Most of us believe that we’re people of integrity. But even when we’re clear about our values (and not all of us are at all times), life often presents challenges to them—an attraction to a friend’s partner a career opportunity when we’ve committed to another job, the desire to be socially accepted—and tempts us into letting them go.
The Sanskrit word dharma means “righteousness” or “higher law.” It’s India’s best synonym for integrity. And dharma is often very personal. The teachings on dharma say that though there are moral laws that apply to everyone, every situation has its unique dharma.
The Yajnavalkya Samhita, one of the great works on ethics in Indian culture, provides five guidelines for deciding whether an action is in accordance with dharma in difficult moments. Rephrased as questions, these guidelines can help trigger inner wisdom when you’re trying to follow your dharma and make decisions with integrity.
1. What do the great wisdom teachers say?
Wise beings like Buddha and Jesus, great texts like the Bhagavad Gita—even poets like Rumi or Mary Oliver, or more modern sages like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr.—offer us heart-opening windows into the meaning of integrity. The best reason to learn from these teachers and texts is to be inspired by inquiry and courage. If you find a teacher whose wisdom touches your heart, notice what they say about the issues that concern you. Write it down. And go back to it again and again so it will be there when you really need it.
2. What would a good person do?
Identify people who live in ways you’d like to emulate. Who do you know who is consistently helpful and kind? Who has the strength to stand up to hard times with buoyancy? Who do you trust to act skillfully and wisely? If you know someone like this, you can ask yourself, “What would that person do?” If you’re not inspired thusly by the people in your life, then do what my friend does: Ask yourself, “What would a mature person do in this situation?”
3. What would give me the most joy in this situation?
Living with integrity means considering which action would give you happiness. What feels natural and right? If something feels wrong for you personally (assuming that you are not resisting it out of laziness or fear), you probably shouldn’t do it. And sometimes the right choice is the one that gives the deepest pleasure. Maybe you’ve been meditating every night after work, and you know how important it is for you. But tonight, some college buddies you haven’t seen since graduation are in town, and you really feel like spending time with them. If this would give you the most joy now, go for it!
4. How will this serve my highest desires and motivations?
Your sense of integrity has a lot to do with feeling that you are contributing to the world. Your motivation to help others, to be the best person you can be—these desires can help you stay true to yourself. When you need to set priorities, or feel confused about the right action, try asking yourself, “Does what I’m about to do align me with my longing to be my best self? Will this serve others in this situation? Will this decision produce growth?”
5. What will align me with my true Self?
The deepest form of integrity comes from being in contact with the Self, our spiritual core. Different traditions call it different things—the heart, the higher self, Tao, the True Self, Buddha Nature. Our yogic practice gives us access to that part of ourselves which is the true source of right action. So, at the end of the day, it’s through our connection with that inner core that we discover our true integrity as human beings.
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