Notes from the Field

January 2010 / Notes from the Field

Integral Spiritual Experience Year 1: A Part-Whole Experience of a Journey into Unique Self
by Gayle Karen Young

Gayle Karen Young

Five hundred people gathered in Asilomar, California over New Year’s Eve for the first ever “Integral Spiritual Experience” (ISE).

The ISE experience was a banquet of tasting from various sources of deep devotion, including one’s own, the experience of play, a deep koan, a sangha, a great party, a spiritual journey, and a whole bunch of other things rolled into one. Where else would you be singing “Jesus on the Main Line” with Krishna Das, chant ancient words by Moses himself with Rabbi Miriam Maron, experience a devotion to Shiva with Sally Kempton (Swami Durgananda), glimpse the breadth and depth of Ken Wilbur’s understanding of our current unfolding, and take a journey back through time with Jean Houston?

I have only a sampling to offer from my perspective. For me, the Integral Spiritual Experience was…

…an experience of Unique Self playing with other Unique Selves…

We started with coming to know the unique details of lives that are inseparable from their perspective and unique awakening. What a gift to waken to the diversity of people’s stories that converged in that space! Every person has a story and for many I met the ability to “live life to the point of tears,” as Camus would say, was beautifully full. As Rabbi Marc Gafni said, “To be unique is not separate; to be unique is part of divine wholeness” and our awakenings “take place through our story as well as outside our story.”

Considering the equation that the Unique Self = True Self + Perspective, there arises for me the question, “What perspective?” There’s the perspective of each of us being the only ones to see through our eyes, to be born to our parents in the particular social, cultural and historical context. And then there’s the perspective we choose to develop—through learning, contemplation, experience, contemplation, integration. To continue with Lama Surya Das, there’s the experiencing of this moment as it is as a clear-seeing perception, sacred outlook in the Catholic tradition and the pure vision Kabir had when he said, “I glimpsed it for fifteen seconds and it made me a servant for life.” To hear stories and to see the unique selves of others is the experience of love and the recognition of love as our natural state. It is both a returning to that state and a perception to cultivate. I was struck by Rabbi Marc Gafni’s teaching that love is a perception, evoking Hafiz, “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.”

…an experience of deep structure holding deep chaos…

The meta-journey was crafted around the Unique Self concept, structured around “stations” of awakening sort of like, but not really, like the Stations of the Cross native to my Catholic school days. The arc loosely flowed from an understanding of Unique Self, a look at Unique Shadow, and a fruition with the offering of Unique Gifts contextualized by the obligation of gifts to live them fully in a world that needs them. Within that structure the experience of the different participants unfolded, whether one of the incredibly competent and devotionally helpful volunteer staff, wholehearted participant, or giving teacher. And then within each session, there were journeys—journey into learning of the unique self, journeying into the bodies, journeys through song, or through time.

In a strange cross between a conference and sesshin, there was a deep structure to the days that I sometimes struggled with. Sessions began at 6:30, when the morning was still dark, with a wide array of morning practices from amazing yoga with Sofia Diaz to a nature walk with Susanne Cook-Greuter to breathwork with the Venwoude quartet. (I had a dear friend stumble out of breathwork exclaiming, “I started to cry when someone gave me a hug because I needed it to remember where my body was.”) There was one form of small-group structure in the shared breakfasts with the same small group of people every day that provided intimacy within the larger community structure, and then the community structure itself would dissolve into break-outs.

Like spiritual practice, there’s a discipline required and a personal calling to balance being constrained within that structure and blooming through it rather than breaking out of it, and that was challenging in moments…especially with the wild winter Pacific sea calling from the Asilomar beach, just a short walk away.

…a smorgasbord of Integral teachings…

In the expanding and contracting accordion-like structure of the overall program, there were times when we were all together as a community experiencing a sublime experience like Krishna Das or Jean Houston, or off in an almost bewildering banquet of teachings and teachers offered. Teachings ranged from breathwork, integral coaching, yoga, chanting and chanson. To feast on this offering was like drinking from a firehose of experiences and wisdom, and occasionally left me quite limp at the end.

