Spiritual Bypass

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 4, Part 9 of 19 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

Student: Is that where the subpersonalities come in? And do we maybe need to acknowledge it and then let it go? I wonder.

Student: So you have to be somebody before you can be nobody?

Student: Yeah. I remember you were talking about that.

CTT: Yeah. You have to be somebody before you can be nobody. Jack Engler, a Buddhist meditation teacher and psychotherapist, is famous for being the first one to say that, I think. Disidentification is a tricky process because it can be used in a very pathological way. You can use disidentification to basically distance yourself from your human feelings and attain a kind of peacefulness that way, but at the cost of impoverishing your life. Didn’t I talk about John Lilly a couple of classes ago?

Student: Yeah.

CTT: He was a famous psychiatrist whose brother or something died when he was a kid, and he was so upset for several days, and then he vowed he’d never feel an emotion again. And he managed to pull it off for the next 30 or 40 years of his life, without realizing how much he’d lost. The whole spiritual path can be used that way. The spiritual path can be a very effective psychological defensive mechanism.

It’s an attitude of “I’m not going to quarrel with you. I’m at a higher spiritual level. I don’t concern myself with mere Earthly disagreements like that.”

This is something you always have to watch out for in yourself as well as in the clients you’ll have. I was talking with somebody today about spiritual bypass as a defense mechanism. Everybody mentions it now, but apparently there’s not much actually written about it.

But it’s so easy to use spirituality as a way to not deal with your ordinary psychological problems. Now that doesn’t mean, at the extreme, that you must be an absolutely, perfectly psychologically functioning person before you dare to spend a moment on anything spiritual. But I think it does mean that if you’ve got significant psychological problems, you’ve got to be real careful about not using spirituality to bypass them. It’s commonly done but it doesn’t work.

Student: How would somebody go about doing that? Using spirituality to bypass. I can’t even imagine having to do that.

CTT: One example that came up quite prominently during the hippie era – you folks are probably too young to remember hippies, but…


CTT: Most of them, well I can’t say most, a lot of them, lived by basically sponging off other people and didn’t feel in the least guilty about it because they were, they believed, pursuing love and enlightenment. They weren’t going to get trapped in earning a living, which would support a corrupt society anyway. And hey, in one way that’s true, but it’s also a wonderful rationalization for just sponging off people instead of taking responsibility for yourself.

I can see Buddhism misapplied that way too. One way of looking at Buddhism is it’s the ultimate way of being cool, right? Nothing fazes me! Nobody can get to me! I don’t have any suffering! Well, that’s because you’ve stifled all the feelings that might arise within you. You’ve stifled them either by some kind of active suppression process or by a distraction process.

Let me elaborate that. I was thinking about that earlier today. If you’re in a situation that makes you unhappy and you want to be happy, what do you do? Well one thing you might do is to change the actual reality of the situation so it makes you happy. It’s too cold in the room. You turn the heater on. It gets warmer.

But a lot of times we’re in situations where we can’t really change the external situation. So if the external situation is making us unhappy, and it’s just going to go on for some long period of time, we will suffer. But we can do something about our reaction. Remember that equation, suffering equals pain multiplied by resistance?

S = P x R

You can do something to reduce the suffering. One way is some sort of distraction technique. Here’s the pathological use of concentrative meditation. The situation bothers you. You concentrate so strongly on neutral sensations, like your breathing, you don’t notice the situation at all. So it doesn’t bother you.

Your life situation is poor, getting worse. You can’t get a job. You don’t have any friends. You don’t feel good about yourself. Concentrative meditation. Get into these abstracted states where you’re beyond any kind of suffering. Ahh!.

You come back out of a meditative state. All these things that make you suffer are still there. Damn! Pee quickly, have a bite to eat, and go back into meditation again. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you can spend your whole life meditating. Maybe you can join a monastery or a nunnery or an ashram, or somebody else will take care of all the physical stuff and you get to spend all your time meditating; distracting yourself. So in that sense, meditation can be a distraction, a spiritual bypass.

