Thursday, January 31, 2008

Integrity


Last night Neal and I were watching the show time series "the Tudors." There's a scene in the second episode between Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey where Wolsey tells More that service to one's King will always cost you what you hold most dear. More replies that for him, that would be his integrity.

The writers cleverly avoid having Wolsey deliver a reply. Instead, he offers Thomas More an arch look, implying that that is exactly what service to Henry VIII will cost.

I asked myself this morning: what, exactly, is integrity?

In general, this word means a kind of moral wholeness. In ordinary terms, integrity consists of an outward aspect: it is the moral doing of right, and this is how we always understand such things. We believe that morality, an outward code, behavior, is what establishes piety and spiritual virtue. Every religious tradition emphasizes this. Every society celebrates it. Despite their opposing points of view, it's at the heart of both the liberal and the conservative philosophies.

In reading Dogen's Shobogenzo this morning, I noted that he understands the question differently. Virtue, he maintains, does not lie in not doing bad things. Virtue is a question of inner integrity. In the particular passage I am referring to (Kuyo-Shobutsu, Shobogenzo Book 4, page 147,) Dogen characterizes virtue as arising not from doing, but from offering:

"Therefore, the virtue which is the Buddha-effect of bodhi, and the truth which is all dharmas are real form, are not as in common thoughts of common men in the world today. Commen men today think that all dharmas are real form might apply to the commitment of wrong, and they think that the buddha-effect of bodhi might relate only to gain." (Nishijima and Cross translation, Dogen Sangha Press.)

Integrity is an inward characteristic. It means that our parts are integrated. It implies a wholeness of the soul, not a wholeness of outer action. If the soul is whole, all outer action will be whole with it.

If the soul is not whole, then no amount of right outer action will ever heal it.

This brings us back to Gurdjieff's critical idea of impartiality. Understood from his point of view, if all of the inner parts are consonant, if they work together, then we acquire virtue. Virtue arises as an innate characteristic. It is born within structural state and relationship of the organism, not the fleeting emotion or psychology of man as he usually is.

Impartiality is very difficult to acquire. The structural arrangement within me is well set in the concrete of past experience; I am solid, unyielding. My concept of integrity forms around my interaction with the external, not an experience of the internal. Many shocks are needed in order to shake up this status quo. None of them are pleasant, because each one of them aims at what I think my integrity consists of.

Dealing with all this is frightening; I have to be willing to not know, willing to be insecure. And it's not my integrity, but my security I actually value the most: I'd rather be safe than be whole.

This paradox doesn't have any easy resolutions. Most of what I am forms around my fears, and my fear is always about protecting myself, protecting the way I am.

Yet, as I get older, I increasingly see that I don't actually know anything about how I am. This raises more questions. Why am I defending myself, if I don't even know what I am defending?

Oddly enough, this question helps me. This has been a week of one emotional blow after another, and today was no exception. Today I had an experience unique in the past 25 years, where a superior yelled at me not because I did something wrong, but because I properly executed my job according to ordinary standards. The situation was a surreal enough that another superior (one the yeller reports to) called me immediately after the incident to advise me that, not only was what I had done vital to the company's interests, but that I was to expand on it and try to make it happen even sooner.

My whole emotional state is singing like a tuning fork, but somehow, my realization that something new is required has given me the resilience to ground myself and sit here in the middle of it without becoming anywhere near as negative as one might expect, especially from me. I went out to my car about a half an hour ago to get lunch, and as I walked into the parking lot, I said to myself, "it's good that I'm getting yelled at. It's an opportunity for me."

I wasn't just saying it, either. I really feel that way. It's okay that I am in the middle of this intense situation. It's a moment to step over the line and adopt a new attitude towards these external events.

Certainly, part of me wants to pack up everything in my office and walk out. That's an old story.
What is far more interesting is to have enough inner integrity to suffer the blows more objectively, without so much reaction.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

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