“There are four or five major obstacles to an integral orientation and integral practice. I’m not talking about mainstream—atheistic liberals and fundamentalist conservatives—both of whom will ignore integral spirituality anyway. I’m talking about threats from within the avant-garde, countercultural, alternative spiritual community itself.
The first obstacle, as I see it anyway, is from the merely translative camps, who focus on new ideas or new paradigms about reality. Some of these concepts and ideas are truly important, and I often agree with them; but learning a new concept will not get you to nondual constant consciousness; only intense and prolonged practice will. This translative camp includes many aspects of systems theory, ecopsychology, ecofeminism, the web-of-life theorists, neopaganism, astrology and neoastrology, deep ecology, and Goddess/Gaia worship. There are some wonderful exceptions, but most of those approaches are largely trapped in the gross sensorimotor world, the descended world of flatland, and they simply offer new ways to translate that world, not ways to transform consciousness into subtle, causal, and nondual domains. At best they access the psychic level of nature mysticism and the World Soul, which is truly wonderful, but is nonetheless only the beginning of the transpersonal realms.
Of course, they often say that these higher realms deny and repress the earth, but that only applies to pathologies of the higher states; the normal higher states transcend and include the lower, so that Spirit transcends and includes nature, not denies it. It is true, however, that certain spiritual paths do in fact repress the lower domains, and those paths constitute the second major obstacle to a balanced or integral practice. This threat can be introduced in the following way.
During the great axial period (roughly sixth century BCE), the growing tip of an evolving humanity made a monumental breakthrough: certain pioneering sages—Parmenides, Krishna, Jesus of Nazareth, Gautama Buddha, Lao Tzu—found that they could follow consciousness to its source, at which point a psychic-level communion with Spirit and a subtle-level union with Spirit gives way to a causal-level identity with Spirit: the Atman that is Brahman, I and the Father are One, the separate self dissolves in Emptiness, consciousness finds the unqualifiable One. This breakthrough—from the highest Forms of consciousness (subtle level) to pure Formless consciousness (causal level)—was a stunning achievement, the greatest mutation in consciousness up to that time, and the power of which set in motion virtually every one of the world’s major wisdom traditions that still flourish to this day.
(It only confuses things to bring gender politics into this particular issue. The causal level is a genuine state attainable by either sex; it is itself gender-neutral. The cornering of this state by males during the axial period was unfortunate by today’s standards and unavoidable by yesterday’s. The agrarian structure itself selects the male value sphere, on average, for non-home enterprises, including intense religious retreats, where most of these breakthroughs occurred. We of the industrial and postindustrial social structure, which does not necessitate this type of gender stratification, can begin to equalize access to these domains without having to call men dirty names as a prelude.)
The great downside of these axial discoveries was that, in their rush to find the Formless beyond the world of Form, they generally came to despise the entire world of Form itself. The aim was to find a nirvana divorced from samsara, a heaven that is not of this earth, a kingdom that is not of this world, a One that excludes the Many. The paradigm, the exemplar, of these axial approaches was nirvikalpa samadhi, ayn, nirodh—in other words, pure cessation, pure formless absorption. The goal, in short, was the causal or unmanifest state. The path was purely Ascending and otherworldly, and almost everything identified with “this world”—sex, money, nature, flesh, desire—was pronounced sin, ignorance, illusion.
In a sense, there is a fair amount of truth to that. If you are only after the things of this sensory world, then you will not discover higher or deeper realities. But if you go overboard and deny or repress this world, you will never find the Nondual, the radical estate that includes both the One and the Many, otherworldly and this-worldly, Ascending and Descending, Emptiness and Form, Nirvana and Samsara, as equal gestures of One Taste.
The great axial age began around the sixth century BCE in both East and West. The advanced religions of that period were all dominated by yogic withdrawal, purely ascending practices, life-denial, asceticism, bodily renunciation, and the “way up.” They were, almost without exception, deeply dualistic: spirit divorced from body, nirvana separate from samsara, formless at war with form. But by the second century CE, the limitations of a causal and dualistic nirvana were becoming quite apparent, and the growing-tip (or most-advanced) consciousness began a great movement beyond the causal unmanifest, a movement that would transcend yet include the causal Abyss. Spirit, in other words, began to recognize its own pure Nondual condition, and it first did so, most especially, in two extraordinary souls, Nagarjuna in the East and Plotinus in the West.
