Spiritual Bypass

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

Lecture 4, Part 8 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 attempted, 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 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 the external situation is making us unhappy, it’s just going to go on for some long period of time. But we can do something about our reaction. Remember that equation, suffering equals pain multiplied by resistance? .

S = PxR

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 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.

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 need to 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. [for readers coming late to this series, the occasional reminder to students to remember their arms and legs is to remind them of the principle technique they have been taught to be more present, more here-and-now, and to practice that technique. Being more here and now helps keep these discussions more real, more concerned with reality, rather than just intellectual exercises]

All we know about classical defense mechanisms; repression, sublimation, rationalization, things like that; these are also ways of dealing with suffering. But again, they don’t solve the problems. They provide you with a temporary happiness, but they don’t solve the root problem, the 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, concentrative states, to get into these incredibly abstracted 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.

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