The Spiral Dance of Spiritual Growth: Navigating the Whitewater of Individuation and Belonging

Notes from the Field / January 2012

Michael Stern

Michael Stern

When I arrived home in New York City back in September, my number one priority was to find the NYC Integral community and get involved. One of the first places my search led me to was One Spirit Learning Alliance. I recently enrolled in the Integral Mentors and Ministers program there, and my first experience as a student was a wonderful weekend of exploring and experiencing the many levels and interactions of Body, Mind, and Spirit.

I felt very honored to be able to experience Terry Patten, Deborah Boyer, and Michael Pergola all teaching together. I knew that the weekend would be interesting, but I was very pleasantly surprised by just how powerful the weekend ended up being. After the two days were over, I wished that I could somehow transmit the experience to all of my Integrally-interested friends. Alas, my siddhis are not that accomplished (yet), so instead I am writing this short summary of the event, which will fall vastly short of doing justice, but hopefully can give a small taste of some of the delicious experiences.

One of the starting points for the weekend was the idea of our “life narrative”. This was contrasted to our “story”, which is often afflicted by the false filter of the ego. For example, we were encouraged to examine the plot of our lives and the “fissures” of our development with equanimity and honesty, rather than falling into common traps such as victimhood. We were trying to be especially aware of our sense of basic trust in the process of life and evolution, and relate our narrative from a place of awakened awareness and embodied consciousness. In this way we can move beyond the polarities of denial and exaggeration into the depth and complexity of the truth.

As a practice, we split into groups of three and took turns telling our narratives to each other. The partner doing the listening was to be aware of the distinction between an interview and a dialogue, and the need to provide a safe and stable container in which others could reveal themselves. The third partner was to remain silent and simply observe the interactions between the other two, assisting in holding the space for the process. Deborah, Michael and Terry modeled this interaction beautifully for the whole group, and Deborah revealed some very interesting information about her childhood that clearly had an affect on the entire course of her development. Michael skillfully guided her through meaningful and sometimes painful memories, eliciting insights from Deborah without causing/allowing her to get too deep in her own “personal hell.”

An important part of the interviewer’s job was to bring the interviewee back to the “surface” level by tapping into the positive aspects of his or her consciousness, thereby becoming familiar with it and weaving the hell stories into a greater, more complete narrative. Another responsibility of the interviewer (who in a different context would be one of the One Spirit students acting as an Integral Mentor, a Spiritual Counselor, and Interfaith Minister, etc.) was to provide “scaffolding” for the other person’s development and energy, constructed of non-verbal communication such as a lack of judgment and complete presence.

After doing the practice in our groups, we learned that our narratives were of particular importance because they often bring up issues of autonomy and connection, and the relationship between these two energies can be thought of as one of the driving forces of evolution. Thus positive childhood experiences of support and belonging make the process of individuation easier, and traumas related to attachment and detachment often play themselves out over and over again in our lives as we continue to try to grow and develop as adults. Autonomy is related to self-expression and connection is related to self-sacrifice, and both of these modes of being can be healthy or unhealthy. And so we often find that the process of evolution can be viewed as a sort of push and pull from healthy connection to unhealthy connection, to healthy autonomy and then to unhealthy autonomy, and then back to healthy connection where it starts over again. Of course, real life does not provide many instances of such a smooth transition between phases, but I think it helps to visualize the concept.

We wrapped up the first day by watching some amazing clips of interactions between mothers and babies that illustrated how even as infants human beings possess the intuitive knowledge of whether they are being “seen” by another or not. When the mother mirrored the baby’s behaviors in a positive and connected way the baby’s mood was happy and playful. If the mother stopped responding to the baby, it almost immediately started acting out in ways that were clearly designed to recapture the mother’s attention, such as crying, pointing, and squirming. And if the mother mirrored the baby in a way that was overly exaggerated the baby would become confused and upset quickly as well. Then with partners we explored these different ways of mirroring and being mirrored, so we could experience directly that attuned mirroring creates a sense of security, while avoidant or ambivalent mirroring causes discomfort. This is crucial to the way we relate to others throughout our lives, whenever we are talking and listening to others.

