Spiritual Bypassing

| November 2, 2017 | 6 Comments

Spiritual bypassing is a condition we can all fall into from time to time, even those of us who do not see ourselves on a “spiritual” path. What is the condition and how can we strive to avoid it?

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Doug Smith

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Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

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  1. Jason Malfatto says:

    Thanks for this, Doug. I was unfamiliar with the term “spiritual bypassing” and, while the concept of “guarding the sense doors” certainly rang a bell, your mentioning it here inspired me to google it for traditional sources (e.g. I found this thread helpful).

    Alas, I can confirm some spiritual bypassing from my own experience with mindfulness practice, plus I’m familiar with Abrahamic parallels to “guarding the sense doors”, which amount to avoiding situations that typically bring temptation.

    For example, the Christian saying “Get behind me, Satan!” basically captures the idea, though if you’ve ever seen an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man turn his head away from a non-Orthodox woman passing by on the street, then you’ve witnessed an extreme version. Not sure if, say, Buddhist monks are ever so obvious (and dare I say unskillful?) as that in their observance, but I suppose it’s another potential pitfall for those of us trying to balance practice with worldly engagement.

  2. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”

    — John Milton, Areopagitica

    But I’m glad you added the discussion of “guarding the sense doors.” Isn’t this partly what some of the 4NT, such as right livelihood, are about?

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks Michael, yes Buddhist virtue is somewhat different from the competitive and even martial virtue one finds in the west.

      As for right livelihood (you mean the 8FP rather than the 4NT?) I’m not sure I understand. Most of wrong livelihood has to do with inflicting harm. But perhaps you can explain further?

  3. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Yeh, of course I meant 8FP.

    It seems to me that in early Buddhism, the effect of thought and action on the actor is given as much importance as the effect on others. This is perhaps why Buddhist ethics can be regarded as a virtue ethics. If, for example, everyday to earn my livelihood, I have to boss others about, coerce them to do unpleasant things for a meager wage, it would be very hard to achieve any sort of balance in my own life, even if my actions aren’t illegal or even clearly (conventionally?)unethical in themselves. I still had your comments on guarding when I saw one of Paul Manefort’s lawyers trying to spin his client’s behaviour. This put “right livelihood” in mind. As a lawyer myself, I understand the social function of the adversarial trial process, but there are limits — I would not like to be put in the position of Manefort’s lawyer. It would be, I think, wise to guard against making a career choice that put me in that kind of moral jeopardy.

    I think similar logic applies to other choices of thought and action, which are part at least of what the 8FP is about.

    “Speak or act with a pure mind
    And happiness will follow you
    As your shadow, unshakable.”

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Ah yes thanks, great point Michael. Being a lawyer isn’t expressly wrong livelihood but we can certainly imagine it being unskillful in the kind of circumstance you mention.

      A good friend of our family is a defense lawyer, and when asked how he can defend people he knows are guilty (which indeed sometimes happens, much as defense lawyers might like to pretend it does not), he says he does it because everyone deserves an adequate defense. The power of the state is very great and not allowing proper defense to ALL would turn our legal system into real tyranny. I think I can understand this kind of argument much as the line of work he is in seems to slide over into mendacity by its very nature.

      It’s a hard question. I think we should take the Buddha’s notions on right livelhiood with compassion and charity and understand that sometimes a job may be difficult but it may have greater societal benefits that make it worthwhile. (Here I am not referring to Manafort’s case or his lawyer in particular).

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