Editor's Note: Is character personal or impersonal — or more than personal? Does it require being good? Does it come by grace, or is it the result of our own efforts? What can we do to develop it? These questions can be approached from many angles, as the quotes below show.


Developed through Strength and Positive Intention

"Anyone who has ever tried to alter behavior knows firsthand how difficult it is. Successful behavior modification, no matter what the behavior, requires positive intentions combined with determination, will, strength, perseverance, awareness, and character. Yet many people are strong enough to behave differently, and in so doing, they create new karma. In the best cases, they finally find the freedom and fulfillment they have always been looking for."
— Lama Surya Das in Awakening to the Sacred

"Character transformation is not a matter of changing traits. It is rather taking my innate configurations and making the most and best of them. I vow to understand and encourage the fundamental qualities of my character and of others."
— Robert Aitken in The Morning Star

Formed over Time

"Instead, let us entertain the idea that character requires the additional years and that the long last of life is forced upon us neither by genes nor by conservational medicine nor by societal collusion. The last years confirm and fulfill character."
— James Hillman in The Force of Character

"To be fully old, authentic in our being and available in our presence with its gravitas and eccentricity, indirectly affects the public good and thereby their good. This makes oldness a full-time job from which we may not retire."
— James Hillman in The Force of Character

The Fruit of Good Deeds

"A practitioner's character comes from doing good deeds. There are many ways to do good deeds. For instance, we can influence others with compassionate words; greet others with compassionate eyes and demeanor; assist others with compassionate hands; and bless others with a compassionate heart."
— Master Hsing Yun in Keys to Living Well

Hard to Find

"This is an age in which one cannot find common sense without a search warrant."
— George Will in Column, May 9, 1996, "FDR's memorial hides character" at baltimoresun.com

Honed by Relationships

"Whether it is clearly visible or not, every relationship has a higher purpose than itself alone, a meaning that goes beyond the conventions of love and romance, and attaches the two people in it to a destiny that has roots in the past and wings in the future. This purpose is to shape us individually into the highest and best versions of ourselves and to change, if only in some tiny way, the essential character of the reality we have entered here by being born."
— Daphne Rose Kingma in The Book of Love

"The family is the primary transmitter of social capital — the values and character traits that enable people to seize opportunities. Family structure is a primary predictor of an individual's life chances, and family disintegration is the principal cause of the intergenerational transmission of poverty."
— George Will in Column, March 21, 2014, "Paul Ryan was right – poverty is a cultural problem" at washingtonpost.com

Important to Befriend

"When the North Peninsula Sangha [group] meets for Halloween, we step up to the altar individually in turn. After lighting a stick of incense, each of us calls forth our own personal demons by name. Last year, I called forth my self-indulgence and my arrogance. Other people called on selfishness, laziness, fear, lack of consideration for others. After calling forth our personal demons, each of us promises to protect and comfort the demons who answer the call to join us. We invite them to eat and chant with us in the safe place we are creating together. People report being very moved at this ceremony, saying it gives them a different perspective on the personal character traits they always find so annoying and wish would go away."
— Darlene Cohen in Finding a Joyful Life in the Heart of Pain

An Inner Demeanor

"Piety does not consist in isolated acts, in sporadic, ephemeral experience, nor is it limited to a single stratum of the soul. Although it manifests itself in particular acts, it is beyond the distinctions between intellect and emotion, will and action. Its source seems to lie deeper than the reach of reason and to range wider than consciousness. While it reveals itself in single attitudes such as devotion, reverence, or the desire to serve, its essential forces lie in a stratum of the soul far deeper than the orbit of any of these. It is something unremitting, persistent, unchanging in the soul, a perpetual inner attitude of the whole man. Like a breeze in the atmosphere, it runs as a drift through all the deeds, utterances, and thoughts; it is a tenor of life betraying itself in each trait of character, each mode of action."
— Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity by Abraham Joshua Heschel and Susannah Heschel (ed.)


