Using Spirituality Addictively as a 'Spiritual Bypass'

06/09/2015 11:05 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

Stephan had been meditating for many years before consulting with me for his depression. He had been part of a spiritual community that encouraged their members to turn to God through prayer and meditation whenever they were feeling any difficult or painful feelings such as anger, hurt, anxiety or depression. He had been taught that Spirit would transmute his feelings for him and bring him the peace he sought.

Yet Stephan was depressed. "I have faithfully practiced what I've had been taught, so why am I still depressed? What am I doing wrong?"

Stephan was suffering from what is called a "spiritual bypass."

A spiritual bypass occurs when people use their spiritual practice as a way to avoid dealing with and taking responsibility for their feelings. Anything that is used to avoid feeling and taking responsibility for feelings becomes an addiction -- whether it is alcohol, drugs, food, TV, work, gambling, spending, shopping, anger, withdrawal... and meditation. If, when a difficult or painful feeling comes up, you immediately go into meditation in the hopes of blissing out and getting rid of the feeling, you may be spiritually addicted.

It all depends on what your intent is when you are meditating. People can meditate for two totally different reasons: to avoid pain or to connect with love.

If you are meditating to connect with yourself and your spiritual Guidance in order to learn more about loving yourself and others, then meditation is a good way to get out of your head and into your heart. It is a good way to connect with a loving part of yourself so that you can welcome and embrace your painful feelings and learn what you may be doing or thinking that is causing some of your own pain. When your intent is to be loving to yourself and take responsibility for your own feelings, then meditation can help you become centered and compassionate enough to face your painful feelings.

However, if you are using meditation to bliss out and avoid your pain, you are using your spirituality addictively. You are using your spirituality to bypass learning about and taking responsibility for your feelings.

This is what Stephan was doing. Because he was avoiding learning from his feelings, he was continuing to think and behave in ways toward himself and others that caused him to feel depressed. Then, instead of exploring what he was doing that was causing his depression, he was meditating to try to get rid of the feelings.

In his work with me, Stephan discovered that he was constantly either ignoring his feelings, or he was judging himself. The combination of ignoring himself -- which he did primarily through meditation -- and judging himself resulted in his inner child feeling unloved, unimportant and unseen. Stephan saw that if he treated his actual children in the way he treated himself -- ignoring their feelings and constantly judging them -- they would also feel badly and maybe depressed. But Stephan did attend to his actual children's feelings and needs. It was his own that he was ignoring and judging.

Stephan realized that he was treating himself the way his parents had treated him. He was a much better parent to his children than his parents had been with him, but he was parenting his own inner child in the way he had been parented. He was not only treating himself the way he had been treated, he was treating himself the way his parents had treated themselves. As a result, he was not being a good role model for his children of personal responsibility for his own feelings, just as his parents had been a poor role model for him.

In the course of working with me, Stephan learned to welcome his painful feelings during meditation. He learned to quiet the self-judgmental part of himself and to treat himself with caring and respect. He learned to take loving action in his own behalf so that his inner child no longer felt abandoned by him. It was the inner abandonment that was causing his depression. He discovered that his depression was actually a gift -- a way his inner child was letting him know that he was not being loving to himself. With practice, Stephan learned to take loving care of himself and his depression disappeared. Now his meditation practice was no longer a spiritual bypass.

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