Spiritual Bypassing: The God / Goddess Syndrome

by Bo Heimann

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

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.

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