Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Integrative Spirituality: Grounded Contemporary Perspectives
Surface and Depth
There is a famous quote from one of the early Transpersonal Psychologists, Jack Engler, "You have to be someone before you can be no-one."
This is a very simple and direct way of acknowledging a developmental process. In my workshop series and new 8 CD lecture and yoga class series Radical Transformation: A Map to Mind-Body Ecstasy, I use the chakra system as a way to talk about both the developmental process and the mind-body connection. So I'd like to start by using some of the core themes from those lectures as a way to make some distinctions that I think are important for integrative spirituality. I will briefly touch on: experience vs interpretation, conscious mind vs unconscious mind, ego strength vs ego defense, healthy anger vs toxic anger, compassion vs codependence, insight vs belief, literal vs symbolic and of course prerational vs transrational - for more please consult the CD lectures.
Now it might help to start off by defining what I mean by integrative spirituality. My sense of it is a spirituality that integrates attention to mind and body, integrates Eastern and Western approaches, and integrates psychological and spiritual techniques and frameworks.
This is what Transpersonal Psychology set out to do in the 70's, following on from Jung and Maslow and in the wake of the 60's psychedelic mind-expansion, fascination with Eastern myticism and the important work of people like Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell. This zeitgeist produced the extraordinary work of Ken Wilber, Stan Grof, Jack Kornfield, John Welwood, Jack Engler and other brilliant theorists, clinicians, and serious spiritual practitioners.
One of the key observations in this movement has been looked at from different angles that are all related to the above quote from Engler. Wilber's famous essay The Pre/Trans Fallacy, Welwood's concept of "spiritual bypassing," Stan Grof's observation about the "flight toward the light," and much of Kornfield's work points to the problem of non-integrative spirituality being used in the service of avoiding dealing with the necessary awareness work and emotional healing that continuing development and integration require. In other words, spirituality itself (especially spirituality based in magic, mythic and metaphysical beliefs) can become a defense against actual spiritual and psychological growth.
As far as working in an integrative way - I think of both mind and body as having surface and depth components. There is the (surface) conscious mind and the (depth) unconscious mind, each being home to the ego and the Self. The surface level has to do with mental focus, intentionality and ego-strength, as well as cognitive development, critical thinking, symbol interpretation. Goal-setting, Cognitive Reframing, Concentration and even Witnessing meditations are good here, as well as intellectual pursuits that refine critical and symbolic analysis.
Too little surface mind work and one can be very undisciplined, caught up in drama, chronically self-sabotaging etc..
The depth component of the mind invites us beneath the surface - Vipassana, Tonglen and Lovingkindness meditation, psychotherapy, Holotropic Breathwork, certain kinds of yoga, bodywork, and ecstatic dance, all can take us into that shamanic type space where the defenses come down and we go through an experiential process of working with repressed emotions, painful memories, insecurities and traumas held in the unconscious, as well as archetypal imagery, self-parenting and the arising of insight into our personal process and the universal human condition.
As is more often the case than not - too much surface mind work at the expense of depth mind work can create a kind of over-identification with beliefs, an overvaluing of the power of intention, an emphasis on controlling both reality and one's feelings through the mind, and - as should be obvious, a lack of depth in terms of the psyche/soul.
The less common problem has to do with too much destabilizing depth work and not enough of the grounding, calming, focusing ego-strength buiding of the surface work.
One corrolary to this is a kind of unboundaried overabundance of intuitive awareness with a lack of either the structure of ego-strength or the awareness of the depth work - such that the intuitive stream is often undifferentiated from one's shadow material, projections etc and ends up being overly literalized in a kind of superstitious way. Many sensitive and/or traumatized poeple drawn to spirituality take this route.
In Jungian terminology, this alchemical process is one of creating/strengthening the "ego/Self axis." Another way of saying this is that we open up more of a connection between the deep Self and the surface ego. Overall the healthy psychospiritual process creates a stronger channel of communication between the surface and depth, between our conditioned external self and our authentic inward experience, feelings, needs, thoughts and aspirations. It also frees up blocked energy from unresolved conflicts and allows both the developmental process along several lines to continue and the integrative resonance between those different lines to be more harmonious. When I use the word "lines" I am referring to the Integral concept and specifically for my purposes I am interested in the cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and kinesthetic lines of development.
Another doorway in is to talk about the relationship between intention and process. The intention (surface) creates a doorway into a process (depth) which in turn will re-shape the intention as well as the ego setting the intention through input from the Self. It's a feedbaclk loop.
