Transcending and Descending to Awakening with Jonathan Gustin
Taste of Sex – Guest Speaker
Beth C

Episode 40 - Transcending and Descending to Awakening with Jonathan Gustin

Listen as Jonathan Gustin discusses the transcendant and descendant paths of awakening, emphasizing the importance of integrating all aspects of being into a spiritual practice. At San Francisco Integral Life Practice, he teaches a path of "spiritual cross training," a practice of creating and maintaining balance. This is done by shining light on all parts of being, from everyday activities like eating and exercise to shadow elements that hold us back. Gustin shares how he works with people's hearts, souls, minds and bodies to instill wakefullness and move beyond the stories to discover our true gifts, desires, and purpose. Join us for this candid interview and discover a new way to integrate wakefullness into your spiritual practice.



Woman: This program, brought to you by, is suitable for mature audiences only and may contain explicit sexual information.

Man: This interview was recorded at the One Taste Center in San Francisco on January 22nd, 2008.

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Harmony Niles: Welcome to “A Taste of Sex: Guest Speaker Interviews.” My name is Harmony Niles and I'm here tonight with Jonathan Gustin, a spiritual teacher, psychotherapist, and integral mentor. Jonathan is also the founder of San Francisco Integral Life Practice, a community that brings an integral approach to realizing the full spectrum of human potential. He's the founder of Green Sangha, a spiritual community committed to environmental action.

Jonathan will be lecturing later this evening as part of our Tuesday Night Forum here at One Taste in San Francisco. Come down to 1074 Folsom Street at 8 pm on a Tuesday night and hear educators in spirituality, sensuality, nutrition, and culture share their work. These intimate discussions were brought in the way that you look at the world.

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Jonathan Gustin: Where I differ from Ken a little bit is, his accent tends to be on the transcendent. He's that’s just sort of what lights him up a lot. For me, this descendent dimension of spirituality is very important. The body, nature - these are things that he talks about so much. So in the group that I run here in San Francisco, we actually have a whole module just devoted to soul. In fact, we do a soul practice called “Division Quest” which is a native American tradition of going out, fasting, praying, lamenting for one’s vision.

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Harmony Niles: Jonathan, thanks for joining us tonight.

Jonathan Gustin: Pleasure to be here.

Harmony Niles: Awesome. Your talk tonight is entitled the “The Transcendent Path, the Descending Path: A Spiritual Journey.”

Jonathan Gustin: Yes, it is.

Harmony Niles: So a lot of big words in there. Can you tell me about that?

Jonathan Gustin: Sure. Often with spirituality, we're actually just talking about one direction, which I will call the transcendent path. Non-duality, experiencing non-separation, having a moment where you go beyond just your sort of skin-encapsulated ego, beyond just your regular day-to-day existence. So that’s kind of the transcendent dimension, it's a really key area in spiritual practice. You want to be able to have an experience of the totally. But another direction that gets sometimes overlooked is the descendent, the emergent dimension of spirituality. So to me, that’s soul, our place in the world, our ultimate place in the world where our gifts, our core powers can really express themselves, can really shine.

Harmony Niles: Thank you. Jonathan also has an article this month in our catalog. What I love about your writing there is the call to action at the end. You bring our gifts out to the world. Can you talk about that?

Jonathan Gustin: Sure. So again, in the transcendent dimension, you have sort of the Buddhist architects. So the Buddhists sitting under the tree having this tremendous awakening to ultimate truth, to non-duality. Each person though, will express that grand awakening in a very particular way. So one actually needs to know, “All right, so what is most uniquely mine? What is my core gift? Who are my people?” Native Americans talk about our giveaway, what is uniquely ours to giveaway to our people. So you a) have to know the texture of your own soul. You have to know what your core power is, your gifts are, and who to give them to. So it's sort of an integral approach to spirituality, transcendent and descendent.

Harmony Niles: So tell me about San Francisco Integral Life Practice.

Jonathan Gustin: So it's a group I started about five years ago now, really sweet group of folks. The idea being that we wanted to practice and express all the dimensions of our being. So I'm a layered den [sp] Zen priest, so I'm very much into the transcendent dimension, and Zen is a beautiful path for experiencing non-duality. But it's a specialist path, it has one particular focus, that is, awakening to non-dual reality and it pretty much leaves out body, relationships, shadow, everything else, which is fine.

