In the 1980s, John Welwood emerged as a pioneer in illuminating the relationship between Western psychotherapy and Buddhist practice. The former director of the East/West psychology program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, he is currently associate editor of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. Welwood has published numerous articles and books on the subjects of relationship, psychotherapy, consciousness, and personal change, including the bestselling Journey of the Heart. His idea of “spiritual bypassing” has become a key concept in how many understand the pitfalls of long-term spiritual practice. Psychotherapist Tina Fossella spoke with Welwood about how the concept has developed since he introduced it 30 years ago.
You introduced the term “spiritual bypassing” 30 years ago. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, could you explain what it is?
“Spiritual bypassing” is a term I coined to describe a process I saw happening in the Buddhist community I was in, and also in myself. Although most of us were sincerely trying to work on ourselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks. When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to try to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. We may also use our notion of absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits. I see this as a basic hazard of the spiritual path, in that spirituality does involve a vision of going beyond our current karmic situation.
What sort of hazard does this present?
Trying to move beyond our psychological and emotional issues by sidestepping them is dangerous. It sets up a debilitating split between the buddha and the human within us. And it leads to a conceptual, one-sided kind of spirituality where one pole of life is elevated at the expense of its opposite: absolute truth is favored over relative truth, the impersonal over the personal, emptiness over form, transcendence over embodiment, and detachment over feeling. One might, for example, try to practice nonattachment by dismissing one’s need for love, but this only drives the need underground, where it is likely to become acted out in covert, unconscious, and possibly harmful ways.
What interests you most about spiritual bypassing these days?
I’m interested in how it plays out in relationships, where spiritual bypassing often wreaks its worst havoc. If you were a yogi in a cave doing years of solo retreat, your psychological wounding might not show up so much, because your focus would be entirely on your practice. It’s in relationships that our unresolved psychological issues show up most intensely. That’s because psychological wounds are always relational—they form in and through our relationships with our early caretakers.
The core psychological wound, so prevalent in the modern world, forms out of not feeling loved or intrinsically lovable as we are. Inadequate love or attunement is shocking and traumatic for a child’s developing and highly sensitive nervous system. It damages our capacity to value ourselves, which is also the basis for valuing others. I call this the “relational wound“ or “wound of the heart.” There is a whole body of study and research in Western psychology showing how close bonding and loving attunement—what is known as “secure attachment”—have powerful impacts on every aspect of human development. Secure attachment has a tremendous effect on many dimensions of our health, wellbeing, and capacity to function effectively in the world: how our brains form, how well our endocrine and immune systems function, how we handle emotions, how subject we are to depression, how our nervous system functions and handles stress, and how we relate to others. Modern culture and child raising leave most people suffering from symptoms of insecure attachment: self-hatred, disembodiment, lack of grounding, ongoing insecurity and anxiety, overactive minds, inability to deeply trust, and a deep sense of inner deficiency. So most of us suffer from an extreme degree of alienation and disconnection that was unknown in earlier times—from society, community, family, older generations, nature, religion, tradition, our body, our feelings, and our humanity itself.
How is this relevant for how we practice the dharma?
Many of us originally turn to the dharma at least in part as a way of trying to overcome the pain of our psychological and relational wounding. Yet we are often in denial about or unconscious of the nature or extent of this wounding. As a result, being a “good” spiritual practitioner can become a compensatory identity that covers up and defends against an underlying deficient identity, where we feel bad about ourselves, not good enough, or basically lacking. Then, although we may be practicing diligently, our spiritual practice can be used in the service of denial and defense. And when spiritual practice is used to bypass our real-life human issues, it becomes compartmentalized in a separate zone of our life that remains unintegrated with our overall functioning.
Can you give some more examples of how spiritual bypassing takes shape in Western practitioners?
In my psychotherapy practice, I often work with dharma students who have practiced for decades. Often they have developed some kindness and compassion for others but are hard on themselves for falling short of their spiritual ideals, and their spiritual practice has become dry and solemn. Or being of benefit to others has become a duty, or a way of trying to feel good about themselves. Others may unconsciously use their spiritual brilliance to feed their narcissistic inflation and treat others in manipulative ways. People with depressive tendencies who grew up with a lack of loving attunement in childhood have a hard time valuing themselves, and they may use teachings on no-self to reinforce their deflation. Not only do they feel bad about themselves but they regard their insecurity about whether they’re okay as a further fault—a form of me-fixation, the very antithesis of the dharma—which further fuels their shame or guilt. Meditation is also commonly used to avoid uncomfortable feelings and unresolved life situations. For those who are in denial about their personal feelings or wounds and who have a hard time expressing themselves in a personally transparent way, meditation practice can reinforce a tendency toward disconnection and disengagement. It can be quite threatening when those of us on a spiritual path have to face our woundedness, or emotional dependency, or primal need for love. I’ve often seen how attempts to be nonattached are used in the service of sealing people off from their human and emotional vulnerabilities. It’s painful to see someone maintaining a stance of detachment when underneath they are starving for positive experiences of bonding and connection.
So how do we reconcile the ideal of nonattachment with the need for human attachment?
