If you’ve ever gone on a spiritual retreat or done anything where you had a profound shift in consciousness, you might be wondering how it’s possible to so easily go from the peace, calm, and serenity of these expansive states right back to the chaos and confusion of everyday life?
If so, you are not alone.
The oftentimes discouraging struggle to integrate profound and powerful spiritual experiences and insights into everyday life, is a common one. Humans are incredibly forgetful when it comes to positive states outside the norm. I have encountered many people, including myself, who find it a difficult and mysterious process to bring what they have experienced, either on retreat or in everyday meditation practice, into their relationships, their personalities, and their general day-to-day experience of living. My aim in writing this is to shed some light on the process of integration and highlight the ways in which we get stuck, and how to get unstuck so your spiritual practice can transform your entire life, not just a small part of it.
Falling From Grace
Experiencing your true potential for peace, wisdom, joy, and freedom and then falling back into old dysfunctional patterns can be a very frustrating. For some, this predictable fall can even dissuade them from continuing to practice at all, as the contrast of depression and hopelessness can become overwhelming. Many have worked very hard in their spiritual practices and have perhaps had what felt like extremely genuine and even ultra-real experiences, realizations of deep truths, and a sense of the walls around their hearts crumbling, but it didn’t last and life went back to “normal.”
Doubt can worm it’s way into this transitional space very quickly and thoughts can arise such as “Was that even real?” or “What is the point of doing spiritual work if my life stays the same and I don’t feel different when I return?” The powerful energy of doubt can and does stifle the process of integration and is in fact one of the primary obstacles. However, with assistance and support doubt doesn’t have to bring your process to a halt.
Timelessness Breaking Into Time
The spiritual teacher Adyashanti speaks about two equally important spiritual movements, which may shed a little light on the struggle of integrating spiritual experience. The first movement is time breaking out into timelessness. The second is timelessness breaking into time. Here we could view the word “time” to represent your humanness, that part of you that lives and breaths in the relative material world of time. “Timelessness” could be viewed here as your spirit or essence, that which resides in the ultimate timeless reality.
Many spiritual retreats and seminars are very good at helping you break through into the ultimate reality of timelessness. Having ecstatic experiences or experiences of great peace and spaciousness are incredibly powerful and important. However, if you are like most people, you may have experienced a difficult time returning to the struggles and doldrums of your everyday life. Experiencing a sense of grief, loss, or disorientation as you attempted to reconcile the two realities is quite common. Also, without the support of living in a monastery and an alive spiritual community and teacher physically around you 24/7, you are left to figure out the ongoing and difficult process of integration on your own.
Honoring All Our Parts
In my own spiritual work I have both tasted the joy and great disappointment around my efforts at integration. I often ask myself, “How can I so easily forget such profound and seemingly life altering experiences?” Or “Why isn’t my life changing to reflect my spiritual growth, and why are my relationships still struggling?”
The truth is that no amount of spiritual experience can wipe away the fact that we are also human beings with a body, both physical and emotional, a mind, and a soul. In order to allow the timeless in, to integrate spirit into our humanity, we must honor all the interconnected parts of ourselves equally.
True enlightenment may actually be the willingness, with deep heartfelt humility, to be fully human and allow our spiritual essence to enter totally into the messiness of the human experience.
When we begin to allow timelessness to break into time, our spiritual self encounters blocks in our mind and body. These blocks are actually most often wounds that we experienced at different points in our lives, many of which may have occurred before we were even able to speak.
Many people attempt to avoid the pain of these wounds, or “heal them,” through spiritual practice. Though this is an honest and genuine attempt to solve a problem, it most often leads to Spiritual Bypassing a term first coined by psychologist John Welwood in 1984, to refer to the use of spiritual practices and beliefs as a means to avoid dealing with painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs. Spiritual bypassing has many subtle forms and is another major stumbling block on the road of spiritual development and integration, though again with support it need not stop you.
