by S Alexander Alich
“How do I integrate my spiritual work and my daily life?” is one of the most frequent questions students ask me as they begin their spiritual path. In the beginning it is easy to see your daily life as separate from your spiritual work, practices and training. In a sense it is separate.
Coming from a culture without a clear and agreed upon spiritual base, the challenge of integration can seem overwhelming to even the most advanced student. Figuring out what fits where in the new life we are creating can be a long process of doubts, mistakes and traps. Let’s begin by looking at two common traps that students encounter as they begin their path.
Trap 1: Separate it and live two lives. As you begin your training, it can seem as if you are living two lives. The Monday through Friday work life and the weekend training life. With this go two sets of rules, two sets of friends and two sets of expectations. For awhile this may serve a purpose as you try new ways that you might not be ready to commit to. However, if you stay in this too long it can become a trap that is difficult to get out of. Over time you can create a
mountain of information, techniques and practices that don’t become part of you. The information stays outside of you. It can become easy to view that mountain as over there and to say, “One day I’ll do something with it.” In the worst case, if this continues, you will feel that you have to make a decision between daily life and spiritual life, with the outcome being that you must abandon one.
Trap 2: Merge it all at once and throw away what doesn’t fit. Integration is not about mixing up spiritual and daily life. There is an appropriate place and time for practices and a place and time for driving your car. In the beginning you can almost guarantee failure by pressuring yourself to do your practices in the middle of your workday, just as you would feel stressed doing office work while you sit in ceremony. Discernment, although not easy, is what you want to learn here, clarifying what belongs where in your life and in your day.
Remember to go slowly and don’t let your enthusiasm for a new method or
technique overwhelm you and your community. It is healthy to have friends who share your spiritual views and friends who don’t always agree with you and who may follow a different path. It can be a trap to insist that everyone around you believes what you do. Integration is not convincing the outside world that you’ve changed. When you’ve integrated what you have learned, you won’t even think about it anymore—it will be part of you.
So if separating or merging can lead to traps, where do you go from here? The work of integration is a slow process—one that requires daily work and practice. Remember you are working toward long-term changes and goals that will influence every part of your life. Many of us don’t begin our work with a complete and stable spiritual base, and this can make the integration process challenging. These are some practices and teachings I share with my students when they begin:
Be aware of focus and intent There is a Zen saying that without focus every
challenge is our biggest problem; with focus there are no problems. I remind students to come back to their focus and their intent. Ask yourself, “What do I want? What is the big picture here?” Focus and intent keep us moving in the right direction and guide us through difficult times.
Begin a daily grounding practice, the more practical and physically based the better. Whether it is walking, gardening, housework, playing with your pets or sitting in nature, daily grounding is necessary to balance and integrate spiritual work.
Add a weekly purification practice. We can trace many imbalances of the mind, body and heart, in part, to holding onto the past and not having a way for the old to leave. As we work, learn, grow and change, the old ways that we have done things will no longer fit. We need to have a way to acknowledge these things, release them and go on. I recommend working with the elements here. Something as simple as writing down what you want to let go of and releasing it to the earth or fire can free your energy and spirit.
Breath—remember to breathe consciously. Even sitting five minutes a day, doing nothing but noticing your breath, can help. Make sure your whole chest and belly are moving with each breath, but do not force it.
Don’t be afraid to use what you learn. Try different methods, find out what works for you and stay with those things. It is not important to have dozens of practices. No one could keep up with that many in a day. Let go of what doesn’t work. I have overheard many students criticize a method or technique that they didn’t even try. Don’t fall into this trap.
Give yourself time. This is probably the hardest but most important thing to do. If you are having a problem with integration, you might be doing too many things at once. Remember that your mind moves quickly and can easily overwhelm the heart and body with its demands. I recommend that students not learn any new practices or techniques until they have claimed the ones they are working with as part of them.
Make room for yourself and others to go at their own pace. Spiritual work is not a competition, but we can sometimes turn it into one with our friends and ourselves. Remember that you are working toward long-term changes and that everyone is moving at their own pace.
Don’t let the lack of excitement about your work make you stop. I once went to my teacher with what I thought was a big problem. I told her that all my spiritual practices where becoming ordinary and they no longer took much thought or effort. It’s not that they were boring; I wasn’t even thinking about them anymore. If you can believe it, I thought I was doing something wrong! She looked at me, asked me a few questions, then said, “Good. They are finally becoming part of you.”
Integration takes time and brings insight but also brings experience. Experience grounds our work, and what you learn will stay with you for the rest of your life.