When I contemplate upon integrity I am reminded immediately of the first agreement noted by Don Miguel Ruiz in his book The Four Agreements, “be impeccable with your word.” As anybody will attest to, who have spent any more than a fleeting moment with me in conversation or debate, I am often parsing phrases and words out to determine as concretely as possible what is meant by a person’s speech. This is done not only as a personal projection of my own principled agreement with word usage but also based on a recognition that how we describe or create the narratives of our lives provides the structure upon which and through which we choose our behavior. This is true from the broad stories we tell of our families and social connections to the smallest of phrases in the slightest of interactions with others.
While our words do not encapsulate the entirety of our lives they are the means by which we socially organize our experiences, have the unconscious become conscious and form the dialogue that is back of every relationship we create, from the random platonic to the long-term romantic. The stories we tell then, based as they are in the bio-physiological reality of our physical union with the universe, will determine the shape of our connections and whether they will serve the purpose of growth in ever-increasing awareness or keep us asleep to the inherent potential for greatness that lies within each of us.
This is the ground upon which our integrity rests, the conscious acknowledgement of our interconnected and reciprocal relationship with all things/people and the belief that as we endeavor to awaken to a greater appreciation for existence so will we do so, thought breeding action and returning upon itself in a reciprocity of union. This is the principled means of defining a healthy confidence, Stephen Batchelor noting that, “Self-confidence is not a form of arrogance. It is trust in our capacity to awaken. It is both the courage to face whatever life throws at us without losing equanimity, and the humility to treat every situation we encounter as one from which we can learn.” (Buddhism Without Beliefs)
Notice that with a solid ground the result is equanimity though this should not be confused with placidity. As I’ve noted before in Yes These Are The Emotions You’re Looking For, our capacity for resiliency in the midst of emotional upheaval is not found in the removal of disparate emotions or to ignore the power of their influence but to intentionally accept that emotions are an identification of the presence of change and a pointer to what we upon appraisal find important.
The performer balancing on the ball does not do so by standing still but by making small subtle changes in their posture to flow with the forces coming up through the ball, recalibrating their center in a reciprocal relationship. To do such in life requires a convergence of word, deed and thought, where each is a supportive block through which and upon which the others manifest. In Buddhism it is referred to as Dharma, the living out of the principles given by Gautama for the purpose of ethical non-attached living. “Dharma practice cannot be abstracted from the way we interact with the world. Our deeds, words, and intentions create an ethical ambience that either supports or weakens resolve.” (Buddhism Without Beliefs)
Integrity is grounded practice, an emergent property based on the acknowledgment of a particular narrative, identification with the principles of growth which give that narrative structure and an intentional respect for the reality of an existence for which every word and deed we utter and do have consequences of which we will largely be unaware. This is not an abdication of contemplating an objective ethical life, but an appreciation for living in a world the complexity of which will likely always be in its fullest sense outside of our ability to grasp.
When we act from integrity we do so with an intellectual/emotional empathic relatedness to all the creatures we encounter. The dwelling place of empathy allows for no space for ego-centeredness or projection of a self without context or the declaration of principle without humanity like the absolutist and the adherent of dogmatism. “While rooted in empathy, integrity requires courage and intelligence as well, because significant ethical choice entails risk. And while we cannot know in advance the consequences of the choices we make, we can learn to become more ethically intelligent.” (Buddhism Without Beliefs)
Our words/deeds send vibrations out into the universe, dissipating with time but no less important for their diminishing strength, seen most clearly in the immediate aftermath of our choice and yet even then there still exists consequences of which we are unaware. The military and politicians have a word for this called “blowback,” the returning repercussions of events put into practice of which the original actors are unaware. We will never be capable of plotting out the entirety of the consequences of our actions. The pursuit of increasing awareness, based on the belief that by doing so will inevitably lead to an awakening, can strengthen our humility as we courageously understand more of reality and the greater appreciation for risk entailed in every action.
To be impeccable in word is to live a life of integrity out of which we build the structural strength for the continued practice of being impeccable. Practice is constant movement and never stagnation. In an ever-changing universe in which the karma of cause-effect relationships is cosmically complex, our willingness to live a life of integrity is commensurate with our commitment to being awoken to an ever-greater though still tentative grasp of understanding the nested reality.