Sciency Words: Spiritual Bypassing

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about the definitions and etymologies of scientific terms, in order to expand our scientific vocabularies together!  In today’s Sciency Words post, we’re talking about:


I am, first and foremost, a science fiction writer.  That’s why most of the research I share on this blog is so heavily focused on outer space: because most of the stories I write are set in outer space.  But I do a fair amount of psychology research, too, because that helps me write more believable characters.

And right now, I am working on a character who has some personal problems.  He’s experiencing a “crisis of faith,” some might say, but in psychology terms, it may be more accurate to say he’s suffering from spiritual bypassing.

Definition of Spiritual Bypassing: Using spirituality to avoid dealing with your problems, rather than using spirituality to help you cope with your problems or overcome them.

Etymology of Spiritual Bypassing: The term was coined in the 1980’s by Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Woodward to describe a pattern of behavior he had observed regularly in his line of work.

I’m so spiritual that I don’t have any faults.  I’m so spiritual that I don’t have any weaknesses.  I’m so spiritual that I don’t need to “work on myself.”  I certainly don’t need to see a therapist.  All my pain and all my problems magically go away, by the grace of God or the Buddha or (insert the name of your favorite Higher Power here).  Any trauma in my past?  Through prayer and/or meditation, I’ve transcended that traumatic experience.  It no longer affects me.  I’m too spiritual to have P.T.S.D., depression, anxiety, or anything like that.

That attitude… that is spiritual bypassing.  It’s avoidance behavior.  It’s not about letting religious or spiritual practices help you grow or change; it’s about using religion and spirituality as an excuse to stay the same.  This may be an effective short term coping mechanism for some, but in the long run your problems (whatever they are, wherever they’re coming from) will catch up with you.

In real life, the line between healthy and unhealthy spirituality is not always so clear cut.  I suspect some people may see spiritual exercises and rituals as a quick fix for whatever emotional issues they may be struggling with.  But even people who live happy, long-term spiritual lives may, from time to time, fall into the trap of spiritual bypassing.  As John Woodward (the man who originally coined this term) described it, spiritual bypassing can be an “occupational hazard” for people who follow the spiritual path.

That is certainly the case for a certain character I’m working on—a person who, in the distant future, becomes an accidental and initially reluctant religious leader.

These are the articles and papers I read while researching this blog post:

2 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Spiritual Bypassing

    1. Well said. In some cases, spiritual bypassing manifests as that holier than thou attitude. That’s immediately what I thought of, too, when I first heard about this. But there are also people who do this to repress the pain of some traumatic event, in which case I think they deserve some pity and understanding.


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