Book Review: Spiritual Bypassing, by Robert Augustus Masters | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Book Review: Spiritual Bypassing, by Robert Augustus Masters

You may recall I wrote a while back about my recurring “critic fantasy,” which involved a man getting up while I was giving a talk, and yelling that my book had nothing to offer.

Well, last week, a man actually did approach me after a speaking engagement and tell me my work had nothing to offer!  Oops — perhaps I attracted this situation by “putting it out to the universe” on my blog!  (More on the law of attraction in a moment.)

I didn’t find myself freaked out by the odd synchronicity, although I did feel a mild irritation at being misunderstood.  This was because the man’s rant didn’t seem to deal with what I actually said, but instead with his preconceived notions of what people who talk about “spiritual” stuff say.

Roughly, his complaints went like “all this stuff about ‘making yourself happy’ and ‘creating a Rolls-Royce by thinking about it’ and so on is garbage.”  However, I didn’t talk about either of those.  First of all, I only teach about manifesting Lamborghinis — if you want a Rolls, you need a different guru.

No “Magical Manifesting Mastery” Here

Just kidding — I don’t talk about “manifesting” anything.  In fact, I later realized I was, in a (limited) way, thankful to the man for helping me clarify what my work is really about.  The work I do is about relating to the thoughts and sensations that are already there in our experience, not attracting or creating something to take their place.

One of my biggest inspirations in following this path has been the work of psychotherapist Robert Augustus Masters.  Some might say this inspiration borders on obsession — I even flew from California to Boulder, CO to take Robert’s workshop.  Robert, if you’re reading this, don’t worry — I don’t have your home address.

But here I am joking around, when I’m actually here to review Robert’s latest book, Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters (not an affiliate link).

What Is Spiritual Bypassing?

Spiritual bypassing, to Masters, means “the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.”  Basically, when we learn that getting the “right” job, relationship, car, or something else isn’t going to heal our pain, we turn to spiritual practices, hoping they’ll quell our “bad feelings” at last.

Often, unfortunately, we don’t find the relief we’re looking for.  For example, some people (as I used to do) think meditation is supposed to involve feeling peaceful and perhaps even blissful.

But if they get deeply into it, they discover that it isn’t like that at all — in fact, when we switch off all the noise we’re usually surrounded by, and sit quietly, the pain we’ve been shutting out often comes through loud and clear. And that’s when we start griping that meditation “doesn’t work.”

Spiritual Sedation

On the other hand, some of us do find tranquility in meditation and similar practices, but then we start using those practices to shut out emotions and sensations we don’t want to be with – as Masters puts it, to “find a safety from the more brutal dimensions of life that we crave.”  If we feel angry, for instance, and we see anger as a “negative emotion” we “shouldn’t be having,” perhaps we’ll meditate to numb the feeling.

The trouble is that feeling angry can serve us at times in life.  If we need to protect ourselves against an attacker, or say a firm “no” to someone who’s demanding a lot of our time and energy, anger can fuel us to take decisive, effective action.  Thus, sedating our anger and other “bad feelings” with spirituality (or anything else) can be harmful.

What’s Spirituality Good For?

This isn’t to say that spiritual practice has no benefits.  In fact, says Masters, spiritual practice can serve us by helping us get more comfortable and familiar with our pain, rather than running from it.  “Contrary to what we tend to believe,” he writes, “the more intimate we are with our pain, the less we suffer.”

This kind of statement was hard for me to believe before I experienced the truth of it myself.  Like many people, when I began meditating, I felt really bored, and when the boredom got intense enough I’d simply stop.  Eventually, inspired by teachers like Robert, I focused my attention on the boredom and just allowed it to arise.

As I did this, the boredom became easier and easier to be with — and, as I often describe, this had practical benefits in my life, such as helping me focus on a project I was doing for a long period of time even if I felt bored.

And on that note, look at the word count!  Looks like I’d best put the rest of my review of this important book into a second post.  Stay tuned!

Do you ever notice yourself doing “spiritual bypassing”?  What feelings do you use spiritual practice to get away from?

26 thoughts on
Book Review: Spiritual Bypassing, by Robert Augustus Masters

  1. Wilma Ham

    I stand guilty of ‘spiritual by passing’, forcing myself to be peaceful when my whole being shouted to me ‘get on and DO something instead of sitting here, there is work to do’.
    Now I do Pilates and I can focus on that because I actually love focusing on my body during the exercises. It makes me peaceful because I am doing something good for my body and I do like feeling how my body works and it occupies my thoughts in a good way. This is cool Chris, because I do think with Pilates I no longer spiritual bypass, do you think? xox Wilma

  2. Evan

    Is that the Johnson who was/is married to Jean Houston? I think this is a very important point – spirituality is about awareness not its sedation.

