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If you’ve ever traveled by air, you’ve probably experienced this: The plane is fully boarded. The jetway has pulled back. Then the captain’s voice crackles through the cabin. “Sorry, folks, we have a slight malfunction. We’re looking at a bit of a wait.”
Your heart sinks. How long will you be trapped in this uncomfortable seat, between a man who reeks of cologne and a teething baby? But like everyone else, you sigh and settle in. This huge machine is about to lift you five miles above the earth’s surface. No one, not even the baby, wants it taking off unless it’s in perfect structural integrity.
Living with complete integrity
After thirty years as a coach and self-help writer, I’ve become obsessed with integrity. I don’t mean this in a moralizing sense. The word “integrity” comes from the Latin integer, which simply means “intact.” Having integrity means being one thing, whole and undivided. An airplane in structural integrity can fly. Without integrity, it may crash. There’s no judgment here. Just physics.
The same thing is true of our lives. When every part of us is working harmoniously with every other, we feel like bloodhounds on a scent, fascinated and absorbed by everything in our lives: work, relationships, all the objects and events that enter our experience. You may not believe the joy that comes from complete integrity is possible.
Many people go their whole lives without ever learning this. Some are massively misaligned, their lives an endless string of failures, losses, crushed dreams. Your own life is probably somewhere between disastrous and blissful. You have a vague sense of purpose, which you hope to follow someday. Though your job isn’t perfect, it’s good enough. And your relationships are fine. Mostly. Yes, there are times when something—a task, a colleague, the stress of parenting—makes you want to fake your own death and move to a hotel in the Cayman Islands.
But honestly, it’s fine.
When clients tell me this, they think they’re simply accepting the sad truth that life is hard. But I hear the clank of stray bolts and loose parts, the sound of a human who has never experienced complete integrity of body, mind, heart, and soul.
Again, this isn’t a moral judgment. If you don’t feel wonderful, it doesn’t mean you’re bad or defective; I’m sure you’re trying very hard to be good. And at the deepest level, you always know what’s best for you and how to create your best life. That knowledge is coded into your very nature.
But your nature is forever colliding with a force that can tear it apart: culture.
How culture leads us from our true nature
By “culture” I mean any set of social standards that shapes the way people interact. Every group, from families to sewing circles to armies, has cultural expectations that help them cooperate. Some are explicit, like traffic laws. Others are implicit, like the assumption that when you eat at a nice restaurant you’ll use silverware instead of plunging your face directly into your food like a truffle pig.
From childhood, most of us strive to win approval and belonging in our particular culture. We act bubbly, quiet, or tough to please our families. We like whatever our friends say they like. We throw ourselves into schoolwork, babysitting, family feuds—whatever we believe will assure our place in our human group.
In this rush to conform, we often end up ignoring or overruling our genuine feelings—even intense ones, like longing or anguish. At that point, we’re divided against ourselves. We aren’t in integrity (one thing) but in duplicity (two things). Or we may try to fill many roles, living in multiplicity (many things). We abandon our true nature and become pawns of our culture.
There’s just one catch: Nature never gives up without a fight.
Whenever we lose integrity, we begin to experience a predictable set of symptoms: A sense of purposelessness, bad moods, health problems, addictions, repetitive failures in relationships or career. Like the warning lights that tell pilots a plane is malfunctioning, these are signals from our true nature, telling us we’re divided against ourselves.
The way of integrity
The solution for all these problems is something I call the way of integrity. The word “way” can mean either a process or a path. If you don’t know what to do next, the way of integrity will provide instructions, like a recipe. If you don’t know where to go next, the way of integrity will show you the next step, like a map. If you follow the directions, you’ll end up happy. Not because this path is virtuous, but because it aligns you with reality, with truth. Your life will work for the same reason a well-built plane will fly. Not a reward. Just physics.
When you begin to live with integrity you may notice something: Integrity draws attention, and more attention can be scary. Faced with fear, our minds generate catastrophic fantasies. We visualize all sorts of horrendous outcomes. We fret over What People Will Think if our worst fears are realized. We may feel desperate to control every possible outcome, prepare for every contingency, prevent every calamity. But beneath this effort to control the universe, we feel a dreadful deeper truth: the universe is not ours to control.
See also: 10 Questions to Test Your Integrity
One powerful way to overcome our fears is to pull our minds away from situations that exist only in our hopes and fears, and rivet our attention—all of it—on the present moment. Then we do something so simple it sounds almost nonsensical: we trust that in this moment, everything is all right, just as it is. We don’t have to trust that we’ll be okay in ten minutes or ten seconds, only in this razor-thin instant called NOW.
If we do this repeatedly, we discover something remarkable: by dropping resistance to whatever is happening right now, we are always able to cope. Even when we’re not coping, allowing ourselves to not-cope gets us through this moment, over and over and over. Presence is the sanctuary integrity offers us as denial comes to its dreaded end. You can try it as you read this paragraph. Just notice that right now, you’re basically okay. You can trust that gravity will keep holding you in place. You can trust the air you’re breathing. You can trust everything in the entire universe to be as it is. You are already coping with it right now, and right now is the only thing you’ll ever have to cope with. This meditation can help you be present.
The surrender-allow meditation
“Be helpless,” says the poet Rumi, “dumbfounded, unable to say yes or no. Then a stretcher will come down from grace to gather us up.” Whatever gate of hell you may be facing, you can handle this moment. Look, you just handled it. There, you did it again. And again. You are crushing this! To really drop into the “stretcher from grace,” try this meditation.
- Call to mind a topic, person, past experience, or world events that makes you uncomfortable and that you would prefer not to think about. Allow it to remain in your mind. For now.
- However you’re feeling—edgy, irritable, depressed—just let yourself feel that way. For now.
- Sit in a comfortable chair or lie down. Make sure you’re warm. Put a fuzzy blanket around you if need be. Get cozy, for now.
- As you sit or lie there, notice how your breath goes in and out. The first thing you did when you entered this world was breathe in. The last thing you’ll ever do is breathe out. Watch your breath reliably keeping you alive, without any effort on your part. For now.
- On an inhale, think the words, “I allow everything in the universe to be as it is in this moment.” After all, you can’t make it different in this moment, so just stop trying. For now.
- As you exhale, think, “I surrender all resistance to the universe being as it is in this moment.” For now.
- Continue to think “I allow” on every in-breath, and “I surrender” on every out-breath. You don’t have to surrender and allow any moment but this present one. But in this instant, let it all be. Accept every out-breath as a death to this fleeting moment, every in-breath a rebirth to this new one. Relax into the rhythm of letting go and opening up, for now.
- Consider the uncomfortable thing you thought about at the start of this meditation. Allow everything about that situation to be as it is, for now. Surrender all resistance to its being as it is, for now.
If you keep this up for a while, allowing and surrendering to everything inside you and everything around you at this exact time and place, you’ll eventually notice that part of you is fine. It isn’t even afraid of that scary thing you’ve been avoiding by staying in denial. This unworried part of you, which never denied reality and never divided against itself, is pure integrity. It’s your inner teacher, putting a comforting hand on yours, telling you everything’s OK.
See also: Breathe In Calm, Breathe Out Fear
Excerpted from The Way of Integrity: Finding the Path to Your True Self by Martha Beck. Published by The Open Field/Penguin Life, imprints of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2021
Dr. Martha Beck is a New York Times bestselling author, life coach, and speaker. She holds three Harvard degrees in social science, and Oprah Winfrey has called her “one of the smartest women I know.” Martha is a passionate and engaging teacher, known for her unique combination of science, humor, and spirituality. For more, visit marthabeck.com or connect with her on Facebook or Instagram.
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