Some days it happens to me that I naively navigate into waters too deep. Or I open the wrong can, the can of worms. Or even worse – take that bite, just little too big. In all those cases nobody really dies, so did I. One morning while cross-legged on the cushion the thought of integrity came to my mind. Yeah, right! Where do thoughts like that come from at all?! I let it go as I do with any other thought. After that, a quick body scan and couple rounds of deep and satisfying breath. As I was done, I sat there and let the thought of integrity return. The meaning of the word was not clear to me at all. The more I thought about it, the further I drifted..
How do we understand integrity?
First, I thought about integrity like integrity of things, whole and uncorrupted. I thought about it like a virtue of being honest repeatedly, no matter the pressure and circumstances. Then I mixed it up with authenticity. Now I was thinking about a person who might manifest that.
She was a lovely, kind, beautiful and inspiring women. Certainly, she loved what she did and she excelled at it. She loved her daughter and appreciated all the little details and tiny wrinkles of life. It felt like she was at peace with the world. Then I thought that authenticity and that wholeness of integrity are not exactly the same. The person I thought about was not a close friend, I did not understand whether she radiated pure authenticity or integrity as well. Because integrity can be observed only over a period of time and different life circumstances. It took me a while to see the differences of these two words and understand more of the meaning behind.
One thing I was well aware of, that a lot of time we were masks and play roles. As a result, we lose both – our integrity and authenticity as well. Our actions become separated from our values and we write it off as a package deal of a particular role. We deliberately choose to be schizophrenic – allowing ourselves to be inconsistent or contradictory.
Why do people look for authenticity? Why do people seek integrity? Both have something positive, worth acquiring of. In short, authenticity is being true to yourself or your values and principles. But integrity means maintaining them even if that is not easy and is challenging. However, is integrity so subjective?
Integrity understanding in Western philosophy
Western philosophy offers multiple theories that explain integrity. Some of them are overlapping, some contradictory, all of them are subject to some level of critique. However, philosophers were mostly interested to understand what it means – to show integrity throughout life. How to describe the person of integrity? Daily understanding of integrity involves two features. First, that integrity is formal relation one has to oneself, or between parts of one’s self. Second, that integrity is central to acting morally.
Because of these two aspects, it is not easy to create one inclusive theory of integrity. Most accounts focus on one aspect more than the other. There is a group of theories that emphasize the within integrity, like integrity as the integration of self or integrity as maintenance of identity. Theories of integrity as standing for something, integrity as moral purpose and integrity as a virtue explain in integrity in relationship with others.
Let’s look at integrity as self integration. Here “integrity is a matter of persons integrating various parts of their personality into a harmonious, intact whole. Like the integrity of things: integrity is primarily a matter of keeping the self intact and uncorrupted.” Moreover, the self constitution view takes the self-integration and identity views in a constructivist Kantian direction. Integrity is a precondition of being an agent at all. If we fail to live with integrity, we fail to live as persons. We fail to be a self, as opposed to a collection of strivings; we fail to exemplify human agency as opposed to the unreflective satisfaction of desire. Nevertheless, having integrity as moral purpose means to have either objective or subjective commitments – as in the case of conscience – to which the person has to remain true.
Integrity as virtue in the West
All the above is simple, but integrity as virtue is a cluster concept with muddied definition and pretty traits sprinkled all over it. These traits might be tied together by the idea of successfully taking one’s life seriously either in all its aspects (social, professional, personal, intimate, intellectual, emotional and aesthetic) or at least in some of them. There is lot of room for imagination and interpretation, if integrity is defined in terms of what it is not. But it is easier to point out at someone failing to perform with integrity and to tell, what does defeat or diminish a person’s integrity. These are things like arrogance, dogmatism, fanaticism, monomania, preciousness, sanctimoniousness, and rigidity. Or on the other extreme are capriciousness, wantonness, triviality, disintegration, weakness of will, self deception, self-ignorance, mendacity, hypocrisy, indifference.
Nevertheless, integrity does require self-examination that involves dealing with inner shame and fear of wrongdoing. In this sense those would be necessary emotions to keep one’s self in check. Here I came to understanding that living integrity as virtue is not easy at all. Moreover, it is clear that in this view integrity is a quality of character that I might have achieved on various levels in various aspects of life; or might not.
Integrity understanding in Buddhist philosophy
The integrity puzzle kind of resolved but next morning I sat on my cushion and still was bothered by this same concept. There was a feeling, that I am missing integrity in my life even if I cannot grasp what it really means. And it is visible with a naked eye – five minutes later I can blow up in flames like a demon from your worst nightmares. Sometimes my chill evaporates in seconds just because a tiny being wants banana pancakes with no bananas after I have made banana pancakes because he does not want potato pancakes. And I mean that is nothing in comparison what other people are going through.
The comforting idea that integrity is available on a lesser extent in this specific area of my life right now was not uplifting enough. My actions might not be directly characteristic neither to the one extreme or the opposite as described in the previous paragraph. After-all, it is such a lazy definition tradition – giving two polarities and leaving something vague in between as being the explanation. But I definitely was ashamed in front of myself not living up to what I wished to see in my life.
Then I opened up my preferred reference book for living. Voila! Right there as if waiting for me was “Sappurisa Sutta: A Person of Integrity”. This sutta describes that such a person has seven qualities. Two of those can be learned from books and listening. However, the other five you have to learn from someone who inhibits integrity himself or herself – as we will soon find out this is as rare as an almost extinct wild animal.
