What does it really mean to live an integral life?
The following text is written I-less as a practice of opening up to the non-ownership of thoughts, feelings, awareness and experiences. Instead of pretending and then clinging to ownership of perspectives and all that is linked to those perspectives, this practice aims at perceiving awareness and thus its perspectives as unattached to a physical entity, a self or an ego. It places awareness in an open space, not bound to the interior space behind the eyes. That which creates sounds (or writes) is certainly a physical entity, but the origin of the awareness of this physical entity and its capabilities to develop a self-sense are thought to be arising in a way that is only partially physical. The self, one could say is a partial or fractured view, created by a limited perspective (which all human perspectives are) of a universal Sentience or Self. The sense of ownership of this small, fractured self could thus be thought of as a great fallacy, and can lead to all kinds of pathologies if clung to, too intensely. While this partial view certainly has its merits and is useful for – for example the survival of the physical entity creating this very perspective, thus perpetuating life and with it the prospect of growth into ever bigger and bigger perspectives – but if growth is really to happen this limited perspective must also be transcended, seen for its smallness and fractured-ness. And practicing speaking, thinking, communicating without using self-references (the word I or any other similar work-around) is one way to loosen the habitual ownership-mentality with reference to awareness. A little more about this here.
Now, the actual text:
The phrase or term “living integral” has been used quite a lot in the instagram account (integral.alchemy) associated to this page, and also in internal dialogues when thoughts have arisen about things to say, about what this teaching/sharing is about. After all, it’s called integral alchemy and claims to be a practical approach to integral theory, which, by all means is very theoretical, which of course isn’t saying very much, it is after all a theory. What it means is that the reception of integral theory has made it out to be a very dry and impractical exercise in purely mental theorizing – which probably is the result of a lack of either understanding or a lack of actual experience of the topics mentioned and thus a lack of deeper connection to them.
To get a better picture of what integral living is supposed to mean, a closer look at the term “integral” will help. First of all, “integral” is generally taken in different ways depending on who is interpreting the words, or rather, what perspective is taken during the process of interpretation. In a very general sense integral is thought to mean holistically complete, integrating body and mind and whatever other subdivisions the particular theory might include. Integral can also mean integrating various fields of study – like nutrition, movement and psychology. Neither of these uses of the word are incorrect, but the full weight of the word integral comes into play with integral theory and its AQAL – all quadrants, all levels, all lines, all types, all states – view. That is, with integral theory, as described and elaborated by Ken Wilber, the practice strives to be the most inclusive of all, leaning on the most comprehensive model that seems to be out there. Additionally, as opposed to many holistic and integral things out there, there is no particular mandate, dictated by any specific tradition. So while things like Yoga, Qigong, Jungian Shadow-Work and science-based nutrition all are included in practicing an integral life, it’s not necessary to swallow unconditionally all of the baggage that these philosophies/practices/theories might or might not come with.
So as the understanding of each discipline studied grows, its practices can be condensed and refined, and combined with other disciplines. This is something most traditions would never allow (nor would a scientifically-fixated mind). Traditions are usually closed systems with a belief system that is – generally speaking – exclusive. (Based on the understanding that most of these traditions were born from a mythic developmental level of cognition, this is only natural). That means, either someone is a practitioner of this discipline wholly, dedicated to it entirely, or they are not really a practitioner at all. Nothing but a tourist, if that. Hybrid practices are frowned upon.
But it is in a sense the very nature of integral practice to create hybrids and learn and grow as much as possible from each and every perspective, theory, philosophy and discipline out there. (Of course it is only a hybrid if seen from a lower perspective – from a higher perspective, integral approaches seek to complement practices to create wholes, not just mix-and-match.)