Good question. We need a larger perspective that can recognize and include two different tracks of human development—which we might call growing up and waking up, healing and awakening, or becoming a genuine human person and going beyond the person altogether. We are not just humans learning to become buddhas, but also buddhas waking up in human form, learning to become fully human. And these two tracks of development can mutually enrich each other. If we hold a perspective that includes the two developmental tracks, then we will not use our notions of absolute truth to belittle relative, personal feelings and needs for connection. Even though personal feelings and needs may have no solid or ultimate reality, shunting them aside is likely to cause major psychological problems. The great paradox of being both human and buddha is that we are both dependent and not dependent. Part of us is completely dependent on people for everything—from food and clothing to love, connectedness, inspiration, and help with our development. Though our buddhanature is not dependent—that’s absolute truth—our human embodiment is; that’s relative truth.
So we can be both attached and nonattached?
Yes. Nonattachment is a teaching about our ultimate nature. Yet to grow into a healthy human being, we need a base of secure attachment in the positive, psychological sense, meaning close emotional ties to other people that promote connectedness, grounded embodiment, and well-being. As the naturalist John Muir wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” Similarly, the hand cannot function unless it is attached to the arm—that’s attachment in the positive sense. We’re interconnected, interwoven, and interdependent with everything in the universe. On the human level we can’t help feeling somewhat attached to people we are close to. So it’s natural to grieve deeply when we lose someone we’re close to. I’ve heard that when Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche attended the memorial service for his dear friend and colleague Shunryu Suzuki, he let out a piercing cry and wept openly. He was acknowledging his close ties to Suzuki Roshi, and it was beautiful that he could let his feeling show like that. Since we cannot avoid some kind of attachment to others, the question is, “Are we engaging in healthy or unhealthy attachment?” What is unhealthy in psychological terms is insecure attachment, for it leads either to fear of close personal contact or else to obsession with it. Interestingly, people growing up with secure attachment are more trusting, which makes them much less likely to cling to others. Maybe we could call that “nonattached attachment.” Unfortunately, we can easily confuse nonattachment with avoidance of attachment. Avoidance of attachment, however, is not freedom from attachment. It’s another form of clinging—clinging to the denial of your human attachment needs, out of distrust that love is reliable.
So avoidance of attachment needs is another form of attachment?
Yes. In the field of developmental psychology known as attachment theory, one form of insecure attachment is called “avoidant attachment.” The avoidant attachment style develops in children whose parents are consistently unavailable emotionally. These children learn to take care of themselves and to not need anything from others. That’s their adaptive strategy, and it’s an intelligent and useful one. Obviously, if your needs aren’t going to be met, it’s too painful to keep feeling them. It’s better to turn away from them and develop a do-it-yourself, detached compensatory identity.
What happens in a sangha community if a lot of members have an avoidant attachment style of relating?
Avoidant types tend to be dismissive of other people’s needs because they’re dismissive of their own needs.
Might this account for some of the relational problems in our sangha communities?
Definitely. It causes people to feel justified in not respecting each other’s feelings and needs. Not surprisingly, “need” often becomes a dirty word in spiritual communities. People don’t feel free to say what they want. Right. You don’t say what you want because you don’t want to be seen as needy. You’re trying to be nonattached. But that is like an unripe fruit trying to detach itself from a branch instead of receiving what it needs—which will allow it to naturally ripen and let go. When our spiritual practice is way ahead of our human development, we don’t fully ripen. Our practice may have ripened, but our life hasn’t. And there’s a certain point when that gap becomes very painful.
So you’re saying that spiritual bypassing not only corrupts our dharma practice, it also blocks our ripening into whole and integrated individuals.
Yes. One way it blocks development is through making spiritual teachings into prescriptions about what you should do, how you should think, how you should speak, how you should feel. Then our spiritual practice becomes taken over by a kind of spiritual superego—the voice that whispers “shoulds” in our ear. This is a big obstacle to ripening, because it feeds our sense of deficiency. One Indian teacher, Swami Prajnanpad, whose work I admire, said that “idealism is an act of violence.” Trying to live up to an ideal instead of being authentically where you are can become a form of inner violence if it splits you in two and pits one side against the other. When we use spiritual practice to “be good” and to ward off an underlying sense of deficiency or unworthiness, then it turns into a sort of crusade.
What are the consequences of dismissing how you feel?
From my perspective as an existential psychologist, feeling is a form of intelligence. It’s the body’s direct, holistic, intuitive way of knowing and responding, which is highly attuned and intelligent. Unlike emotionality, which is a reactivity that sweeps you away, feeling helps you go within and connect with where you are. Unfortunately, traditional Buddhism doesn’t make a clear distinction between feeling and emotion, so they both often tend to be lumped together as something egoic to overcome.
What kinds of tools or methods have you found effective for working with difficult feelings and relational issues?
I’ve developed a process called “unconditional presence,” which involves contacting, allowing, opening to, and even surrendering to whatever we’re experiencing. During this process I help people inquire deeply into their felt experience and let it gradually reveal itself and unfold, step by step. I call this “tracking and unpacking.” You track the process of present experiencing, following it closely and seeing where it leads. And you unpack the beliefs, identities, and feelings that are subconscious or implicit in what you’re experiencing. When we bring awareness to our experience in this way, it’s like unraveling a tangled ball of yarn: different knots are gradually revealed and untangled one by one.
