Personal Morality: Finding Your North Star

Mick Turner

Given the spiritual confusion of contemporary society, one thing stands out in stark relief: What we need are more people of character and integrity. Character and integrity begin with our personal conduct and our personal conduct flows from an internalized value system. We need to know and know in depth just what we believe to be right and wrong. Again, this issue is often glossed over in our post-modern world and this is in many ways a tragedy.


Here is a foundational truth: Your value system, your sense of personal ethics, is the foundation upon which your spiritual journey is constructed. Without a system of personal morality, you are building your house on sand.

Having a personal sense of morality is only the beginning. If you don’t act on your value system – if you don’t put it into practice – you are going nowhere. You are like a house divided against itself. You, my friend, cannot stand. If you do not act on your beliefs of right and wrong, you will lack integrity. And without integrity, there can be no integration. Hopefully, you see the connection between these two words.

If we are to make progress in our spiritual endeavors we must have an internal moral compass. We must have a stable, predictable North Star to assist us in navigating the largely uncharted waters of our post-modern culture. In a land where the driving moral principle is “if it feels good, do it,” or “follow your bliss,” acting in accordance with an internalized set of values is almost an alien concept. However, if we are at all sincere about our spiritual development we have to incorporate discipline and discernment into our lives. We have to get to the point where we understand that what is often considered politically correct is not in our best interests from a spiritual perspective. This kind of discipline and discernment is built upon awareness and is made possible by an internalized spiritual compass. In certain Buddhist traditions, this critical discernement allows us to recognize what is called “skillful means. What is a skillful mean? A skillful mean is any practice, attitude, or behavior that works toward our own enlightenment for the benefit of others.

Of course, this type of inner awareness and discernment necessitates we will sometimes have to choose attitudes and behavior that run counter to our friends, our families, and the world at large. Especially at these times, we must be firm in our principles and stand fast against the subtle temptations to run with the herd.

Additionally, we must be aware that moral beliefs are the defining matrix through which we interact with our culture. As spiritual aspirants, we should always follow the principle of love. In the context of the discussion we are now having, this means that even though we may not agree with many of the things we see going on around us, we must react to these things with compassion, love, and understanding. For some, this seems to be a lost art. We are not called to be moral police. We can take a personal stand in opposition to values and principles we find abhorrent. However, to do so in a belligerent, vitriolic, or violent manner is to reject genuine spiritual teachings. As members of an interconnected web of life, we have to exhibit love and compassion above all else. It is through servanthood motivated by love and compassion that we incarnate Divine Intelligence  intoo our world. These principles are at the core of a genuine spiritual value system. Further, our internalized moral compass does not have to be detailed or complex, although for some it is better if it is. However, even in those cases and also in the case of most aspiriants, our morality can and should be based on two foundational characteristics: flexibility and simplicity. A wonderful example of this principle is found in the words of Buddha:

Do no harm; pursue the good.

Avoid Evil;

Master the mind.

One of my favorite classic western movies is “The Best of the Bad Men.” In this vintage film, most of the famous outlaws of the Old West had managed to come together to pull a bank job. The James brothers, the Daltons, the Youngers…they were all there. Somehow Walter Brennan was a part of the gang, but not a member of any of the outlaw families. Still he played a vital role in the movie.

At one point, two of the bad guys were about to have a gun fight at the bottom of a hill where the gang was camped. Walter Brennan came running down the hill with his six-shooter aimed at both of them. Next, in his unmistakable voice, Brennan told them to back off or he would lay both of them out. To emphasize his point, Brennan then said:

 I ain’t kin to none of ya….and I ain’t troubled by no burdensome scruples.” 

The view espoused by Walter Brennan may seem humorous in the context of the movie, but it reflects how many people in our culture have come to see morality. More than a few individuals hold the idea that having internalized values is too restrictive, reduces our freedom, and takes the fun out of life. The fact is, just the opposite is true.  

 A strong sense of personal values does not restrict our freedom. Instead, it gives us parameters to operate by, facilitates easier decision-making, and, in a sense, helps us define who we are. Values also help us to keep flowing forward toward our goals in life, especially our spiritual goals. Values can be seen as being like the banks of a river; they keep the water flowing toward its destination. Without banks, a river becomes a swamp.

A personal value system serves other positive purposes as well. Each of us it seems is equipped not only with a Sacred Center, but also with a lower center. This lower center is dominated by the ego and its selfish mind set. Paul refers to this part of our makeup as the “flesh.” It is that carnal, self-absorbed portion of our character that, above all else, looks out for Number One. As a result, even the best of us engage in behaviors which are less than stellar.

 Speaking of myself, I know that I try to approach life as much as possible from a positive and sacred viewpoint. Still, there are times when I act with selfishness, anger, a mean spirit, and an overall sense of negativity. Having an internalized set of values, a personal moral code if you will, helps me not only identify when I am going off the spiritual rails, it also tends to reduce the frequency with which I behave in a negative manner.

 As our world culture moves forward in this new and challenging century, the importance of each individual developing and maintaining an internalized, spiritual value system – one based on inter-connectivity and human compassion – is essential. More to the point, each person has to act on that value system. He or she must be the same inside and outside. This is the true meaning of integrity.

(c) L.D. Turner 2008