Spiritual highs, bypass just as dangerous as other addictions


Walking on water at sunset

By Joe LaGuardia

I am a firm believer that we are all creatures of habit and, therefore, susceptible to addictions that come in many guises.  A habit turns into an addiction when that which intends to assist us along the journey of life becomes the end goal of life.

The objects of our addictions are what become dangerous: substances and drugs, alcohol, and other self-destructive behaviors, to name a few. Innocuous addictions that people can pass for “normal” behaviors also exist and are just as threatening.

One such addiction is spiritual addiction: No, not addiction that is spiritual in nature, but actual addictions to spiritual experiences related to religion, a search for transcendence, or personal spiritual disciplines, such as worship attendance or yoga.

A recent blurb in the Baptist Herald (March-April 2016, p. 7) explores how spirituality and religion can become dangerously addictive for adherents to a particular faith:

“Christians continually striving for the feeling they experienced at a key spiritual moment, or who church-hop in search of the more inspiring preacher and worship, likely have fallen into” addiction.

In other words, believers who are addicted to spiritual experience need a constant spiritual high, one “mountain-top experience” after another.  The valleys of life and the lows of faith are to be avoided at all costs.

The mundane routines that mark life’s passage and often provide insights for deeper trust in the Divine are not adequate for those who feed on what Nietzsche called the “opium of the masses.”

The technical term for this oft-neglected, but dangerous addiction is spiritual bypassing.  According to Ingrid Mathieu, writing for Psychology Today, spiritual bypassing happens when a person engages in a type of spirituality or spiritual discipline not as a healthy form of self-care that aids coping and holistic healing, but as an escape that avoids deeper issues.

The spiritual or religious experiences do not help the situation but exacerbate the situation by becoming a person’s primary focus.

“The shorthand for spiritual bypass is grasping rather than gratitude, arriving rather than being, avoiding rather than accepting. It is spiritual practice in the service of repression, usually because we can not tolerate what we are feeling, or think that we shouldn’t be experiencing what we are feeling.”

How do you know if you’re experiencing or suffering from spiritual bypass?  Just consider how you respond to stress.

In many stressful situations, people turn to prayer or meditation to quiet the mind or gain a sense of perspective.  This typically empowers a person to tackle that which creates conflict, or at least maximizes the use of resources that can help get a person past a conflict.

Spiritual bypass, however, is not a resource for the journey of life, but the end and goal of it.  It does not empower, but leads to avoidance and ever-increasing “doses” of spiritual or transcendent encounters.

It does not prepare a person for coping with a situation, but avoiding responsibility in a situation.

“A spiritual bypass occurs when people use their spiritual practice as a way to avoid dealing with and taking responsibility for their feelings. Anything that is used to avoid feelings and taking responsibility for feelings becomes an addiction,” according to Margaret Paul writing for The Huffington Post.

Like any other addiction, spiritual bypass and addiction to religion requires intervention.  The first step is admitting there is a problem–people around you can usually help, especially if they see that you are talking too much about your spiritual experience or a church more than resolving issues that overwhelm you.

The second step is to get help from a professional.  If spiritual bypass is just as destructive as other addictions in the long run, its worth seeking advice and gaining the tools needed to break this stronghold.

When Jesus began his ministry, his first sermon dictated the mission of his ministry.  In Luke 4, he stated that he came to “set the captives free” (Luke 4:18).  If spirituality is holding you captive, then it is only logical that Jesus needs to set you free too.


Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

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