The Self is constantly communicating with us through things like dreams, intuitions, projections, fantasies, emotions, psychosomatic symptoms. Think of the (deep) Self as being more authentically in touch with what is really going on under the surface of the defenses (rationalization, denial, magical thinking, projection etc) - the Self has a clearer picture of the whole of our experience and has acccess to the disowned shadow material of emotions, desires, experiences, resources and archetypes that our ego has not yet learned to tolerate, actualize, and integrate.
As to the body, I think of the body too as having a surface component in it's structural anatomy and a depth component in it's organ system, glandular and blood chemistry. The surface component of the body is well addressed by physical practices like yoga, other forms of exercise and various kinds of bodywork/massage. The depth component can be well addressed by organ cleansing, nutrition, supplement protocols and the benefits of detoxifying sweat and nervous and glandular system stimulation and modulation created by exercise - particularly in this case - yoga and ecstatic dance.
So in terms of addressing surface and depth in both mind and body - the integrative approach I apply is to synergize finely tuned physical practices that allow space for process with with nutritional cleansing/supplementation and various meditation techniques that train for different skills.
This combination of anatomical, spiritual and psychological approaches adds up to an energetic initiation that is quite profound - and a new heightened awareness of the mind-body connection/process.
Altered States, Kundalini, Unwinding
At their most essential level meditation, yoga, breathwork, psychotherapy and dance all are ways to access a revelatory experience of not just the mind-body connection, but a kind of dropped-in awareness field in which the innate intelligence of the bodymind can rebalance, unwind, spontaneously express and begin to awaken to it's deeper energetic and awareness capacities. Part of this revelatory process can include the arising of the altered state awakenings and psychophysical phenomena attributed in the East to Kundalini and in the West to the somato-psychic wave, somatic discharge, unwinding etc...
These states are accesible at any level of one's developmental process. For the purposes of this discussion let's say that these altered state/energetic processes can arise while one's "altitude" is centered in any of the chakras and can also be the result of an unresolved strand of experience (or even what Grof calls a Co-ex system) emerging from any of the chakras/developmental levels. To clarify, i should say that I think of the chakras as being a) anatomical structures: key "high-charge" muscles, glands, organs, nerve plexi, b) a way of talking about how the inward experience of the body in a particular physical area resonates emotions and energetic qualities, and c) a metaphorical/imaginal way of talking about mind-body matrix and it's developmental and healing processes.
So, to return to our starting point - if you have to be someone to be no-one, what does this mean? One has to have a strong, healthy ego, or sense of self, in order to healthily engage in any kind of transcendence of that ego or sense of self. In terms of my chakra model this means that the developmental process in chakras one through three has to be pretty solid in order to move forward to chakras four though seven in a healthy way. Now of course, chakras one through three have to do with several key issues: the right to exist, survival, taking pleasure in our physicality, emotional and sexual trust, gender identity/value, object relations, sense of self, boundaries, will, self-esteem, to name a few...
The difficulty of course comes in two forms: first, whether we realize it or not, most of us have fairly serious unresolved issues in these earlier chakra levels and second, many if not most people interested in spirituality have come to a spiritual path out of some kind of pain, suffering, longing for something that we do not have/feel. So spirituality actually is a bit of a magnet for wounded people. Now, if the kind of spirituality that is encountered is not integrative, it will likely perpetuate the very defenses (denial, rationalization, magical thinking) that are keeping the ego and the Self from being in an integrated fluid relationship. Often there is so much static because of the elaborate beliefs that people take on in the name of spirituality that it is almost impossible at first to be in touch with any real feelings, to enter into any authentic process of going beneath the surface and listening to the psyche, the body-intelligence, the heart wisdom. Intention is often held up as a supreme control mechanism instead of just step one of a process of going within and healing/growing. Intention is given a kind of literalized magic power to affect outer reality, instead of being understood as a way to focus the mind enough to go under the defensive omnipotent fantasies into the places of vulnerability wherein lies the true gift - our disowned aspects of self.
So in this sense "integrative" also means to integrate the aspects of our experience, feelings, needs, potentials that we have relegated to the unconscious because of various disturbances in healthy development in the first three chakras. It is in defense against dealing with this very primal and often painful material that a kind of prepersonal spirituality can spring up - one that dissociates from having to deal with these feelings and usually judges them as unspiritual, too attached, egoic etc - all as a kind of oversimplified misreading of outdated yogic/buddhist philosophy, and then also buys into various prerational metaphysical explanations for how reality works and how everything from your bank balance to your happiness is a function of your intention or will manifesting.
