Be a Whole Human: Integration on the Spiritual Path
By Tasha Friedman
“A spiritual life is first and foremost a life, and must be lived.” –Thomas Merton
You have no name, no form, no limits or boundaries. You have no beginning or end, no attributes of any kind. No words can describe you; no time or space can contain you. You are the one and only Reality, first without a second.
And yet, you are a human being.
You wake up every morning in a body made of flesh, bone, and electricity. You stretch, rub your eyes, switch on the light, and prepare for your day. You have a job, a family, friends, hobbies, things that make you smile or cry.
You are infinite, unfathomable silence, and so is everyone and everything you know. But when you see your friend, you both say “Good morning,” ask each other how you are, and act as if you aren’t both the same eternal light looking out of two sets of eyes.
There is something a little strange in this human existence, or rather something so deeply mysterious that no knowledge or explanation, no matter how clever or sophisticated, can resolve.
Consider this an invitation to contemplate that human mystery: the mystery of form, just as profound as the mystery of formlessness, because they are one and the same.
Leaving a Silent Meditation Retreat
The end of a meditation retreat is, in many ways, only the beginning of the journey.
Especially during long retreats, it can start to feel like there’s nothing outside of the retreat. The life you led before is gone and anything after is a distant abstraction. The mind might continue dwelling vividly on both past and future, but without granting either the same stamp of reality that they usually carry.
So it can be a surprise to emerge from a period of solitude and find that the world is still turning; your ordinary, mundane, day-to-day human life is still happening. People still recognize your face and call you by name—and you respond to it; something in that particular arrangement of syllables, that particular shape in the mirror, sparks you to think, “Ah, that’s me!”
In the days following a retreat, I will sometimes spend time carefully examining my old possessions: photo ID’s, notebooks, clothing, trinkets; time-worn objects, beloved souvenirs from friends and travel, and simple, familiar things that I would use every day without thinking, almost like my hands or feet. A neti pot, a coin purse, a pair of sunglasses. I turn them over and over in my hands, wondering about the person they belong to. And they do seem to belong to someone, yet that someone is markedly absent, like a flickering in the corner of your eye that disappears when you turn your full gaze on it.
But the retreat is over, which means it’s time to walk and talk as that someone again, even if you can’t for the life of you say who that someone is. Let’s look at that someone for a moment.
Returning Home and the Question of Self
I had an experience this summer that I believe is common to many people who live in spiritual communities: going to visit my family in the town where I grew up and realizing I have no idea who I am.
After a long time at the Hridaya Center in Mazunte, when I landed back home in Western Massachusetts, I encountered not only my parents and old friends but a whole different version of myself. It was like slipping into an alternate universe or into an old pair of shoes that had sat gathering dust for years but still fit my feet perfectly.
Yet this alternate version of myself did not feel any more or less real than the version that I inhabited in Mazunte, which faded like a dream after having been my dominant self-image for many years. I was wearing different clothes, talking differently, expressing a different sense of humor, wanting different things in life. It was surprising to discover that this other “me” was still alive and perfectly capable of taking the driver’s seat after years of lying dormant. It was even a little disturbing, but essentially I felt the same as I always had.
I was still myself, equally at home as “Mazunte Tash” or “Massachusetts Tash,” though these two characters appear radically different to the outside eye. Seeing this from the inside only made it glaringly obvious that these surface characteristics have nothing to say about who I really am.
Go ahead and try to pin down a single definition of your own personality that’s stable, unchanging, an expression of the “real you.” You never will. All you can point to is an array of different iterations, countless and in constant fluctuation, while the feeling of a “real you” remains somehow beyond all of them.
You act as one person with your mother, someone else with your friend, and yet another person with the cashier at the shop—like different characters that a skilled actor slips in and out of.
One moment you’re the shy one who no one understands. In a different mood, you’re the social butterfly. Then you’re the spiritual aspirant, fully committed to Self-realization at any cost; or you’re the one who just wants to relax and enjoy life.
Each one seems real as long as you identify with it, but under more careful observation, it appears as just another object in your awareness, devoid of any inner life of its own. It’s only shadows cast on the wall by the solidified shapes of the subconscious mind, making a play that you can choose to take part in or sit back and watch.
This can be thrown into sharp relief if you travel somewhere far from your normal context, or when you go back home after time away, or if you spend a long time in solitude and have the grace to be no one and nothing for a while.
You are no more your personality than an actor is the characters they play—which is to say you are and you are not at the same time.
What Does Integration Actually Look Like?
Integration isn’t replacing the old with the new, or leaving both behind. Early on in your spiritual practice, you might misinterpret the recommendation to detach from the domain of the personality as a need to deny or to destroy its forms. When not yet matched with wisdom, intense spiritual aspiration can fuel an impulse to run away in horror from this parade of shadow puppets or to pick and choose which to accept.
You might make yourself look and act the part of the spiritual seeker, but underneath the surface, the old gears are still turning, the ones that divide aspects of yourself into “good” and “bad,” trying to show a good face to the world and hide the bad deep out of sight—only now maybe this function works according to categories of “spiritual” and “not spiritual,” which can be based in discernment but are often quite arbitrary.
If you really want to evaluate your progress along the path, it’s better to look at how humble you are, how easily you forgive those who do you harm, and how deeply you feel like yourself in any situation.
This isn’t to deny that certain transformations can take place on a more visible level, from the inside out, as the echoes of the practice ripple through your entire life. Everything changes color when you commit your life to a single purpose, especially one so gravitational as spirituality. Naturally, you will be drawn towards behaviors and environments that support your new priority, while patterns that aren’t supportive start to drop away.
