Notes from the Field: Integral Spiritual Experience

Barbara Alexander

Integral Spiritual Experience

Barbara Alexander

Barbara Alexander

“You know an authentically pleasurable experience by its aftertaste” says my friend Marc Gafni, one of the key architects of Integral Spiritual Experience 2. He and his partners certainly produced an authentically pleasurable experience. More than two months later, the aftertaste, rich and challenging, remains with me.

Integral Spiritual Experience, (ISE 2) was a mega retreat held over New Year’s at the Asilomar Conference Center on California’s magnificent central coast. Three organizations devoted to human evolution, iEvolve, Integral Life, and Sounds True, sponsored the event. Their plan is ambitious – a five-day retreat held five consecutive years for 500 participants. The work involved to produce the experience is staggering. Clearly it is a success. Numbers tell part of the tale. Participants represented 30 countries and many spiritual traditions. Many of the 500 participants had attended the first year. A number of us registered for ISE 3 before leaving ISE 2.

The topic, The Future of Love, may sound saccharine sweet, however its focus was not the emotion of love but rather the power of love that creates the future. The architects of the experience, Marc Gafni, Diane Hamilton and Sally Kempton, masterfully wove developmental theory and deep spiritual teaching together to create a container within which we not only learned about the evolution of love, but also participated in it. These three remarkable teachers anchored the experience, providing a coherent “through line,” while 40 other teachers and practitioners offered keynotes, workshops, practice sessions and music. The “through line” of the retreat, the Three Stations of Love, was deepened by each teacher’s unique approach.

Those readers who have attended retreats may wonder how a 500 person gathering can be called a retreat. Indeed, imagining the complexity of a design that engaged so many in teachings and practices all day and into each evening boggles the mind. Though the schedule looked complex initially, one quickly saw the opportunity to design a unique retreat experience. There were a variety of 6:30 practice sessions to begin the day. We came together for the morning plenary and practice session in a large, lovely building where we created a strong “we space” container. The beautiful array of offerings in each afternoon allowed us to either sample different teachers/topics or to go more deeply into one experience by working with the same teacher each day. Late afternoon practice sessions, designed to assist us in integrating the day’s experience, were varied as well. We finished the day with an evening plenary and then there was the dancing…the strength of the container deepened each day. Connections were made that will reverberate and create change.

I chose the sampler approach to the afternoon sessions as there were several teachers whose teachings I wanted to experience. Mariana Caplan’s session explored the Eros, Ethics and Conflict in the student/teacher relationship. Mariana, who is a therapist and professor in the Bay Area, has spent many years researching the world’s mystical traditions and those who teach within them. Her latest book, Eyes Wide Open, focuses on taking responsibility for the whole of ourselves as we navigate the pitfalls of the spiritual journey.  Through a fascinating process called the Guru Game (fashioned after the Dating Game for those of you old enough to remember the show) we explored the various aspects of discernment necessary as one chooses a teacher. The session was illuminating as I reflected on my past teachers through the lens Mariana presented. I left with much more clarity about how I navigated the experiences and what to attend to as my journey continues.

The next day I attended Sally Kempton’s session entitled Spirit, Love and You: Love and Pain in Your Relationship with the Inner Beloved. Sally is a spiritual teacher who integrates yogic philosophy with daily life. Her latest book, Meditation for the Love of It, is at the top of my list of recommended books. Sally explored our different “hearts,” the physical, emotional, spiritual and non-dual. Most helpful was her understanding of the emotional heart as the one that not only experiences emotional love but also fragility and vulnerability. Situated in the limbic brain, this heart cannot make an unbreakable connection with others or Spirit. It is the spiritual heart that has the capacity for an unbreakable connection, the source of gratitude, compassion and forgiveness. Surprisingly Sally recommended the practice of confession and forgiveness to purify the emotional heart. Her refreshing understanding of this ancient and oft misunderstood and misused practice outlined the value in voicing those aspects of ourselves that we prefer to remain hidden because when we hide from ourselves we hide from the Divine and cannot experience the spaciousness available to us. I saw clearly how my work, and the work of so many helping professionals, creates an accepting container, mirroring Divine acceptance and love, in which vulnerabilities can be voiced. Not until a hidden aspect is voiced to another can it be worked with and released.

This session in particular, but the whole experience in general, deepened my realization that the creative power of Spirit can transform even the most horrifying moments in our lives. How do you explain how your heart can break free, as you realize—no, deeply experience—the reality that we are not separate, not alone? How do you share the collective wisdom and power of 500 people all focused on the transforming power of creative love? I can’t really, but I’d invite any and all who yearn for the evolution of love to transform our world to join us at ISE 3.

About the Author

Barbara Alexander has been engaged in human development throughout her career. Her passion in the area of human growth spans 35 years. After earning an M.A. in Counseling Psychology, she spent 25 years as a psychotherapist, splitting her time between individual therapy, teaching and consulting. She currently practices as an Integral Coach and offers retreats and seminars in the areas spiritual development and Integral Theory.


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