Why limit the human potential with what only one culture has come up with thousands of years ago, if now in the global age, access to the wisdom of all cultures is available, together with the immense knowledge of science and the incredible vision of the integral mind? This is particularly interesting when wisdom-traditions are combined with developmental models and modern scienc. Suddenly meditation is enhanced by shadow-work and ego development. Suddenly yoga practice is enhanced by understandings of psychology, physiology and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Suddenly Cacao Ceremonies from the Americas meet Kirtan chanting and ecstatic dance parties. And it’s all beautifully intermeshed, creating practices that can be adapted to the needs of the ongoing evolution, including and embracing and transcending it all into greater wholeness.
While systems like TCM and ayurveda or yoga are in most cases very comprehensive (except for the lack of real developmental models, since they haven’t come around until the last century or so) one thing that an integral practice gives the practitioner is a liberation from the slightly embarrassing mythic-literal view that accompanies much of the teachings. From cosmologies and gods to specific movement patterns performed like magic rituals, many traditional systems seem to ask for literal and unquestioning belief in all of it. The modern (and beyond) human asks, “why is this so?” or, “where is the evidence for this particular explanation,” and these questions are usually answered with: because the tradition teaches it so. This is an incredibly unsatisfying answer. Where is the science, where is the sensitivity, where is the usage of these incredible faculties humans have developed?
But what practices actually work – and no doubt that many techniques presented in the traditions actually do work – can be found out through injunction: do this and the result will be that. In most cases this is completely unrelated to believing in any of the literal explanations delivered by the traditions and their particular terminology, or whether or not the practice is combined with others from other traditions or styles. That is not to say that believing something or having a specific mind-set for a practice isn’t necessary. But this mind-set, visualization or intention does not have to be bound by a mythic belongingness mentality, tying one to the exclusive practice of that particular style, discipline or practice, or to the particular terminology and myths. There are generally reasons certain techniques work – they have to do with the structure of human existence (all four quadrants) and the nature of reality – these are fundamental truths that each tradition in some way has discovered and made use of.
In qigong for example the movements and the breath are related to the understanding of meridians or energy channels running through the body. These have been very well documented and the subtleties of the movements can be well understood when the theory of the meridians is known. But there are discrepancies between regional styles that developed, and similar movements with small differences exist, each claiming to be correct. From an outside perspective and with the necessary knowledge, in most cases probably the differences have no or only negligible influence on the actual practice and the desired outcomes. One can imagine the movements to be more like hand-writing rather than magical recipes for health or enlightenment: The same letter written by different hands may look significantly different, but there is a fundamental similarity that makes it unmistakable and readable, thus creating the desired effect of readability.
(This is not to say that being precise and detailed in a movement is unimportant. It is part of the practice to refine the movements and thus the control over the various bodies/energies involved. But the decision of whether to place the palm this way or that way might not change the corresponding energetic value of the movement. What does change it is the amount of awareness and precision placed within the movement when performed.)
So, the question might arise: should all traditions be discarded, dissected and salvaged only for their valuables? That doesn’t sound like a good way to handle the issue (This would probably be the solution someone at a rational developmental line with a fixation on the upper right quadrant might give). In an integral perspective all levels have their place and value; even the mythic-literal one, especially since all humans at some point pass through it during their development (unless they get stuck before). If at that level, a person can reap great benefit from traditional-mythic teachings, because that’s what the mind at that level understands and processes.
But for many people who no longer operate from that level of cognition a different approach to “believe it or leave it” has to be taken when confronted with practices that could greatly enhance their lives. It’s not uncommon to hear that people avoid yoga for its spiritual aspects, which can induce aversion and dismay in them – because spirituality is associated with mythic-literal structures (a level/line fallacy), and these people no longer operate on mythic-literal, thus simply can’t gain any benefit from that level’s type of spirituality. Of course most modern/western yoga classes don’t actually use mythic-literal language or structures, but they do often refer to objects (mental, emotional, intentional (UL quadrant stuff that people with UR fixation really don’t know what to do with)) that belong to the spiritual line and thus are mostly associated with the mythic literal (as per the level/line fallacy). Also often the teachers themselves use mantras and certain modalities that they have, unknowingly, by injunction, found useful for them selves, but which they can’t explain in any advanced way, adding only to the frustration and alienation of non mythic-membership developed people.