"To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.

"If, therefore, I do anything or think anything or say anything or know anything that is not purely for the love of God, it cannot give peace, or rest, or fulfillment, or joy.

"To find love I must enter into the sanctuary where it is hidden, which is the mystery of God."
— Thomas Merton in A Book of Hours by Thomas Merton, Kathleen Deignan (ed.)

"When I first moved into a meditation hut high in the mountains above Dharamsala, I went to visit the Tibetan recluse Gen Jhampa Wangdu. In the spring of 1959, shortly after the Tibetan uprising against the Communist invasion of Tibet, Jhampa Wangdu fled his homeland and resumed life as a yogi in India. The day I first dropped by his hermitage made a great impression on me. He was not in strict retreat, so I knew I would not be interfering if I came by during the noon hour. I knocked on his door. A small man who looked a bit like the character Yoda from the movie Star Wars opened the door, his face filled with a big, warm smile, as if I were his long-lost son who had finally returned home. He radiated a sense of happiness and kindness. He invited me in and offered me tea. In different circumstances, I might have felt that I was special or that he was especially fond of me. Jahampa Wangdu's compassion and warmth were genuine, but it became obvious to me that his affection was utterly free of personal attachment. I expect anybody would have been received in the same way. But knowing this did not make this reception any less sweet. It was an experience of unconditional love, the key to happiness in any circumstance. This is how reclusive contemplatives maintain their connection to others despite the isolation and hardships in their lives."
— B. Alan Wallace in The Attention Revolution

A Matter of Refinement

"Just as a hammer, a saw, or a pair of pliers each has a specific purpose, each of Buddhism's many spiritual practices is designed to work on some aspect of our character and inner life."
— Lewis Richmond in Work as a Spiritual Practice

"Plant a thought, harvest an act.
Plant an act, harvest a habit.
Plant a habit, harvest a character.
Plant a character, harvest a destiny."
— Minnetaree Indian Chant in What Is Enlightenment? by John White (ed.)

"To be whole means to rise beyond the need to pretend that we are perfect, to rise above the fear that we will be rejected for not being perfect. And it means having the integrity not to let the inevitable moments of weakness and selfishness become permanent parts of our character."
— Harold S. Kushner in How Good Do We Have To Be?

"Judaism regards improving character as the goal of life. As the Midrash teaches, 'The Torah's commandments were not given to mankind for any purpose other than to refine people' (Genesis Rabbah 44:1). The Rabbis did not say that it is one of the purposes of the Torah and its commandments to improve our character, but that this is their sole purpose.

"The guideline enunciated in this Midrash — 'to refine people' — gives each of us a standard for determining whether we are leading a morally successful life. Are we growing in honesty, kindness, and compassion as we grow older? If we are not more compassionate and empathetic at sixty than we were at twenty, we have lived a failed life.
— Joseph Telushkin in A Code of Jewish Ethics

"To grow spiritually requires that we do two things: reinforce our positive character traits and reduce our negative character traits. This takes self-awareness and learning. We need to know what our strengths and shortcomings are before we can decide how we want to use or change them."
— Abraham Twerski in Happiness and the Human Spirit

"If you have a few minutes today, draw a blueprint or outline for how you might like to redesign yourself. You can also list those overused parts of yourself that could stand to be removed, or draw up a list of your undeveloped talents and the parts of yourself that to date have been neglected."
— Edward Hays in The Old Hermit's Almanac

More Than Personal

"But 'egoless' does not mean 'less than personal'; it means 'more than personal.' Not personal minus, but personal plus — all the normal personal qualities, plus some transpersonal ones. Think of the great yogis, saints, and sages — from Moses to Christ to Padmasambhava."
— Ken Wilber in The Essential Ken Wilber

A Natural Expression

"Because our value is a gift, we don't have to prove ourselves, only to express ourselves, and what a world of difference there is between proving ourselves and expressing ourselves."
— William Sloane Coffin in Credo

