Discovering Greatness: The Luster of Integrity

A friend of mine, Ellen, told me about a formative experience she had in the fourth grade. She was one of a group of friends who played a ball game called four square during school recess. This was the so-called popular kids group, and whenever other children would ask if they could join in, they were invariably told no. Each time this happened Ellen felt bad, but she only meekly tried to get her friends to include them. Finally one day, seeing a shy boy’s crumpled look of disappointment, she couldn’t stand it anymore. Ellen insisted that he be allowed to join the game. “No way!” was the response from all the others.

Ellen tried to convince her friends that this was unkind and unfair, but they would not listen. She ran into the school to the upstairs bathroom, crying, and through the open window she heard these so-called friends chanting her name in angry tones. She was not strong enough to not let it bother her. In fact, she cried in baffled pain and disbelief that her friends would do such a thing. But she could not reverse her stance. Ellen found this experience very painful, but looking back, she realized its value in developing her personal integrity. On the playground, from the next day and onward, she started another game of four square open to anyone who wanted to play. Even some of the so-called popular kids joined in.

I admire the courage of this ten-year-old girl, acting out of kindness—out of integrity—in the face of peer pressure. However small, it was an act of greatness in her young life.

In considering qualities of greatness, of great individuals, we recognize something deeper than outer action—an inner quality that is at the source of the expressed action or achievement. Whether it be the extraordinary stories of Nobel Peace Prize recipients or in the more ordinary instances such as Ellen’s experience, we recognize the quality of integrity as an essential characteristic of greatness.

Ms. Amy Rees Anderson, entrepreneur, angel investor and philanthropist, wrote this in her Forbes blog: “We live in a world where integrity isn’t talked about nearly enough. We live in a world where ‘the end justifies the means’ has become an acceptable school of thought for far too many.”

What is integrity?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “the quality of being honest and fair” and “the state of being complete or whole.” Ms. Rees Anderson elaborates saying, “Integrity means doing the right thing at all times and in all circumstances, whether or not anyone is watching. It takes having the courage to do the right thing, no matter what the consequences will be.”

We have a sense that integrity refers to a good character and includes qualities of honesty, reliability, and commitment to high ideals, no matter what. We might also include fairness, compassion—qualities of the heart.

A person with integrity has full and integrated development of heart and mind. Such a person inspires our trust and is a role model for all.

We are all drawn to characters in great narratives of the world, from ancient scripture to contemporary movies and media, which tell stories of persons expressing integrity in situations of adversity. (My current favorites are the PBS/BBC series “Father Brown” and “Foyle’s War.”) Characters from real life and fiction become renowned for their integrity, from Harry Potter to Mother Teresa.

I remind readers of an insight by Greatness author Dr. Melanie Brown1 that we discussed in Part I of this series on greatness. She makes the point that we admire qualities in others that we ourselves value and therefore have, to whatever extent, within ourselves. The fact that most everyone admires characters expressing integrity reveals a kind of greatness that we as human beings have at our core.

Integrity is an essential aspect of our humanity. What defines a great individual is consistent, deeply held integrity.

We admire the quality of integrity not only in famous individuals but also in people we know in our day-to-day lives.

The two women I mentioned in Part I of this series—a relative who works in the field of university development and my sister, a school teacher—are ‘great’ individuals not only because they have accomplished much but also because they have the inner quality of profound integrity. They are utterly trustworthy individuals, following through on their word. Committed to ideals of fairness, they clearly care about others, looking beyond themselves. Their tendency to consistently nurture others in their personal and professional arenas suggests that they would courageously defend and uphold fairness in any situation, against any odds. Consequently, they are successful and highly respected leaders and role models in their fields.

In any setting integrity is recognized by leaders as essential for trust and success. For example, in the business world, entrepreneur Warren Buffet says that integrity is the most fundamental quality he looks for in individuals when considering people with whom he would work. Ms. Rees Anderson explains further how individual integrity leads to success: it establishes a reliable reputation that is shared through networks. She writes that integrity inspires trust, stating that each individual “who trusts you will spread the word of that trust to at least a few of their associates, and word of your character will spread like wildfire. The value of the trust others have in you is far beyond anything that can be measured.”

How does integrity develop? For many it develops from a nurturing childhood with positive role models. But can persons lacking the benefit of a positive childhood environment also develop integrity? And is it a characteristic that can grow and develop within us all throughout our lives, no matter who we are?

For the sake of contrast, let’s first consider persons who have demonstrated a lack of integrity: on the extreme end, persons who have committed crimes. I remember being interested in hearing the perspective of TM founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on this when he was speaking about social rehabilitation. I was moved by his intriguing insight.

Maharishi explained that a person who commits a crime does so as a shortcut to fulfilling desires. When stress and fear constrict the mind and heart, perspective becomes limited; creative solutions are not readily found, and a person seeks ‘shortcuts’ to fulfill needs and desires in ways that are not life-supporting—for themselves and for others.

Ms. Rees Anderson makes a similar observation: “It may seem like people can gain power quickly and easily if they are willing to cut corners and act without the constraints of morality. Dishonesty,” she continues, “may provide instant gratification in the moment but it will never last.”

