A busy time in life/practice, with some very big cycles coming to a close, only to begin again in ways that seemed unfamiliar but now seem very necessary. The theme of integration has taken on new meaning and become more central.
When I last wrote, there was a sense of working on myself personally, working on finishing some postgraduate training, and working towards the new job it allowed me to do. This gave way to self-forgiveness for mistakes, satisfaction in completing a phase in my career some ten years in the making, and excitement about doing new and novel work.
In a familiar pattern I’ve spoken about before, this gave way to a sense of blissful positivity. Work got off to a good start, I felt no need to do anything but relax into what formal practice I was doing and to enjoy the bliss, and the training I’d done bore fruit. Several other changes in my personal life came along with typical synchronicity and I just enjoyed myself in a way that frenetic old me doesn’t usually.
Of course, the cycle has begun again, and such a big cycle brings with it a real sense of starting again. At first, I didn’t realise just what a big reset was going on, as other little cycles continued turning and it was hard to see the bigger picture. What the beginning of the cycle means to me personally I will talk about in another post. By no means is there any way to definitively separate out all of these cycles, being purely conceptual really, but the overarching theme of integration helps to put it into some useful order.
‘Integration’ was a term that I didn’t like much before. My self-concept was of a hard-working, practical meditator, who knew that insight came in blasts once you’d put the effort in. I was both encouraged to see integration as a soppy self-help concept, and encouraged myself to hold myself above it. Now, I see integration as necessary and humble. The phrase ‘enlightened arsehole’ (slightly more politely and traditionally, those that ‘stink of enlightenment’) points at a person who has really developed the pure insight side of practice, but for whatever reason the compassion side is lagging behind: they aren’t able to apply their insights to the real world, especially when wading through the muddy interpersonal bog. All these people who can’t sit still in the meditation room; can they not see pain is just a sensation? Why does my friend mourn the loss of an expensive watch when it’s always going to break or get nicked some time? I’ve done it a lot myself and arguably it is unavoidable as only integration will put wisdom and compassion back into balance.
The traditional training sidesteps this problem as much as it can by not encouraging any discussion of attainments and personal experiences, rife with subtle one-upmanship as they can be; even to the level of subtly leaving out practices that make you feel good about yourself for your own accomplishments and virtuous approaches. Hence the grumbles about a ‘mushroom culture’ that keeps everything ‘in the dark’ paternalistically. Those of us in lay life who want to be able to share about practice in a considered way eternally risk being the enlightened bumhole, with no intentions being entirely pure, but that again could be the work of integration: not working on merely the level of the Unconditional nor of the conventional, but practicing in the murky middle where things aren’t certain, where we all really live when we’re doing contemplative practice.
So. The work of integration is getting the hands dirty. My teacher often says that insight comes first, under the radar, and then practice is all about the expression of resistance to, and integration of, that insight. Do we try to mould the insight to suit us, folding it back into the original problem of suffering and ignorance, or do we make an earnest effort to change ourselves to fit this new reality that isn’t quite comfortable? Inevitably, both, according to how honest I am with myself and how clearly I see what is going on. When you buff the mirror of practice, you see yourself warts and all. I was recently happy with my ‘evident’ increase in mindfulness and clarity; however, the way I realised I had that clarity, was that some very unflattering habits of arrogance, self-judgement and anxiety came into focus in a way that wasn’t deniable. Integration, for me, will be accepting these habits with the new level of self-forgiveness that I aspire to, even as I think about how to reduce the harm I inflict on others through them.
This leads to another facet of integration, which is that practice increasingly overshadows my life. This is not the obsession of a person who wants to be able to be in vipassana mode forever, noting the horn of the car as it runs me over in the middle of the street. This is the recognition that no part of my life is separate from contemplation. I think this is the greatest obvious indicator of progress in insight practice: the more you realise wiping your bum and going to Majorca on a lads holiday is not separate from meeting His Holiness or meditating on the Pure Land. There are lessons to be had in all situations that will affect the whole of your life/practice. Everything is somehow holy.
The resolution, or acceptance of, paradox comes next. Is life contingently configured, or is it all spontaneously self-arising? Should I be flexible about my ethics to suit situations or should I always hold to strict precepts? Should I trust my intuition or what is evidenced? The integration here is, somehow, for all this to be held at once. When people talk about the ultimate reality being acausal, something inside me powerfully agrees, but I have very little evidence for this. When people talk about the ultimate reality being the journey of the world to union with God, another part of me assents, but then I can’t shake the thought that everything just is as in the previous assertion. When people talk about how God is not the highest reality, the Buddhist in me sees that as the highest truth, but I am more strongly pulled to God and the love God represents than ever. How can all this be true? Rob Burbea (whose book I am currently reading) says that these could all useful ways of seeing the world- something that isn’t interested in our quaint concepts of Ultimate Truth in the end anyway, isn’t reducible to them logically or experientially. Integration here for me is to accept my inability to articulate or fully know, and to see how humility stems from this (no arguing on internet forums about what the Truth is- I’ve made a bit of progress, maybe).
The interest that this acceptance of inescapable paradox brings out, leads to inclusiveness in practice. All phenomena become objects of enquiry and curiosity, fondness and appreciation. The first question most people ask me about meditation is always ‘how do you stop all the thinking?’. When I realised that all of it was grist for the mill, meditation became much more interesting, had a lot more utility, and also became a massive bastard because the sacred cows that I thought I could leave in place suddenly became areas that I was avoiding exploring in any detail. It makes me cringe even now to think that everything that I would like to hold onto needs a good dismantling, and it’s scary. It also makes me relieved to know that the things I hate in life, I may well be able to come to love, with a great insight into them later. I pray for that and the peace that I sense must inevitably come from being able to put down the burden of success and failure, enemy and friend.
Practice suggestion: an inclusive meditation
This is the practice I did for half an hour earlier, which basically developed itself with a bit of help from Rob Burbea’s book and a recent Buddhist retreat. To explain, it points to the utility of including various techniques in an intuitive and flexible way in a sitting meditation, neither practicing pure samatha or vipassana, not being ‘strictly Buddhist’ nor seeing it as ‘watering down a practice’. This is both a grounded and concentrated practice that avoids tension but also tightness, is both pleasant and interesting.
Make the whole body the object of meditation, letting thoughts and concepts pass. When a specific part of the body becomes particularly interesting, such as the breath, let this come to the forefront and make it the primary object. Keep the whole body in ‘view’ as a secondary object, like a backdrop. Notice that the attention still bounces around segments of the primary object, such as temperature differences and movements in the breath. If difficult thoughts or emotions arise, quickly but smoothly pray for assistance. If the concentration zeroes in on the primary object, then reaffirm the secondary object by imagining awareness moving out to envelop the whole body once more.
Notice how the wide focus, but anchored attention, is both pleasant but engaging. Give thanks once the meditation is over.