For me, I wanted to be in a spiritual community where we integrated, where we embodied all dimensions of our being as an expression of our spiritual practice. So at San Francisco Integral Life Practice--the group meets every Wednesday--and what we do is we actually have modules, core practice modules. So the body, just to name one thing, physical exercise. I mean, there are monks meditating for 16-20 hours a day, maybe they're going very far down the path in some ways, but their bodies are languishing. So it's not an antibody practice. The way we eat. So that’s the body.

Relationship practice, with shadow, we find that we trip over the same problems again and again. in relationship, let's say, and we leak out so much energy. So even if we have a very strong spiritual practice, what's going to get undermined over and over again is that very practice by the shadow elements - unintegrated, un-own, banished parts, banished dimensions. At Integral Life Practice, we invite them all in as friends, as colleagues, as allies. Every dimension of our being is invited in to awaken together. So heart, body, mind, soul, spirit - all of these modules, all of these dimensions of our being have a place in our group.

We have practices, intentions, and commitments around each of these so that we grow but in many ways, simultaneously. There's kind of a synergistic, cross training effect. Like an Olympic swimmer, maybe they’ll swim six days a week, but if you overuse one muscle again and again, it's not so good. So maybe they’ll do a little bit of running, a little bit of weight training. In the same way with spiritual practice, you can have a cross training approach where you'll have your meditation which will also have your shadow work or relational work.

Harmony Niles: Here at One Taste, we talk a lot about relationship as a practice, and it sounds like what you're saying is very much in line with a lot of our feelings there. So I just want to see how the two kind of coincide, or maybe not coincide.

Jonathan Gustin: OK. One area that’s really rich with relationships is projection. We can project negative aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to own, we can project positive aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to own. So it's like a positive. I may have intense feelings of jealousy about a friend or a teacher. I may put someone up on a pedestal and elevate them so way high above in a way that actually brings me down low. In order to see the beauty and wisdom in another human being, it's our own beauty and wisdom that’s recognizing that beauty and wisdom in the other. So owning one’s projection can be a very powerful practice.

You look at the way you interrelate with others. If you're like, “Oh, that person’s so great. That person is so amazing” and so forth, what quality in that person are you worshipfully admiring and realize that that quality is in you. There are practices one can do to begin to embody that. The first thing is just to say it to yourself, “Gosh, I have that inside of me.” It may not be as well developed or as a parent when I see it in another, but that other person that I've elevated is actually a calling. They're calling me not to be like them but to be like myself, to be that beauty and wisdom that’s inside of me.

The negative aspect is probably more well known. So if I am a controlling person, let's say, there's a controlling element in me. Now, if I can't own that and say, “You know what? I can be controlling.” Then the second you start getting a little controlling, then I'm like, “Oh, what a bitch. I can't stand her. She's being controlling. How could she possibly?” Of course, you can be controlling, and so can I. The only time it really drives me, just [xx], is when I can own it myself. Then when I can own it myself, yes, I can be selfish, I can be controlling. Then, when I recognize that in you, I'll say, “Well, of course, you can.” It actually makes a relationship a lot easier.

So the second I notice that I'm really being driven [xx] by something that you're doing, there's a moment. There's a little moment of awakening that can happen, where I can go, “All right, is that thing that I really dislike in you isn't also in me? Will I be willing to meet it with openness and with love and actually bring it back? Does it have to be so uglified? Does it have to be so pathologized?” Everyone has in themselves, in their genes, a little fibers of selfishness, of greed, or whatever it may be. We don’t have to hide from that, we can relax into it. That doesn’t mean we want to operate from, primarily, greed and these sorts of things, but we own it. Yes, it's in me. So that’s one relationship practice.

Harmony Niles: As you're speaking, that just rang so true for me and I thought of how many times have I got gone just bunkers over someone doing something that I totally do myself, and that I like I don’t like in myself.

Is there any intersection with your work there and Ken Wilber’s work?

Jonathan Gustin: Yes, Ken Wilber’s work has been really instrumental in my work. When I was 20, I read one of his books and I loved it so much I read it three times in a row. What it did for me is it made a connection between Western psychology and spiritual practice, particularly, Eastern spiritual practices. So that was a taste of integral for me, that was a taste of wholistic for me. Many of his books draw in many other disciplines.

So one of the things that he advocates is just this very thing we were talking about, kind of the transdisciplinary approach to practice including all these different modules. Where I differ from Ken a little bit is, his accent tends to be on the transcendent. He's that just sort of what lights him up a lot. For me, this descendent dimension of spirituality is very important. The body, nature - these are things that he talks about so much.

