happened, and ways I can rectify mistakes, I feel guilty. Rather than sincerely acting to improve my character and behavior, I feel guilt and shame about my shortcomings.” When well-intentioned people find out that they have caused harm, the narrative of themselves as a “good person” becomes damaged. The opportunity to endeavor in self-reflection and accept the imperfect nature of ourselves is replaced with immobile guilt of unmet expectations. This missed opportunity for self-reflection is also known as “spiritual bypass.” Johnson states, “spiritual bypassing creates an environment that lacks an analysis about how power and privilege relate to the practice of yoga.”
Despite many dharmic traditions following a non-dual philosophy that blurs binaries and the lines of right and wrong, spiritual practitioners subscribe to this false dichotomy unconsciously around race and anger. 36% of white Americans believe “there are clear standards for what is right and wrong” – the highest percentage among all racial groups. Conversely, 62% of white Americans believe “right or wrong depends on the situation” – the lowest percentage compared to POC. The remaining statistics are as follows: 29% of Other/Mixed, 28% of Black, 27% of Latino, and 21% of Asians agree with clear right/wrong binaries; 78% of Asian, 70% of Black, 69% of Latino, and 68% of Other/Mixed believe context matters.
Unchallenged personal opinions are considered authority in modern spirituality. The influence of ignorance, social conditioning, and ego without mastery of discernment is not considered. Scholar Courtney Bender writes, “in short, spiritual practitioners explain that individuals could encounter religious practices that, though belonging to others, precisely, are nonetheless, theirs.” Uncontested private experience is privileged as the pathway to discover forgotten or concealed spirit, which is considered to be a human’s true identity. It appears “in moments where accounts focus attention on emotions, tears, and bodies, words disappear. The moment of experience itself becomes untranslatable to others, and even perhaps to oneself.” Herein, a problem arises: our misinformation, unconscious lacunae, early conditioning, and pride become an arrogant authority in a self-constructed reality which doubts everything that does not match what we think is true. Intuition, which can easily be clouded by self-interest, is valued over external feedback. This can lead to spiritual bypassing and unintentional gaslighting of another or one’s own reality that doesn’t fit the narrative carefully crafted by the spiritual ego. Moral outrage or justified anger of POC is met with defensive White pushback, and suppressive scolding disguised as spiritual teachings.
Lastly, wisdom from the Dharma traditions, including yoga, historically have been passed down through oral transmission from guru to disciple. There is typically no personalized guidance for lay disciples in modernity, unless one has the privilege of time and resources to build an intimate relationship with a guru. This privileged opportunity is uncommon in a neoliberal capitalist society where many must labor to generate income for basic survival. Many Americans must pay rent, taxes, car insurance, and other requirements to simply exist within a society.
In the information age, we have access to all kinds of teachings from every lineage at our fingertips and yet, it is confusing for an inquisitive new seeker to know where to begin and how to discern a true teacher in a market full of self-proclaimed gurus. Seekers do their best to find connections through the means available – their cell phones, computers, Instagram/Facebook, search engines like Google, books, YouTube, Amazon.com, podcasts, yoga studios, sanghas, and the occasional transformation festival. The success of spiritual guides is often determined by their marketing capital and abilities within capitalism. For many beginners, authority and credibility are often linked with longevity and popularity, rather than potency of wisdom. The combination of “woke” culture and popularity of social media in the information age has resulted in the belief that titles, followers, number of training programs, and manicured digital content are the qualities of spiritual realization.
Technological accessibility has its limits. The teachings, albeit plentiful, aren’t designed to meet every student’s psycho-emotional needs or stage on the path to enlightenment. There are innumerable, untranslated teachings that remain in libraries, oral traditions, and esoteric traditions requiring initiation. Most practitioners are limited by language; most Western practitioners do not possess the ability to read and understand Sanskrit, Tibetan, Pali, or classical Chinese. Only select scriptures (i.e. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Bhagavad Gita) have been translated and popularized. The Western emphasis and distribution of these texts originate from the British East India Company, which aimed to colonize India and disempower its people. Capitalism also restricts who is able to access teachings by attaching monetary value to them. Spiritual offerings like retreats, conventions, and programs are often quite costly. Only those who have the time and disposable income can participate.
Context matters; ancient scriptures weren’t designed to stand alone without the commentary, assessment, and guidance of a true guru or teacher. The guru-disciple relationship allows a personalization of teachings that directly calls attention to the tendencies of bypass or misunderstanding of its teachings. Contemplative practices often assume the fundamental vow of withdrawal from the world of its disciples. Unlike the renunciates of the past, most dedicated practitioners choose to engage in capitalism and the greater systems at large.
Practitioners face different sets of concerns today. Modern renunciation is aimed at withdrawal from conventionality, otherwise as “the matrix.” It appears as protest, veganism, farmer’s markets, sustainability, conscious communities, freelancing, minimalism, off-grid housing, nomadic living, alternative medicine, and consumer boycotts. Everyone holds different degrees of renunciation, but nonetheless, they are likely to participate in capitalism and function within a governed society. Yoga industry, for example, was reported to generate $18 billion dollars from its consumers according to the 2016 Study by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal.
Spiritual bypass is an effect of many causes and conditions. Society and its structures are inescapable for the lay spiritual seeker in pursuit of happiness and liberation from saṃsāra. Modern teachers come in many forms as social media posts, books, friends, gurus, conversations, and the culture we consume. This consumption of material goods, wisdom, ideologies, and social circles, in turn, shape who we are. We, as individuals, are not free from outside influences that affect our consciousness, choices, and culture. How we engage in politics, economics, and spirituality is also a reflection of our identity, awareness, and consciousness.
The medicine for spiritual bypass is prajñā, meaning “wisdom, insight, or discriminating knowledge.” Spiritual insight asks practitioners to constantly engage in the lived experience with sincere investigation, discernment, and compassionate action toward oneself and others as sadhana. The practice of discernment is multi-layered – it requires the critical analysis of context, society, history, gurus, and oneself. It becomes a path of insight through mind training required to unravel the habitual tendencies and conditions to spiritually bypass what is uncomfortable.
The journey inward requires the true seeing of ourselves and what is around us. Discernment is the beginning step to polish the mirror mind and view the nature of reality with clarity. Yoga and meditation can be tools to liberate us and they can also be utilized as a tranquilizer to create a docile, blind, unquestioning, and obedient population in the name of spirituality. However, choosing to bypass our pain and unconsciousness continues the cycles of suffering. Spiritual practice is an act of rebellion against saṃsāra by seeking escape from it. Subversion and agency are the fundamental principles of yoga.
Her Eminence Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche of the Minrolling Tibetan Buddhist Tradition warns that spirituality can be the greatest form of entertainment. Clinging and attachment to dogma has the potential to be a distraction, a bypass, and another cause of suffering. Everything must be up for questioning, including our own beliefs on who we are, how we are allowed to express ourselves, what qualifies a sincere spiritual practitioner, and the moral binaries we cling to. We must examine and release our attachment to the spiritual identity. Instead of grasping at contemplative practice, we are asked to engage with an open palm.
Addiction to spirituality has roots in our pain and our willingness to have a relationship with it. We must be willing to be wrong and allow our shadow emotions to stretch our capacity for empathy. It is a call to feel the embodied human experience and honestly transcend its poisons by studying its experience. Our proclivity for spiritual bypass is equally met with a capacity to notice it within ourselves. After all, this existence is the very home of liberation itself. Spiritual practitioners aren’t asked to be perfect. We are asked to reflect – to act with honesty and compassion.