Religion & Beliefs

Against Integration

We're told the spiritual path is all about integration. Without integrating spiritual insights into our daily lives, even the greatest of peak experiences is just a form of getting high, a narcissistic thrill that's enjoyable, potentially powerful, but ultimately valueless … Read More

By / August 4, 2008

We're told the spiritual path is all about integration. Without integrating spiritual insights into our daily lives, even the greatest of peak experiences is just a form of getting high, a narcissistic thrill that's enjoyable, potentially powerful, but ultimately valueless without an integration into daily life, relationship, social justice, and the world. True spirituality, and certainly Jewish spirituality, is not about retreating onto mountaintops, we say; it's about being in the world, and that means integrating the greatest of insights into "real life." Having spent the better part of a decade devoted to spiritual and inner work, I'd like to argue against this pervasive and seemingly indubitable proposition. I think we Jewish spiritual folk integrate too fast, moving too quickly from low-level spiritual states back into the conventional world, without adequately deepening the stages and insights they bring about. I think we use the rhetoric of integration to have our spiritual cake and eat it too. And I think we deploy this language to avoid making the kinds of changes that true spirituality would demand of us.

First, I think we tend to integrate too quickly. Spiritual experience is deeply powerful. Only last week, at a Beltane celebration in the woods, I danced joyfully in a quintessential peak experience, my sense of self melting deliciously into the Earth Goddess and the Sky God (a/k/a Shechinah and Kadosh Baruch Hu) mating and regenerating in the annual rite of Spring. I know well, thankfully, what the Hasidim call bittul ha-yesh, or annihilation of the self. I am, as Jimi asked, experienced. (The question, "Are you experienced?" is a great little koan: yes, I am experienced, in the conventional sense; but I have also seen that "I" is an experience itself, a phenomenon, not a separate self. Thus it's both 'I am experienced' and '"I" is experienced.') But for all that, I look at the maps of enlightenment in the world's great traditions, and I see that I've only traveled the first few steps. Yes, I've entered the orchard, but have I eaten the fruits? I've understood, on some transrational level, the ayin, the primordial emptiness — but has it penetrated me so fully that "Jay" does not remain deluded, in control, and pulling the strings of my life? No way! I'm as much a wreck as anyone, a lot of the time. For a few weeks after a retreat or powerful ritual, sure, I'm clear. But then I turn to mortgages, romance, chores, and achievements, and I'm doomed. There are two sides to the insight of integration, after all: both what is being integrated, and what it is being integrated into. Often we possess the former but not the latter. I may have a great insight into nothingness, for example, but if I think I'm integrating it into a real world, I'm still confused. Really getting ayin means really getting yesh as well, seeing it as real, perhaps, but translucent, luminous, a dream in the mind of God. That is very different from "I've had my experience of God and now I can bring it back to my everyday life." Reading the wonderful and best-selling Eat Pray Love, I had just this experience. Elizabeth Gilbert writes beautifully of her peak experiences in India, but seems to believe that the experiences are really "once and for all" moments. That is, she gets it, she sees the Point, she's one with God — and then she writes as if that insight will never fade. But all insights fade, and simply calling for integration is not enough. Peak experiences do change us permanently, at least in my own experience, and in what I've heard and read from others. But they don't flip a switch from off to on, and there's a lot of pressure to move back to the "off" side of the sliding scale back in the conventional world. What's needed is not the threading of the peak experience into a pre-existing life pattern, but further work to create new and stronger threads that can then be woven in.
There are experiences, and then there are more experiences. The Kabbalists, the Hasidim, all schools of monastic Buddhism and Hinduism, Sufis, Christian mystics — all of these emphasize that powerful experiences are but the entry point to even more powerful ones, and more crucially, the stage-changes that are so much more difficult than simple changes in mindstate. The point is not to get ever higher, like a dope fiend needing more and more junk to feel good. The point is to continue to burn away the illusion that you are a separate entity, to undermine the natural selfishness of the self through long and serious effort. Jumping too soon to "integration," which should come toward the end of the path, cuts one off from the possibility of these deeper experiences and changes in the self. It's like going to a high-end restaurant and leaving after the appetizer course. Pretty soon, you will get hungry, and will eat whatever's available. The second problem with premature integration is that it can reinforce unexamined norms of what a well-lived life is meant to look like. Really, we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want both the householder life with children and the rest, and the monastic achievements of enlightenment and union with God. We want this so much that we spin entire theologies about how the Jewish saint is the man or woman with a family, and how any real spirituality must be engaged with the world as we find it. But is that really true? Maybe a "real spirituality" transforms our understanding of the world such that ordinary forms of engagement no longer make sense. Maybe it questions precisely those assumptions which