Personal Development

Psychedelics, Shadows, and Spiritual Bypassing

Samuel Douglas · December 7th, 2020

When you’re new to psychedelics, terms like “shadow work” or “spiritual bypassing” can be daunting. If this is you, don’t panic! Despite how mysterious and occult they sound, these concepts are vital parts of psychedelic integration and personal growth. Far from being only for beginners, these ideas, and the practices that go with them, are relevant for even the most experienced psychedelic traveler.

Hello darkness, my old friend

To come to grips with shadow work, we first need to understand the shadow. In this context, it’s a concept drawn from Carl Jung’s analytic psychology and sometimes used in Transpersonal Therapy. For Jung, the shadow represents the parts of us that are hidden in our unconscious because we can’t or won’t see them. Being veiled from our attention, we find it hard to identify when our shadow influences our behavior or emotions.

It’s important to understand that not everything in the shadow is automatically negative. For example, you might be more motivated by money than you’d like to acknowledge. But you also might be braver than you think (which, in my experience, is true for almost everyone).

Shadow work is the term for ‘doing the work’ of looking at things in ourselves that are usually hidden and that we may perceive as unpleasant. Your religious and spiritual beliefs influence whether you see the shadow as metaphorical or not. But in terms of working with it, this doesn’t matter.

What’s important is that if your psychedelic, meditative, or mindful experiences bring negative or unexpected things to your attention, they’re not going to go away just because you ignore them. Worse, being unable to identify what our personalities are really like, when combined with profound spiritual experiences, can lead to ego-inflation and narcissism. Imagine that I’m self-centered as a coping mechanism for deep-seated insecurity, and I never acknowledge this about myself. Rather than using my psychedelic experiences to move past this, I might instead use them to bolster my defensive sense of importance.

If you intend to pursue shadow work, this is a time where experienced psychedelic integration support will be of great assistance. An integration specialist can help clarify what you want to get out of your shadow work, and give you the tools to make sense of experiences that are confronting or confusing. If you’re not working with someone, being curious about your feelings and reflecting on them with compassion are useful steps in investigating your shadow.

Spirituality as avoidance

When we are unable or unwilling to do this shadow work, or generally channel our efforts into surface appearances of mysticism or enlightenment, we can end up doing what’s known as spiritual bypassing. This term was coined by psychotherapist John Welwood, when he observed people in his Buddhist community in the 70s and 80s using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep dealing with unresolved emotional and psychological wounds. In particular, he talked about using ritual, and even mindfulness, to avoid difficulties in our lives and interpersonal relationships, rather than to confront or resolve them. More recent research appears to confirm that this sort of avoidance reduces the positive effects that spirituality can have on our mental health.

So, what are some possible signs of spiritual bypassing?

  • Exaggerating positives and avoiding anything negative.
  • Being smug or condescending about concepts of enlightenment and spirituality.
  • Deflecting painful emotions by detaching from others.
  • Projecting an image that implies your life is “perfect”.
  • Seeing other people’s emotional struggles as a sign of weakness.
  • Exhibiting, experiencing, or suppressing frequent anger.

Another sign of spiritual bypassing I would include is using psychedelic experiences solely to escape reality. Exploring the outer reaches of reality is great, but we are embodied humans, and at least some of the work we need to do is a reflection of that.

Controversially, I think microdosing to cope with a situation but never taking steps to address it is also a form of bypassing. Lots of people microdose to aid their creativity or to become more productive. But if you’re microdosing to keep up with an unreasonable workload that’s making you deeply unhappy, rather than talking to your boss or changing jobs, this may be just another form of avoidance.

Spiritual bypassing isn’t just detrimental to our personal growth. When we focus on superficialities, our relationships with others can suffer—particularly if we use our practices to keep people at an emotional distance. This can happen in a number of different ways. We might aggressively pursue an ideal of non-attachment to others, even though this is itself a form of attachment. And it’s harder to feel compassion for others if we don’t feel it for ourselves (because we’re avoiding the pain that goes with it).  Spiritual bypassing can also make us unhappy in ourselves, as the effort we put into avoidance takes us out of the moment and saps the authenticity from our everyday lives.

Spiritual bypassing might impact how we look at the outside world too. If we can avoid admitting that everything is not OK with ourselves, we can do the same thing with broader issues. Once we acknowledge how interconnected everything is, it’s no surprise that structural spiritual bypassing casts a long shadow in the wider world.

Facing our shadow

Neglected shadows and spiritual bypasses all sound pretty dire. But there are plenty of ways we can stop ourselves from getting stuck in them. Apart from not ignoring psychedelic integration, the practices that will help you prevent or work through spiritual bypass will help your shadow work. That’s because, as you might have figured out by now, they’re linked. When we do shadow work, we can address or prevent spiritual bypassing. Being mindful of whether or not we’re bypassing helps us integrate our shadow and heal the disconnection it causes.

Here are some steps adapted from principles of mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy:

  • Don’t try to feel a particular way or have specific experiences.
  • Accept and acknowledge your thoughts and emotions without judging them.
  • Consider what values are fundamental to you, and take the time to decide what you need to do in light of this knowledge.
  • Commit to actions or choices that are in line with your deeply held values.

We can’t change something if we’re not aware of it. And in the real world, even if we can acknowledge everything about ourselves, practical change can be genuinely challenging. So, don’t be too hard on yourself, and seek help with integration or counseling if you need to.

We’re stronger together.

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