Zen Sickness / Spiritual Bypassing


While orienting to this absolutely wild shift in perception, heed the following. One hazard of “perceiving reality for what it is”… is the ego coopting the experience – resting in some enclave of detachment and retreat. In other words, an identity of non-identity, which, undermines embodiment, or, the integration of insight with everyday life.

Here are a few poignant excerpts from Stephan Bodian’s book, Wake Up Now, illustrating this tendency and how it might be thwarted.

Retreat From the World

“Adyashanti has observed that spiritual people tend to be more afraid of living than they are of dying, and some respond to the powerful transformational process that awakening precipitates by retreating from active participation in the world to the detached position of the disengaged witness. Also known as the “Zen sickness” or “spiritual bypassing,” this tactic turns awakening from a living, breathing reality into a fixed position or point of view and prevents it from unfolding, deepening, and embodying in an ordinary, everyday way.

Claiming that there’s no doer, for example, you may decline to do anything and spend your days in stubborn and determined inaction. In social situations, you may remain on the periphery, detached and undisturbed but also unresponsive and inflexible, with a smug, knowing half-smile on your face. In relationships, you may participate to the degree that suits you but pull back into a forced equanimity and insist you don’t have any feelings or needs when difficulties arise. “Who, me? I never get angry or upset. After all, I don’t really exist.” In this way, the ego uses awakening as a pretext for remaining in control by withdrawing from a world that seems demanding, frightening, overwhelming, or chaotic. If you can’t control the board, you simply refuse to play the game.

Because awakening generally eliminates at least a certain amount of conditioning and leaves you freer and less reactive, you may believe that your journey is complete. But the lifelong process of deeper embodiment has usually just begun. At this point, you may be tempted to turn awakening into a fixed position or point of view, a new identity to which you become attached, another filter through which you relate to life.

Practical Embodiment

Embodiment is not about becoming a better person or living up to the expectations of yourself or others; the mind is just thrilled at the prospect of turning embodiment into another self-improvement project. Rather, it’s about freedom and authenticity, about letting the radiant emptiness that you are live your life, not the conditioned mind with its preconceived ideas and agendas. When you’re embodying the truth, you’re living without conflict or resistance, in harmony with the flow of what is.

This unflinching investigation requires a discriminating wisdom that sees reality as complete and perfect just the way it is, yet at the same time acknowledges the relative imperfections, the stuck places that awakening has yet to illuminate and redeem. Here again, we encounter the core paradox: everything is perfect just as it is—but when the roof leaks, have it repaired.


In short, spirituality invariably leads to withdrawal. Withdrawal is essential – from certain forms of identity, wishes, desires. Ultimately, though, this is just one stop along the path. At some point, the absolute truth of insight, and relative truth of everyday experience, must be held in harmony. To cling too tightly to “absolute truth”, Stephan cautions, is ironically a new identity.

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