Read an Excerpt from Martha Beck's New Book, "The Way of Integrity"

Martha Beck
·15 min read
Photo credit: Rowan Mangan
Photo credit: Rowan Mangan

Excerpted from the introduction of The Way of Integrity by Martha Beck, available now.

Even if you’re not a frequent flier, this has probably happened to you. The plane is fully boarded. Everyone’s laptops are stowed. The flight attendants have done their mandatory dance about the seat belts and the floor lights and the oxygen masks that will not inflate. Then, just as you expect to roll away from the gate, everything stops. The captain’s sheepish voice crackles through the cabin. “Sorry, folks, we have a slight malfunction—probably just a glitch, but we need to call some mechanics to check. We’re looking at a bit of a wait.”

A ripple of woe runs through the passengers. Your heart sinks. How long will you be trapped in this uncomfortable seat, between a man who reeks of cheap cologne and a fretfully teething baby, before the plane finally flies? But after this initial burst of dismay, everyone heaves a sigh and settles in. You all approve of the crew’s caution. You’re about to travel five miles above Earth’s surface in this mighty machine. No one, not even the baby, wants the plane taking off if it’s not in perfect structural integrity.

My book, The Way of Integrity: Finding the Path to Your True Self, as you may have gleaned from the title, is all about integrity. But I don’t mean this in a moralizing sense. The word integrity has taken on a slightly prim, judgmental nuance in modern English, but the word comes from the Latin integer, which simply means “intact.” To be in integrity is to be one thing, whole and undivided. When a plane is in integrity, all its millions of parts work together smoothly and cooperatively. If it loses integrity, it may stall, falter, or crash. There’s no judgment here. Just physics.

As above in aerodynamics, so below in our everyday lives. When you experience unity of intention, fascination, and purpose, you live like a bloodhound on a scent, joyfully doing what feels truest in each moment. Your daily work, whether it’s writing computer code, gardening, or building houses, is so absorbing that at the end of the day you don’t really want to stop. But when you do, you enjoy hanging out with loved ones so much, and sleep is so delicious you can’t imagine anything sweeter. And when you wake up the next morning, the day ahead seems so enticing you practically bound out of bed.

If you’re like many people I’ve coached, you may be rolling your eyes right now. It may sound like I’m wearing rose‑colored glasses and munching antidepressants like jelly beans. You may never have felt the kind of sustained joie de vivre I’m describing. You might not believe that such a fulfilling life is possible.

It is.

Tragically, many people go their whole lives without ever learning this, never experiencing the joyful ease that comes with full integrity. Some of these folks are massively misaligned, their lives an endless string of failures and crushed dreams. You may know a few: the friend from high school who keeps landing himself in prison, the cousin who marries one unfaithful scumbag after another, the colleague who seems to sabotage every project she undertakes. These folks are like airplanes whose major components, like wings and engines, are out of whack.

Your own life is probably somewhere between utterly blissful and completely wrecked. You have a vague sense of purpose, which you hope to follow someday. Though your job isn’t perfect, it’s good enough. And your relationships are fine. Mostly. Yes, there are times when someone—your spouse, your kids, your parents, your boss—makes you want to fake your own death and move to a hotel in the Cayman Islands. But honestly, it’s fine. You don’t feel bad, just vaguely anxious, uncomfortable, and disappointed. And it’s perfectly normal that your mind tends to linger on regrets about plans that didn’t work out and doubts that your dreams will ever come true.

When I meet clients who fit this description and suggest that their lives could be better, they often protest that they’re doing fine, just fine. Look, they say: Life is a bitch and then we die. Failure is much more common than success. We can’t just flap our arms and fly. They think they’re simply accepting the bitter truth. But what I hear is the clank of stray bolts and loose parts, the sound of a human who has never experienced complete alignment of body, mind, heart, and soul.

Again, this isn’t a moral judgment. If you don’t always feel wonderful, it doesn’t mean you’re faulty or bad—in fact, I’d bet that you’ve spent your entire life trying to be good. And there’s nothing defective about you. You’re a highly functional, sophisticated creature. At the deepest level, you know what makes you happy and how to create your best possible life. That knowledge is coded into your very nature.

But your nature is forever colliding with a force that can tear it apart: culture.

By “culture” I don’t mean opera or surrealist painting. I’m talking about any set of social standards that shapes the way people think and act. Every group of humans, from couples to families to cell blocks to sewing circles to armies, has cultural rules and expectations that help them cooperate. Some of these are explicit, like traffic laws or workplace dress codes. Others are implicit, like the assumption that when you go to a nice restaurant for dinner, you’ll use silverware instead of plunging your face directly into your food like a truffle pig.

