A friend of mine read through an earlier version of this work and commented that there was
very little in this book on integration, the process by which our life comes to be a natural reflection of our insights. I replied that I would write something about integration when I knew something about it, which he thought was funny, particularly knowing me. However, over the years I have learned a few things about the endlessly complex, mysterious, and yet strangely ordinary topic of integration and living in the world during, and in the wake of, insights. There are many sources, such as A Path with Heart and After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, both by Jack Kornfield, that treat these topics much better than I do in what follows—but hopefully some of these simple points will be of use. In this second edition, I have tried writing more on integration, yet still concluded that I like everything Jack says more than anything I wrote, so I still refer you back to his works.
The first point is one that I have made implicitly above, but will make explicit here: start with gaining some deep insight to integrate in the first place. I have many friends on the spiritual path who seem to be doing work that I associate with integration when they don’t yet have any fundamental insights to integrate. This seems to be a very strange way to go, if you ask me. They seem to be working on their stuff without the clarity and perspective that come from realizations into the truth of our sensate experience. Go get awakened! Become a stream enterer at the very least and preferably an arahant. Without these realizations, it is very hard to determine what needs work and what is just excessive delusion and mind noise created by the illusion of duality that remains. It is not that relative life experiences can’t be powerfully transformative, spiritually profound, or of great value, as of course they can. However, without fundamental insights, there is a global aspect that will be missing.
When we have those realizations, previous issues and unresolved tensions which recur now do so within that different and better mode of perceiving things. Increased spaciousness, clarity, proportionality, and an appreciation of what is mental and what is physical can transform previously very contracted, difficult issues into experiences which are much less so. It has been fascinating to have old sticking points like childhood fears and resentments arise into a mind that is very different from the mind of that young child and to have this new perspective then transform the perception of the sensations that make up the issues and thus the issues themselves. They can be related to in an entirely different and vastly upgraded way. Much of the process of integration involves this rewiring process in the face of fundamental insight. However, the key point is that fundamental insight must be there to work its perceptual magic.
Thus, when on retreat or doing formal practice, think carefully about what you want to achieve. Do you want to work on your stuff or work on fundamental insights? Realize that it might not be easy to do either, and so might be very hard to do both simultaneously. Do you want to gain deep insights and then work on your stuff from that foundation of basic clarity, or do you want to work on your stuff until, until, until—when? Until you don’t have any stuff? Good luck with that!
That brings me to the second point, which is to pick your battles. We can’t do everything. We can’t have it all. We simply don’t have the time or the energy. Spiritual technology will not change these simple facts of life. We can only be working on so many things at once and still do any of them well. We need breaks, downtime, and balance. However, if we are wise and discerning, we can craft a set of priorities for ourselves that honors our unique physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, relational, recreational, vocational, and familial needs, as well as the needs of others. We can do this in a way that is realistic and allows us to keep making good use of our life without burning out or stagnating. No one can ever tell you exactly how to do this. You have your own needs and life situation. Work with these the best you can.
The third point about integration and living in the world that I have had to learn the hard way is a concept articulated very well by Tom Spector in the phrase, “Right plane, right time,” which was his way of saying, “Apply the most helpful conceptual and paradigmatic framework, the one most in harmony with a growth-promoting, non-harming ethic, to the situation.” Like the simple lists of Part One, this phrase could be the basis of an entire book. [See the difficult but excellent The Spectrum of Consciousness, by Ken Wilber, which aptly explains how to keep our paradigms straight without mixing them up, or perhaps his later work, which represents his own growth and, with it, revisions to his thought, such as Integral Spirituality.]
From the perspective of integration, it basically means that we generally should approach a situation or problem in a way that is appropriate to or in harmony with the situation or problem. We should be conscious of the conceptual frameworks that we use when approaching each aspect of our lives, as some conceptual frameworks and the ways of being that issue from those frameworks may not be helpful or appropriate for certain situations. I will illustrate this by way of some examples.
When doing insight practices, it is useful to accept a few things. We should accept that no fixed, unchanging body exists, nor does such a mind exist, nor are there natural boundaries inherent in sensations. There are sensations that arise and pass quickly, do not satisfy, and are without an owner or controller self—without intrinsic identity—meaning that they are empty or devoid of any absolute, unchanging, static, or fixed way of being. It is not all that useful to get overly concerned with what these sensations are or why they arise. We can investigate experience diligently using these testable truths.
When doing just about everything else, this way of proceeding may cause gigantic problems. For instance, when driving a car, we must assent to the appearance of our car as a discrete, functioning entity, one that should not collide with other cars on the road. We must notice the apparent solidity and functionality and that we are in control of our car, we must pay attention to the interaction and boundaries of specific things, and be attentive to the details of our driving environment, our destination, and the rules of the road.
