A Fresh Start After Spiritual Bypass

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Fresh Start After Spiritual Bypass

After spiritual bypass got the best of me, I now faced the first day of my past life.

That’s what I thought when I left the seclusion of a Buddhist monastery after 13 months to return to society.

What had happened? Wasn’t I supposed to live as a monk for all eternity?

I thought I had a new life when I became a monk, but 13 months later I was instead returning to my old life I left.

I don’t know how it happened but one day, in that momentous year 2014, my life changed forever. This was the moment I could not engage in spiritual bypass any longer.

My unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds and unfinished developmental stages were no longer going to be repressed!

It started with an unsettling feeling in my stomach like something wasn’t right.

But nothing unusual was at Tassajara, the Zen monastery near California’s coast. I’d lived here ever since skipping college graduation to become a monk and today was like any other day.

I woke up at 5am, meditated, chanted like normal. Worked in mindful silence for the day cleaning and cooking. Then relaxation and more meditation in the evening.

I didn’t know spiritual seekers like myself would often seek spiritual practice to side or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues.

But like all things you sidestep or avoid facing …

These psychological wounds and unfinished developmental tasks were now becoming hard to ignore!

 Then things exploded one night!

What Is Spiritual Bypassing?

The term “spiritual bypassing” was coined by a Buddhist teacher John Welwood in 1984.

Read John’s biography here about his work in the 1980’s to integrate psychological and spiritual terminologies.

It’s a way to avoid dealing with complex issues, rather than dealing with them. It can be used as a shield to protect the self from harm.

Welwood said some people tend to suppress aspects of their identity and needs and stall their emotional development. 

For me, I was using spiritual practices to sidestep. Essentially my tendency to use spiritual practices was a defense mechanism.

Let me clear: Running away from my problems by becoming a monk was a defense mechanism.

I’d been suppressing my feelings and emotions for years! And now my emotional development was stunted.

But rather than me facing unresolved emotional issues, I chose to run away and become a monk instead.

I was deeply depressed and anxious and I thought becoming a monk would solve all my problems.

But instead I was discovering the hard truth …

You can’t run away from your problems.

They will find you.

If you’re one of the many spiritual seekers like me, please heed my message:

There is a psychology of awakening, but if you have tendency to use spiritual practices to sidestep emotional development …

Then most likely you have developmental tasks that you need to complete still!

My Universe Was Collapsing 

One night as I laid awake unable to sleep I began sobbing uncontrollably. The spiritual bypassing I’d been engaging in now became a tidal wave and finally overtook me.

I remember that night vividly. This unsettling feeling was now overwhelming.

I knew instinctively that I no spiritual ideas or practices that could match the darkness in my soul that was within me.

It was like a black hole was consuming me. It felt like I had no ground on which to exist, that everything was sliding into chaos.

This is what happens when someone tries to avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.

Sweat covered my forehead but my whole body was cold. I couldn’t make these feelings go away!

My practice of meditation was a way I could sidestep or avoid facing my unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds.

Because it’s easy to sort of ‘zone out’ during meditation and not really pay attention to what’s going on within you …

But now calmness was beyond me with a black hole seemingly sucking me inside! And the tears wouldn’t stop coming …

I cried myself to sleep, only to wake up again in darkness to begin pacing, and thinking more.

It was like a palpable, pulsating truth I was forced to confront: Deep down something was wrong about me.

I was not meant to be alive. I was not worth any love or anything good. This gut feeling had been my constant shadow for my entire life, but always hidden from my awareness. Now it was letting me know it was still there!

Fortunately, I was stuck up in a cabin on a wooded hillside. I didn’t have my usual food or marijuana to numb me out. My old self before the Zen monastery would have binged or blazed to not feel these intense feelings.

That was my MO for years. Escape. Find some way to not feel. I would eat until I couldn’t think or feel anything. Or smoke until I couldn’t feel anything. Oftentimes both.

Of course avoiding never worked. My old self was miserable too. That’s why I had joined the Zen monastery. Because my old self was broken, non-functional, alone, depressed, anxious. I didn’t have any friends.

And I was no friend to myself either. “Jared, you are so weak and unfocused, try harder, master this, master that, Jared, you’re off. You don’t belong. You’re a fraud.

I Tried To Escape Via “Nirvana”

And for a while, I thought I had put my demons behind me! I’d spent the last year meditating up in the mountains trying to reach Nirvana. Nirvana, this realm of no-suffering, of Enlightenment.

Nirvana was the key I desperately wanted to unlock! If only I could figure out the next meditation technique, master it, and reach Nirvana!

