Do you have something you are avoiding right now? Something you promised to do, or some emotion you’d rather not feel? If you say no, I’m pretty sure you are lying (if only to yourself). Every one of us is out of integrity in some way. The state of being human is also the state of imperfection. Our willingness to look at and own these imperfections is what keeps them from unconsciously owning us and is a key piece of the elegant system for living that we call yoga.
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the word integrity has two definitions: “the quality of being honest and fair” and “the state of being complete or whole”. Unfortunately, it seems we have interpreted the first definition too loosely and disregarded the second. Honesty and fairness have gotten mixed up with morality and virtue and in doing so, we’ve lost track of why they are important. Integrity is not about right and wrong, it’s about what is functional.
Offering to help others even when we know we will drain or deprive ourselves is not functional. Neither are breaking promises, chronic lateness, or shoddy work. Making time for self care is functional. Burning the candle indefinitely at both ends definitely is not. The more that we live our lives with integrity, the worthier we will feel. Not the sort of worthiness that implies a hierarchy (as in, worthier than thou) but the worthiness that we all share as living beings. An internal sense of this kind of worthiness helps us to enjoy the preciousness of our own lives and see other lives as equally precious.
When we conflate integrity with morality, I believe we create the circumstances for less integrity in the world, ie a less functional world. The current Western epidemic of perfectionism is the enemy of integrity. The message we are given over and over is that we are not worthy unless… unless we exercise obsessively, eat impeccably, accomplish excellingly, and earn copiously. There are two opposing natural responses to this pressure of impossible standards and neither of them are productive or helpful in a sincere exploration of integrity. If we consciously understand the futility of living up to this standard, many will despair the use in even trying. This often leads to self-medication in the form of food, alcohol, and television and the tragedy of a wasted life. Potentially an even more destructive reaction is seen in the person whose fear of being unworthy is buried beneath a flurry of accomplishment. This type of person distracts themselves in a whirl of doing, depriving, and even more doing and usually ends up betraying themselves over and over in the quest to be good enough.
It is nearly impossible to look at someone else’s words and actions and know for certain whether or not they align with their values. The person who appears incredibly virtuous is not necessarily living a more functional and sustainable life than the one who can’t seem to get their act together. The desire to be good drives many talented people down a path of of seeking a virtue that will never be achieved. Like the anorexic who will never feel thin, the perfectionist will never feel good enough.
The 10 ethical guidelines of yoga (yama and niyama) are the foundation of the system of yoga. Two of these principles satya (truthfulness) and svadyaya (self-study) taken together form the basic tool of honest introspection as an ethical necessity. The practice of yoga involves looking honestly at our imperfections – not necessarily in order to change them, but instead to make sure that they do not unconsciously play themselves out in our lives in ever more destructive ways.
The ethics of yoga are different from some of the other ethical systems that you may have grown up with because they do not imply that there is a omniscient being judging your worthiness through your ability to live by them. The practice of yoga is often described as the science of living and the ethics of yoga are the most basic tool for living a more functional life. Aparigraha (another of the 10 ethical principles) is an invitation to simplify our lives through the practice of integrity. Literally translated as non-hoarding, Vimala Mclure elaborates in her book The Ethics of Love that the contemplation of non-hoarding invites us to “bring our values, words, and actions into harmony”. The inclusion of aparigraha in this set of ethics points to the fact that more is not always more.
My favorite definition of yoga is also “wholeness”. What a simple, sweet, and eloquent description of that peace we all seek and which many of us find in the practice of yoga – whether the poses, meditation, or the study of its’ philosophy. Using this definition, the practice of yoga becomes inseparable from the practice of integrity. Not the integrity of morality which feels very much like judgment – but rather the integrity inherent in a philosophy of wholeness. Once we divorce the concept of integrity from the idea of morality, we can we finally begin to live a saner life. A life where admit our flaws willingly, rectify our mistakes immediately, and understand that neither of them affects our inherent worth. A life where the goal of wholeness, has already been reached and our deepest work is simply to remember.