One of the main insights of the great mystics, and one of the essential truths of Integral Recovery, is that all suffering comes from identification with surfaces. This is not a dogma that one has to believe or buy based on what I or anyone else is saying—it is an experiential given that one will discover as one practices and plunges again and again into the depths of one’s own being in daily contemplative and meditative practice. And yes, daily contemplative interior practice is an essential part of Integral Recovery practice.
Someone recently defined practice as “cultivation through repetition.” This is the best short definition I think I’ve heard. What are we cultivating? Through exercise and nutrition: strength, health and vitality. Through our cognitive work: new perspectives, knowledge and wisdom. Through our emotional and shadow work: freedom from the dysfunctional aspects of our past programming, and the freedom not to get lost in our current drama. Through our spiritual practice: the ability to live our lives from our core, which means our best and truest self. This means going beyond the apparent to the essential. We cultivate all of these qualities by the constant repetitive exercise of these four essential aspects of our selves: body, mind, heart, and soul.
As Marco Morelli once told me, daily practice is like keeping the fire going under the pot. To keep the fire of transformation and growth going, one has to keep the heat up. If one approaches the project of transformation and transmutation piecemeal, or sporadically, the desired changes simply will not happen. It’s like trying to get water to boil by turning the stove on for a few minutes, then turning it off for a while, then turning it on again, and so on. You’ll never reach the critical 212 degrees Fahrenheit. The call and challenge of Integral Recovery is daily Integral Practice.
One of the main problems that I have seen for people on this path is the fear that arises often when one is doing the work. The problem is not, “Oh, this doesn’t work,” but “This is too much!” When the darkness and the pain and the chaos and the dark nights emerge, the natural tendency is to run as quickly as possible from the darkness, and even the light. It was this same attempt to avoid unpleasant and unwanted states that lead to using drugs and subsequent dependency in the first place. As Bill Harris has said for those using Holosync and facing the chaos that necessarily comes up, “you should high five your partner,” because chaos is the mother of evolution and when chaos kicks in, you are getting ready for what Prigogyne called the “escape into higher order.” If one does not short circuit the process and stays with it, one will transform and grow. How do we do this? By continuing to expand, invite, and allow the process of going from chaos into higher order to continue. We can’t control the chaos, but we can invite it: from caterpillar, to chrysalis, to butterfly. Not just once, but over and over again: the constant process of recreation (death and rebirth), expansion, evolution and growth.
A teaching for me in this regard happened when I was on retreat at a Benedictine monastery in Northern New Mexico. It was an unstructured retreat, so I was on my own. I was doing Holosync meditation for three hours a day and was experiencing a tremendous darkness that was scary as hell. It was all I could do to stay with the meditation: my nose seemed barely above the water line. During a break, I was helping out in the monastery bookstore and came across a pamphlet by the great American monk, mystic, and writer Thomas Merton. My eyes fell on a passage that said something to the effect that the mystic recognizes that God is in the darkness as well as the light. This was just the Zen slap I needed. I returned to my interior work with a new acceptance for the darkness, fear, and pain, and soon the darkness turned to heat and warmth, and then brilliant clarity. And again I emerged from this period at what seemed like a new plateau, or level of emotional healing and spiritual understanding. A line from one of my favorite poems illustrates this point brilliantly: T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker.”
I said to my soul, be still, and let the darkness come upon you, which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre, the lights are extinguished for the lights to be changed.
To be changed, transformed, to move to the next level or stage we must “let the darkness come upon us,” and let ourselves move through the darkness of the birth canal in which our old ideas, beliefs, and identities die and are reborn again and again. How do we do this? By continuing to expand and become identified with the context, the Witness, and not the objects that arise. We suffer and get stuck when we identify with objects, mistaking them for subjects, or our self. Meditation is not a process of ceasing to think. This has lead to great misunderstanding and often a hurtful anti-intellectual stance. The mind does not cease to think, but the thoughts arise as objects in the vast sea of pure awareness that is our original face. Our former subjects become objects, until eventually even that dichotomy disappears and there is only the One and you are IT, always have been and always will be. But even this is misleading, because You do not exist in time, time arises in You. Is this beyond the scope of Integral Recovery? I think not. It is the vital living core of the spiritual work that we do.
Let me tell of a repeating dream that I had when I was very young, perhaps seven or eight years old. This is the last part of a longer dream, but it is illustrative of what we have been talking about, the constant repetitive plunging below our surfaces into the depths of our being through daily meditative contemplative practice. In the last part of this dream, I am standing in front of this huge pit. I look down into the pit and see darkness and horror, like looking into the mouth of hell. At this point, I awaken completely freaked out and terrified. It took a long time for the fear to leave me.
Years later, when I was attending graduate school, we were doing a process group and a woman was speaking of some deep traumatic experience that she had experienced. While she was talking I closed my eyes and had a waking dream or vision. In the vision, I am standing before the pit of darkness again, and this time I do not recoil in terror but dive into the pit and the darkness. And I feel myself going down and down into this pit of darkness. I feel the gore and slime as I plunge deeper and deeper into this pit… suddenly I am through the darkness and find myself swimming through this beautiful blue green water and all the filth and gore is washing off me. I then surface and see the beautiful blue sky and billowy clouds and I am in between two islands with palm trees and immaculate white beaches. It felt like a glimpse of paradise. I quickly returned to the group and realized that I had found the meaning and resolution of this terrifying dream from my childhood. The meaning was clear, the only way out of my darkness was through it, and the darkness is not deep or infinite but a thin and shallow surface compared to the immensity of the beauty that was underneath the surface.
It is the hero’s journey. We must be willing to cross the threshold from the known into the unknown. We must enter the dragon’s lair, the dark cavern and face our own demons to find the treasures that lie beyond our darkness and fears. By our willingness to take this journey we find our medicine, and power: that is our gift to the world, our payback to life. This is a journey that we must be willing to take again and again, through fear, darkness, and chaos, into wisdom, strength and compassion. Over and over again. Not just once (that would be nice!)—stress, chaos, and crisis are the mother of evolution. The good news is that as we embrace this chaotic rebirth process, we can do it with equanimity and confidence in the ultimate goodness of the process. The more we do this with time and practice, the more that we can do it, and the more we can take on. First, we do it just for ourselves, then ultimately for all sentient beings. Or, as Wilber succinctly put it, “we suffer more but it bothers us less.”