Humans create elaborate cultures because we are intensely social beings, dependent on the goodwill of others from the moment we’re born. We also have an enormous capacity to absorb and replicate the behavior of people around us. From childhood, often without even noticing it, we learn exactly how to win approval and belonging in our particular cultural context. We act bubbly, quiet, or brave to please our families. We immediately begin to like whatever our friends say they like. We throw ourselves into schoolwork, babysitting, family feuds—whatever we believe will assure our place in the human world.

In this rush to conform, we often end up ignoring or over-ruling our genuine feelings—even intense ones, like longing or anguish—to please our cultures. At that point, we’re divided against ourselves. We aren’t in integrity (one thing) but in duplicity (two things). Or we may try to fit in with a number of different groups, living in multiplicity (many things). We abandon our true nature and become pawns of our culture: smiling politely, sitting attentively, wearing the “perfect” uncomfortable clothes. This is why a soldier will march into gunfire without complaint. It’s why whole communities once thought it made sense to burn a few witches here and there. The extent to which people will defy nature to serve culture can be truly horrifying. But the whole thing works very well from the perspective of creating and sustaining human groups.

There’s just one catch: nature does not give up without a fight.

If you’ve ever found yourself snapping at someone you dearly love, or sitting down to complete a work project only to spend five hours shopping for home tattoo kits online, it’s probably because you’re internally divided. You’re trying to act in ways that don’t feel right to you at the deepest level. Whenever we do this, our lives begin to go pear‑shaped. Emotionally, we feel grumpy, sad, or numb. Physically, our immune systems and muscles weaken; we might get sick, and even if we don’t, our energy flattens. Mentally, we lose focus and clarity. That’s how it feels to be out of integrity.

All these inner reactions affect our outer lives. Since we can’t concentrate, our work suffers. Irritability and gloominess make us bad company, weakening our relationships. Everything in and around us is negatively affected when we lose integrity. And because our true nature is serious about restoring us to wholeness, it hauls out the one tool that reliably gets our attention: suffering.

Personally, I do not enjoy suffering. It hurts me. If you’re into it, I don’t judge you—but I do want to make a crucial point: suffering is different from pain, at least in my lexicon. I once saw a sign in a medical clinic that read “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Physical pain comes from events. Psychological suffering comes from the way we deal with those events. It can grow exponentially in situations where pain is entirely absent. Even when you’re curled up in a comfortable chair, suffering can make you wish you’d never been born. I know, because I spent years and years right up in it. This is what led me to an obsessive, decades‑long quest to find my way to happiness.

And all these experiences, from my most intimate private encounters to my most diligent formal research, gradually coalesced to reveal one simple truth:

Integrity is the cure for unhappiness. Period.

Of all the strategies and skills I’ve ever learned, the ones that actually work are those that help people see where they’ve abandoned their own deep sense of truth and followed some other set of directives. This split from integrity is almost always unconscious. The people I know who experience it aren’t wicked; in fact, most of them are perfectly lovely. They strive to co-operate with every rule for living they’ve learned from their respective cultures. Which is a terrific way to run your life if you like to look good and feel bad.

But there’s another way, one that will lead you out of suffering and into levels of joy and purpose you may not yet realize are possible. I call it the way of integrity.

The Way of Integrity is meant to guide and accompany you along that way. Wherever you may be and however you may feel right now, the way of integrity will take you from this very spot to a life filled with meaning, enchantment, and fascination. I’ve helped hundreds of people experience this. I’ve also lived the whole process myself—and believe me, I was not an easy case. But after all that misery, the way of integrity took even me to a life that feels ridiculously blessed. This is not because I’m anything special. It’s just because I know the way.

The word way can mean either a process or a path. In my book, it means both. If you don’t know what to do next, the way of integrity will provide instructions, like a recipe. If you don’t know where to go next, the way of integrity will show you the next step, like a map. If you follow the directions, you’ll end up happy. Not because this path is virtuous, but because it aligns you with reality, with truth. Your life will work for the same reason a well‑built plane will fly. Not a reward for good behavior. Just physics.

So if you’re ready to abandon suffering, embrace your true nature, and experience the joy you know you’re meant to feel, let’s begin. What, you may ask, does the way of integrity actually look like? I will tell you. It looks like an epic medieval Italian fantasy adventure quest!

