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You talk the talk, but can you walk the walk? Here’s a checklist to tap your inner truth to leave each day with intention.
Arnie worked for an elite law firm in New York City. Just three years out of law school, he was a trusted associate, very much on the fast track. Then he began to notice business practices that bothered him: billing that seemed out of line with the actual hours worked, and a client list that included corporations that contributed to environmental pollution. He tried speaking to his mentor at the firm, who advised him not to call attention to himself by criticizing the company’s policies. But Arnie was a student of yoga, and he felt a disconnect between the yogic principles he valued—things like truthfulness and aparigraha, or nonattachment to material things—and the values at his law firm. In other words, he felt that his integrity was on the line.
So, with no idea of what would come next, Arnie quit. He felt as if he were jumping off a bridge. He wondered if he would ever be able to get a job in his field again. Years later, he now marvels at the courage it took to make that decision, to sacrifice a great job for the sake of integrity. But the feeling of wholeness he experienced as a result gave him the deep self-confidence to help him through the hard days of assessing his passion, learning that he preferred facilitating mediations to litigating, and starting his own law firm. When Arnie faces big decisions now, he reminds himself of that moment and how making the choice to live with integrity had a positive impact on his life.
What is integrity? It depends on whom you ask. When we say that someone has integrity, we usually mean that we can trust her to mean what she says, to be honest, to not be hypocritical. Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines it as: 1) firm adherence to a code of moral or artistic values and 2) wholeness, completeness. Socrates used to tell his students, “Be what you want to seem.” Much easier said than done. To live with integrity, to walk your talk, takes a special kind of courage. At the heart of integrity is the strength to hold steady in what you believe is true, good, and beautiful—even when it costs you.
The courage of a person with integrity can be very public—like that of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), whose outspoken advocacy for consumer rights has exposed her to political attacks. It’s also lived out more quietly at home and at work. Lauren, an academic, recently spoke up for a colleague whom her whole department had been criticizing for a mistake. She pointed out that others in the department had made the same mistake, and were scapegoating their colleague. In turn, Lauren found herself under scrutiny by her boss and feared for her job security. But for Lauren, fairness is a crucial value, and to not stand up for an underdog would be a violation of her personal integrity.
Navigating Life’s Choices
Most of us believe that we’re people of integrity. But even when we’re clear about our values (and not all of us are at all times), life often presents challenges to them—an attraction to a friend’s boyfriend, a career opportunity when we’ve committed to another job, the desire to be socially accepted—and tempts us into letting them go. Popular culture often reflects our confusion about what integrity looks like. On the ABC hit Scandal, for instance, Washington, D.C., fixer Olivia Pope breaks laws for the sake of her clients, rigs a presidential election, and has an affair with said (married) president. Yet few of these acts seem to shake her overall sense of integrity.
Sure, Scandal is over the top, yet many of us navigate life choices by degrees of moral relativism in order to get what we want. Just getting through the day, we often have our personal integrity challenged. Suppose you’re having coffee with someone you want to impress, and he asks if you’ve read a certain book. You’ve read a review, but not the book. Do you nod “yes,” figuring you can wing it, or tell the truth? Or, backing into a parking spot, you scrape the car fender next to you. Nobody saw you. Do you leave your phone number, or drive away? You’re giving a presentation and decide to use an idea you heard from a coworker. Do you give that person credit?
I’ve faced all these situations, and there have been times when I’ve made the less courageous choice. Every time I shirked my integrity, whether anyone noticed or not, I felt an inner discomfort. The price of letting myself fall out of integrity was self-alienation, an uneasy sense of being out of alignment with my “higher self” or a little less whole. In yogic terms, this was a surefire prescription for losing touch with my inner Self, the clear sense of awareness that is my true center. Or as Lauren put it, if she hadn’t stood up for her colleague, “I would have felt I’d deserted my dharma.”
The Sanskrit word dharma means “righteousness” or “higher law.” It’s India’s best synonym for integrity. And dharma is often very personal. The teachings on dharma say that though there are moral laws that apply to everyone, every situation has its unique dharma. An example: If you’re single and a fellow student flirts with you in yoga class, your dharma might include getting coffee together. If you’re married, your dharma would probably dictate a different choice. And if you’re the teacher…well, you decide. Because, what is living with integrity for me may not be living with integrity for you. The sincere quest to live by your dharma will help you act with integrity.
A Path to Integrity
The Yajnavalkya Samhita, one of the great works on ethics in Indian culture, provides five guidelines for deciding whether an action is in accordance with dharma in difficult moments. Rephrased as questions, these guidelines can help trigger inner wisdom when you’re trying to follow your dharma and make decisions with integrity. I’ve used them for years as lodestones to help me make dicey decisions with a clear conscience; I hope they will help guide you, too.
1. What do the great wisdom teachers say?
Wise beings like Buddha and Jesus, great texts like the Bhagavad Gita—even poets like Rumi or Mary Oliver, or more modern sages like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr.—offer us heart-opening windows into the meaning of integrity. The best reason to learn from these teachers and texts is to be inspired by inquiry and courage. If you find a teacher whose wisdom touches your heart, notice what they say about the issues that concern you. Write it down. And go back to it again and again so it will be there when you really need it.
2. What would a good person do?
Identify people who live in ways you’d like to emulate. Who do you know who is consistently helpful and kind? Who has the strength to stand up to hard times with buoyancy? Who do you trust to act skillfully and wisely? If you know someone like this, you can ask yourself, “What would that person do?” If you’re not inspired thusly by the people in your life, then do what my friend G. does: Ask yourself, “What would a mature person do in this situation?”
3. What would give me the most joy in this situation?
Living with integrity means considering which action would give you happiness. What feels natural and right? If something feels wrong for you personally (assuming that you are not resisting it out of laziness or fear), you probably shouldn’t do it. And sometimes the right choice is the one that gives the deepest pleasure. Maybe you’ve been meditating every night after work, and you know how important it is for you. But tonight, some college buddies you haven’t seen since graduation are in town, and you really feel like spending time with them. If this would give you the most joy now, go for it!
4. How will this serve my highest desires and motivations?
Your sense of integrity has a lot to do with feeling that you are contributing to the world. Your motivation to help others, to be the best person you can be—these desires can help you stay true to yourself. When you need to set priorities, or feel confused about the right action, try asking yourself, “Does what I’m about to do align me with my longing to be my best self? Will this serve others in this situation? Will this decision produce growth?”
5. What will align me with my true Self?
The deepest form of integrity comes from being in contact with the Self, our spiritual core. Different traditions call it different things—the heart, the higher self, Tao, the True Self, Buddha Nature. Our yogic practice gives us access to that part of ourselves which is the true source of right action. So, at the end of the day, it’s through our connection with that inner core that we discover our true integrity as human beings. Arnie, the lawyer who quit his job, says, “When I’m in touch with the Self, that core of presence and awareness, it keeps me honest. That, to me, is what integrity is all about. That’s the Self I want to be true to.”