As a result, we find that we’re able to be present in places where we’ve been absent or disconnected from our experience. Through reaching out to parts of ourselves that need our help, we develop an intimate, grounded kind of inner attunement with ourselves, which can help us more easily relate to others where they are stuck as well. I’ve found that when people engage in both psychological and meditative practice, the two can complement each other in mutually beneficial, synergistic ways. Together they provide a journey that includes both healing and awakening. Sometimes one way of working is more appropriate for dealing with a given situation in our lives, sometimes the other is.
How does compassion factor into this approach?
The word compassion literally means “feeling with.” You can’t have compassion unless you’re first willing to feel what you feel. Opening to what you feel reveals a certain rawness and tenderness—what Trungpa Rinpoche spoke of as the “soft spot,” which is the seed of bodhicitta [kindheartedness].
Yes. That’s the sign that you’re getting close to bodhicitta. That rawness is also quite humbling. Even if we’ve been doing spiritual practice for decades, we still find these big, raw, messy feelings coming up—maybe a deep reservoir of sorrow or helplessness. But if we can acknowledge these feelings and open ourselves nakedly to them, we’re moving toward greater openness, in a way that is grounded in our humanness. We ripen into a genuine person through learning to make room for the full range of experiences we go through.
How do you know when you’re indulging or wallowing in feelings?
That question always comes up. Wallowing in feelings is being stuck in fixation fed by going over and over familiar stories in your mind. Unconditional presence, on the other hand, is about opening nakedly to a feeling instead of becoming caught up in stories about the feeling. For example, if the feeling is sadness, wallowing might involve fixating on a story like “poor me,” instead of directly relating to the actual sadness itself. So delving into feelings might sound like indulgence, but I would say that the willingness to meet your experience nakedly is a form of fearlessness. Trungpa Rinpoche taught that fearlessness is the willingness to meet and feel your fear. We could expand that to say fearlessness is the willingness to meet, face, include, make room for, welcome, allow, open to, and even surrender to whatever we’re experiencing. It’s actually quite brave to acknowledge, feel, and open to your need for healthy attachment and connectedness, for example, especially if you’re relationally wounded. Indulgence, on the other hand, means fixating on the need and being run by it.
What would help our sangha communities develop better communication and greater emotional transparency?
We need to work on relationships. I see relationship as the leading edge of human evolution at this time. It’s the arena where it’s hardest to remain conscious and awake. We could start by recognizing the fact that spiritual communities are subject to the same unconscious group dynamics that every group is subject to. People in groups inevitably trigger each other’s relational wounds and reactivity. It’s important to see that everything we react to in others is a mirror of something we’re not acknowledging in ourselves. Clearly recognizing this could help us work more skillfully with communication problems in the sangha.
So people need to be doing their own personal work? In conjunction with their spiritual practice. Maybe we need to develop some simple ways in Western dharma communities to help people work with their psychological material.
We also need to learn how to speak with each other personally and honestly, from present experience, instead of parroting teachings about what we think we should be experiencing. And there needs to be what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “deep listening,” based on learning to listen to our own experience. Attuned listening is a sacred activity—a form of surrendering, receiving, letting in. We need to recognize this as part of our spiritual work. Thich Nhat Hahn said that to love is to listen. Yes. We also need to develop a tremendous tolerance and appreciation for different personal styles of embodying the dharma. Otherwise, if we settle for a one-size-fits-all dharma, we are doomed to endless holier-than-thou competition and one-upmanship. While we all venerate the dharma, we each have different ways of embodying and expressing it. So vive la différence, it’s a beautiful thing. Fully honoring individual differences could go a long way toward reducing sangha in-fighting.
One last question about attachment in relationships: Are you saying that to be truly nonattached, one has to be attached first? In terms of human evolution, nonattachment is an advanced teaching. I’m suggesting that we need to be able to form satisfying human attachments before genuine nonattachment is possible. Otherwise, someone suffering from insecure attachment is likely to confuse nonattachment with avoidant attachment behavior. For avoidant types, attachment is actually threatening and scary. So healing for avoidant types would involve becoming willing and able to feel their needs for human connectedness, instead of spiritually bypassing them. Once that happens, then nonattachment starts to make some sense. The late Dzogchen master Chagdud Tulku made a powerful statement about the relationship between attachment and nonattachment. He said, “People often ask me, do lamas have attachments? I don’t know how other lamas might answer this, but I must say yes. I recognize that my students, my family, my country have no inherent reality…. Yet I remain deeply attached to them. I recognize that my attachment has no inherent reality. Yet I cannot deny the experience of it.” And he ends by saying, “Still, knowing the empty nature of attachment, I know my motivation to benefit sentient beings must supersede it.” I find this a beautiful articulation of nonattached attachment. Including human nature alongside buddhanature in this way, while situating them both in the largest possible context, is tremendously powerful.