What Supports Personal Integrity?

By Christina Feldman and Willem Kuyken

Excerpt from Mindfulness: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Psychology

When we live with integrity we are able to ask the question “How does this state of mind and action (speech and bodily action) affect me and others?” We can use the answer to shape our response in any given moment and to recognize and respond to ethical dilemmas.

Buddhist psychology suggests the following three levels of training to support the development of integrity:

  1. Restraint and protective mindfulness

Restraint and protective mindfulness involve recognition of and restraint in the face of habitual impulses and reactivity. Restraint is a mindful pause inserted between the arising of an unwholesome impulse and carrying it out. When our recognition and restraint are imbued with befriending and care, we learn the kindness and transformative power of renunciation. The more we practice this, the more natural it becomes. Over time, our attention and awareness become stable and spacious enough for us to see impulses and reactivity with a much broader and larger mindscape.

Restraint and renunciation can be confused with a number of near enemies. Renunciation can mistakenly be associated with suppression, deprivation, or punitive withholding. It is not well-disguised aversion, a reason to disconnect from what we don’t like, rationalization for simplistic notions of de-cluttering, or worse still, a sort of nihilism. Instead, renunciation is an act of kindness that arises when we stop acting on impulses that create distress inwardly and outwardly.

As our well-being improves, we see that renunciation and restraint are potentially transformative in wholesome, positive ways. For example, if we want more time to be present with our children, we may need to let go of other things in our lives; if we let go of compulsive busyness, we can access greater spaciousness. The difference between restraint and suppression is that the impulse of suppression is one of aversion and the unwillingness to fully acknowledge what is occurring in our thoughts and our emotions. Restraint, on the other hand, is grounded in mindfulness. It is a genuine willingness not only to really see patterns of mind as they arise but also to be unwilling to engage in patterns that lead to harm and distress. Having this greater understanding of our mind helps us develop protective awareness and restraint, because we have learned that we have a choice to respond rather than react. It requires steadiness and spaciousness to really see and respond, remembering what is important and what we value. It is a discipline imbued with kindness and investigation.

  1. Cultivating and enhancing our values, intentions, and positive behaviors

Mindfulness training can initially feel counterintuitive. We have to learn to walk a different pathway rather than automatically getting sucked into our habitual patterns of thinking, reactivity, fear, and aversion. Mindfulness training helps us learn to replace those habit patterns with curiosity, attentiveness, intentionality, and kindness, so that we can cultivate more wholesome states of mind.

When we become absorbed in narratives of me, mine, and self, distress and suffering arise as our beliefs are activated (“I am a good person” or “I am a bad person”). Our elaborative judging mind, driven by a discrepancy monitor, kicks in (“If only I were more generous, I would be a better person”). Alongside an understanding of our universal and particular vulnerabilities and resilience, we come to see these views as just that: thoughts and not facts. We come to see the discrepancy monitor as just that: a mental process, not a fixed part of our mental landscape. Our views, like seismic changes in a landscape, shift.

Generosity is an important part of cultivating appreciative joy, ease of being, and equanimity—it is an antidote to self-absorption and fear. It opens the heart, connects us with others and ourselves, and rises above self-absorption. It plays from a chord in the heart that responds to connection, and with both joy (as appreciative joy) and suffering (as compassion). Generosity says to fear: “Fear is the cheapest room in the house, and I would like to see you in better accommodation.” It is also an antidote to insufficiency. It is imbued with a sense of abundance, that there is enough to go around, and to be generous is not to use up some limited resource. It sees the beautiful and lovely, with care and an understanding of impermanence that eschews attachment: “I see you, like a butterfly on my palm.”

Integrity and generosity are conjoined—generosity is informed by integrity even when the gesture of generosity is uncomfortable or unpopular. Socially, when a group turns against an individual or subgroup, social norms can dictate that everyone follows to shun that person. Generosity is to continue to extend friendship at these times. At primary school, my (WK) daughter was a keen sportswoman. In her last years of elementary school, the boys became more identified with sports and the girls with socializing and games; all the girls who were “tomboys” gave it up, except for her. It was only a few of her friends who extended their friendship to her sovereignty, to do what she loved, and none of the boys did, even though she was better at sports than most of them. The hardest part was for her to extend generosity and kindness to herself, to honor her own sovereignty, and to not give in to the prevailing and powerful gender stereotypes perpetuated in so many ways in her life, including through her school.

Generosity and kindness can be mirrored at every level, from our own hearts and minds, to social groups, to institutions, and to larger movements, such as those that counter a rise in hatred toward a whole group, be that Jews or Muslims, refugees and asylum seekers, or on the basis of gender, race, and sexuality. Within Buddhist psychology, generosity is a precursor or stepping stone to greater understanding, renunciation, patience, befriending, equanimity, and care, including to that which is different and unpopular. It is a key to integrity and embodiment.

  1. Dedicating our lives to the welfare of others

When kindness, compassion, and generosity imbue our thoughts, words, and actions, we can discover a deeper sense of relatedness, trust, and well-being. Dedicating our lives to the welfare of others supports this cultivation. Integrity is a set of mutually reinforcing concentric circles, starting with our minds and behavior, extending to the people around us who we relate to immediately, and then outward to wider communities and the world we live in (see the figure below).

Excerpted from Mindfulness: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Psychology by Christina Feldman and Willem Kuyken. Copyright (c) 2019 The Guilford Press. Reprinted with permission of The Guilford Press.

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