An important conversation with a student about misunderstanding Dharma and ‘spiritual bypassing’

A student writes:

I have been living with depression and a level of anxiety for years and recently things reached a crisis point and triggered some sort of trauma response on multiple levels. It took me about a year and a half to reach a point where I can start to get some clarity about it…

Lama Shenpen responds:

I am glad you have got to this point…


I started asking myself questions about purpose, about success and failure, how and why my life is the way it is and what to do about it. Now, it has occurred to me, that I most likely have been using Dharma practice for decades in a way that is called ‘spiritual bypassing’. What I’m not clear about, is to what degree it’s me misunderstanding the Dharma, and to what degree things are inherent in the teachings?

Lama Shenpen:

I have heard the term ‘spiritual bypassing’ and discussed it with colleagues from time to time.  I think one traditional way of talking about it is attachment to spiritual experiences or ambitions – just another possible type of attachment and perhaps what Trungpa Rinpoche calls a kind of ‘spiritual materialism’.

Westerners are particularly prone to it because they do not have much faith in anything – either themselves, the Buddha, the tradition; Buddhist principles such as Karma and its effects, future lives, past lives, samsara and nirvana, the power of connection and adhistana of the Mandala of Awakening and pranidhanas  – the social context in which they find themselves and the meaning of life at all. 

I think this general lack of faith in anything makes them particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of trauma which seem to present themselves after having remained hidden and ‘coped with’ sometimes for decades.

The social environment westerners find themselves in is one of success or failure, there is something wrong with you if you are not happy and successful – if you are not the best, you have somehow failed and so on.  And ‘best’ gets defined by the social environment more and more chaotically – it just depends what you happen to have linked into at any particular time.


Let me give you some examples of what’s been happening with me: a lack of clear boundaries, being afraid to stand up for myself and assert myself, not relating to anger well. Being ‘too nice’ and allowing others to take advantage, in the name of ‘compassion’, not having a clear vision for life, instead relying of grand visions of Buddhahood, while neglecting the ‘down to earth’ business of everyday life…

Lama Shenpen:

Yes, this says it all really, doesn’t it?


I even sometimes feel like the very practice of meditation is counter-productive. Literally – is undermines being ‘productive’, i.e. in working on myself and my life, instead leading to a sense of ‘space’. It’s good for managing my anxiety but at the same time it leads to a kind of sense of de-realisation.

Sometimes I think Buddhism on the whole is just too ‘otherworldly’. And I don’t see good role models in it either. It’s either monastics or teachers who have gone ‘crazy’. Of course, I know it’s not as simple as that but what I’m trying to say is that I’m seriously questioning to what degree is Buddhism adequate as a path for ‘this life’? I feel that other religions particularly Christianity and Islam are much more in touch with this, and perhaps that’s why I have been attracted to them.

Lama Shenpen:

Yes, it is difficult to generalise about Buddhism since there are so many different forms of it even within Buddhist countries and so many ways it can go wrong, and I think what as westerners what happens is that Buddhism is such a minority religion without much sangha or community development that is integrated into society.

These are early days for Buddhism in the west – and I really appreciate what you say about being attracted to the well-established religions that can offer that kind of down to earth advice, support and community.

Those of us who are attracted to Buddhism tend to have our eye on the highest goal because that is what attracted us away from the religion of our own country.  And yes, role models for western practitioners are few and far between – in Buddhist countries everyone has family members and local teachers who have known them all their lives and that brings it all much more down to earth.


Of course we could emphasise the basic teachings of discovering and having confidence in Openness, Clarity and Sensitivity and I have found that indeed when done with the ‘right touch’, as you say, I can be present and let the right response to circumstances arise, but many times that response turned out to be what felt ‘right’ at the moment which was based on some feeling, like neediness in relation to the other person, which had negative consequences.

Lama Shenpen:

Yes, it is tricky isn’t it – that feeling of rightness?  On the one hand it’s all we have to go on and on the other, we can mistake some habitual conditioned response of reaction for the real thing. It temporarily feels ‘right’ but then our feeling of rightness starts to tell us that it isn’t – and that requires a lot of reflection doesn’t it?

It’s not always a straightforward matter. Dharma practice is subtle and takes a lot of training.  Traditionally Buddhists stick to what is taught to create good karma or not and gradually to come to some deep spiritual realisation by means of which they could make more subtle distinctions.

I think we westerners have a harder task but nonetheless I think we are up to it, we are going to find our way… but as I said it is still early days. 

So, yes we need to wonder whether we have understood the teachings properly or whether the teachings themselves are quite right – there are so many forms of Buddhism it’s for sure we are going to read or hear things that are not quite right. We need to keep alert and discriminating, and at the same time respectful and open – listening to receive wisdom.


There is a certain lack of greater vision perhaps, and in a way to speak about the aim of attaining Buddhahood for the benefit of others, is not adequate.

Lama Shenpen:

Yes, you are right. As westerners we lack the greater vision and so our wish to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of others easily becomes somewhat ‘airy fairy’, even though coming from the right place.


What am I misunderstanding? Have I emphasised ‘emptiness’ too much at the expense of ‘form’? Or is Dharma simply not applicable on the level of ‘life’?

Lama Shenpen:

Emptiness is a deep and subtle matter and not an escape from life.  It is life itself, which cannot be separated from anything – it is all we have and are.

Dharma is reality itself – it is what life truly is – in all its aspects.  So, I think you have misunderstood what Dharma means – or rather let’s say you have not yet got a good understanding of what it means.  But you have learnt something extremely valuable and that is that it’s possible to misapply the practice and you are now reviewing the whole situation so you won’t make the same mistake again.


Right now I feel almost as if I’m paralysed – just going through the motions day by day and trying to ‘keep it together’, while I feel my practice of Dharma does the opposite.

Lama Shenpen:

I understand this to mean your practice of Dharma seems to undermine your efforts to ‘keep it together’ – even though that just feels like going through the motions?

I am glad you are looking into the more therapeutic aspects of what is happening in your life too.  In the Living the Awakened Heart Training we do not talk much about aiming for Buddhahood and bypassing our daily life – but you are right that it comes up in our liturgy and the focus on Refuge and Bodhisattva vow each year.

Not everyone is at the same stage in their Buddhist life and so it’s good to think in terms of spiral learning. It’s not all upwards and onwards and keeping up with other people – it is about staying grounded where you are right now and take the next step forward in our own path of discovery.

Your email is interesting and expresses something important that happens for many westerners when encountering Buddhism.  It is interesting to think about why that should be, but I won’t try to go into that too much right now – perhaps my book ‘Keeping the Dalai Lama Waiting’ provides some of the clues.

It is something about what traditional Buddhist teachings take as given and which the norms of traditional Buddhist societies support from the word go that gives the teachings a whole different context and psychological effect.

I am grateful that you let this conversation go on the website as there are many people who have the same problem and might benefit from my answer.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

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