I do a lot of driving and find meditating when driving useful, but I meditate when driving completely differently than I would when doing insight practices. I pay close attention to the cars around me, the distances between us, the trajectories of all the cars, the signs and markings on the road, the speed of my vehicle, the road conditions, the feel of the car on the road, possible hazards, and the like. When driving, I emphasize mindfulness and momentary concentration, but not factors such as investigation, rapture, or other jhanic factors, as those could be very distracting. For “real world” problems, I have found that “real world” solutions are the way to go. Right plane, right time. It must also be said that paying more attention to our sensate world helps both with insight practices and “daily life”.
Human relationships provide another example that contrasts with the paradigm useful when doing insight practices. Imagine someone saying to you, “You are so no-self, so empty. You are so unsatisfactory. You are misery. You are so fleeting, so transient.” It just doesn’t work. Imagine going into a bank at which you have recently overdrawn your account and saying, “I do not exist as a separate entity. There is no ‘I’ or ‘mine’ that can be found. Thus, all this talk of me owing you bank fees is nonsense. We are interdependent luminosity.” These just don’t fly. Right plane, right time. These are ridiculous examples, but if you hang out in spiritual circles and pay attention to the conceptual frameworks people use, and when and how they speak about them, you will find countless similar errors in judgment and the abandoning of common sense.
These examples also illustrate how crucial it is to be careful when talking about our practice. Choose the correct words or degree of silence for the specific people around you for a specific situation, particularly soon after dramatic occurrences. I can’t tell you how many times I have looked like a completely inconsiderate nutcase when I opened my big, flapping pie-hole to the wrong people soon after some intense insight or rapture had occurred. As the nineteenth-century French occultist Eliphas Levi said, “Telling the truth to someone who can’t understand it is tantamount to telling that person a lie.” Wise words. Cultivate a network of deeply trusted friends with whom you can share your experiences, or keep a journal if this is not practical, or both. There is something helpful about being able to talk about unusual things in a safe and appropriate space, and something decidedly toxic for all involved about sharing with the wrong people. I am far towards the “talk about practice” end of the secrecy versus open disclosure spectrum but, practically speaking, we must be discerning about our audience and speech and not be idiots about taking this too far.
It is not uncommon for people who get deeply into practice to encounter two issues: 1) it is difficult to learn to go easily between one way of being to another, from one conceptual framework to another; and 2) that practice and “the world” seem to be in direct conflict. Given our basic dualistic illusion, it often seems that we must let things go in some literal sense, such as quitting a job, to “let it go” in the insight sense, to see the true nature of the sensations that make up the process. This is obviously not true, but it is easy to be tempted into resorting to such erroneous logic.
One of the most interesting aspects of practice that arises when we have dissolved the illusion of there being some fixed centerpoint, some stable agent, and some localized perceiver—when we have sustained this realization—is that the entire field of experience is now “it”. As the entire field of experience is now “it”, our consideration turns entirely to what might reasonably be termed “relative considerations”, except that now they are just considerations, as questions of ultimate and relative are resolved when everything just represents itself. Ethics, practicality, and aesthetics become everything. The details become everything. The big picture is not privileged over details, nor the other way around. There is no more sense that there is something holding back, that there is some conflict between realization and making this body, heart, mind, and world as good as they can be. Total engagement is now perfectly natural, even vital, as there is no other game in town, imagined or otherwise. In short, integration becomes everything.
The implications of the world being everything are vast and transformative. Have you ever wondered at the staggering aesthetic beauty of many monasteries, thangkas, rituals, gestures, mantras, and the accouterments that adorn spiritual traditions that contain realized masters? The causes are many, but one is that, for those with deep wisdom, there is nothing blocking that creativity anymore, nothing else to work on but truth and beauty, as the bohemians put it, nothing else but the specifics to optimize. Attain to realization. Optimize reality from that vantage-less vantage point. You will be happy you did.
As to the rest of integration, well, if we have insights to integrate, it just seems to happen naturally. That’s about the best I can do. Life happens as before, and so it goes. We grow, we learn, we get sick, we age, and we die. Causality unfolds. To quote a song from the classic movie Casablanca, “The fundamental things apply as time goes by.” Go and read some extensive book on integration and tell me if it basically said the same thing while using a whole lot more words to do so. Still, such books can be helpful.
I will shortly give some autobiographical information on my own journey, details of states, stages, paths, and meditative experiences. I basically stop the narrative after the major insights in 2003 as, while the stages are all relatively easy to write about and map, the subsequent years of integration since then are not. That doesn’t mean that those years of integration aren’t important, as the gradual maturation that happens after insights is profound and transformative, but it is very hard to quantify. I continue to practice, study, go on retreats, learn, grow, and develop; but, despite my fascination with mapping and pattern recognition, I see no easy way to impose any of those cognitive structures on that process since 2003. The key point here: once you have seen through the three illusions by your own clear practice, don’t neglect the first two trainings, as they continue to provide a great foundation for the rest of the optimization that is the natural flowering of realization.