  3. Patricia

    I am finding so many things coming together for me, which are all stating the same things – we can use anything as a numbing devise to our emotions. I believe that when we do not feel, understand and use our emotions, we are bypassing life and living all together.

    Geneen Roth says just about the exact same thing in Women, Food and God – her newest book

    In meditation I attempt to slow my wild and driven thinking so that I can get down and dirty with the emotion which is popping up…
    I will agree with Wilma though….I can not do much meditation with success at all without doing some exercise and yoga first. In Yin Yoga, I am holding the poses long enough that I can quiet my mind and identify what’s coming up…or say my affirmations over and over again.

    Thank you I would definitely like to read more about this book and author

  4. Jenny Ann Fraser

    Thank you Chris!
    I had never actually thought of this before even though I realize that I have done it in the past.
    From now on, I will be more mindful of what I am using practice for.
    I will have to add this author and book to my list.

  5. Chris - Post author

    Hi Wilma — forcing yourself to be peaceful definitely sounds difficult and potentially even painful to me! I know a number of people have said similar things to me — “I can’t meditate because I can’t force my mind to be quiet.” What I tend to offer them is that perhaps meditation can be a moment where they can at least take a break from needing to “do things right.” But then some people say “but I can’t force myself to not care about doing things right!” The need to “force” an outcome definitely can be a rabbit hole that goes deep.

  6. Chris - Post author

    Hi Evan — I’m not sure whether he was married to Jean Houston — maybe I’m not the devoted fan I thought I was. :) Anyway, I think that’s a nice, concise way to put it regarding sedation — I think I heard you say something similar about meditation in your interview with Michelle.

  7. Chris - Post author

    Hi Patricia — that’s a great observation, I think — that we can use practically anything in life to try to numb ourselves to our experience. I’ve had experiences like you during meditation where my mind seems very chatty — and what I’ve sometimes noticed is that there actually is an emotion there, which may be my frustration at the fact that it will not shut up, and then I can bring my awareness into that frustration and work with it.

  8. Chris - Post author

    Hi Jenny — thanks, I’m glad this was helpful to you. As Robert says in the book, I think spiritual bypassing is something we all do unconsciously from time to time if we have a meditation practice or something similar.

  9. Tess The Bold Life

    This is so true. I get this, every word but now I’m curious about the rest of the review! I just read that popular book, Women, Food and God. It’s exactly what the author says anyway that was my take on it. Never heard of this author but you have me interested.

  10. Chris - Post author

    Hi Tess — thanks for the recommendation — I will check that out, and that will also give me an opportunity to let go of my resistance to reading popular books. :)

  11. Mark

    I had never heard of the term “spiritual by-passing”. This is very relevant and gives me pause to think about spirituality in my life. I agree with the thought that meditation can help us know the pain and mitigate the suffering. Thanks for the review of this book, I will be checking it out.

  12. Hilary

    Hi Chris .. I find people’s reactions so similar to my own years ago, some years ago .. and now that my mind is opening and I learn a little more each time I am accepting that a) I won’t understand it all at once, and b) that by listening and being prepared to absorb relevant information I pick up odd bits and pieces and then other aspects start to fall into place.

    I like Wilma’s idea (here) on Pilates, and Jan’s thoughts on meditating through her blog, and other pertinent bloggers and commenters who really open our eyes to different aspects – if we allow ourselves to learn and realise where we’re going.

    It’s horses for courses .. isn’t it – we’re all different .. we all have had past experiences – my mother’s massage therapist opens my eyes to things that I can talk about with her, once I’ve seen ideas with our great thinkers here.

    So many things in courses, in books, in blogs that we partake in don’t matter at the time – as long as we take one positive and one learning point with us when we leave .. so important

    I hope to be around a bit more now with my head freer and not pulled down with a lot of hassles at this end .. – so here’s to more learning .. all the best Hilary

  13. Sara


    I don’t who said this, but I once heard that you know you’re becoming a success when you get your first heckler:~)

    It was good to see how you turned things around in your head. I agree that you offer more practical suggestions. For example, this post about letting the uncomfortable feelings into your life w/o a fight.

    I also liked what you said about anger. There are times when it is a useful emotion. It’s like a powerful spice, you just have to know how much to use and when to use it.

    Regarding spiritual bypassing, I think I do use it at times and usually with fear. What often works for me is to write it out. Put everything I can think of about why I’m afraid down on paper or computer. This both allows me accept it and release it. I hope this makes sense:~)

    Excellent post, by the way!

  14. Chris - Post author

    Hi Mark — I liked what you said about getting intimate with the pain and thus actually lessening our suffering — I tend to think of life that way as well, that pain is probably inevitable from time to time, but our resistance to it is what produces suffering.

