Saturday, January 08, 2005

Integral Spiritual Practice

What am I trying to integrate into my spiritual practice? I wish I could say that I have a real practice, but I can’t. Some might suggest that anything I do to enhance my spiritual life, no matter how unsystematic or sporadic, constitutes a kind of practice. I do like to read, listen, talk, ponder, and write about things many would call spiritual. Sometimes I even recite a mantram silently, or meditate on the St. Francis Prayer , or do a simple mindfulness breathing exercise I learned at a Thich Nhat Hanh retreat. But I’m not comfortable calling any of this “a practice” because it’s too shallow, incoherent, and inconsistent for that; and, after all these years, it has never evoked so much as an ephemeral mini-satori. Yet, even though I don’t practice, I feel as though I should. So, why haven’t I? I can think of at least three reasons.

The first is sheer laziness. It’s distressingly difficult for me to get up off my literal and figurative butt and work hard at anything. And genuine spiritual practice is nothing if not hard work.

Second, I lack confidence that even the most diligent practice could yield tangibly positive results in my case. This is because I tend to see true mastery of spiritual discipline, like mastery of most other disciplines except even more so, as requiring tremendous raw talent. Exhaustive, skillful practice might be necessary to cultivate that talent into the radiant flower of spiritual realization, but without the fertile seed and soil of exceptional talent, no amount or quality of cultivation will produce a flower. It’s a huge stretch for me to see myself as talented with the potential for anything approaching spiritual mastery. After all, how many devotees of any spiritual path become enlightened no matter how long, hard, and skillfully they work at it?

Yet, as compelling as these first two reasons might be for my spiritual inertia, they probably aren’t strong enough by themselves to keep me from spiritual practice if not for the lingering presence of the third and perhaps most troubling reason of all—my nagging skepticism that spiritual mastery is all it’s cracked up to be. To put it more bluntly, I seriously wonder if even the most spiritually accomplished or enlightened people on the planet are significantly healthier, happier, or better off overall than the rest of us.

Oh, I’ve heard impressive claims that enlightenment revitalizes the body, engenders infinite bliss, and makes life a whole lot better all around. Yet, I’ve been in the presence of a few people and seen videos of others who were widely acknowledged to be enlightened or spiritually actualized, and they hardly seemed to be all that different from other people. Not only did they not literally glow with supernal radiance, but they also didn’t appear to be profoundly healthier, wiser, or happier than other relatively intelligent and affluent people. Rather than bowling me over with their extraordinary presence and sagehood, they seemed quite mundanely human or, to use a favorite Zen phrase, “nothing special.” Of course, when someone asked the famous Zen scholar and teacher D.T. Suzuki
what it feels like to be enlightened, he purportedly replied, “Just like ordinary experience, only two feet off the ground.” This is in keeping with several non-dual traditions for which the pinnacle of spiritual realization is not transfiguration into an awe-inspiring, spiritual superman, but, rather, one who totally embodies spontaneous humanness in a manner so profound yet subtle that he’s scarcely distinguishable from a typical human being, except, perhaps, to another enlightened human being. “It takes one to know one,” as they say.

I confess that I find it awfully difficult to get and stay fired up about working insanely hard for untold years to achieve, at best, such subtle results. Of course, it’s often said by those who supposedly know whereof they speak that enlightenment cannot be achieved, either because we are already and always enlightened (even if we paradoxically don’t know it), or that trying to become enlightened pushes enlightenment away by strengthening the illusory ego that stands in the way of our enlightenment in the first place. As Alan Watts
used to say, “How can I, thinking of myself as an ego, get rid of thinking of myself as an ego?” Unfortunately, neither of these admonitions does much to inspire persistent spiritual practice worthy of the name.

If “enlightened” people generally don’t strike me as all that different from the rest of us on the outside, I wonder how different they are on the inside. That is, how different is their experience of the world from mine, and how does their experience make them feel? A hallmark of enlightenment is said to be a profound sense of merging or oneness with something incomparably larger and grander than one’s conventional organismic or egoic self. In theory, this should invoke feelings of overwhelming tranquility and love; yet, the allegedly enlightened people I’ve seen didn’t impress me as being remarkably calm or more loving than quite a number of “unenlightened” people.

Of course, it seems to me that the real yardstick of the success of any spiritual practice or of the quality of any enlightenment it produces is the degree of happiness it generates. What good is any spiritual practice or satori if it doesn’t make one happy?