The Wounds That Block the Way
The wounds that stop your life and personality from transforming, both recent and long past, often run very deep. When touched upon, they can bring up overwhelming emotions of grief, anger, and fear which can be very difficult to face. From a certain perspective, the desire to avoid the wounds and reach for something greater makes a good deal of sense. However, often the wounds quickly form into unconscious negative beliefs about ourselves and the world such as, “I’m not good enough,” “I have no right to exist,” “The world is not a safe place,” or “I am not worthy of love,” and end up having a powerfully destructive effect on our lives.
These beliefs, also known as introjects, are strangely often not even our own. However, for varying reasons we swallowed them whole and took them on as our own, often as a coping mechanism to exist in our family system as children. To spirit such beliefs are utterly false and ridiculous, but because our energy clamps down around them and their originating wounds, they act as blocks to the movement of allowing your spiritual essence fully into your humanness. This is why they must be addressed directly in a safe environment with great care and compassion.
The Path Toward Healing
The next question then seems to be “How do I release these beliefs and energetic blocks?” This is where psychotherapy can be extremely helpful. Some wounds are healed far better in relationship because they were created in and by relationship. This is why you may have encountered blocks in your spiritual life that don’t seem to budge no matter how much time you spend on retreat or in meditation.
A psychotherapist who is a spiritual practitioner themselves and who understands the nuances of integration can be very effective at helping to uncover and release such false beliefs and in aiding you in healing the wounds they originated from. This one-on-one therapeutic work acknowledges your humanity, your vulnerability, your shadow, your body, and your very real pain and suffering.
The process of integration is one of slowly and steadily creating more space in your being so as to open a path for more free flowing movement of energy and emotion within you. This allows for spirit (timelessness) to enter you and your life so transformation can unfold naturally.
When you honor your humanness equally along with spirit you create a very conducive environment for balanced growth and for the integration of your spiritual experiences. Above all else, this process requires great love, compassion, and humility.
Psychotherapy and Spirituality: A Mutually Beneficial Relationship
Psychotherapy on it’s own however, can also run into roadblocks. Without the inspiration and assistance of spirit, psychotherapy can become a difficult trudge through a murky swamp. There can come a point where a wound has been opened and cleaned as much as it can and the completion of it’s healing can only come from surrender to spirit. This surrender includes a sincere asking for help, desiring to be free, and a willingness to let go. Spiritual work can also help you develop greater levels of self-awareness, which can then aid you immensely in your inner psychological work. When psychotherapy and spiritual practice work together magic happens.
Compassion Practice Can Open the Door
One of the first things I recommend to people working with the integration of their spiritual experiences, is to begin to cultivate more self-compassion. I have often found that in the West individual’s negative and false beliefs about themselves are so great and so powerful that they have little or no room to be compassionate toward themselves. Without the soothing balm self-compassion it becomes very difficult to see and embrace all of our own wounded parts, and still stay afloat.
In spiritual work, it is easy to become overwhelmed and lost in negativity, and so seek to escape into the timeless spiritual realm, or avoid spiritual practice all together. Many spiritual traditions have been aware of this phenomenon for centuries and have practices of self-compassion built in. However, for the average Westerner these practices are unfortunately often not taught early enough or with enough emphasis to keep one’s cultivation of awareness on par with self-compassion.
These practices can be learned and practiced on your own. However, sometimes the expert guidance of a psychotherapist, within in a safe protective environment, is needed to help explore the obstacles that arise when opening to the energy of compassion.
A Helpful Reminder
Please remember that integration is a natural process that wants to take place. Your spiritual endeavor and the growth you have achieved is never wasted. All the effort you have put into your spiritual life is waiting to flow into your life and transform it. Integration focused psychotherapy gently helps you to heal and dissolve the energetic blocks that make up the dam that is holding back the transformational energy from flowing into all of you.
If you have not already tried the practices of self-compassion outlined in my free report Be Happy Now!, I encourage you to sign up on my homepage and to pick a time this week that you can begin to explore this powerful practice.
Thank you for reading this article and I welcome any questions, feedback, or stories of your own process of integration. Also, if you would like to set up an initial appointment, or find more resources in the area of integrating spiritual experience, please Contact Me.
I wish you all the best in the full and complete integration of your mind, body, and soul.
Dan Entmacher MA, LPCc