Integral Life Practice Simplified
Part One: Cultivating Spirit
Ultimately, religion and spirituality should be about practice, not about belief. One reason that many people in the West turned toward Eastern religions—and then toward Integral philosophy/spirituality—is because they were upset with the way Christianity was/is practiced in our country. Christianity was/is too often practiced as a way of believing as opposed to a way of being. (And, of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Contemplative Christianity is still one of the best ways in existence.) However, it seems to me that too many Integral practitioners—because of their interest in the more philosophical aspects of Integral—have taken it up as a new set of beliefs. What we need are Integral practitioners who are also mystics. Integralists who—even though they understand the more nuanced philosophical aspects of Integral—have experienced One Taste, who know how to rest in the Divine Presence, and who are capable of residing in Nondual Awareness. We need practitioners who really know their Original Face before their parents were born, before the current universe exploded into existence via the Big Bang.
And the best way to approach Integral Life Practice, I believe, is to simplify it. Here, I would like to offer several simple ways—practices—for the body, mind, and Spirit (Spirit will only be covered in this first essay). (I must admit right here that I have not done enough shadow work to feel good in writing about it. The other aspects here I practiced and/or have practiced for extended periods of time.) As you read the following practices, keep in mind that it’s still important to study the more philosophical aspects of Integral—just as it’s important to study the theological aspects of your particular Wisdom Tradition—but when putting it into practice, simplicity (yet a very serious simplicity) might be best.
A contemplative Integral Life should begin and end with Spirit. And Spirit—the Godhead that houses the Trinity, that gives birth to the Buddha Mind, that pushes forth the Cosmic Christ in an evolutionary impulse—should infuse everything in between.
For Spirit to truly infuse an Integral Life I believe that three distinct—yet overlapping—aspects need to be practiced on a daily basis. The three aspects are devotion, meditation, and nondual inquiry. These three aspects, although distinct, aid one another in a holistic way. Practiced consistently, they really have the power to change one’s inner life, no matter what “core” Wisdom Tradition that one belongs.
Before we go any further, I want to say this: Even though these three aspects can, and should, be practiced by those of different faiths, it is important to have one religion (one Wisdom Tradition) in which you are “rooted.” Mixing and matching as you please just doesn’t cut it.
As for myself, I am “rooted” in the Christian tradition. I find guidance in the great mystics of my tradition: Jesus, Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart. I also find guidance in recent Christian contemplatives with an understanding of inter-religious (and intra-religious) Christianity: Bede Griffiths, Wayne Teasdale, and Thomas Keating, for instance.
Although Christianity is my root, I find great solace—and a tremendous amount of guidance—from the Buddha Dharma, as well. The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path and meditation guidelines direct my life in ways not capable before I started practicing them.
On top of this, I also enjoy reading from the great mystics of the Vedantic traditions in India, both modern and contemporary. I find their theological and philosophical thought to be a bridge between my Christian and Buddhist practices.
At this point, it could be that some of you reading this are not that familiar with Integral philosophy and how in the world Buddhism and Christianity (or any combination of other Wisdom Traditions) could be compatible. For this—and without going into too much detail—I would like to offer a passage from the book “Integral Life Practice” by Wilber, et al. In the book, these 6 “common points” between all Wisdom Traditions are offered:
- “Spirit, by whatever name, exists, and it is good, true, beautiful, and loving.
- Spirit, although existing “out there,” is also found “in here,” or revealed within to the open heart and mind.
- Most of us don’t realize this Spirit within because we are living in separation, sin, or duality—that is, we are living in an illusory, fallen, or fragmented state.
- There is a way out of this separated state (of illusion, separation, sin, or disharmony); there is a path to our liberation.
- If we follow this path to its conclusion, the result is an awakening, a rebirth, salvation, or enlightenment, a direct experience of union with Spirit both within and without (and neither), a supreme liberation.
- The supreme liberation marks the dissolution or transcendence of illusion, sin, and/or suffering, and manifests in care and courage, service, social action, mercy, and compassion on behalf of the whole sentient Kosmos.”
What follows is how I practice the 3 aspects of an Integral spiritual life. Spirituality is a personal thing, thus I feel it best to speak of it in personal terms.
This might sound odd to other Integralists, but I believe that devotion is the most important aspect of an Integral spiritual life. Devotion need not be a red/orange/amber spiritual practice. It should be perfectly capable of taking us to the clear light of the Supermind—in fact, it just might be a requirement. (Don’t believe me? Read some Aurobindo.)
Devotion is important because it should be thoroughly integrated throughout the other two practices, weaving its Divine Presence. (The inverse is not necessarily true.) In fact, It weaves its way through the whole of our lives.
Devotion is necessary for several reasons.
First, it’s an acknowledgment that we can’t always “go it alone.” I remain theistic not because I believe in some mythic sky god, but because I acknowledge that I—in and of myself—cannot find salvation, the supreme liberation without help from a transcendent Other. And this transcendent Other—this ever-present Spirit—is mythic in the best sense of the word. It is the Infinite Light that is the Christ principle, the Amida that has always been and will always be. Before time began the Word was with the Father. And before time on this world began, the Cosmic Buddha of Infinite Light and Life created his Pure Land where all may take refuge. Myth? Yes. Truth? Absolutely.
