Psychedelic Bypassing: When's My Next Ceremony? 

Uncover the pitfalls of “psychedelic bypassing” in personal growth journeys and how integration and timing can shape true transformation.

Overview: Steve Elfrink, a Psychedelic Somatic Interactional Therapist and Subject Matter Expert at Webdelics, shares insights on psychedelic bypassing, drawing from John Welwood's concept of spiritual bypassing. Reflecting on personal experiences and decades of involvement with psychedelics, Elfrink explores how individuals may use psychedelics to avoid unresolved issues. He underscores the importance of integration and respecting personal timing in the psychedelic journey, advocating for a mindful and holistic approach to genuine transformation and healing.

Shedding Light on Spiritual Bypassing

In the nuanced and evolving journey of personal and spiritual growth, the concept of “spiritual bypassing,” introduced by California psychotherapist John Welwood in 1983, has profoundly influenced our understanding of the interplay between spirituality and psychology.

Welwood's groundbreaking insights, first shared in a talk at the Omega Institute in 1983, highlighted the tendency to use spiritual practices to avoid confronting unresolved personal issues and emotions. Welwood further expressed his concerns about spiritual bypassing in a 1984 paper published in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology titled ‘Principles of Inner Work: Psychological and Spiritual: 

“As a result of coming back to appreciate Western psychology and doing a lot of personal work on myself over the past few years, as well as participating in a research project on spiritual groups, I started to pay more attention to a disturbing tendency among certain members of spiritual communities. Although many of these spiritual practitioners were doing very good work on themselves, which I bow to and respect as extremely important, some of them seemed to be using meditation or their spiritual involvements to bypass certain kinds of personal emotional “unfinished business.””

Welwood goes on to discuss the common temptation to use spiritual practices as a means to escape or bypass unresolved personal issues and emotions, referring to this tendency as “spiritual bypassing,”

“There is a certain temptation… to try to use spiritual practice to rise above the difficulties of unresolved personal problems and emotions. Perhaps this is connected with a movement in us, traditionally called “spirit,” which seeks a certain release from the structures we feel caught in — the structures of karma, conditioning, body, form, matter, and personality. Insofar as we want to get away from difficult personal issues and emotions — all the sticky, messy things that keep us rooted right here — we may try to use spiritual practice to do that. I have come to call this tendency to try to avoid or prematurely transcend basic human needs, feelings, and developmental tasks, “spiritual bypassing.”

Digital illustration representing the concept of 'psychedelic bypassing' - a phenomenon where individuals use psychedelics to avoid addressing underlying psychological issues.

Facing Shadows: Healing Beyond Bypassing

Here, Welwood describes the tendency, which he admits observing in himself, too, for individuals to seek to rise above the challenges of their human experience rather than confront and integrate them. This concept resonates profoundly with my own experiences and the related phenomenon of “psychedelic bypassing.”

Reflecting on my personal journey, I recognize the patterns of spiritual and psychedelic bypassing in my own life. My relentless pursuit of psychedelic experiences was driven by a quest for transcendence, yet, in hindsight, it was less about enlightenment and more an attempt to escape from unresolved pain and trauma.

This realization mirrors Welwood's observation of the temptation to rise above personal challenges through spiritual practices. In my case, psychedelics were the vehicle for this evasion, offering a seemingly direct path to higher consciousness while bypassing the need to confront my deeper psycho-biological issues.

Psychedelic bypassing, much like its spiritual counterpart, involves using psychedelics as a means to sidestep deeper psycho-biological challenges, creating an illusion of progress and enlightenment, while the core, underlying issues remain unaddressed. Recognizing this pattern has been pivotal in reshaping my approach to these substances, understanding them not as panaceas but as components of a comprehensive journey of healing and self-discovery.

It is also important to recognize that psychedelics are not the sole answer to one’s navigation of the healing path. While psychedelics are tools that can get us on the healing path, we then need to begin the lifelong walk on that path ourselves. 

“If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen.” - Alan Watts

The Art of Integration and Nurturing Wisdom from Psychedelic Experiences

The key to navigating this journey lies in the process of integration, a crucial but often overlooked aspect of working with psychedelics — a place to pause and slow down.

Integration involves the deliberate and conscious incorporation of insights and revelations gained during psychedelic experiences into one’s daily life. It is about making tangible changes in behavior, thought patterns, and emotional responses based on the lessons learned during these profound psychedelic experiences.

Effective integration requires time, patience, and often the support of experienced guides or therapists. It involves reflecting on the psychedelic experience, identifying the key insights, and understanding how they apply to one's personal growth and healing.

This process might include journaling, meditative practices, therapy sessions, and engaging in community or support groups where experiences and insights can be shared and explored further. Successful integration of psychedelic experiences does not happen simply by having a series of additional psychedelic experiences, but by continuously practicing to confront and resolve our innermost challenges.

Honoring Personal Timing 

Related to integration, there's an essential aspect of working with psychedelics that often goes underappreciated: respect for one's personal timing. The depth and complexity of psychedelic experiences mean that their full understanding and integration can span years, even decades.

I was recently struck by a moment of profound clarity, an “aha!” revelation stemming from an ibogaine experience I had 12 years ago. It was as if a piece of wisdom, a ‘download’ from that distant journey, had finally clicked into place, integrating seamlessly into my current understanding.

This notion of pacing became particularly evident following my participation in a clinical study that sought to investigate the pharmacokinetics (how the body processes a drug, including absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion) of psilocybin — the active component of “magic mushrooms” — at varying doses. The study involved three high-dose psilocybin sessions spread over three months.

After this intense period, I found myself without the need or desire for another major psychedelic session for three years. This interval wasn't due to a lack of interest, but rather an acknowledgment that the processing and integration of such profound experiences take time. Even now, I find myself unraveling and understanding new layers from those sessions.

This journey with psychedelics is not a race; it's an ongoing, evolving process that demands respect and patience. Each experience has its own life cycle of unfolding, revealing its insights and teachings in its own time. It’s crucial to honor this rhythm, allowing these experiences to naturally weave their wisdom into the tapestry of our daily lives.

This gradual integration is a testament to the depth and transformative power of psychedelics, reminding us that true understanding often emerges in its own time, enriching our journey in unexpected and profound ways.

Psychedelics as Tools for True Transformation

Embracing the wisdom of John Welwood and other pioneers in the field, I've come to see the importance of using psychedelic experiences as tools for genuine transformation, rather than as escapes. This transformation is not merely about transcending our limitations but involves deeply engaging with them, allowing for true healing and growth.

As we embark on this path, we must do so with mindfulness, respect, and a commitment to holistic well-being, recognizing the connection between our psychological health and spiritual progress. Through this balanced approach, we can harness the full potential of psychedelics as catalysts for profound personal change, ensuring that our journeys lead not only to higher states of consciousness but also to deeper understanding, core healing of emotional wounding, and integration within our everyday lives.

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