I think this is one of the reasons why the Buddha thought that concentrative meditation, for all that it was an incredible technique, wasn’t a complete technique for enlightenment. If you can distract yourself, you can simply take all your attention and put it somewhere else so there’s none left over to go into the suffering thing.

You can have specific techniques for dealing with what bothers you, and this is where Western knowledge of psychopathology becomes valuable.

Remembering our arms and legs now.

All we know about classical defense mechanisms; repression, sublimation, rationalization, things like that; these are also ways of dealing with suffering. But again, like using concentrative meditation as a spiritual bypass, they don’t solve the problems. They provide you with a temporary happiness, but they don’t solve the root core of the problem.

So this discussion started from pointing out that spiritual techniques like concentrative meditation can be an incredible accomplishment to get into these jhanas, states, to get into these incredibly abstracted concentrative states. But while you may rationalize that you’re working on your spiritual development, it may actually in fact be a kind of spiritual bypass, be a way of trying to not have to deal with the real life problems that you’re not very happy with.


  1. Hi Charley, It’s Kaleb from States of Consciousness class (sorry no picture, just a name! 😉

    I am so glad I found your blog. Feels like I’m right in class with you again. 😀

    This particular entry really resonates with where I am right now, yet your conclusions here made me feel a bit uneasy! Specifically in regards to the suffering aspect.

    The examples you gave were “You can’t get a job. You don’t have any friends. You don’t feel good about yourself.” Admittedly, I’ve been in that slump and devoted effort to figuring out what the roots of those issues were and how to resolve them. Concentrative meditation seemed a very promising method to achieve this, but let me try to explain my reasoning as of how…

    If people who meet you (be them either potential friends or potential employers) and consistently reject you, it’s safe to say there is an aspect of yourself which they find unpleasant–or worse! Consequently, this consistent rejection by those around you would, of course, make you feel quite badly about yourself as well.

    Yet, regardless of the reasoning for their rejection, it is my genuine belief that self-knowledge via calm concentrated personal reflection would, in time, reveal those deeper roots of the situation.

    As hypothetical “rejected” here, we are presented most immediately with the reaction to us by others. From this, we can draw much information: following it back to glimpse our social image (what I equate to “ego”) as perceived by those around us, and sort of “reflected back” to us by their positive or negative response to it.

    If our social self, the ego in its current state, has become “brittle” or inflexible and is no longer serving our socialization, would self knowledge through the appropriate quiet meditative practice not give us some perspective on the problem inward source?

    Perhaps, with time, even loosen the brittle carapace-like constraints of that portrayed social image, allowing a more genuine aspect of selfhood out to be accepted? God, I sure hope so! 😉

    1. You’re right to bring out the complexities here. The “conventional” spiritual belief would be that sufficient spiritual practice would eventually solve any ordinary psychological problems as a byproduct. My feeling is maybe, maybe not. “Eventually” is a long time, and makes this belief an unfalsifiable hypothesis, in scientific terms, and so not of great interest to me. My hope is that the development of Transpersonal Psychology, learning when some ordinary psychological exploration, training, or therapy would be the most efficient use of time and when a particular spiritual practice would be better – that someday we’ll be able to do that and make the whole processes of psychological and spiritual growth much more efficient!
      Nice to hear your voice again!

      1. Thanks, Dr Tart. It was nice of you to answer my question. 🙂

        I think part of the problem I’ve having is that I’ve been trying to be scientific, but deep down I can’t believe any real scientist would acknowledge psi. That just seems impossible somehow.

        I’ve participated in NDE research. I’ve been to Laurentian University for EEG measurements and various tests twice now. I keep a log of my anomalous experiences and send a weekly report to researchers. I’ve even started my own at-home pk experiment where each day I first fill out a PANAS mood score and then I see how many seconds it takes me to get my pk wheel to spin. (I want to know if my mood affects such things).