“That which is Form is not other than Emptiness, that which is Emptiness is not other than Form,” is perhaps the most famous summary of this Nondual breakthrough (the quote is from The Heart Sutra, said to summarize the entire essence of Mahayana Buddhism, a revolution set in motion largely by Nagarjuna). Nirvana and Samsara, the One and the Many, Ascending and Descending, Wisdom and Com- passion, the Witness and everything witnessed—these are all not-two or nondual. But that nonduality is not an idea or a concept; it is a direct realization. If it is made into a concept, or something merely believed in, then all you get is a sharp whack from the Zen master’s stick. For this reason, nonduality is often referred to as “not-two, not-one” (just to make sure we don’t turn it into a merely conceptual monism, web-of-life theory, or flatland holism).
The point was clear enough: what was taken by the merely Ascending paths to be defilements, sins, or illusions were now seen as radiant gestures of Spirit itself. As Plotinus put it, the Many are not apart from One, the Many are a manifestation of the One (not as a theory you think about with the eye of mind, but as something you directly perceive with the eye of contemplation). Thus one’s spiritual practice was not to deny all things manifest, but rather to “bring everything to the path.” According to Tantra, another flower of the Nondual revolution, even the worst sin contains, hidden in its depths, the radiance of its own wisdom and salvation. In the center of anger is clarity; in the middle of lust is compassion; in the heart of fear is freedom.
It all rested on a simple principle: the higher transcends and includes the lower, not transcends and denies it. Spirit transcends and includes soul, which transcends and includes mind, which transcends and includes body, which transcends and includes matter. And therefore all levels are to be included, transformed, taken up and embraced in the true spiritual path. This is essentially the same Great Chain of the ascending schools, but now it was understood, not as a map of the escape route from the prison of the flesh, but as the diagram of the eternal embrace of all manifestation by the Spirit from whence it issued.
So began the extraordinary Nondual revolution. In the West, the great Neoplatonic tradition would carry it bravely forward, but it was everywhere resisted by the Church, which had officially pledged allegiance to the Ascending path, for my kingdom is not of this world, and render unto Caesar. . . . But for those with eyes to see and souls to hear, the Neoplatonic current blazed a trail of Nonduality across the first and second millennia. When it was realized that the Great Nest actually unfolded or developed in time, the Neoplatonic tradition directly fueled the great Idealist vision of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel (which saw the entire universe as a product of Spiritual development and evolutionary unfolding—a product of Spirit-in-action), although all that remains today of that stunning vision is the scientific theory of evolution, a true but pale and anemic and sickly little child of its towering parents.
In the East, the Nondual revolution gave rise to Mahayana Buddhism, Vedanta, neo-Confucianism, Kashmir Shaivism, and Vajrayana Buddhism—all of which can loosely be summarized as “Tantra.” The great flowering of the nondual Tantra especially occurred from the eighth to the eleventh centuries in India, and from there it spread (beginning as early as the sixth) to Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan. When it was also understood in the East that the Great Chain did indeed unfold or evolve over time, the great Aurobindo expounded the notion with an unequaled genius.
We are today at an auspicious moment in history, where these two great Nondual currents, in their evolutionary and integral form, are starting to come together. The Neoplatonic and Idealist currents of the West, appropriately combined with the West’s scientific understanding of evolution, are being integrated with the East’s great Nondual and Tantric schools, also with their own strong developmental orientation.
The result is the general integral approach, now involving, in its various forms, hundreds of researchers around the world. To this mix the modern integral approach also brings a commitment to depth psychology—a virtually exclusive discovery of the modern West—and a desire to allow excellence to shine from every level, every dimension, every quadrant, every domain in the human and divine estate. This integral approach is in its infancy, but growing at an exhilarating rate.
If the first obstacle to the integral approach is flatland (or the merely Descended schools), the second obstacle, as I started to say, is the reverse error, the merely Ascending path. That approach—remnant from the axial age—includes Theravadin Buddhism, some forms of Vedanta (that rest in nirvikalpa or jnana samadhi, and don’t push through to sahaja), many forms of asthanga and hatha yoga (when they aim only for mental cessation). Again, it’s not that these approaches are wrong; they simply need to be supplemented with the Path of Descent in order to take a more Nondual stance.
A third obstacle is the “spiritual bypass” school, which imagines that if you find Spirit or Goddess or your Higher Self, everything else will magically take care of itself. Job, work, relationships, family, community, money, food, and sex will all cease their annoying habits. The despairingly sad thing is, it usually takes ten or twenty years to discover that this is definitely not the case, and then, where has your life gone? So the first half of your life is spent somewhat misguided, the second, bitter.