So in the group that I run here in San Francisco, we actually have a whole module that’s just devoted to soul. In fact, we do a soul practice called “Division Quest” which is a native American tradition of going out fasting, praying, lamenting for one’s vision, for one’s ultimate place. So Ken has been really important and I would say he continues to be important. We study his works in the group, but we also go beyond it as well. He's the first word in integral but not the last.

Harmony Niles: Wonderful. We're going to take a short break. We're here with Jonathan Gustin, spiritual teacher, psychotherapist, and integral mentor. We'll be right back to “A Taste of Sex: Guest Speaker Interviews.”

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Harmony Niles: Welcome back to “A Taste of Sex: Guest Speaker Interviews.” We're here with Jonathan Gustin, the founder of San Francisco Integral Life Practice and the founder of Green Sangha, a spiritual community committed to environmental action. Can you tell me about some of the environmental action that Green Sangha is currently involved with?

Jonathan Gustin: Sure. Some of them are very simple, like we're working right now with the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They have a little sustainable ocean fish card, it fits in your wallet and it has three different columns - green for go, and yellow for be careful, and red for stop. Basically, it's a consumer information fact sheet that helps consumers when they go to the market, pick fish that’s actually not going to deplete our oceans. If enough people use this, of course, the amazing thing will be that we will stop overfishing particular species, stop doing particular types of fish farming that are killing mangroves all over the world.

So we've given out thousands and thousands of these, obviously, we need to give out millions to really make the big difference, but every little bit counts. It's a way for what Green Sangha’s intention is is to actually have folks just contribute a little something to environmental activism. So it's not a professional activist outfits like Greenpeace, which is a great group. But our group is for regular folks who are teachers or sanitary workers or psychotherapists or nurses, whatever it may be to meet once a month and we start with meditation. We start with what is our deepest desire here and with our deepest recognition that that which we're serving is not really separate from us.

So it's not me Jonathan serving the fish, there's a duality there. It’d be fine to do it that way, but I think even more powerful is coming from the physician of awakening, coming from the recognition of awakening. Throughout the universe, there's just One Body revealed and I'm just serving the One Body every single time. I'm looking at the One Body right now as I'm speaking these words and it's looking right back at me. When you work that way, it's just juicy and loving and fun. I mean, it can also be heartbreaking, don’t get me wrong. But when you're serving from the whole of you and you're serving the whole as the whole, it's beautiful.

Harmony Niles: I have a long history in environmental action groups myself. I've often been just frustrated by feeling like we spend so much time fighting each other rather than fighting for whatever cause we're going for. It sounds like your group has a much better kind of cohesion, just philosophy around it.

Jonathan Gustin: It's the very reason why I started the group. When I was a college student maybe 20 years ago, I wanted to get involve in activism. So I went to a group, the Progressive Action Coalition, it was called, at the University of Vermont and wonderful folks. These are the folks who are putting themselves on the line doing their work, I really admired them. But the way they talked about the so-called opposition, I was like, “So we're kind of peace activists?” They were like, “Yes.” I'm like, “The way we're talking about the other side, Republicans or whoever it was we were talking about, we're kind of like tearing them to shreds. Should we be doing that?”

So I wrote a little manifesto, “Progressive Action Coalition for United Human Race,” so that we would actually start from the position of, “These are our brothers and sisters.” Though we want to stand boldly and powerfully in our position, we want to do so in a way that’s also very open to the people that we're actually speaking to. It didn’t go over so well, so the story doesn’t have the happy ending of like, “Oh, they [xx]. Yes, that’s a great idea! Let's do it.” So respectfully, I parted ways from working with that group.

But flash forward years and years later, and I saw Julia Butterfly Hill and she was talking about her so-called opposition – Charles Hurwitz, Pacific Lumber, MAXXAM Corporation. It seemed to me, like every other word out of her mouth was love. She just kept talking about love. This is obviously a human being who is standing boldly and powerfully in their authority and working hard. I said, “That’s it, the time has come.” So I started this group in the year 2000, and it's been going strong ever since.