Awakening is a process of clarification that involves your entire being, from your heart all the way down to your little toenail, so to speak; a process of coming into alignment, into harmony, becoming transparent.
Sometimes this happens gradually, but sometimes it comes as a radical cutting away of old patterns, at least for a while. Maybe this calling brings you to leave the life you were so involved in, immerse yourself instead in a spiritual community, spend time in silence and solitude—maybe a long time.
This is a rare and precious movement, a current that flows inwards when most currents in this world sweep us to the outside, and if you have the grace to catch it, by all means, let yourself be swept away.
However, the moment this natural unfolding turns into an ego trip around fixing or improving, turning your current version of yourself into a better version of yourself, you’re playing the same old game of identification and committing a kind of violence against yourself. I should be like this or that, I should be better, I should be different—as if there’s a single mistake in this breathtaking tapestry of creation.
The personality is as it is. To some degree, it changes over time, and so much can be healed and brought into harmony. But it will always have its own unique shape and color. If something about it isn’t causing harm to yourself or others, why try to manipulate it to be other than it is?
There’s enough war in this world; stop waging war against yourself. If you want peace on Earth, you must be at peace with your brothers and sisters in humanity, and if you want peace with them, you must be at peace with your own being.
Moving Beyond the Personality and its Paradoxes
Contradictions in the personality are a problem only if you are trying to be the personality. Beyond that, the infinite peace of Reality is undisturbed by any apparent contradiction within itself.
In the words of Nisargadatta Maharaj: “When the ‘I am myself’ (personality) goes, the ‘I am the world’ remains. When the ‘I am the world’ goes, the ‘I am’ remains. When even the ‘I am’ goes, Reality alone is and in it every ‘I am’ is preserved and glorified. Wonderful diversity and variety without separateness is the ultimate that the mind (consciousness) can touch. Beyond that, all activity ceases, because all goals are then reached and all purposes fulfilled.”
Oneness does not deny or erase multiplicity, but embraces it.
Within this human manifestation, you contain multitudes. You have been so many different people in your life, in different moods, passions, perspectives, and relationships. God’s infinite creative potential is manifesting through you: limiting yourself to one expression is a kind of death, cutting yourself off from the wholeness of Life, which is perfect even though (or because) it contains paradoxes—just like you do.
There are so many different versions of myself, and I love every one of them. Some show themselves easily to the world; others are kept quiet and close to my heart. Some walk naturally side-by-side; others seem to be worlds apart; a few are even frightening. I am not any of them. I am also not not them.
You don’t need to smash the puppets. Just walk out of the cave. Be as you are and be free.
Finding the Sacred in Ordinary Life
Simply living as yourself is not always so easy, yet this wholeness can come through practice, when you become so rooted in the truth of your being that nothing can shake your trust. Steady and perseverant through the peaks and valleys of life, the shift might come like water wearing down a stone that it flows over, so slowly that it can’t even be seen as it happens but only becomes obvious when a deep change has already occurred.
I used to dread visiting my hometown because I was afraid of losing myself there. But these days a lot of that fear is gone. This summer, I spent three weeks at my parents’ house, weeding the garden, drinking coffee, reading novels, recording harmonium covers of pop songs, and feeling very much at home. After this, I went to the mountains of San Mateo for a month in solitude, meditating as if my life depended on it; full-body prayer that burned clean through everything. And when that passed, time to gather firewood, soak rice, and sit watching the rain.
These two interludes in no way contradicted each other but appear to me as parts of a single, continuous, process. The sacred and the mundane intrinsically woven together—forms arising within a sea of emptiness, and that very emptiness alive like a seed of Truth in the heart of every form.
Sometimes the salty New England intellectual shows her face, sometimes the fiery yogini. Just different faces: neither is real, and both are real. One might be more naturally transparent than the other, but that’s all.
I’m back from this most recent retreat. I’m not meditating all day but still find a deep joy in simple tasks: picking up the laundry, washing dishes, watering the plants. Being human, generally. An absolutely ordinary life.
This doesn’t mean it’s sparkles and joy all the time. Often, I feel deep melancholy and loneliness that nothing can touch. Just as my heart contains the crystal blue waves of the Pacific, it also holds the dark waters of the restless Atlantic, rocks and fog and air smelling of rotten seaweed.
And it’s beautiful, so beautiful, this profoundly human pain, this burning question that nothing in this world can answer.
Integration: Casting Out and Coming Back to Rest
Suffering, contradiction and incompleteness are inherent elements of the human experience. At certain points along the spiritual path, a desire to escape this suffering, to escape humanity itself, can be powerful motivation. It was exactly this desire that first led the Buddha away from the material comforts of his former life in a search for deeper truth.
But sooner or later you discover that there is nothing to run away from. That need to escape the boundaries of conventional life becomes a love affair with the unknown; the sense of dissatisfaction blossoms into a recognition of the vastness and mystery of Existence, which encompasses each and every facet of itself with incredible love.
As God in human form, there’s no problem to solve, nothing to fix or improve. Nothing is lacking from perfection. What is there to fix in something that is already whole?
Chop wood, carry water. God is choosing to be you right now, in all your raw humanity, in all the particularity of your life, which is simply a human life, nothing more and nothing less.
To conclude with the rest of the quotation from Thomas Merton with which this article began:
“The spiritual life is not, therefore, a life entirely uprooted from man’s human condition and transplanted into the realm of the angels. We live as spiritual men when we live as men seeking God. If we are to become spiritual, we must remain men. […] Let us embrace reality and thus find ourselves immersed in the life-giving will and wisdom of God which surrounds us everywhere.”
Spirituality is life itself and life wants to be lived. Your life is made sacred by the mere fact that you are living it.