        I’ve done everything I can think of to approach my anomalous experiences scientifically, but that seems to be causing me to have a meltdown. It’s because I can’t accept that science would support a belief in psi. Science was supposed to fix everything by showing me that I’m deluded, mentally ill or terribly mistaken. That hasn’t happened yet (stupid science).

        So now I’m not sure what to do.

        1. >but deep down I can’t believe any real scientist would acknowledge psi.<
          Sandy, I think you have a mistaken idea of what a "scientist" is. It's a mistake that is, unfortunately shared by most "scientists," and it's trained into graduate students.
          Read my fundamental description of science in the state-specific sciences article of mine, on my main website. That article was published in Science, and you don't really get more prestigious than that in the science community. My idea that science could be done in altered states as well as ordinary consciousness aroused a lot of resistance, but no one every said I didn’t understand basic science properly. So, speaking as an authority: Science is the application of observation and logical thinking to what you can observe. Observation is always, always, always the ultimate authority on what’s acceptable. We come up with theories to explain our observations, and we test those theories by making predictions about future observations. IF A THEORY PREDICTS THAT GIVEN A, B WILL HAPPEN, AND B DOES NOT HAPPEN, THE THEORY IS INVALIDATED. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated the theory is, how many authorities subscribe to it, how fashionable the theory is, it’s wrong. It may be OK as a lesser-scope rule of thumb for practical purposes, but it’s invalid in a general sense.
          The old geocentric theory that everything revolves around the earth, e.g., is quite practical to use for navigation, but we know it’s wrong for larger astronomical purposes.
          Now scientists are people, and they get enamored of clever theories and hate to give them up. Read Thomas Kuhn on the structure of scientific revolutions. Any “scientist” who refuses to look at the data about psi and realize something has to be accounted for is not a scientist, they are a technician at best, well trained in some framework, some paradigm for working, but they are stuck in that framework. They are a practitioner of scientism. Read my End of Materialism book. When they put down people who don’t agree with them, they do serious damage to creativity and progress.
          Go with the data, even if, for social advancement purposes, you have to not tread on the toes of entrenched authorities. Don’t ignore your own observations!

          1. Thanks, Dr Tart. I’ve been continuing to do my daily pk experiment. Sometimes I get a little bit disheartened by the fact that I’ll have to keep my findings pretty much to myself. I’ve come close to deleting the whole thing on a few occasions. (I send updated copies of the spreadsheet to someone I trust for safekeeping so it won’t be deleted.)

            On the positive side, I’m learning a lot about my pk. I’m starting to understand more about how I feel when pk happens. Not just the “bad” pk that occurs when I’m upset, but the “good” pk that happens when I’m feeling playful. I think doing the experiment is also a bit of an outlet for the pk. I have less problems with it lately.

            But it does bother me that I have to stay in the closet for the sake of my marriage and any chance I might have of going back to school and finishing my doctorate. It feels intellectually dishonest to just act like nothing of interest is going on. I’m a little bit sad about that part.

  2. Dr Tart,

    I enjoyed the teleseminar you did with Dean Radin at IONS this evening. I’ve been thinking about what you said about scientists being more open to talking about, testing and maybe even accepting the possibility of spiritual experiences. It sounds like a good idea…

    But I can’t accept it. Even if I’m not able to completely deny or forget about my anomalous experiences, it just seems to me that the intelligent thing to do would be to at least pretend those things never happened. If I were smart, I would just do my best to fit in and forget about weird stuff all together.

    I’m really stuck. I know what the rational thing to do is. I have no doubt about that part at all. Ignore anomalous experiences. Ignore any scientific efforts that suggest psi might exist. And go back to working as a mainstream scientist with no knowledge of such things. But I can’t seem to move. I’m trying so hard to deny my experiences, but I can’t. It isn’t fair.

    I know that I’m being intellectually dishonest. I don’t even care about that right now. I just want normal, however over-rated that may turn out to be. I feel crappy for wanting normal. I really do. But it’s all that I want right now.

  3. Dr. Tart is possible you know Russian language … whether as something to contact you and discuss some details .. have thought of something “higher” ….

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