The Pitfall of Spiritual Achievement

People who start a spiritual path do so because they are seeking. Those who aren’t have no real need for spiritual practice. This seeking may be for existential understanding, resolving internal conflict, finding purpose or myriad other deficiencies in our understanding and engagement with the universe.


Often those who start to find comfort in spiritual practice can become subject to “spiritual bypass.” They lose focus on the reasons for spiritual practice while they become distracted by the attractive concept of an enlightened existence. The romantic idea of being above the fray in either contemplation, ritual, piety or any other virtue of choice. This is illuminated with rituals, smells, books, and other physical symbology signifying that someone has lifted themselves above the mundane concerns.

Unfortunately, the reality is that we can never remove ourselves from the mundane. We cannot remove ourselves from… ourselves. We will be hungry. We will want relationships. We will want to not get older, sick or die. We will want to be liked and respected. We will want.

pious-guru-woman-20828560Spiritual bypass is a defense mechanism of avoidance to suppress those realities and avoid the uncomfortable realities of the world around us. We have romantically put spiritual leaders on pedestals believing that since they have dedicated their lives to spiritual practice they have left behind mundane living. Spend time with a monk, priest, rabbi or imam and you quickly learn that they are living their lives just as anyone else.

Those who fall into the trap of spiritual bypass can get caught up in the delusion of practice. They will exaggerate detachment and make themselves emotionally numb. They live an affectation of over-tolerance and faux-compassion. They are fear-phobic and deluded that they are sincerely moving towards leaving the mundane. It is not arrogance of self-righteousness but the arrogance of being on the path of sacredness and post human.


After my ordination, I was still me; a single man in his 40s. I dated. What I found frequently was that my dates turned into either criticism or adulation. My partner for the evening would look on my choice to practice Buddhism with sincere earnest as a sign that I was no longer interested in all the things everyone was interested in, OR every action was put under scrutiny.

“Did you get upset that guy cut you off on the highway? But you are a Buddhist.”

“I am sure that since you are a Buddhist, you would not be interested in going to a party.”

“Are you allowed to date?”

And while I could not verbalize it for a few years, I even found that practice in my temple had changed. The desire to have someone ordained by ordinary was distasteful. Either I would hear people who knew me before my ordination say “but you didn’t really ‘ordain’ ordain” or “so now that you are ordain you will no longer ….”

This perception of spiritual practitioners too is a type of spiritual bypass because it feeds into the narrative that those who have a faith practice are slowly making the journey away from the mundane and towards the sacred.



That sacred seeking makes those in spiritual bypass creates a moral dilemma. Being human is unavoidable. Those who lose sight of that truth fall into the trap of all bypass.

Morality is not a blank slate at birth. Neither is it created from the universe by God or physics.

In politics and faith, we find our way through our moral worldview. It is hardwired into us as a species. Our civilizations could not have survived and grown without it. It is easy to start to believe that morality and spirituality are intertwined and symbiotic. And therefore a spiritual life is not only one of internal growth but moral fortitude. And since morality is the binding agent of society, those with more morality are thought to be better people.

But what makes up morality? It can be parsed into our evolutionary (divinely created or by random chance) DNA. As homo sapiens we are hardwired to care about social harm, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Social harm is our belief that we are responsible for the care of those within our family or tribe. The idea of murder is universal as is self-defence.

Our species values fairness and expectations of reciprocity. As societies we have worked hard to develop complex legal codes to ensure fairness.

Loyalty is a cornerstone of being in society. We define ourselves by our associations: family, friends, nationalities, races, gender, sports affiliations, etc.

Authority is not just a respect for power but for position and expertise. We give deference not only to those who carry a badge or a gun but also to those who carry religious symbols and diplomas. It is respect that give understanding to our cooperative existence.

While it is easy to see our societies value sanctity in institutions like religion, but we also value the purity of food (e.g. is it organic or GMO) and trade (do we believe in the corporations selling products). Sanctity is the idea that we have a community set of standards we hold above others.