The same goes for integral or higher developed people who have arrived there without any dedicated practice in any of the traditions but would like to expand their state-development. Many of the traditions that offer practices focused on the subtle body and beyond are incredibly mythic-literal or mythic-membership oriented, meaning there is a mandatory membership in order to officially practice (and share) many of the teachings. While a practitioner may be able to overcome this, simply by accepting that the practice can be separated from the developmental level that it is presented through, for a teacher it becomes much more difficult. Can a teacher really present material according to mythic-membership values – in a container much smaller than what developmentally they would be capable of – only because “this is what the tradition teaches”? Or must the teacher separate from the tradition and membership in order to allow the broadness and inclusivity of their actual developmental level to shine through their teaching?
Obviously the membership aspect might also have received some influence from a business-perspective, meaning it’s not about the traditional beliefs at all, but about money and profit (which would fall into rational level – the next wrung on the ladder). Which in either case is very low on the list of things the potential practitioner wants to be dealing with.
(Here it is important to mention – on a tangent – that this is a complex topic, worthy of its own article. To keep it short, when new developments of spiritual/developmental practices pop up they are the result of a heroic act of evolution usually by an individual or a group of individuals. This heroisms should be honored and credit should be given. Whether that means that these heroes of evolution should forever reap monetary profit from this development, even as it itself keeps developing through influence from other heroes is the big question. Degradation through incomplete copies formed often by less developed or less informed but sometimes more business oriented individuals contributes to a general loss of value and depth in these practices and this should be strongly discouraged… how is the big question.)
A third possibility exists and that is that the practices follow a guru-philosophy, which is a practice in itself in which the student surrenders their entire faith and their journey to the guru, the all-knowing teacher. While certainly this path is a viable path, there exists a valid doubt in the form of – is this for everyone? For an autodidactic learner there could be nothing more difficult and further from their nature as to follow someone else’s rhythm and mandate, especially when cognitive structures vary.
So the idea for integral alchemy and integral living is to circumnavigate all of that, by practicing according to deep understanding and experience, including, integrating and expanding when possible, as much as possible. The pillars or principles of this are 1) the depth of understanding, 2) pluralism of ideas 3) all based on what works for the unique situation and individual practicing and 4) an experimental and exploratory nature of practicing, in order to allow novel ideas to enter or to allow practices to evolve when needed.
For that, maybe new names have to be used, when not otherwise possible- maybe practices can’t be called what they are called traditionally, because otherwise they would be infringing copyright laws or anyone teaching them would be stepping on the toes of this or that organization (since likely they won’t be a member of an organization promoting ideals and ideas from lower levels…). Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi SoAndSo… Qigong certified by XY association…
All of those names and certifications are important only if real knowledge is involved in it. If that knowledge can be obtained without the membership, and can be shared without the institution, if these teachings are based on universal truths and injunctive practices and these can be discovered even without paying the yearly fees and subscribing to specific terminologies, then isn’t that just as good, or even better? Isn’t it liberating the practitioners and teachers and allowing them to acknowledge their own connection to the universal or relative truths disclosed by various practices in a way that is non-reliant on authority, myth or exterior entities?
All practices have their origin somewhere. Credit is given, when credit is due as should be. But distance is taken where distance is due as well.
These thoughts lead to a rather critical question: Is this a healthy movement towards autonomy/agency or is it a pathological movement towards hyper-autonomy and away from healthy forms of communion. Especially the higher developmental levels – from rational upwards all through to integral – have an individualistic ring to them (even if at integral levels systems and systems of systems become the objects of the mind). It’s not quite the same as the following trans-personal levels that clearly open up to that which is beyond the individual. This individualism can be overdone and become unhealthy or can be used as an excuse to avoid actually putting work into something. So while perhaps there is no clear answer here, the main point is to pose this question and observe critically any process that argues along these lines.