…an experience of healing fragmentation…

In a world of schisms and fragmentations, what exists to heal the splits? My experience was growing up with a Buddhist grandmother, Confucian parents, an Episcopalian baptism, a Catholic education in a primarily Judeo-Christian-biased world. I navigated this with forms of rejection of organized religion, atheism, agnosticism, mysticism, and a return to Zen Buddhism with Genpo Roshi. Diane Musho Hamilton, riffing off of Martin Prechtel, once said that spiritual teachers aren’t teachers because they’re necessarily more upstanding individuals but because they love the divine so much. The experience of deep love of the divine takes commitment and surrender. For a personality type that resists the narrowing of options (and also a narrowing of minds), this collaboration of so many different traditions was a banquet of the senses. It created a space where from my present Zen Buddhist integral perspective, I could again look at Christ with devotion and sing with a full heart the songs of my childhood like “Amazing Grace”.

…an experience of clarity and devotion…

Each of the teachers holds the flavor of their traditions, they exude the years of dedication and mastery and commitment, whether to a specific God, Goddess, lineage, practice, or professional calling. Spiritual teachers and students come in all shapes and forms—tricksters, sages, wise women, brilliant beings of deep humor or the quiet shine of deep grace. Different practices and traditions hone different facets of human beings and cultures, and so I came to understand a beautiful paradox—that in a way, the choice of a practice matters completely for an individual, and in a different way, it matters not at all. In a strange way, I also have the sense of interacting with the archetypes of ages as much as with the beauty of the unique selves present. I pass one woman in a hallway who holds the cherished vibe of an old friend, I feel like I recognize people there and wonder where I’ve met them before to realize I haven’t. That’s telling in a gathering like this, where the déjà vu feeling of recognition reflects another truth—that in seeing with the perception of love, we are all familiar to one another and we do recognize one another.

Deep devotion and wholeness within a tradition, that the devotion was whole, the commitment was whole, yet also of a greater whole. Rabbi Marc Gafni has a thorough steeping in the Jewish tradition just as Diane Musho Hamilton in the Zen Buddhist path, both wholly devoted to their paths and complete and full in their paths, and yet open to learning from others, seeing the lenses with which they view the world. For someone who occasionally struggles with a path of devotion, where the Zen Buddhists make the most “sense”, yet the poetry of Mirabai, Hafiz, and Rumi sing the most, and the song of Teilhard de Chardin echoes in the brain, ISE is the experience of hearing the underlying symphony of human devotion. Rabbi Marc Gafni used this metaphor, of each there with their own mastery of an instrument, necessary and complete in and of itself. The great violinist able to play the song of God with nothing wanting in its devotion, and yet complimented by the orchestra rising around that wailing sound to complete it further. ISE made living the paradox of being whole and partial in the paths of deep devotion.

…an experience of being the ones we’re waiting for…

Lama Surya Das spoke beautifully about the concept of unique self and the greater context behind the urgency to find that. He said very clearly “we have to be the ones we’ve been waiting for,” that the Buddha of the future is the sangha, the community. In a world without campaign finance limits, ongoing fights for civil rights, incomprehensible numbers of people suffering even before the Haiti quakes, the messiah to come is…us. So what does that mean? I’m still wading through it from my own unique perspective.

ISE is a beautiful beginning of a deepening into the koan of our own lives.

About the Author

Gayle Karen Young is passionate about helping people expand their awareness of their own choices and behaviors as related to their life situations, both past and present, in order to facilitate sustained change. Gayle is an organizational psychologist with Elan Consulting. She is passionate about the work of leader development, working within the corporate structures that are so influential in our social systems. As Warren Bennis said, “The process of becoming a leader is much the same as the process of becoming an integrated human being. For the leader, as for any integrated person, life itself is the career. Discussing the process in terms of ‘leaders’ is merely a way of making it concrete.” Her work consists of leadership development, change management, strategic communications, building high performance teams, and personal and organizational transformation. Within those contexts, she focuses on coaching, group dynamics, group facilitation and research, and helping leaders evolve and adapt to increasingly complex external environments.

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