If you’ve ever read Buddhist suttas, you probably have noticed some paradoxical statements. One of the most obvious is the Buddha’s mentioning of anatta, or not-self, and the mentioning of words such as “me,” “I,” “you,” “she,” and “he.” If the Buddha taught non-self, why does he also talk about himself?!?! This is just one example of the Two Truths at work. One of the dangers in the Two Truths is spiritual bypassing, or the tendency to turn toward the ultimate truth and ignore our conventional experience. More on this in a bit.
The Two Truths outlines two realities in which we live: conventional and ultimate. Conventional truth or reality is the reality which we experience daily. I am here typing this, you are here reading this, it is the afternoon right now, and you have shoes on (maybe). This truth is organized, giving structure and meaning to the chaos of experience. On the other hand, there is ultimate truth: there is no self reading this, time is a human construction, shoes are just empty form that only exists because we are present to experience them. Examples of ultimate truth include the teachings on anatta, that everything impermanent, and that the mind is a mirror reflecting what we experience at the sense doors.
Many people have a tendency to put ultimate truth on a pedestal, placing it above conventional truth. However, we must hold these two truths with equanimity and balance. We use and experience conventional truth in our daily lives, and we simply cannot ignore it. We can bring awareness to both truths, like noticing that we are experiencing something unpleasant AND knowing that it is ultimately an empty and fleeting experience.
Spiritual Bypass with the Truths
I decided to write a bit about the Two Truths specifically to address spiritual bypass. Spiritual bypass is a term that describes when people turn toward the ultimate in order to avoid processing the conventional. I see it quite a bit in meditation groups, twelve-step meetings, and in conversation with folk. A good example of spiritual bypass is if somebody says, “I am really struggling with the harm John Doe caused me, but I know he is suffering and doing his best.” Yes, hurt people hurt people, and we often cause harm because we are suffering ourselves or unaware of the harm we are causing. However, we also must tune into the conventional reality that we are experiencing suffering. Spiritual bypass involves looking to principles, guides, or ultimate truth rather than facing what is happening in our experience. In spiritual bypassing, we aren’t always turning toward the ULTIMATE ultimate truth, but we do look for a deeper, MORE ultimate truth than our conventional one.
John Welwood, who coined the term, may have said it best:
We can use spiritual transcendence to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits.
Types of Spiritual Bypass
There are many different ways in which we spiritually bypass. These are just a few that I have seen in my own life, and with those I work with. There are many others, but these seem to be the most common ones that I have seen.
The most common one I see in dharma communities is a blatant turn toward the ultimate truth. Rather than talk about how one is feeling, they brush it off with a statement such as, “but it is all emptiness.” Yes, our experience is just that: experience. But that doesn’t mean we don’t think, feel, and have pain. Another big one is turning toward impermanence. Yes, everything is ultimately impermanent, and the most painful of painful emotions will come and go, changing in nature. However, just knowing things are impermanent in theory isn’t really helping us awaken. We must tune into the experience, allow ourselves to feel it, respond with compassion, and watch what happens. Through watching our experience diligently, we begin to KNOW impermanence for ourselves. I find myself doing this quite a bit. I am stressed with work, and just remind myself that it is all impermanent and won’t last. In that moment, I am taking myself out of the actual experience, averting by trying to find some solace in the ultimate truth rather than experiencing the conventional truth.
First, let me say that I don’t mean all optimism is bad. There are many times in which it is helpful and healthy to think positively. The danger here is that we can easily fall into spiritual bypassing with too much optimism. One of my least favorite pieces of advice is to “just think positive thoughts,” as I discussed in a post a few months ago. When we are experiencing something unpleasant, we may hear this suggestion or even tell it to ourselves. When we do so, we are ignoring what is actually occurring. A much more helpful suggestion (in general) is to feel the unpleasantness, respond with compassion, and neither cling to nor avert from the pain. This too is a turning toward a more ultimate truth. Thoughts are just thoughts, don’t buy into them. This is absolutely true, but the conventional truth is that we are experiencing unpleasant thoughts.
Victimization is a bigger topic that could absolutely have its own post or even website. Victimization as a method of spiritual bypass is the practice of victimizing oneself rather than really investigating how we feel. The flip side of this coin is a tendency (as mentioned a few paragraphs above this) to focus on the suffering of the harming individual. The “poor me” statements qualify as victimization. Of course it is useful to admit when we are hurt and even to speak about it with others. What isn’t useful is telling the story repeatedly and complaining and not talking about how we actually feel. Similarly, it can be helpful to acknowledge that the person who caused us harm may have been suffering themselves. Most of us have fallen into this trap of telling the story over and over or focusing on the behavior of others. When we do this, we are tuning into the truth that we were harmed, but not tuning into the reality of the pain we are currently experiencing.
Like many of the others, this way of spiritual bypassing may seem relatively harmless or even wise and spiritual. We know we are suffering, but compare it to a greater suffering “I haven’t slept well the past few nights, but there are people who work three jobs and barely sleep, so I’ll live.” Again, this is true. There is often much greater suffering in the world than what we are experiencing, but what does this have to do with our own experience. I am 100% for tuning into the greater suffering of living beings and cultivating compassion. Elizabeth wrote about identifying with all of humanity recently and the benefits. You may notice the pattern though that this is just another way we avert from how we are actually feeling. The fact that there are people who suffer great losses and pains doesn’t mean your pain or suffering isn’t real to you. We must tune into the difficult experiences and get to know them, not compare it to the greater, ultimate suffering that exists.
I may be wrong, but chances are you are not fully awakened (it’s okay, neither am I). Let us not pretend we are perfectly “spiritual.” One form of spiritual bypass is responding with a false wisdom. I am completely guilty of this one. I find myself saying, “He really hurt me, but I sent him a lot of metta,” or “I have some trauma I am dealing with, but I just try to bring mindfulness to it.” Yes, forgiveness, compassion, and metta are great. Bringing mindfulness to our difficulties is as well. We still need to acknowledge our own difficulties to ourselves. When we just try to take the spiritual road (or supposed spiritual road), we are often bypassing what is present for us. Ultimately yes, it is beneficial to respond with wisdom and kindness. But if we are suffering, we are suffering. Hiding behind ideals and ultimate truth here denies us the experience of being with what is.
We don’t love getting into arguments about prayer, so let us leave aside any discussion of a god or higher power for now. This form of spiritual bypass is relevant for those that do believe in a god or higher power. Some people go through difficult moments and respond with prayer. I have heard this quite a bit in twelve-step meetings. “Just pray for him/her” is a common response to somebody sharing that they have a resentment. Believing in prayer may be helpful for you, but we also need to feel how we feel. This is somewhat linked with the mechanism above, a sense of what the “right” thing to do is. We may respond with what we think is helpful or healthy (in this case prayer), but we still need to take the time to feel how we feel. The conventional truth here is that we are experiencing some emotion. Our perceived ultimate truth is that we “should” be praying for them.