Stay with me. I’ll explain.

Throughout my career as a writer and coach, I have repeatedly, zestfully, and unapologetically filched ideas from The Divine Comedy, written by Dante Alighieri in the early 1300s. This is not because I’m any sort of Dante scholar. I never took a course in Dante, can’t speak Italian, don’t know much about medieval history. As a young adult, I read The Divine Comedy for the only reason I read anything back then: I was looking for wisdom about how to feel better. And I found it.

Dante’s masterpiece is quite simply the most powerful set of instructions I know for healing our psychological wounds, restoring us to integrity, and maximizing our capacity to feel good. The Divine Comedy takes us through the whole process, step by step. Yes, it’s all framed as a story about one man having a mystical adventure. Yes, that man uses the imagery of a fourteenth‑century European. But the psychological metaphors in Dante’s epic still ring true today. They still show us the way. Plus, they’re entertaining. Don’t think that Dante is some pontificating drone. He’s not. He’s just a writer, standing in front of a reader, asking you to follow him out of misery and into happiness.

In my book, I’ll walk you along a way of integrity built around the framework Dante laid out in The Divine Comedy. You can take it slowly and gently, or go at it like an Olympic sprinter—whatever pace works for you. But however you decide to travel, you’ll be passing through four stages.

Just to give you the lay of the land, here’s a summary of what you can expect.

Your quest for integrity will begin in “the dark wood of error,” a place where we feel lost, exhausted, troubled, and unsure. This is Dante’s metaphor for the misalignment in which most of us live. In some ways—possibly all ways—we feel that our lives aren’t what they’re meant to be. We don’t know how we ended up so off course, or how to find our way out of confusion. Don’t worry. We will.

Our next stage is Dante’s famous “inferno.” Passing through it, we’ll find the parts of you that are suffering—the parts trapped in your inner hell—and set them free. The chisel you will use to break your own chains is your sense of truth. You’ll see that psychological suffering always comes from internal splits between what your encultured mind believes and what feels deeply true to you. The way of integrity will help you heal these divisions. You’ll start to experience more wholeness than ever before. The relief, most likely, will be tangible and immediate.

Once your inner life begins to heal, it’s on to a form of Dante’s “purgatory.” This word simply means “cleansing.” (I like to go on “integrity cleanses,” by which I don’t mean cleansing away integrity, but cleansing away everything else.) In this stage of your quest, you’ll shift your external behavior to match your newfound inner truth. The further you go, the easier this becomes.

Finally, as your inner and outer lives approach complete integrity, you’ll find yourself in metaphorical “paradise.” There’s no more work to do here, unless you count enjoying a life where everything—your psyche, your career, your love life—works smoothly. Fair warning: at this point you may begin experiencing things so exquisite our culture tells you they can’t happen. Obviously, no one will have taught you how to navigate such wonders. No worries. You’ll learn fast. You were born for it.

So that’s our journey in broad strokes. As we go along, I’ll not only touch on Dante’s metaphors, but offer insights from recent science (psychology, sociology, neurology) that will help make the journey more accessible and potent. I’ll tell you true stories about clients or friends of mine, people whose experiences can illustrate and clarify your own process. To show you how it all feels from the inside, I’ll also recount some examples from my own lifelong integrity quest. And every now and then, I’ll invite you to do some thought exercises to make your journey as quick and easy as possible.

In The Divine Comedy, Dante goes down into a huge pit (the inferno), then up a mountain (purgatory). He grows stronger and walks with less and less effort as he reaches the mountain’s summit. Then, to his amazement, he finds himself rising upward. Flying. That’s what happens when the misaligned parts of a human life come into integrity. Dante uses flight as a metaphor for a life that feels unlimited, literally heavenly.

Whenever I travel by air, no matter what problems and delays may occur, I’m astonished at the moment the plane takes off. It blows my mind that this huge machine can throw itself into the air and keep going, safe and sound, for thousands of miles. I feel the same way when I watch people come into integrity and take flight in their own unique ways, finding purpose, love, and success. Every day, I’m stunned to realize that it worked for me, too. It all feels like a dazzling, impossible miracle.

But it’s not. It’s just physics.

So if you’re ready—even if you’re just a bit curious—please make sure your seatbelt is fastened and your emotional baggage securely stowed under the seat in front of you. The way of integrity will take you to heights of happiness you’ve never dreamed possible. You are cleared for takeoff.

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