We began the second day with Terry Patten’s updated version of the 3 Body Workout, which he called the 3-D Workout. The new version includes the Gross, Subtle, and Causal bodies, and also adds the 3 Centers (Head, Heart, Hara) and the 3 Faces of God (I, Thou, It). It is designed to be efficient and effective as a daily practice for someone with a busy schedule, but it does not lose any of its potency by being concise. This practice set the energy for the day by immediately getting all of us in touch with our embodied awareness, so that we could be present to the here and now for the remainder of the day. We were reminded that we need to create spaciousness for ourselves and others by saying yes to what is, by remaining clear, focused, and certain without becoming rigid, and by gently pushing our boundaries by staying with the painful parts of our growth and development practices just a little longer than we can. (Yes, that sentence is correct.)

The next practice we learned was about the natural healing process for the psychic wounds that become our “triggers”. Deborah instructed us to pay attention to the physical sensations, as opposed to the thoughts or emotions, that we experience during states of high arousal, such as when we are triggered by someone or something. By bringing witnessing awareness of our body into states of high activation we can create a bodily container for the physiology of the situation, which allows us to then access a wider selection of mental, emotional, and spiritual resources to help us relax. After identifying the sensations associated with the trigger situation, we consciously brought our attention to our arms and legs. This literally expanded our awareness, dissipating the hot, tight, tension in the torso and releasing its grip on our nervous system. After a few moments we all felt a sense of relief, and then we were able to orient ourselves to the present moment and become more grounded and centered.

The final practice we learned, now that we had witnessed ourselves get triggered and then return to normal, was a sort of Big Mind/voice dialogue practice where Terry asked us all to respond to questions as different psychological functions and sub-personalities of ourselves. We started with the Controller and moved through the Longing to Belong, the Pain of Autonomy, and the Suppression of Belonging, coming finally to the Healthy Balance of Autonomy and Belonging. From this perspective of our awareness, we looked at questions like: What did you do to get here? What do you want to do with others like you? How do you relate to wounds and developmental “fissures” of self and other?

By the end of the weekend, I was feeling simultaneously exhausted and jubilant. A lovely group of fellow One Spirit students accompanied me on my inaugural journey, and they truly made the weekend special for me. Opening up deeply can sometimes be easier to a room full of strangers, but to be accepted, appreciated, and loved so exquisitely for who you are, as well as for Who you really are, is rare even among a room full of friends and family. It is hard for me to describe the sense of reassurance and inspiration that I had during the whole weekend because it just felt so good, so true, and so beautiful to know that I was not alone on my journey.

I’d like to add that as I wrote this summary, new perspectives arose in my awareness. The weekend was so emotionally intense that I hadn’t quite grasped the elegant flow of the teachings and practices. The process of writing the narrative of the weekend allowed me to implement the practice of turning my subjective experience into an object, and gaining new insights as a result.

I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say that I have the deepest respect and gratitude for Terry, Deborah and Michael, for leading us on a beautiful and transformative exploration of our consciousness, and to One Spirit Learning Alliance for providing a warm physical environment for that exploration.

About the Author

Michael Stern was born in New York City. After graduating from Vanderbilt University he lived in Spain and he recently returned to New York after living in Nepal and studying Tibetan Buddhism. He was introduced to Ken Wilber’s work in 2010 and is currently enrolled in the Integral Mentors & Ministers program at One Spirit Learning Alliance.

Day Two

It was being naked
Seeing faces familiarized with your raw, exposed
We see you
We are listening
To you pour out your soul on the hardwood floor
At the edge of our toes like spilled milk
Like broken glass cups
Your body is a container
Your body is a boundary that we will break

It was being naked
Elevating our minds and finding consciousness
Like a climax
We must allow ourselves to be touched
Invaded and caressed
We see you
We are listening
To your hot breathed meditation of longing and belonging and fear and regret and need and pull and push and
Faith like sap leaking from your existence

It was being naked
Looking into your eyes and losing myself in
Shades of gray
Your tears were silent and strong
And I lost myself in
You who was seen naked and raw and exposed
You who was faithful and trusting and calm
You who led the way with bread crumbs of intimacy and love

-Brianna Schlesinger