What is “happiness”? I’ve always liked Aristotle’s definition: “Happiness is an activity of the soul in accord with perfect virtue.” I interpret this to mean that real happiness is not momentary pleasure or merriment, but a deep and abiding satisfaction stemming from an ongoing and effective effort to fulfill one’s human and personal potential. In other words, you are genuinely happy when you feel soulfully good from progressing toward being, as the Army commercial says, “all that you can be.”

However, if researchers are correct in describing human potential not as a single quality such as height or eye color, but as spanning numerous cognitive and psychological qualities or, more precisely, “lines of development,” including kinesthetic, psychosexual, emotional, interpersonal, mechanical-spatial, mathematical, musical, moral, and spiritual, this implies that happiness consists of making significant progress toward one’s potential among all, many, or, at least, several key developmental lines. This, in turn, implies that those who invest so much energy and time cultivating one or extremely few lines of development, like the particularly demanding spiritual line, may necessarily neglect so many other important lines that they compromise the happiness that depends on nurturing these other lines. In other words, being spiritually advanced is no guarantee of happiness. In fact, it might more likely be, in all but the most extraordinarily talented who don’t require so much spiritual practice to progress, a guarantee of unhappiness.

Of course, many would counter-argue that even if there are different lines of development, and happiness generally issues from successfully working to progress toward one’s potential along several especially important lines, the spiritual line of development is not only the acme of all the lines, but also so much more effectual than all the other lines that great progress along this line overrides any concomitant lack of development along the other lines, and thus a spiritual master is likely to be the happiest of the happy, no matter how average or even deficient she might be in other respects.

Moreover, a growing number of people would argue that there’s enough interdependence between the spiritual and other key lines of development that progress along the spiritual line potentiates progress along the other lines and vice versa. In other words, someone who takes what is becoming known as an “integral” approach—i.e., working on several key lines while according special emphasis to the spiritual line—to self-development and happiness is likely to get happier faster than someone who fixates on the spiritual or any other single line of development. Such a person recognizes the vital significance of spirit and spirituality, but also skillfully supplements spiritual practice and development with other complementary kinds of practice and development. Thus, I find myself gravitating more and more toward the ideal of what some call integral transformative practice

Nevertheless, I’m the sort of person who likes to build my practice on a conceptual or philosophical foundation. This may be misguided for at least two reasons. First, the wisdom and transformation I’m seeking is said by sages to transcend intellectual concepts or verbal descriptions and explanations. As
Lao Tzu wrote, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” If one gets too caught up in trying to understand the ineffably transcendent Tao, Ultimate Reality, or Absolute via concepts and words, one can become so diverted by the mere map that one never explores and comes to know the actual territory.

A second, related potential problem with beginning with concepts instead of practice is nicely illustrated by Buddha’s famous metaphor likening one’s unenlightened suffering to being shot with a poisoned arrow. One needs to treat this condition as quickly as possible by removing the arrow instead of contemplating the make, maker, and vintage of the bow and arrow or even who did the shooting. The overarching priority is to remove the arrow before it kills the victim.

Ken Wilber, the great integral theorist, distinguishes between religious
"translation" and "transformation." The former has the conventional ego translating the world into concepts and words that make the ego as comfortable as possible and gives it the strength to endure. The latter generally uses practices to overcome or destroy the conventional ego so that one is deeply and permanently transformed by his concrete realization of his true identity. That is, translation offers superficial comfort by sacrificing the genuinely transformative experience and wisdom that could relieve life’s deeper sufferings and help the transformed person to relieve the deeper sufferings of others.

Yet, even though Lao Tzu, Buddha, Wilber, and countless other spiritual sages and masters have warned against using abstract concepts and words in place of concrete, transformative practice, they all have had a great deal to say about the unsayable. These great sages have clearly seen value in presenting a conceptual framework within which effective practice might flourish.

What is MY conceptual framework, and what kind of practice might I establish within this framework? If conceptual framework and concrete practice are perceived as two sides of the same proverbial coin, like yang and yin, then the practice is part of the framework, the framework is part of the practice, and the question of what I’m trying to integrate into my practice expands beyond what may have been the original scope of this topic. For part of what I am trying to integrate into my practice is a plausible if not truthful philosophical framework that, in turn, attempts to integrate various conceptual elements that might even, at first glance, appear to be incompatibly disparate.

What are these conceptual elements, what is the framework they create, and what concrete practices fit within this framework? These are questions for a future post.


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