Sunday, June 17, 2012

Of Integrity and Ego

When I search the etymological roots of integrity, I find its origins are from the Latin, integer, translating as whole, intact, untouched, complete -- and it started me thinking. Even in English, integer carries a very similar meaning: 'a whole number, not a fraction; a thing complete in itself'. How rare!

I suppose what pushed this concept fully into consciousness this past week was the sinking awareness of how 'spinning' finds its confusing and unhelpful presence so frequently into our days.  In the selective retelling of an exchange with a third party, with the casual exclusion of a detail or two; the adoption of a point of view, stressing 'facts' that support, downplaying those that don't; the reshuffling of story elements, to minimize an anticipated confrontation; or simply reversing oneself -- as the situation 'demands'. Rarely are these 'spun versions' rooted in malice or the intent to deceive; often rationalized as 'just good story-telling', perhaps a memory lapse; the need to save face, self-enhance, or just to 'not look the fool'. All at relatively little cost -- save personal integrity.

Casting about for a little 'light entertainment' a few days ago, my wife and I streamed an episode of a recent BBC sitcom, 'In The Thick Of It', a satirical look at the politics and personnel of a marginal ministry in the British government. And its daily challenge of justifying its own existence, its programs, what it supports and what it eschews; and most particularly, the irrelevance of fact and truth and the preeminence of appearance and press- and public-friendly postures -- even if it means reversing itself multiple times in a day. My wife's summary comment was that this perhaps would have been amusing -- if it wasn't so close to the truth.  

Which may be why The Ides of March caught our shared attention as our 'home movie of the week' choice.  More politics -- but with a 'spin'. As the title suggests, the film is a contemporary re-examination of the motivations that fueled the political assassination of Julius Caesar, set against the backdrop of an Ohio Democratic primary with the victor an almost shoo-in for the presidency. The spin in this case is, ironically, found not in the political rhetoric, which would be just too cliched to be interesting; but in the morality of brinkmanship, party and campaign loyalty (or, more properly, the lack thereof), and the chess games that measure, position, and re-position -- always with the eye on the long term 'win'. To the extent possible, everyone 'wins' in the short-run, save the single character who maintains a position of personal integrity throughout. The cost of victory, in typical Faustian fashion, is one's soul, as the hollow-eyed 'winners' suit up for the next round; and the loser, accepts his 'prize': a dignified exit from the world of politics (and spin), and gets on with his 'integrated' life.

What is evident is the 'end justifying the means' stance that informs most choices in the film. And most compellingly, the compartmentalization within self, the 'fractionation' of the individual if you will, that allows this process to continue. Carl Jung describes the process of maturing psychologically, somewhat tellingly, as one of growing individuation. In this process, elements of the immature personality, typically at that stage kept more or less in the dark, one from another, gradually begin to coalesce into a unified whole -- to integrate, become acknowledged and accepted by the individual as 'parts of him- or herself' -- for good or ill -- and begin to inform his/her choices in a fully conscious fashion. In short, the individual develops integrity -- both psychologically and morally. To the extent that this process is truncated or incomplete, our thoughts and actions are guided, at best, only by a part of self, generally one driven by ego -- and its self-enhancing, self-aggrandizing motives.

Mindfulness practice approaches this integrating process from 'the other end' -- but with the same, essential goal. Regular meditation is, among many things, an opportunity to become very well acquainted with our ego, its wants and needs, goals and demands. The intention is to better recognize the grasping and rejecting, the attachment and avoidance that instruct our choices -- and to let go of these. In meditative language, to develop an 'egoless awareness'. In his seminal book, A Path With Heart, Jack Kornfield describes a meditation he entitles: Who Am I? In it he suggests, either alone or with a partner, to repeatedly pose this question to self during a meditation as a vehicle for discovering the elements that most define your 'I' -- your ego, your identity. He suggests, that, as the answers arise ('a man', 'a teacher', 'a mother', 'a . . .' ) they will typically move from the superficial identifiers, labels, roles to deeper levels of values, emotions, intentions.  The answers themselves are less relevant than the process: that of openly -- and courageously -- examining the elements that comprise your self, your ego. The end is not to judge the goodness or badness of aspects; not to decide which you will 'toss out' and which to keep; which to openly 'own' and which to 'spin'. But to cultivate an awareness of their presence -- no different really than Jung's individuation process, becoming an integrated whole. 

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