Spirit has always been and will always be. It sustains the universe and can sustain us.
Which leads us to the other reason why devotion is important: It is a trust and surrender to Spirit. It says, “not my will be done, Father, but yours.” When we surrender our life to the Godhead, when we put our trust (our faith) in His hands, we also surrender our ego. And so it becomes no longer I who live, but the Christ that lives in me.
With our ego surrendered and our hearts soft, we are better prepared to succeed at the other two aspects.
Meditation works. As Integral philosophers have pointed out, practitioners of meditation reach higher stages quicker than non-meditators.
Different forms of meditation work for different people—choose a form based on your personality, and also something that you enjoy doing. If you don’t enjoy doing it, you probably won’t stick with it. However, it’s also true that some forms of meditation are better at leading toward Nondual Awareness, toward One Taste, and toward the Self that is. In short, some practices are just better suited at leading us toward a kensho, to use a Zen term for a glimpse of our True Nature. And the more kenshos that one has, the more likely one is of “achieving” satori—enlightenment, salvation, being truly born again.
Personally, I use three different meditations. In the morning—upon waking—I practice what would commonly be called “breathing” meditation. I follow my breath—counting at first, not counting as the absorption deepens—until I reach a point where I am resting in Oneness. If I never reach Oneness—which happens plenty of mornings—then I simply follow my breath, without judgment. This meditation is good to begin the day—as are other practices such as metta meditation or tonglen—because it’s more of a focused, concentrative meditation.
At night, I practice a more relaxed, open meditation—either centering prayer from the Christian tradition, or “just sitting” (shikantaza as it’s known in Zen). I find that both of these practices are good for evening meditation due to the fact that they are passive—rather than active—meditations.
One other form of meditation that can be effective is some version of nondual inquiry, such as the koan in Zen or atma vichara from the Advaita Vedanta tradition. However, I find that this form of meditation—if we are even to call it meditation—is best done off the cushion. It is best performed throughout the day. And so, we are led to our third aspect of Integral Spirituality...
Nondual inquiry—whether formal such as in koan study or informal as in atma vichara—has benefits over other aspects of spiritual practice. Unlike the other aspects, nondual inquiry is capable of producing a direct—and almost immediate—experience of two things: our selfless nature (often referred to as a no-self experience) and our Oneness with all things.
Your True Nature, as Buddhists would tell us, is one of selflessness. You lack an inherent, independent self. However, this doesn’t mean that you—and other things—don’t exist. All things—including your selflessness—although empty of a self, are imbued with Buddha Nature. This Buddha Nature is your True Nature; it is your True Self, it is the Self. “There is but one Self, and you are That.”
Now, the no-self and the Self are not the same thing (and this is an important point that a lot of Integral practitioners—and others—get wrong), however they do co-exist with one another. Just because you lack an inherent, independent self doesn’t mean that the Divine Presence, that Spirit, does not exist. And just because you have an experience of the Divine, an experience of oneness, doesn’t mean that you have a fixed, permanent self.
For most Integral practitioners, nondual inquiry is best done informally. I say this because formal koan study is best done with a qualified teacher. Now, I do think that koan study has its benefits even for one without a teacher, but I would do this informally, as in reading a book that elucidates the koans for you. (For the record, my favorite book on koans—interestingly enough—is entitled “Zen and the Bible.” Each chapter takes a koan, looks at its Buddhist meaning, then finds theological links to passages in the Christian Bible.) If you try to do formal koan study without a teacher, you are often likely to miss the meaning or think that you’ve attained a kensho when you have not.
Informal nondual inquiry, however, can be practiced by anyone. I think this is best done by atma vichara, or what is commonly called “self-inquiry.” It seems simple enough. You simply ask: “Who am I?” Nothing else. You don’t ask it in any kind of intellectual way. You ask it in a not-knowing way. And you trace this “I-thought” to its source, to the Source.
The answer—and I’m not sure we should even call it an answer—will not come in any way where you would be able to explain it to other people. It will come in an “a-ha” moment; one that, if you try to grasp hold of it, will only elude you more.
In the book “Living Zen, Loving God” by Jesuit priest Ruben Habito, Habito gives perhaps the best description of a kensho via nondual inquiry. (The nondual inquiry in his case was the koan “mu.”) Here is what he has to say:
“I was struck by an experience like an earth-shaking flash of lightning. I burst into laughter and simultaneously shed tears of joy. The impact of this lasted for several days afterward.”
“But how am I to describe this experience? Trying to describe kensho is as futile as trying to convey the experience of tasting green tea. Most usefully I can only point to a hot cup of tea and invite others to drink and taste it themselves.”
The Sum of All Things Integral
Obviously, I don’t have time in an essay such as this to cover these three aspects in detail; however, detail is often not the best way to approach spiritual practice, anyway. We should approach it simply, and then practice it—as the Tibetans might tell us—as if “our hair is on fire.” In other words, we should practice with urgency and diligence.
Our human life is precious. Don’t squander it. Practice to make it the best that you possibly can.