I’d browse stories of Nirvana, Zen masters and sudden Kensho moments of Enlightenment! Why couldn’t I be like them?

For the past year I’d been Nirvana obsessed. Reading, researching and journaling about Nirvana. Nirvana was my goal, my muse, my everything. Nirvana was my greatest distraction.

“Please, let me leave this world behind. Let me realize Nirvana. Let this suffering drop away.”

After a year of trying to reach Nirvana to no avail, these feelings engulfed me that night. What did I have to show for my efforts? My hours of breathing meditation? My abandoning of family and friends to join the monastery?

Enlightenment was still as far away as when I first joined the monastery! I was the same person I always was! These demons from hell were still with me.

This night from spiritual bypass hell stripped me of any pretense. I couldn’t run away from my problems.

I thought I’d been engaging in ‘spiritual practice’ but I was really engaging in spiritual bypassing.

But now I clearly saw the truth of my spiritual bypassing. My problems were like shadows that would follow me to the ends of the earth.

I could see how the spiritual ideas and practices espoused by Zen Buddhism drew me into the idea of ‘Enlightenment’.

Like a moth being drawn inexorably to a burning flame, in my early days of living as a monk, ‘Enlightenment’ became my obsession.

This was my form of spiritual bypass!

Pursuing Enlightenment, for me, was spiritual bypass!

But now my obsession with Enlightenment no longer excited me.

I didn’t want to pursue Enlightenment anymore.

Enlightenment meant nothing to me anymore. I could see ‘Enlightenment’ for me was merely a form of spiritual bypassing my real problems.

I imagine some drug addicts who choose recovery feel the same way about their drug of choice.

When what once helped you escape offers no more solace, and you have nowhere left to turn but to life itself.

Life’s a brutal teacher. A school of hard knocks. It’s easy to engage in spiritual bypass because the idea of ‘enlightenment’ is soothing.

My year in the monastery had helped me, though. My efforts in meditating had helped me to be more calm.

Having no  extra food or marijuana, I realized I didn’t need to escape from life using substances.

In many ways, I got my emotional needs met for the first time in my life.

And now with my deeper needs met, I no longer needed to spiritually bypass.

My Escape Into Spiritual Bypass Wasn’t Worth It

What did I learn from the monastery? Well, I no longer binged or smoked away my feelings, but I was the same person.

Meditation didn’t lead to Nirvana. Meditation lead me to me. My broken, fragile, self. Me.

My spiritual bypass was no longer a spiritual path for me. I was no longer going to engage in spiritual bypassing or use spiritual ideas to think of myself as superior.

But a me who could be me.

A me who was ok with a broken heart. A me who had hope. Hope for the future. That I could change. That I could grow.

No longer did I pray for a magic Nirvana pill of spiritual bypass, where my suffering would vanish in a flash of Enlightenment.

But rather than engaging in spiritual bypassing, I now choose a slow, compassionate gradual unfolding of life.

In this way I discovered I didn’t need spiritual bypass.

I didn’t need to be a Zen monk.

I could live my life.

Soon after this night, I decided to leave the monastery.

I didn’t need to escape into meditative seclusion. I didn’t need to bypass my problems to find spiritual bliss. Indeed, facing my problems and shame may be the keys to finding spiritual bliss.

But no longer would I sacrifice my normal problems, me, for Enlightenment.

What are you running away from? Is it working? Is it ok to be wounded?

For me, I no longer am running. I am me, my imperfect self.

This is why I started this piece off by talking about how after spiritual bypass, I now was back to my old life, my imperfect self.

But different somehow too.

Maybe you have to go through spiritual bypass in order to come out on the other side.

Maybe spiritual bypass for me, was a precursor to my Real Awakening.

How to Handle Spiritual Bypassing Without More Harm

Consider whether you’ve been the recipient or perpetrator of spiritual bypassing.

Take a look at how you’ve bypassed your own emotions and experiences. Understand that bypassing is many times a natural response to trauma, and can show up in your food relationship as well.

Learning to handle your emotions is one of the best ways you can manage food cravings better for this reason, and for life in general.

John Welwood always speaks about having compassion with your bypassing in the various parts of your life.

This latter approach where you don’t judge yourself harshly for bypassing is the path toward greater empathy, trust, and intimacy.

I’d love to hear from you if you have any examples of spiritual bypassing or ways spiritual bypass has shown up in your life.

Feel free to leave a comment below.

About the Author

Jared Levenson is a former binge eating wrestler turned Zen Buddhist Monk, Internal Family Systems counselor and nutrition wellness coach. He's helped hundreds of people through universal meal principles and internal family systems to make peace with food, stop binge eating, and find true health and wholeness.


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