Civilizations survive by organizing themselves into groups that align their value to the five characteristics above. That is their morality. Within the bubble of those groups, that morality seems absolute and immutable. When immutable truths are presented in contrast to another group’s immutable truths then that those groups cannot coexist until they adjust to align what is common.

When a single person has hoisted themselves above the mundane into the world of spiritual aloofness, it is impossible for them to continue coexisting harmoniously with divergent thought. Compassion becomes self-righteousness and judgement.

The disease of righteousness is that truth is no longer a common reality but judged as “for” or “against in the mind. A society sees their actions to protect the truths they are “for” as morally justifiable. A person who sees their thoughts and actions as immutably true values themselves higher than those who disagree. Put that same person within an idea that their spiritual practice places themselves higher in moral currency and they will see themselves as judges of truth and arbiters of correct action.


In ancient Rome, returning generals would be given a parade and as the general would be praise on the streets as he passed on his chariot a slave would stand behind him whispering “Sic transit Gloria mundi.” All glory is fleeting. It was a sombre reminder that people’s memories, and our lives are not long lived.

It was also a tool to remain humble and mindful. We are animals. We are human creatures long-viewof imperfection and natural desires. We crave to live in social orders. We see out safety, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. We remember that we are all different in the level we value each of these quality we seek. While we group ourselves and look at the rest as “other” we are fundamentally the same.

It is the spiritual practice to not only seek meaning, purpose and understanding; but also understand context and place. To be honest to the point of discomfort that sanctity does not be sacred or superior. That loyal does not mean uncooperative. That authority does not mean blind respect.

We are all neighbours and all seekers.

As Jung said, “That which we resist, persists.”

We resist too much in this world. I resist too much in this world. When I feel the warmth of friction to the world that “is” around me and my world I think “should” be, I endeavour to question my own sense of spiritual bypass. Harmony is not friction, and sometimes we need to work on ourselves as much as the world to polish way the burrs that we stick on and our world finds resistance to.

I will continue to meditate on that.

Categories: Ethics, faith, meaning of life, New Age, Philosophy, Psychology, secret of life, self-help, Uncategorized


Joshua Hudson is a license clinical social worker with post graduate certificates in mental health. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he has worked as an healthcare advocate for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Director of Psychological Health for the Air Force, in-patient counselor for inpatient adolescents, child and family therapist; and currently is a Prevention Interventionist for the Air Force creating programs to reduce interpersonal and self-directed violence (e.g. Sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc.) in the military


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2 Comments on “The Pitfall of Spiritual Achievement”

  1. Jose Perez
    December 8, 2017 at 4:58 pm #


    I will tell you what I think. Life is a game. We play this game to win and to do so, we must understand the rules of the game and we must understand what we are, our spiritual nature.

    Some people are born and just exist as best they can. Their game seems to be to grow, establish a family and to make sure that they can provide their families with what they need.

    Other people care little about understanding what they are, They just want to dominate, to be superior to everybody else and to stand over the rest of humanity dominating everything.

    Then there are those whose aim is to feel peace, to enjoy life and share their happiness with everyone else.

    Sadly we are like leaves from a tree in Autumn. The wind blows and we are driven away. Because of ignorance, we have little control of where the wind takes us. That ignorance makes it hard for us to coexist because people seem to understand things as it’s convenient for them and fail to face reality. Most people run from reality, so, they think that a person who seeks spiritual freedom is a person who somehow will exist on some other plane far from the mundane.

    Truth is that we have this world where we live and we must coexist. Truth is that we occupy human bodies and those bodies have needs. Truth is that we must maintain a balance and ensure that our own actions don’t destroy our opportunities to find happiness. Truth is that just as we must find the way to ensure our happiness, we also must find ways to protect ourselves from the ignorance of those who dream with domination and that would destroy our happiness so that they can feel like conquerors and kings.

    Like you, I find I must meditate more on this. Who would have known that I would one day meditate? That’s one of the reasons I’m interested in Buddhism. I must learn to meditate. I must learn to quiet my mind so that I can find the answers that hide within me.

    I must, like Buddha, find Nirvana.


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