So let's talk a little about the third chakra in my system. I want to start by making a much-needed distinction between ego-strength and ego-defense. We have a social convention of saying that someone with a lot of bravado and conceit who needs to be the center of attention has a big ego. This is technically incorrect - they actually have a small ego - but a big ego-defense. Another way to say it is that they are lacking in ego-strength and are over compensating with an ego-defense. The last thing this person actually needs to do is have their ego cut down to size by more meditation and fierce diet of transcendence. Why? because you have to somone to be no-one. You need a healthy strong ego before you can drop your ego-defenses. How do you develop ego-strength? well, it comes own to internalizing the kinds of positive feedback that only a small number of people in your life can ever really give you. It has to do with a very vulnerable, very young part of us not having received love, acceptance and the kind of mirroring that allowed a strong sense of self to be internalized.
Now, if one is suffering from low self-esteem it is not enough, nor is it integrative, to simply try to set an intention to be more confident - even if it works it is still at some level just an act. Authentic confidence will develop over time from learning how to be present and loving with the insecure part of yourself. Lovingkindness meditation, certain approaches to practices like yoga and dance, and certain psychotherapeutic techniques (not to mention the healing relationship with a good practitioner) can support that process of that healing inner re-parenting.
Kohut is really the master here: We have a primary narcissism as children that is entirely appropriate and that is asking to be mirrored. We need to feel important, special, loved, accepted, admired etc... If this happens for us we relinquish the primary narcissism with an internalized positive sense of self that can tolerate the disappointments, unfairness and struggles of life as we continue growing. If this does not happen sufficiently and/or if there is abandonment or invasion trauma - then we deveop a secondary nasrcissism that is still attempting to get those needs met and that is part of the coping structure of a poorly developed sense of self (low ego strength) that has a hard time tolerating how unfair, disapppointing and out of my control reality actually is....
On to our second distinction: healthy anger vs toxic anger. i think of anger as a third chakra energy. Healthy anger sets boundaries, communicates violations, expresses moral outrage. Healthy anger can be channeled into hard work, creativity, passionate engagement. Healthy anger can create real intimacy - because it is honest and direct. Toxic anger is usually tied to some kind of repressive cycle such that it builds up and needs to be discharged either by out of proportion reactivity or passive agression. Healthy anger is a function of ego-strength. Toxic anger is usually part of an ego-defense.
Compassion vs Codependence
Now if we are "someone" - meaning if we have a healthy sense of self or ego strength, then we can develop compassion. Compassion in the sense of being able to imagine another's suffering - precisely because we can tolerate feeling our own suffering. Compassion is distinct from codependence. In codependence we imagine that we can fix the other person's suffering and then they will give us the love that we need or then they will admire us in the way that we need. Codependence can also be a kind of merging with another person, whereas from the healhty differentiation of ego-strength we can both imagine how someone's suffering feels and know that it is their suffering and not ours. Being able to imagine their feelings allows us to empathize, knowing where their feelings end and ours begin allows us to not be overwhelmed or burdened in such a way that we might shut down - or try to shut them down. Codependent dynamics based in an inability to tolerate the reality of suffering in ourselves and others are extremely common in non-integrative spirituality and give rise to all sorts of defensive beliefs that are the orthodox lingua franca in some circles.
As we engage in practices that allow development and healing to occur, insight arises. Insight is distinct from belief in one simple way: belief is an outside-in phenomenon. Insight is as the word suggests an inside-out phenomenon. In other words imposing a belief that one has decided is worthwhile, or that one has heard is spiritually correct is very different from going through a process that allows insight to emerge experientially.
Symbolic Thinking and Existential Initiation
As we continue to develop into the higher cognitive stages of what Piaget called formal operations and beyond to what theorists like Wilber and Gebser have called vision logic and integral cognition, we develop deepening abilities to understand systems of meaning, poetic and archetypal symbolism and spiritual metaphor. From these stages we are able to reclaim what the rational stage cast off from the literal mythic and magic stages of development and reinterpret it through the symbolic lens of our deeper more sophisticated capacities.
Personally I feel that the great initiation into genuine transpersonal spirituality has to do with integrating the hard-won development of cognitive, emotional and spiritual lines into an existential awakening to the mind-blowing miraculous sacredness of reality as it is in a way that redefines the old world ways of using those terms and finally understands that words like god and spirit actually refer to our own complete true nature and have been a way of trying to wake up to ourselves all along. In that moment the mysterious and the mundane are revealed as one and the same and any metaphysical construct that needs to somehow look outside of reality as it is is seen as a ghostly substitute for this one brutal, beautiful, unfair, magnificent, tragic, grace-filled ride through the inner and outer cosmos.
It doesn't interest me if there is one God or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned.
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world with its harsh need to change you. If you can look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand.
I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living falling toward the center of your longing.
I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of sure defeat.
I have been told, in that fierce embrace, even the gods speak of God.