Learning from texts
The two things you can learn from books or from listening are knowledge of the Dhamma and knowledge of the meaning of the Dhamma. I understood that I am nowhere close integrity when I read the following descriptions. Some aspects that you can learn from the texts are the following:
“For a long time this person has been untorn, unbroken, unspotted, unsplattered in his actions. He has been consistent in his actions and has practiced consistently with regard to the precepts. He is a virtuous, principled person.”— AN 4.192
“The way this person deals when one-on-one, is the same way he deals when with two, when with three, when with many.”— AN 4.192
“A person of integrity is grateful & acknowledges the help given to him.” — AN 2.31
“A person of integrity is endowed with qualities of integrity; he is a person of integrity in his friendship, in the way he wills, the way he gives advice, the way he speaks, the way he acts, the views he holds, & the way he gives a gift.” — MN 110
“A person of integrity gives a gift with a sense of conviction. He gives a gift attentively and in season. A person of integrity gives a gift with an empathetic heart and without adversely affecting himself or others.” – AN 5.148
Person of integrity undertakes ascetic practices like monks do. That is to say, the person of integrity is being a wilderness dweller, one who wears robes of thrown-away rags, an alms-goer, one who dwells at the root of a tree, a cemetery dweller, one who lives in the open air, one who doesn’t lie down, one who is content with whatever dwelling is assigned to him, or one who eats only one meal a day. Monks might add some more ascetic practices to this.
Learning from teachers
The standards are high, but it goes even further. The other five qualities that you have to learn in person from your teacher, are these, first is having a sense of yourself. So, you have to know where your strengths and weaknesses are, where you can and can’t trust yourself, where you need to work on yourself. Certainly, you need to get a sense of where you do and don’t measure up—and how they see where you do and don’t measure up. It’s not just a matter of your own opinion. You have to listen to their opinions, be sensitive to their standards.
Another aspect of a person of integrity’s knowledge is having a sense of time and place: the right time to speak, act or remain still and quiet. It is basis for right livelihood, not that someone will punish you for doing something wrong, but it just makes more sense and delivers better results if you do have covered the proper timing and place.
Further aspect of integrity is to have a sense of enough: an understanding that we have massively distorted in our society. What is too much of work, sleep, entertainment, too much of food and material possessions, and what is not enough? Is today enough what was yesterday enough? Interesting to note that it seems that we today do not hear the enough signal – we neither believe that we are good enough or that we own enough.
Another aspect of integrity is having a sense of groups of people. How to behave and talk to people that are or aren’t educated or wealthy? How to interact with them without conflicts or getting overwhelmed and hypnotized by their values, how to keep your own standards among various groups of people.
The final aspect of integrity that you can learn only by observing persons who live with integrity, is a sense of how to judge people. The suttas tell us that, you judge people by the extent to which they’re really sincere in wanting to learn the Dhamma. That is the only standard you want to judge yourself as well, as this one is what really matters.
So, the next morning I woke up again unnecessary early and sat cross-legged before the turmoil of the new day would tear me in pieces like red belly piranhas leaving nothing to integrate in itself. The thought of integrity now drifted away from me as I imagined the saint levitating above his cushion, that was now the image of person of integrity. His spinal curves were aligned in integrity as well. He sat there in perfection.
Our mind is reflected in body and our body tells what is happening in our mind. His two convex curves, in the sacrum and thorax, were stable. The other two concave curves, in the lumbar and cervical spine, were flexible. They supported the rib cage and head, enabling the inter-vertebral discs to create even space – front to back and side to side – between each vertebral body. Most importantly, the discs created the cushion the spine needed to maintain its integrity. It really is a picture of and inside our whole person in all imaginable material, spiritual and relational aspects.
Certainly, as my spine had scoliosis, it had no spine integrity. I had to pay a lot of attention to maintain a stable position and use more muscles to make sitting work. Moreover, even a simple yoga position like The Mountain – Tādāsana – standing upright and properly balanced and relaxed – had something profound to teach. I was not that symbolic mountain – stable and solid, yet mobile and malleable. So, how do I proceed from here I thought?!
How to develop integrity?
However, every mountain was once flat land, millions of microscopic pieces just lying flat, dust and sand blown in the winds. Then the tectonic or volcanic forces shaped it in a land-form that rises above the surrounding land. Yet, any mountain can again be taken apart into tiny bits, some of them are – for their precious stones. Until all what remains, is a grain of sand. In that grain of sand is not only the reflection if mountain, the whole universe is there.
Thus, as I was walking home the once snow-covered streets were now melted and sanded, I thought that the mountain is there under my feet, and the integrity is there within me. Because I was just being here and now – being mindful and watching my breath, having the force that forms mountains. And really, as simple as that, this is where integrity started for me. It took time for the tectonic plates to shift and form mountains, same applies to developing integrity.
Bell, Charlotte. Yoga for Meditators: Poses to Support Your Sitting Practice.
Rodmell Press: 2012
Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. An Apprenticeship in Integrity. In: Meditations 6. Metta Forest Monastery, CA: 2014
Cox, Damian, La Caze, Marguerite and Levine, Michael, “Integrity”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/integrity/>
Sappurisa Sutta: A Person of Integrity. (Pali canon, AN 4.73), Access to Insight. URL = <http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.073.than.html>