On Having the Courage to Experiment

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Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

2am on a Sunday morning is probably not the ideal time to discuss matters of morality. Straying from my highly successful OMG strategy (“one mindful glass”, I was finding that I was drinking wine like juice), I’d had far too much to drink to intelligently contribute to the dinner-table dialogue on the topic of my friend’s moral code, and how her true north might guide her to a new job.

I gave it my best shot though and blethered on (slurring only slightly) about values and morals and ethics and integrity, for a good wee while before recognising that I was indeed blethering.

Even those who have not wavered from OMG get confused. We tend to consider the phenomena of morality, ethics and integrity as one and the same thing; that is providing standards of “correct” behaviour. Morality is what a given society, in a given time, considers to be acceptable and unacceptable standards of behaviour. Ethics is what is considered to be acceptable and unacceptable standards of behaviour in a given group. Integrity is popularly understood as “doing the right thing even when there’s no one looking”. A client recently suggested that corporate values were unnecessary because integrity was the only value.

However in his paper “Integrity: Without it Nothing Works” Harvard Business School professor Michael C Jensen asserts a different view, stating that integrity has nothing to do with good vs. bad. Like the Law of Gravity, integrity just “is”. There is no good and bad gravity, and integrity, defined as “a state or condition of being whole, complete, unbroken, sound or in perfect condition” is the same.

A critical part of integrity involves self-mastery and the relationship one has with oneself and what we tell ourselves we will do. By being serious about the promises we make to ourselves, whether that’s doing the run we said we’d do this morning, or looking for a new job that’s more congruent with who we are, we maintain our personal integrity.

If something, an object, a system or a person, has integrity (so it’s whole, complete and unbroken) then it has maximum “workability”. On the other hand, not maintaining our personal integrity creates “unworkability” in our life. Returning to the analogy of the Law of Gravity, violating this “Law of Integrity” is the same as jumping without a parachute. There will be severe consequences and performance will suffer.

It therefore follows Jensen argues, that we ascribe the mess in our lives, not to our own out-of-integrity behaviour, but to external factors, or to some justification or rationalisation. We can’t always keep our word, but if we acknowledge this and clean up the resultant mess, seeing this simply as another challenge to be dealt with, then we can gain respect and power.

Jensen goes on to describe the significant increase in performance (up to 300%) organisations that focused on integrity and honouring their word both internally to themselves and externally to their stakeholders.

This notion of integrity chimes with Taoist teachings on wholeness and the practice of Qigong, which focuses on cultivating energy in three centres, or dantians, which manage the flow of Qi (or bio-energy) throughout the body.

  • The first energy centre is near the lower torso and connects with the energy of our physical health, birth power, and sexual energy. When the energy here is healthy, you feel charismatic and energetic and don’t get tired or sick easily.
  • The second energy centre is near the heart and is associated with emotions and feelings. When the energy here is healthy, you feel happy; loving and loved.
  • The third energy centre is located in the head and concentrates our wisdom and intelligence. When energy here is healthy, you are a wise person, make right decisions and move in a right direction.

Qigong Master Robert Peng, describes how these three centres are connected by the Central Meridian. When the Central Meridian is healthy and strong we become balanced and integrated and express our thoughts, feelings and behaviour harmoniously. We feel aligned and congruent. We have integrity. Indeed, the ultimate goal of Qigong training is to awaken and develop the integrity and wholeness within us in order to attain mastership over the body, mind and spirit.

It is this integrity that gives us our true north, no matter where life takes us. Self-mastery often requires stepping into the unknown and creating new paths (experimenting), but when we forge new paths from a place of alignment – listening to our head, heart and gut, we make better decisions; we can be “less timid and squeamish”. With the benefit of hindsight we might reflect that we haven’t always made the right ones, but know that we made the best decision we could based on our circumstances, the information and resources we had at the time and our relationship with our self and others.

The late Wayne Dyer, wrote about this in a recent essay on the influence Ralph Waldo Emerson had on him, writing: “Don’t let the voices within you grow faint and inaudible. Be yourself and run your life by what you know to be right and in harmony with your spiritual essence. That is, by the integrity of your own mind.”

Life is an experiment – experiment with maximum workability. And a parachute. But not too much wine as this makes the voices louder but less coherent.
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