we hold most dear. I'm not suggesting that this must be the case; only that it might be so. It might be the case that you just have to make a choice: family or mysticism, insight or justice. Maybe you do have devote more than just a few weeks here or there to spiritual practice in order to actually get it. Not that you can't "get it" part of the way — it's not all-or-nothing. But maybe, just maybe, real contemplative life takes place away from the this-worldly sphere which, in the Jewish world, is so sacrosanct. Maybe there is a choice, at least a temporary one, between engagement with the world and deep work on the self. Generally, the only folks who hold that there is such a choice are those who critique spirituality as self-centered. This complaint is old, boring, and inaccurate. Supposedly disengaged Buddhists have led the protests in Burma and Tibet, while supposedly engaged Jews have increasingly indicated a willingness to jettison notions of social responsibility and favor whichever politicians best pander to Israel's right wing. Really, I think the critique is mostly lodged by those too afraid to look under the hood of their own inner automobiles. However, many of us on the "other side" have protested a bit too much. In our rush to affirm the this-worldly worth of meditation and spirituality (it makes us more kind, it wakes us up to suffering, it inspires us to do tikkun olam, it recharges the batteries so we don't burn out) we may well have assumed too much of our critics' value systems. Maybe spiritual practice does those things, but maybe it takes a long time to do so.
As I've written about before on this site, I have a great deal of experience with indecision and trying to have it both ways. My newspaper column is called the Polymath, and my six-word memoir is "Couldn't decide — did it all anyway." Maybe that's the reason I'm taking seven months off this year to meditate and be single-minded about my spiritual path — because integration can be just another word for trying to have it both ways, and no one knows that more than I do. At the very least, the unreflective assumption that the social world in which one finds oneself is the locus of religious value must be as up for grabs as everything else. Otherwise there is still something being maintained, grasped, defended. True bittul does not work that way. Finally, and relatedly, just as premature integration can reinforce preconceptions about our lives and what matters within them, it can stand in the way of the changes we might need to make to those lives. This is really the converse of the previous problem: not that integration causes us to value the worldly too much, but that it makes us value it too little. Rilke's encounter with the numinous in "Archaic Torso of Apollo" concludes with "You must change your life." Not "you must make small changes around the edges" or "you must find twenty minutes a day to meditate." Likewise with spiritual practice. I am often asked, at the end of a meditation retreat or other spiritual program, how the practice can be brought home, integrated into regular life. It's a natural question, and a good one, and I do my best to answer. But the real answer may be "you can't integrate it into regular life; you must change your life." Not many people want to hear that, of course. It's much better to be told "yes, just do this practice half an hour each day, watch what you eat, and you'll obtain all the benefits." But what if a deep process of introspection and contemplation is incompatible with working sixty hours a week, raising a family, and being surrounded by American media? What then? Again, it's not all or nothing. It's possible to make small changes, and they will help. But I've become convinced, over the years, that bigger changes are necessary, at least for me. Just living in New York City, I find, drives me a little bit crazy (by which I mean, it alienates me from my compassionate, loving self). Not to mention watching TV or eating in lots of restaurants. All this is personal, of course; poison to one is nectar to another. But for me, I've concluded that more radical changes are necessary, not just for one week at a time, but wholesale. So, for seven months, no emailing. No telephone. No movies, no lunch dates. It must sound awfully dour and renunciatory, as if I'm punishing myself for something. But when I consider these next few months, it sounds like paradise. Just the work of wisdom and compassion, learning to love more and see more clearly the impermanence, emptiness, and incompleteness in every thing. Sounds great. I had expected all kinds of curious looks when I would tell my friends about my plans for 5769. Weirdly, however, the response I've gotten most is envy. And not just from the outwardly spiritual types, either. A lot of times, the response is more general than specific: they're happy for me that I'm pursuing my dreams, taking a big risk, and going for it. And there's a certain romance about going for it in Nepal specifically. But oftentimes, there is a real expression of interest in doing this crazy thing themselves. Well, go for it. What I want to suggest, in conclusion, is that "against integration" is just a negative way of saying "in favor of going-for-it." I've spent most of the last two decades trying to have my cake and eat it too, careerwise, financially, personally, spiritually. Now I'm ready just to eat. I've quit two of my jobs, transitioned one of the others, and set the other three up as best I can. (I wasn't kidding about the cake.) I've done all this because, while I do eventually want to integrate whatever it is I learn out there in the monastery, first I want to go out and learn it. I want to get serious, and I want to encourage you who've read this far to get serious too, whatever it is that's most important to you. Integration is the final stage, but not the proximate one. First, you must change your life.