Actually, Julia came into the benefit with us, which is really nice. She really likes the work we're doing. The whole idea being the environmental action includes the human being, the activists themselves, and includes the so-called opposition. Julia would say, “Every word, every thought, every action rooted in love.” Now, I'm not able to do that 100% at the time, and I don’t know of anyone at Green Sangha who can, but that’s idea. We keep ourselves rooted in love as much as possible so that we're not just preaching to the choir. So that when we meet the opposition--and we meet the opposition all the time--that we do so in a way that’s respectful, that encourages them. They see us standing in love, standing powerfully but open and maybe, just maybe, there can be a turning in that person.

Harmony Niles: That’s great.

Jonathan Gustin: Yes. Too much violence, there's so much violence just in words. I mean, the people I work with, sort of leftwing radicals--whatever you want to call them--great people and not physically violent at all. But the verbal violence, so take George W. Bush. There are a few places that overlap between his idea of what politics should be and what mine are. Frankly, sometimes when I see him on TV or hear him on the radio, I can begin to feel my blood boil. There's a shadow right there, there's a moment. Is this guy my brother or isn't he?”

Often the answer is, “I don’t want. I don’t want to be and have any relation to that guy. He's not part of my species.” So I'm just demonizing him, I'm just basically cut out a part of myself because the ultimate truth is, he's a part of me and I'm a part of him. In non-duality, there's no separation. So if I just think of him with great hate and malice and I have nothing but absolute just scathing, mean spirited criticism, I've just harmed myself.

So is it possible for me to keep my heart open? Look at him, I mean, I never actually get to meet and talk to him, but this is more an imagination. Keep my heart open and then speak my truth, powerfully but respectfully; very powerfully, but very respectfully. Then I think, there's a possibility of healing. So I don’t get to meet George Bush, but I get to meet Republicans. How do I talk to them? This is hopefully [xx].

Harmony Niles: You're changing gears a little bit. I want to ask you about--so you're a therapist, and coming out of that tradition, but also a spiritual guide. How do the two kind of intersect there?

Jonathan Gustin: So I think of myself as a whole person midwife, a midwife to the whole person. That kind of came to me, I guess, in my early 20s. My idea was that I wanted to be able to respond to some skill, to suffering in whatever form it may take. Originally, my idea was I'd become a spiritual teacher and a naturopathic doctor and a psychotherapist. I became the spiritual teacher and the psychotherapist, I never quite got around to getting my medical degree.

So rather than have like one tool to reach out to people with, I actually wanted to be able to be in a state of listening. I wanted to rest in stillness and silence inside of myself and hear what another is asking for, what their need is and respond appropriately to that person. By appropriate, I mean, like what level, what dimension of their being is asking for some assistance, is asking for some support?

So if it's depression or if it's a spiritual emergence or whatever it may be, I can move in that direction. Having said that, overall, I take on a spiritual perspective. So that even when I'm working with people in a non-overt, spiritual manner, the underlying sort of texture of the way I work is to call out in people wakefulness. To wake up, to wake up to what they really are beyond the stories, beyond the diagnoses, and actually just be able to themselves rest in stillness and silence themselves.

Harmony Niles: Absolutely. Where does sensuality fit into your work?

Jonathan Gustin: Where does sensuality fit into the work. So sensuality can be a module in and of itself, but sensuality is actually when you are awake to any dimension of life. There's a sensuality to reading a book that enlivens you, that wakes you up. There's a sensuality to brushing your teeth, are you present for all these dimensions of your being? There's a sensuality to eating, the textures and tastes and smells. Sensuality obviously to relations with another human being, when you're touching, when you're making love.

So sensuality to me is not only just that separate module, but sensuality is what life is. It's a sensing life. We've been given extraordinary senses, and yet so many times, we sort of we'll take them and sit and flunk them down in front of the television set and call it a day. We wonder why we feel sort of depleted; we wonder why we feel no energy. So to me, the sensuality is what life actually is. In that way - meditation, eating, sex, reading, talking right now has a sensuality to it.

So if people are interested in this sort of work, I invite them to check out the website, Jonathan

Harmony Niles: Thank you. Jonathan, thanks so much for joining us.

Jonathan Gustin: You're so welcome.

Harmony Niles: You are listening to “Guest Speaker Interviews at Taste of Sex” here at One Taste in San Francisco. Jonathan is about to run off to lecture at our Tuesday Night Forum. He is lecturing on the “Transcendent Path, the Descending Path: A Spiritual Journey.” Please join us here at One Taste to hear other educators like him and get turned on to what they're talking about. You can also hear other podcasts, our “Erotic Open Mic Night,” other lectures at or check out We have a wonderful chatboard, blogs, lots of ways to play. Thanks so much.

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