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.  Dancing joyfully, the self
melting into the Earth Goddess; cultivating deep bliss states through
meditation; ecstatically praying to the point of self-abnegation; shamanic
voyages — I've had a wonderful spiritual life. 
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?  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 emptiness (ayin, in Kabbalistic language) means really getting form
(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
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 capitalist 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; supposedly other-worldly Christians have led
fights against poverty, and AIDS in Africa. 
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 Team
Spiritual have also 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.  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.

Finally,
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 we oughtn't take for granted
that the life into which we integrate may, itself, require transformation.

I don't
want to end on a negative note.  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 spent five months on silent meditation
retreat a couple of years ago, not for the sake of experiences, but to
transform the self in a way that would enable me to transform my life.  So far, partial but significant success.   I did it because, while I did eventually
want to integrate whatever it is I learn out there in the monastery, first I
wanted to go out and learn it, to get serious, and to really go for it.  I think I did.  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.

 

Image by NeilsPhotopgraphy, courtesy of Creative Commons license.