Making Room for Integration

This article first appeared on the Mindful Leader blog in September 2021. 

“Along with all the growth and healing, remember to give yourself time for integration, which is a fancy word for ‘allowing sh*t to settle.’ It looks like doing nothing. This nothing is necessary.”

– Emily McDowell

Has it ever happened to you? You’ve been meditating, or doing the art, or practicing the breathing technique, and finally, suddenly, something breaks open and you feel completely and irreversibly new? Or maybe you find yourself in a classroom or seminar, everyone around you feels oddly familiar, and you clearly envision a world of possibilities of where this could lead…

Once we begin to glimpse possibilities and experience change, it can be tough for folks on a committed path of development to devote ourselves to much else. We may double down on the work of the thing, throw every part of ourselves into it, tell everyone we know. Spirituality can be almost addictive in this way. More, please! 

Of course. And. We need time for the work to seep into our bones, our cells. To give our altered brains and nervous systems a chance to adjust to the newness. Essentially, to do nothing.

The ‘forced’ integration period of the pandemic

For those privileged and lucky enough, the pandemic provided this opportunity. The forced time away from whatever we had been diligently up to has perhaps supported us in returning to it fresh, with a beginner’s mind, minus the excess.

This certainly happened with my decade-long martial arts practice. I’d been training hard for years and, toward the end of 2019, I’d begun to feel inexplicably overwhelmed. I sensed a pressing need for a break that I refused to give myself, largely because I couldn’t find a good ‘reason.’ I adored my community and couldn’t imagine being away from them for any extended period of time.

2020 gave me space to reflect on how I’d been engaging with the practice—including the dreaded and necessary question of whether I wanted to continue at all. In the meantime, I availed myself of healing modalities that addressed some long-term injuries I’d been ignoring so as to not interrupt my intense training. What became clear is that my practice had been feeling like too much because there was in fact too much in my system that hadn’t been processed. The year away gave me the space to do that intentionally.

When the dojo opened again this past summer, I worked my way back in very slowly and gently. Attending to my inner child (with whom I’d also become better acquainted during the break), I assured her that we would do this only in ways that brought us joy.

And joyous it has been. Back on the mat now I feel massively more grounded, resourced, and relaxed, using far less effort and excess energy than I ever have. I’ve found a soft and quiet power that exists underneath everything I was trying to prove in all those years of trying too hard. It’s the state I’d been working hard for a long time to attain, and it was the year away from the hard work that brought me there.

I needed an entire year off to let the previous nine really soak in and change me. But … 

Does it always need to be that extreme?

Indeed, the pandemic gave me this wonderful (and painful) opportunity to reset my relationship with my central spiritual path. Perhaps this happened for you too: being separated from a practice, relationship, or endeavor gave you a chance to surface uncertainties, discover what is essentially important, and jettison what no longer serves.

But what if there had been no pandemic? What if life hadn’t handed us this invitation we couldn’t say no to?

Obviously part of my learning from this was to recognize that the call for a break I felt was very real. That my body and psyche needed a year to catch up, to sort out, to let go. I now see clearly how vital it is to take this time regularly, intentionally, and without guilt.

What if we could design our lives to incorporate periods of integration?

Bringing our whole selves to life includes doing nothing

In the work of Integral Coaching, the word “integral” has several connotations. The method integrates wisdom from across myriad traditions, years, and cultures. It invites the coach to integrate their lifetime of experience and wisdom into the coaching relationship.

Perhaps most importantly, it speaks to how we work with ourselves and our clients: always aiming to bring the disparate parts of us into an integrated whole.

Inherent in all of this, of course, is integration: time and space to allow for whatever is new, separate, or forgotten to take up residence in the system, get comfy, and release what isn’t needed. In a way, it echoes the physical process of digestion: absorbing nutrients and eliminating waste.

Weaving integration into design

The year of the Professional Coaching Course gives plenty of time between the four live sessions to integrate learnings through practice, assignments, community building… and indeed, just being.

Between the first two sessions, burgeoning Integral Coaches are attending solely to deepening their presence and capacity to be with clients. They’re focused on living into the new way of being invited by their coach at the outset of the year. There is no study of the methodology. There is meditation and exercise, reading, self-reflection, maybe a class or creative project—all in service to helping the coach expand their capacity and move into their growth edge. It is crucial that they have several months of this before they begin working with practice clients.

Students who begin the year in the winter are often pleasantly surprised by how the darker, quieter days of the season can support integration. There isn’t a whole lot of doing, but there is a bunch of becoming. Then, as the days grow longer and spring invites new beginnings, students are eager to dive into the next, more active phase of the program.*

To help understand why this is important, imagine the opposite scenario: how held would a client feel by a coach who entered the relationship immediately following months of intense study of the methodology? They may bring know-how, but their presence would likely be far from healing or even supportive.

How have you engaged with your developmental practices before the pandemic and during? Was there enough integration time, by design or otherwise? If not, how might you set this up for yourself? Here’s one way to begin the exploration.

Self-reflection: making room for integration

  • First, take some time to reflect (if you can remember back that far!) on 2020-2021, when we were generally still grounded by the pandemic. For many, having less frenetic activity has revealed the body’s natural inclinations to be active or restful. What were yours? Did they coincide with a particular time of day or year? Are any patterns evident?
  • For the next few months or more, before bed, take a few minutes to reflect on your day in the same way. When did you feel the most awake or engaged? When was there less energy available? Maybe the entire day felt more one way than the other.
  • As you start to compile your data, you might notice a pattern to the times of day, week, month, and even year that your body is pulled toward activity or rest.
  • Now, the hard part: if it is available to you, Iean into those ‘down’ periods intentionally, with your full self. Scan your body, your mind, your heart. Notice what new information is being incorporated, absorbed. Notice what is being jettisoned. Notice what judgments come up, and what/who is supportive.
  • Of course, Life is going to pull us hither and thither whether we have the energy for it or not. Nor do we all have the luxury of abundant spare moments (though maybe there are creative ways of leaning in regardless). All this to say, if you choose to engage with this practice, be gentle with yourself!

Joy is the Communications Director at New Ventures West. 

Photo by Nick van den Berg on Unsplash