The month of August was named for the Roman Emperor Augustus. The first emperor of the Roman Empire, Augustus was given his name – which meant the revered one – by the Roman senate in recognition of his honorable character. Having renounced the symbols of kingship and power, such as the scepter, golden crown and purple toga of his predecessor Julius Cesar, Augustus separated himself from Cesar’s reign of terror and devoted himself to a more benign way of governing – thus earning the respect of the senate.
Evolving over the years, the word august has come to mean wise, admirable, dignified. Like the month of August, which comes at a time of year when nature has reached it’s peak of vegetation, an august person is a person whose life has culminated in a kind of wisdom that implies integrity and moral strength – a person, who by the depth of his/her character is an example to all. At a time when life is so pressured and complex, the qualities of integrity and moral strength are particularly important. It is ever more essential to approach each thing we do, each relationship we enter into – however impressive or seemingly insignificant – with the spirit of integrity. From this viewpoint, honesty, compassion and decency should be the held as the real criteria for success, rather than material accomplishments, charisma or worldly power.
Crucial to fostering this kind of integrity is finding the right relationship to that part of ourselves which is grasping and self-centered in an ego-driven way. Are we able to put the interests of others above our own? Can we do what we think is right no matter how we might be perceived? Are we able to let go of what we want in the future and open ourselves to what is?
With these questions in mind, as you enter the month of August take time to evaluate your lives. Where are you attached to an image of how things should be, ignoring the beauty or pain of what’s there? When are you projecting into the future instead of embracing what you already have? Where are you failing to treat others as well as you would want them to treat you? Central to all these questions is the ability to be fully present. Presence is a moment-by-moment thing, a willingness to be fully engaged in one moment, with the openness to being equally engaged in whatever the next moment brings. When fully present, it is impossible to hold on to troublesome thoughts or emotions. The very act of focusing your attention on the present causes you to let go of other concerns. The more you are able to exist in this clear and unencumbered state, without anger or judgment, without thoughts of future or past, the more you’ll be able to act in a way that promotes integrity.
In this spirit, take a moment to look at what is literally in front of you. If outdoors, it could be a tree, a blade of grass, a refraction of light, an intricate shadow. If inside, it could be the contours of your bed, the sheen of light on the floor, the texture of your desk. Take time to really look at what you see. What color is it? Is its surface rough or smooth? Does it make a sound? If so, what does it sound like? Does it give off a scent? Does it move? Allow yourself to fully experience whatever is there. Watch as it changes, moment by moment.
As you go about your day, practice being attentive to whatever you encounter. Whatever environment you’re in, embrace it with openness and curiosity. Whomever you’re with, don’t afraid to be honest or direct about what you feel. Respond to whatever comes your way from a place that is genuine and alive. As the month of August unfolds, be “august” in what you do. Practice acting with integrity. Be fully present to what is.
As I’ve written this newsletter, I’ve searched my mind for examples of people who model integrity. Surprisingly few come to mind. Perhaps it’s because integrity encompasses so many aspects of a person’s life, that when I think of someone who has integrity in one area (honesty), I often find them lacking in another (compassion). I realize it has less to do with a set of specific criteria and more to do with a felt sense of a person’s basic goodness, their quality of presence, the way they live.
Thinking about it in this way, two people come to mind. One is a woman in West Oakland who cooked breakfast and dinner – seven days a week – for the needy in her community. Initially Rosalie worked out of her home, but later moved to her church to accommodate the growing numbers needing to be fed. When I met her in the early ’80’s, she’d been performing this service for 25 years. A big woman, over six feet tall with a voice as deep as a man’s, she was an imposing, somewhat startling, no-nonsense presence. But underneath, she was all heart. She treated everyone with the same directness and respect, and was particularly gentle with young children and the elderly. Over the years, she came to be seen as the guardian angel of the community. People of all ages streamed through her house seeking advice or comfort.
