Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: Spiritual Bypassing and Awakening

November 18, 2015

…don’t hide from our personal and interpersonal problems by hiding away in our spiritual practice.



The most obvious form of “spiritual bypassing” is when we run away from life into spiritual communities, especially residential ones, where we try to avoid the challenges of our personalities and relationships by throwing ourselves into spiritual practice. The danger is that we don’t get any better in areas of life that we might do better to work on; we just avoid them.

The heart of what the coiner of the term, John Wellwood, meant by “spiritual bypassing” (back in 1983) was not that different from a person with troubles at home staying late at work day after day, or turning to alcohol. Essentially it’s about avoidant behavior that happens to latch onto spiritual practice as the escape.

Sometimes it can appear as kind of a defence, too, as in: Don’t mess with me – I wear robes.

But we shouldn’t let fear of it mess with our meditation practice. It’s about the rest of our lives. It doesn’t mean: don’t meditate. Nor: don’t meditate in a certain way. It means…

don’t hide from our personal and interpersonal problems by hiding away in our spiritual practice.

Meditation in the Zen tradition isn’t meant to be a way of avoiding life. It’s a way of getting to the core of life, out of which we can live differently.

The tradition itself is aware of this risk, beginning with the story of Shakyamuni having his great awakening, then sitting right where he was for a week (or three weeks, or six, depending on the version) until a god tapped him on the shoulder and told him he had work to do, and reluctantly he entered his 49 years of teaching.

The koan of Hyakujo and the Fox (in the Gateless Gate) is on one level about a kind of spiritual bypassing, namely a man having the view that awakening meant exemption from the law of causation. As a result of this “error,” he had to spend 500 lifetimes as a fox. Sometimes Zen calls this kind of view the “cave of demons on Black Mountain,” or the dreaded “pit of emptiness.”

When we convert dynamic experience into metaphysical understanding, we run this risk particularly. But nihilists beware! The emptiness we may crave is empty too. In one taxonomy of emptiness, the eighteenth kind of emptiness is “the emptiness of emptiness.”

On the other hand, we might remember that we have spent aeons in delusional “bypassing” too. Just because there’s the pit of emptiness on the one hand, doesn’t mean there isn’t also the “ditch of name-and-form” on the other. The die has two faces, as Mumon says in his verse on the koan about Hyakujo and the fox, and we’re so accustomed to seeing only one face, that it often takes some serious effort to clarify the one we don’t see – namely, infinite empty oneness – and to keep seeing it, and not to allow it to become just more understanding.

The way to do this is to allow the living dynamic fact to arise as it does, right here, right now. The way it arises is quite simply as caring, as compassion, as concern for the wellbeing of all beings. We have no choice in the matter at all, whatever we may think. The path of Buddhahood is inevitable.

* * *


Some traditions say that every time we notice something, that’s awakening. We interrupt the habitual chain of the internal monologue, and for a moment really notice.

Some people say that when a poem or some other work of art touches us, that’s awakening; others that a moment’s deeper appreciation of a sunset, a dawn, a lovely tree, an awesome cloud – these are all moments of awakening.

Some psychologists use the term for entering a realm of deeper feeling.

Without wanting to spoil the party, the fact is that in the core of the Zen tradition, none of these things are awakening. Awakening is quite specific and definable:

it is seeing that all phenomena without exception, both subject and object, both self and world, are empty, and that all are equally present in this emptiness.

That’s to say, the reality of all and every phenomenon is that of nothing at all, but this “nothing” has limitless potential, and is right now fully and absolutely being this very moment just as it is. To grasp this through personal experience is awakening, and to deny the reality of this is “like a person who has never tasted sugar denying that sugar is sweet” (as Yamada Koun puts it).

But this is of course not to deny the beauty of the sunset, nor of the snowfall on the yellow autumn leaves, nor of the child’s tears on hearing that her parent is coming home.

Message from Henry is excerpted from our November 18 Newsletter.
Image: Arches, by Unsplash, CC0 Public Domain, from

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