Dramatic results from teaching the Transcendental Meditation program in prisons show that even criminal offenders can develop—or regain—integrity. Since TM was introduced in prisons in the mid 1970s, prisoners practicing TM have shown remarkable growth of positive characteristics, including integrity. For example, prisoners showed growth on measures of moral development that were even higher than the norm for college students.2,3,4 Stories of once selfish and violent individuals developing desirable leadership qualities inside and outside prison walls, engaged in helping others, are evidence of how integrity can be cultivated through growth of consciousness<sup5< sup=””>. When deep stresses are dissolved through deeply resting the mind and body during TM, then the heart softens and expands and the mind functions more creatively. The overall effect is that one’s actions become increasingly life-supporting.

But it’s not just criminals who need to develop integrity. Many people do not act from their best selves, either out of emotional or material insecurity or some constriction in heart and mind, expressing greed or insensitivity to others. When feeling threatened, people take shortcuts. Or they may deride others through criticism or gossip in a misguided effort to make themselves seem greater. We see this phenomenon in the current epidemic of bullying among young people—and even among adults who ought to have matured out of such unkind behavior.

Even personal fatigue and exhaustion, so widespread in our society, can result in a lapse of integrity, hampering us from carrying out our noble and compassionate intentions and ideals that we hold in our hearts.

We may have all the good intentions in the world but if we are tired and stressed we are probably not at our best. The practical technique of TM can help enormously with this. At the end of a day of work or study, we sit and meditate. Instead of carrying the stresses and fatigue from the day into our evening—often the time when we are interacting with those closest to us—we dip into a refreshing, calming, soothing internal mind-body bath.

This daily purification from fatigue and stress keeps us from carrying over stresses from one day to the next. Through the process of transcending which gives deep rest to mind and body an inner strength unfolds. We grow holistically, in an integrated way, because that which is fundamental to our nature—consciousness and nervous system—is nourished.

We blossom in wholeness, which reminds us of the Merriam-Webster definition of integrity that we sited earlier: the state of being complete or whole. Our goodness—our greatness—is able to shine forth.

One of the qualities that unfolds through development of consciousness, particularly significant for women, is self-esteem and confidence that is rooted in quiet clarity of awareness and emotional stability—essential to integrity. Dr. Melanie Brown writes, “Integrity… depends on the ability to be self-reliant, to trust one’s own thinking, never to compromise one’s inner values, never to stop seeking deeper integration.”1

Further, when we ourselves are grounded in integrity, we enliven it in our environment. Dr. Brown refers to researchers Peters and Waterman who found, “When people have integrity…they generate a feeling of integrity…around them1.” This spreading of integrity is important to women who especially want to nourish others.

TM is a powerful tool for unfolding integrity within ourselves and in our society. This is important in this time when we are often inundated with unhealthy and negative values through media and peers. The combination of fullness of heart and genuine confidence that unfolds through TM practice allows us to spontaneously live good values. We also grow in the inner resiliency and strength that helps us to navigate this complex world.

As the constrictions of our small self expand, caring about others is a natural outcome. This expansion of our inner self is essential to development of integrity—to unfolding our greatness.

In this consideration of greatness, I would like to conclude with an important insight by Maharishi:

“People generally consider that the success of their actions depends upon their ability, their intelligence, their creative mind and their energy. But all these factors are of secondary importance. The main factor for the success of an action is the doer’s own purity…. It is the purity of a man’s heart and mind, and his innocent and faithful approach to action with the purpose of all good to everyone, which really succeed in yielding maximum results with minimum effort.”6

So often our world equates greatness with power, riches, or fame, but as we have seen and as Maharishi emphasizes, it is inner qualities, such as integrity, that are at the core of truly great people. In the next post in this series on greatness, we will consider the experiences of higher states of consciousness as a foundation for greatness, expressed as reverence and being fully at home in life.


“Violating the Laws of Nature” by Janet Hoffman

“C-Suite: C is for Consciousness” by Janet Hoffman

“Is it Possible to Become Resilient to Stress?” by Linda Egenes

“Nurses Need Nourishing Too” by Linda Egenes


1 Melanie Brown, Ph.D. Attaining Personal Greatness: One Book for Life, pp. 115-117

1 Peters, Thomas J. and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies, pp. 180-181, as quoted in Melanie Brown,Attaining Personal Greatness, p. 115.

2 Charles N. Alexander. Ego development, personality and behavioral change in inmates practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique or participating in other programs: A cross-sectional and longitudinal study. (Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, 1982). Dissertation Abstracts International, 43, 539B.

3 Charles Alexander, Kenneth Walton, David Orme-Johnson, Rachel Goodman, R. S., & Nathaniel Pallone (Eds.). (2003). Transcendental Meditation in Criminal Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention.

4 In September 2003 the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation devoted all four issues of its annual publication to a special volume entitled “Transcendental Meditation in Criminal Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention” (J Offender Rehab 36 (1-4), 2003).

5 Stories from and about prisoners who practice TM are included in A Symphony of Silence by George Ellis in the “Justice and Leadership” section. See also Inside Folsom Prison by George Ellis.

6 Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, The Science of Being and Art of Living, hard copy edition, p. 178.

About the Author

Cynthia Johnson is a teacher of the Transcendental Meditation program. She holds a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and is a mother, wife and writer. She is a contributor to the book A Symphony of Silence: An Enlightened Vision (1st and 2nd editions) by George Ellis.

More Posts by Cynthia E.