About the time I met her, another woman began serving lunch in a nearby park. Because she was outdoors and more visible, she soon attracted attention and before long, she became the subject of newspaper articles and radio reports. This, in turn, attracted more attention – even money – and she was asked to speak at various civic events around the Bay. She had quite a temper and could be even disrespectful at times – behavior I personally witnessed on several occasions – but her voice was always soft and mellifluous when speaking in public. In time, she exchanged her first name for “Mother,” Mother Smith (it was a time when Mother Theresa was also in the news.) I once asked Rosalie if she minded not getting the same attention. “Don’t matter honey,” she replied. “I do it for my childrens. I don’t need no newspaper to tell me who’s doing what. The lord knows, my childrens knows, that’s all I care about.” Gradually attention shifted somewhere else and Mother Smith moved on. But Rosalie continued as always. The last time I saw her she was still there, in her church, serving her meals without fanfare or recognition beyond her community.
The second was a friend and colleague of my father’s. A many-time presidential candidate for the Republican party, he continued to run for the office in order to keep a liberal Republican perspective alive – despite the fact that he became the brunt of jokes for this perseverance and was somewhat marginalized by more mainstream and right-leaning people in his party. Though besieged by requests and continually on the go – both nationally and internationally – whenever I saw him he spoke to me as if he had all the time in the world. He was always full of questions about my life, always interested in what I was doing, despite the fact that when I first met him, I was only seven years old. At home he shared responsibility for the running of the house, at a time when men kept to the role of breadwinner and distant patriarch (which was particularly true of politicians). Over the years, I spent many hours in his house with his daughter who was my age. One summer, when I was thirteen, I vacationed with his family at the Newport Beach home of a mutual friend and supporter, and though he was preparing for a campaign beginning that Fall, he took care to be present at every dinner – even cooking many of the dinners himself. He routinely helped each woman be seated – his daughter and myself included – pulling the chairs out, and carefully pushing them back in. He was particularly tender with his wife, a shy frail woman, and always checked to be sure that her needs were met before he sat down himself. Over dinner, he would ask us each about our day before telling us about his. He was careful to ask our opinions of the news of the day, then with patience, and in a way we all could understand, he explained his own. Though a central figure in my life as I was growing up, it wasn’t until this newsletter that I thought about the formative part he played in my life – which is one of the joys of having time to reflect in this way each month.
Books about integrity have been equally difficult to think of – again, I imagine, because of the all-encompassing and elusive nature of that quality. Being more of a life process than a static entity, integrity implies a consistency of action over time and is almost always described in terms of the broader features of a person’s character and life. And, being a process, it is more apt to be captured in action, than in words. Nevertheless, the books that follow touch on integrity in some way.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee. To Kill a Mocking Bird, has become one of the most widely read books dealing with race in America. It tells the story of 8 yr old Scout Finch, her brother Jem, and their father Atticus over a three year period, during which time a young black man was arrested for the supposed rape of a white woman and was eventually tried. When Atticus Finch was called on to defend the accused, the family finds themselves caught up in events that are heartbreaking and beyond their understanding. Standing up for what he believed was right despite the indignation of his town, Atticus became a moral hero for many readers and a model of integrity for lawyers. As years went on, Atticus became a sort of folk hero in legal circles and was treated almost as if he were an actual person. As an example of this fact, it is said that the judge who presided over the Timothy McVeigh trial counts Atticus as a major judicial influence.
INTEGRITY; The Courage to meet the Demands of Reality by Henry Cloud. Cloud describes integrity as “wholeness,” where a whole system is “working well – undivided, integrated, intact and uncorrupted.” He uses business stories like Proctor and Gamble’s success in China and the experiences of his CEO friends and clients to show that success across multiple fields is fueled by openness, honesty to oneself and others, and trust borne out of “a basic goodness that is not dependent on anything else.” Ultimately, Cloud believes – as evidenced by the subtitle – that integrity is the courage to meet the demands of reality. “Integrity,” he writes, “is a lifestyle choice and needs to be constantly worked toward.”
THE PRESENCE PROCESS; A Journey into Present Moment Awareness by Michael Brown. This book gives an example of the power of “presence” – a quality central to integrity. It tells the story of Michael Brown, a music journalist who, midway through his career, suffered an acutely painful neurological condition. Over a nine-year period, Brown learned to alter – and ultimately become responsible for – the state of his personal experience, thus integrating his painful condition into his life. The book offers a simple, practical approach to attaining and preserving the ability to be present in the midst of discomfort, conflict and change.