  15. Chris - Post author

    Hi Hilary — I liked how your comment appreciates, at least as I saw it, that personal growth is a process — it’s not usually something we can accomplish in a weekend or through an instantaneous shift in our consciousness. And, in fact, the rest of life is a process as well, and I think becoming able to enjoy that process, rather than just craving the end result, is essential.

  16. Chris - Post author

    Hi Sara — I wouldn’t call your practice of writing down what you’re afraid of spiritual bypassing — it sounds like that process actually has you dive straight into the fear, rather than distracting yourself from it in various ways as most of us would do. I think that’s the type of practice Robert is trying to move us toward with this book.

  17. Jannie Funster

    It is interesting to note how we sometimes hear “new-agey-spiritual” stuff lumped all together in one big nebulous mass of “whoo-hoo land” to lift our eyebrows at. Or was that just how I felt before becoming so enlightened?

    I love that you learned from the man’s conversation with you. These days whenever I feel “bad” about something — and here I’m not saying that you necessarily felt bad about your exchange, but for me, any uncomfortable feelings that come up where I feel I am “less” than I could be — I use the info to see what I can improve upon. So I guess that’s my way of using feelings — accepting and owning the pain to move forward. Case in point: the video I’ll be posting of my singing tonight on my blog, I hear 2 phrases on it I’d like my performance to have been better — but I am using the knowledge of how I’d change those particular passages for next time. And overall, when I listen to my voice now, as to how I sang with a high thin one years ago when I first started taking singing lessons — it’s like a different woman was singing then. My success is in the doing. As is yours — brave man!!

    Awesome post, Chris!

    And my order is for a Honda van, maybe about a year 2007 model or so! :) But a 2005 would work too.

    Oh, and I LOVE that you were “obsessed” by Robert’s teachings — admire that passion!! I think most successful people have become totally immersed for a time in what what was right for them.


  18. Uzma

    Great article Chris. I meditate to bypass the chaos of the world, but have been discovering that the trouble comes in full throttle. Learning to be okay with the chaos then . Thank u for this post

  19. Chris - Post author

    Hi Jannie — heh, I feel some anger when I start thinking that people’s criticism gives me something to “improve upon.” And that’s something I can practice being with as well. That’s where the bravery you’re talking about comes in, isn’t it?

    As for the van, I can probably manifest a pre-owned 2007, if that’s okay — it’s got less than 30,000 miles and comes with a ski rack.

  20. Chris - Post author

    Hi Uzma — yes, the world is always waiting for us when we’re done meditating, isn’t it? And, in my experience, meditation can still be helpful for moving gracefully through the chaos if I bring an “attitude of meditation” into my daily life — meaning that I allow the feelings that come up to pass away on their own, rather than using up my energy trying to force them away. So, meditation to me is a form of practice for living. I wonder if that is useful for you.

  21. Ron

    Robert Augustus Masters is not the Robert Masters that was married to Jean Houston. That Robert Masters passed away a while ago.

  22. Hilary

    Hi Chris .. it’s taken me a long time to get here .. but I had some chance of taking in what you’re saying .. so spirituality or meditation is about absorbing that pain or discomfort and understanding its reasons – ie understanding ourselves better. Taking on board all our responses (feelings and emotions) and accepting them, while retaining the fight or flight mechanism of self protection.

    Your comment about boredom is interesting too .. again accepting that moment and turning it into a practical benefit ..

    Thanks – I struggle to understand some of this .. but I will get there as life gets easier and more settled here .. have a good week .. Hilary

  23. Caleb

    I agree that some people use Spiritual Bypassing to avoid dealing with painful feelings and unresolved wounds. But I believe true spiritually is experienced when we realise we are not our thoughts. But rather, we are the awareness behind the thoughts. We are that stillness. In many cases, the pain and the suffering eventually cracks open the ego and leads you to that point of realisation. But it seems many people go through a great deal of suffering when it is not necessary. I believe it is important to acknowledge your pain and understand why you feel the pain. But at the same time, it’s important to understand that these bad-feeling, fear-based thoughts don’t serve you because they are not actually in alignment with the larger, non-physical part of you. So therefore, the more you hold these thoughts, the more attention you give to all the bad things that have happened to you, or are happening to you or ‘will’ happen to you, the more you will feel discord. And the Law of Attraction will respond. True spiritual work is about bringing yourself into alignment with who you truly are. We are all Source Energy in physical bodies. But most of the time, most people identify themselves as physical, living through the mine-made self comprised of thought and emotion that is the ego. Meditation is a wonderful because it brings stillness into your life, and in that stillness, we will find great depths of lasting peace and serenity.

  24. Evan

    Hi Caleb, I’ve never understood why we aren’t both the watcher and our thoughts. Don’t know if you have thoughts about this, if so I’d like to hear them.

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