"If only I'd known that one day my differentness would be an asset, my earlier life would have been much easier."
— Bette Midler in Lit from Within by Victoria Moran


"People of good character are not all going to come down on the same side of difficult political and social issues. Good people — people of character and moral literacy — can be conservative, and good people can be liberal. We must not permit our disputes over thorny political questions to obscure the obligation we have to offer instruction to all our young people in the area in which we have, as a society, reached a consensus: namely, on the importance of good character, and some of its pervasive particulars."
— William Bennett, American politician

Not Always Superficially Obvious, Even to Ourselves

"After washing away all the glitter and ecstasy, the truly great Zen people are not distinguishable in outward appearance. They are people who have experienced deep enlightenment and consequently extinguished all illusion, but are still not different externally from other ordinary human beings. Through zazen and kensho, you don't become a special person or a strange person, or an eccentric and esoteric character. You become a normal person, a real person, and as far as possible, a true human being."
— Elaine MacInnes in Light Sitting in Light

"Robert Johnson, the noted Jungian analyst, acknowledges how difficult it is for many of us to believe in our goodness. We more easily take our worst fears and thoughts to be who we are, the unacknowledged traits called our 'shadow"' by Jung. 'Curiously,' writes Johnson, 'people resist the noble aspects of their shadow more strenuously than they hide the dark sides. . . . It is more disrupting to find that you have a profound nobility of character than to find out you are a bum.' "
— Jack Kornfield in The Wise Heart

Not a Matter of Good Vs. Bad

"Many traditions attempt to assign specific attributes that are considered God-like in character. This has a limited application. Most of the time we connect attributes that are 'good' in nature: loving, kind, compassionate, gentle, peaceful, caring, and so forth. These, of course, are the characteristics of the way we would want God to be.

"However, there are many negative attributes that could also be associated with God, such as: jealousy, vengefulness, anger, sternness, ignorance, strictness, punishment, deception, and ambivalence. If we attempt to dissociate these negative attributes from God, then we are caught in the dilemma that there are parts of the universe where God does not exist — the 'bad' parts — and this leads to new levels of confusion, such as, "We are good and on God's side, while they are bad and hated by God." This is a terrible idea, and it continues to breed ignorance, pain, and suffering in our world."
— David A. Cooper in Ecstatic Kabbalah

The Result of Training

"Self-cultivation disciplines both body and mind, builds character and inner strength, curbs willfulness, and draws out the fullest potential of a person. It is central to Confucian educational process, Taoist psychosomatic training, Buddhist praxis based on precepts, contemplation, and wisdom, and the arts whether it be calligraphy, archery, painting, tea ceremony, floral arranging, or other cultural achievements."
— Taitetsu Unno in River of Fire, River of Water

"If we want our children to possess the traits of character we most admire, we need to teach them what those traits are and why they deserve both admiration an allegiance. Children must learn to identify the forms and content of those traits."
— William Bennett, American politician

"The nineteenth-century Musar movement . . . was designed to help its followers work on their midot, or personal character traits. Disciples were trained to seek out opinions of teachers, colleagues, and friends to find ways to improve their character. It was unusual to be called a donkey, but disciples would very likely hear constructive suggestions on how levels of kindness, compassion, honesty, sincerity, and self-discipline could be raised. The recipients of such suggestions were trained to take them seriously. It was a mark of maturity, and even joy, to find new and better ways to improve personal character. All the better to serve God and other humans!"
— Dov Peretz Elkins in The Wisdom of Judaism

"Yoga can give you greater access to your soul and more confidence about your body, and it can put bliss where anxiety used to be. The word itself means union: with the divine, with your true nature, with purest joy. Hatha yoga, which concentrates on the physical body, involved breathing practices, gentle movements, and static postures to make you strong, flexible, and balanced. In time, these become more than physical traits; they carry over into a strong character, a flexible attitude, and a balanced life."
— Victoria Moran in Lit from Within