THE ESSENTIAL GHANDI; An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work and Ideas,with a preface by Eknath Easwaran edited by Louis Fischer. Although Gandhi was a controversial and flawed individual, his struggles to live a life of integrity (in which he lived what he advocated) is worth studying when contemplating integrity. Gandhi wrote that he was seeking a truth rooted in devotion to God. His attempts to get closer to this divine power led him to seek purity through simple living, dietary practices (he called himself “a frutarian,” celibacy and ahimsa – a life without violence. Taken from Gandhi’s writings throughout his life, The Essential Gandhi introduces us to his thoughts on politics, spirituality, poverty, suffering, love, non-violence, civil disobedience and his own life.
ETHICAL KNOW-HOW; Action, Wisdom and Cognition by Francisco J. Varela. Francisco Varela’s concept of ethical action arises from a what he calls “an immediacy of perception and action,” rather than a consciously reasoned belief system. “Much contemporary moral philosophy . . ,” Varela writes, has tended to focus on what is right to do rather than what is good to be (thus) defining the content of obligation rather than the nature of good life.” From this you can see that his notion of ethics is similar to the notion of “basic goodness” of integrity. Varela believes that virtue is dependent on awareness and experience, not analytic reasoning, it is a process, not a system of judgment. He writes “The interplay of intelligent awareness and extension (the ability to “extend” knowledge and feelings from one situation to a new situation) is how a virtuous person becomes truly virtuous . . . this points to a journey of experience and learning, not a mere intellectual puzzle that one solves.” He distinguishes between a personality “stuck together in one solid, centralized unitary self” and one that “arises and subsides in a succession of shifting patterns,” pointing to the kind of presence where an individual has the flexibility to engage anew in each moment (with “intelligent awareness”).
WABI INSPIRATIONS by Axel Vervoordt. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes integrity not only in terms of a person’s character, but also in terms of objects or natural environments. “When applied to objects, integrity refers to the wholeness, intactness or purity of a thing. A wilderness region has integrity when it has not been corrupted by development or by the side effects of development . . . when it possesses a kind of musical wholeness, intactness and purity.” By this definition, an environment has integrity when all its parts are an interrelated whole – the traditional way of showing Japanese art comes to mind, where art and environment are inextricably interrelated, as opposed to the Western method, where art is shown in the neutral and featureless space of a museum. Vervoordt’s exquisite book, Wabi Inspirations, is a visual manifestation of this definition. An art collector and interior designer, Vervoordt was first exposed to Eastern art and philosophy in his youth, but over time that way of perceiving became the guiding principle in his work – particularly the concept of Wabi. Developed in twelfth century Japan, Wabi advocates simplicity and humility – stressing the imperfect and impermanent nature of life. In each interior depicted in his book, the interrelation of each object to the whole is so complete, that it’s as if the interior gave birth to the objects within it and vica versa. However Vervoordt stresses that each photograph captures only a moment in time. In reality, each environment is always changing – the quality of light and shadow, the positioning of objects, the phases of nature inside and out – and thus akin to the integrity in a person (present and whole, yet always changing).
I’ve added a new retreat to my offerings – Developing Balance. This retreat grows out of my observation that many of us feel overwhelmed by the daily flood of information and the ever-more frantic pace of life. In such a climate, it is increasingly difficult to make wise decisions, be innovative at work, or engage meaningfully with others. In response to this growing trend, I’ve developed a retreat for those of you who want to increase your effectiveness at work and bring greater ease to your everyday lives.
The retreat takes place in a charming cottage outside the town of Occidental on ten acres of rolling meadows, oak, bay, redwood trees, only minutes from the ocean. There is an option to stay at a nearby inn, dividing the retreat over two days so that you can take advantage of nearby Russian River, Bodega Bay and the area’s spectacular hiking trails. Other options are also available.
In addition to the retreats, I continue to work on an ongoing basis with people – many of whom are in the business and philanthropic/nonprofit sector – who want their lives to be more fulfilling and impactful.