This spiritual bypass approach can be very tricky, especially—and ironically—if you are dealing with the very highest Nondual schools. One Taste is an ever-present consciousness (it is the natural and spontaneous mind in its present state: if you are aware of this page right now, you have 100% of this ultimate consciousness fully present). Precisely because One Taste is “always already” present, many people can gain a quick but extremely powerful glimpse of this ultimate state if an accomplished teacher carefully points it out to them. And, in fact, many of the great Nondual schools, such as Dzogchen and Vedanta, have entire texts devoted to these “pointing out instructions.”
Once students get a strong hit of this always-already awareness, certain unfortunate things can happen. On the one hand, they are, in some profound ways, liberated from the binding nature of the lower levels of the bodymind. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean these lower levels cease to have their own needs or problems, relative though they may be. You can be in One Taste consciousness and still get cancer, still fail at a marriage, still lose a job, still be a jerk.
Reaching a higher stage in development does not mean the lower levels go away (Buddhas still have to eat), nor do you automatically master the lower levels (enlightenment will not automatically let you run a four-minute mile). In fact, it often means the opposite, because you might start to neglect or even ignore the lower levels, imagining that they are now no longer necessary for your well-being, whereas in fact they are the means of expression of your well-being and the vehicles of Spirit that you now are. Neglecting these vehicles is “spiritocide”—you are neglecting to death your own sacred manifestations.
It gets worse. In order to pass through the oral stage of psychosexual development, you don’t have to become a great chef. In order to discover the transverbal, you do not have to be Shakespeare. In other words, you absolutely do not have to develop perfect mastery of a lower stage before you can move to a higher stage—all that is required is a certain vague competence. But this means that you can arrive at some very high stages of development and still have all sorts of problems at various lower stages. And simply plugging into the higher stage is not necessarily going to make those lower problems go away.
This becomes a bit of a nightmare with the always-already schools, because once you get a strong glimpse of One Taste, you can lose all motivation to fix those holes in your psychological basement. You might have a deep and painful neurosis, but you no longer care, because you are no longer identified with the bodymind. There is a certain truth to that. But that attitude, nonetheless, is a profound violation of the bodhisattva vow, the vow to communicate One Taste to sentient beings in a way that can liberate all. You might be happy not to work on your neurotic garbage, but everybody around you can see that you are a neurotic jerk, and therefore when you announce you are really in One Taste, all they will remember is to avoid that state at all costs. You might be happy in your One Taste, but you are failing miserably to communicate it in any form that can be heard, precisely because you have not worked on all the lesser vehicles through which you must communicate your understanding. Of course, it is one thing if you are being offensive because you are engaged in angry wisdom or dharma combat, quite another if you are simply being a neurotic creep. One Taste does not communicate with anything, because it is everything. Rather, it is your soul and mind and body, your words and actions and deeds, that will communicate your Estate, and if those are messed up, lots of luck.
Again, it’s not that the One-Taste or sahaja schools are wrong. They are plugged into the highest estate imaginable, but they need to be complemented with an understanding that work also needs to be done on the lower levels and lesser stages (including psychotherapy, diet and exercise, relationships, livelihood, etc.) in order for a truly integral orientation to emerge. In this way only can a person communicate One Taste to all sentient beings, who themselves live mostly on lower domains and respond most readily to healthy messages addressed to those domains, not higher messages strained through neurotic and fractured lower realms.
The last major obstacle to an integral approach, as I see it, is the new-age epidemic, which . . . oh, well. Elevates magic and myth to psychic and subtle, confuses ego and Self, glorifies prerational as transrational, confuses preconventional wish-fulfillment with postconventional wisdom, grabs its self and calls it God. I wish them well, but . . . May they get their wishes quickly granted, so they can find out how truly unsatisfying they really are.
So those are the major obstacles to a nondual integral approach, as I see them: Descended flatland and its merely translative schools; the solely Ascending paths with their distaste for this world; spiritual by passing; One-Taste sufficiency that leaves schmucks as it finds them; and new-age elevationism. If we add the conventional world at large—both liberal atheists and conservative mythic fundamentalists—that’s a half-dozen roadblocks to integral self-realization, which only means, Spirit has certainly not yet tired of this round of the Kosmic Game of Hide and Seek, for it is content to continue hiding in just the damnedest places.”