Some questions to ask are: What is the moving-away-from-membership about? A valid and healthy form of integration and differentiation? Or a pathological form of rejecting anything that forms groups and structures for whatever reason? Has the material been adequately studied, understood and integrated so that the practitioner/teacher can actually make judgments about it and the institutions claiming to be the only real source of information (like churches claiming to be the only path to God)? Or is the practitioner/teacher avoiding putting in the actual effort (time, reading, practicing, money) and claiming to understand by magical means. Possibly even claiming to know better than thousands of years of tradition?
When new ideas come up that build on the traditions there is always the possibility that a real and interesting form of newness has arisen (Eros in action), a kind of evolution of a practice. But there is also always the possibility that it is a degradation of the practice and is leaving out essential elements that previously made the practice whole. For example, it can be argued that yoga traditionally was a discipline that aimed at state-development, meaning expanding consciousness through the various states like gross-physical, subtle, causal (and turiya and turiya-tita). Many modern forms of yoga in the way they are practiced focus, however, solely on the gross-physical body – even if in a very refined and subtle way. But the energy body, the visionary mind, the meditative states are not addressed in many forms. Anatomically speaking these practices have made great advances (reducing injuries, increasing specific strength and flexibility, even physiological health perhaps), but if they have truly lost or dis-emphasized the meditative aspects, the subtle-body aspects, the causal-body aspects etc., then they are no longer the holistic practice they were previously. They now require additional practices to make them whole / integral again. (So essentially what is missing is Agape – the inclusion energy, as newness arises. And this is something to remember whenever newness arises.)
So returning to the question that has led this thought process on quite a tangent – what is integral living really about? It’s about exploring injunctive practices to further development through all quadrants, all levels, all lines, all types and all states, in order to become a fully rounded out human, capable of activating the maximum potential available. With injunctive practices it is meant that nothing is supposed to be taken at face value: every practice ought to lead to a result, a specific change in the AQAL matrix of the self. If it doesn’t, it should be discarded or reviewed. Practices are developed and offered up based on the current leading edge of understanding and knowledge (Eros) and an in-depth understanding of wholeness (Agape) where the essentials are not tossed out. All this with the heart of an explorer: (Extracts of) traditional practices, practices based on psychological findings, on physiological findings, and practices based on curiosity and the desire for novelty intimately conjoined with the desire for wholeness.
Recommended practices include: (UL) meditation, daily stream of consciousness journaling, gratitude journaling, I-less communication*, dream journaling, shadow work. (UR) Yoga, Qigong, Taichi, martial arts, weight lifting, freediving, healthy nutrition, supplements, probiotics, neuro-hacking, binural beats, studying integral theory, science or philosophy. (LL) Partner exercises, learning a new language, I-less communication*, We-space meditation and full-spectrum check-ins, circling, cacao ceremonies, stream-of-consciousness sharing/listening, taking care of animals. (LR) Community activities, volunteering, organizing events / groups, starting a business, studying and recognizing environmental systems, exploring and immersing oneself in nature (hiking, scuba diving, snorkeling, safaris), studying sociology, politics or economics; participating as a part in any project to create or build something.
To return for a last thought to the communion / agency opposition, there is a felt need for a community of integral practitioners – a coming together of alchemists with the desire to explore life beyond traditions, reason, and sensitivity, but where all those are integrated. That doesn’t mean a group of people following Integral Life Practice as a new dogma though, creating a new membership institution. It means reaching beyond even the individualistic stages of pluralistic and integral and into transpersonal development, to come together and create not a togetherness, but a wholeness through which experiences can be made, through which awareness can shine through, and through which practices can be evaluated and evolved.
Due to the nature of the above text as a practice in I-less communication, opinions have been voiced in a way that may be less clearly demarked than if an “I-referencing” communication had been used. Hopefully this will not prevent the reader from taking all of this as the fabrications of a/multiple limited perspective(s), thus no claim to absolute truths is made.