"My first Buddhist teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, was once asked, 'Why do we do meditation?'
He answered, 'To polish our character.' "
— Shunryu Suzuki in Work as a Spiritual Practice by Lewis Richmond

Revealed by the Body

"In Remains of the Day, we saw Emma Thompson's character hiding her feelings of love for a man who could not show his feelings. But the camera sees right past the words into the human heart. All is revealed through the face, the silences, the body."
— Lucia Capacchione in The Art of Emotional Healing

Rooted in the Absolute

"No great, inspiring culture of the future can be built upon the moral principle of relativism. For at its bottom such a culture holds that nothing is better than anything else, and that all things are in themselves equally meaningless. Except for the fragments of faith (in progress, in compassion, in conscience, in hope) to which it still clings, illegitimately, such a culture teaches every one of its children that life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing."
— Michael Novak in "Ratzinger on Relativism," April 19, 2005, American Enterprise Institute

Sanctified by Grace

"There is a power which inspires the heart, enlightens the mind, and sanctifies human character. It is the power of Grace."
— Paul Brunton in Meditations for People in Crisis by Paul Brunton, Sam and Leslie Cohen (editors)

Shaped by Our Labor

"Work shapes our body, fills our thoughts and speech, stamps our character. The accountant bears the imprint from decades of vouchers as surely as the carpenter bears the weight from tons of lumber and the jolt from thousands of hammer swings. The plumber's forearms are speckled with burns from molten solder, and the banker's face bears a crease for every foreclosure. Whatever else we make through our labor, we also make ourselves. So we had better choose carefully what we do with our days, and how we do it, and why."
— Scott Russell Sanders in Writing from the Center

Shown by Adversity

"The right time to show your good character is when you are pestered by somebody weaker than you."
— Jatakamala 33:13 in What Would Buddha Do? by Franz Metcalf

"We often try to avoid disaster and fill life with order and meaning, but just as often life unravels all our careful preparations. At that moment we can complain, but I have found it is best to go with the loss and be educated by it. The willingness to stand in our ignorance gives us character and keeps us honest."
— Thomas Moore in The Soul's Religion

"Judaism talks about the thirty-six Lamed Vav, the unknown Just Persons who, according to the Talmud, are required for the survival of the world. Without them, it is said, the Holocaust would have marked the death of humanity itself. The rescuers, says one writer, 'saved the concept of the human being as capable of goodness.' "
— Marc Ian Barasch in Field Notes on the Compassionate Life

"The fact that others are not always loyal or loving inflicts the wounds that make us people of depth and character. Perhaps such wounds are graces since the holes in us can be openings to wholeness. And, most of all, we are thereby challenged to show an unconditional love."
— David Richo in The Five Things We Cannot Change

Strengthened by Gratitude

"Saying 'Thank you' is a character-building act. It develops a positive view of the person we love and also of the world."
— Daphne Rose Kingma in The Book of Love

"Some shamanic traditions in parts of Africa and the Oceanic societies attend to health and well-being through what is called cradling work, a four-part practice in staying connected to the good, true, and beautiful aspects of one's nature. In cradling work we lie on our back and place both hands over our heart (in many cultures hands symbolize healing). Silently, we acknowledge the character qualities that we appreciate about ourselves, we acknowledge our strengths, we acknowledge the contributions that have been made and continue to be made, and we acknowledge the love given and the love received.
In these societies mentioned above, this practice is generally done three times a day: once in the soft time of the day, morning; once in the strong time of the day, afternoon; and once in the subtle time of the day, night. Cradling work and the different times of the day remind us that we are soft, strong, and subtle creatures."
— Angeles Arrien in The Four-Fold Way

A Sure Sign of Authentic Awakening

"The surest sign of authentic awakening is the permanent transformation of character."
— Swami Adiswarananda in The Vedanta Way To Peace and Happiness

Unique to the Individual

"Each person possesses a unique admixture of psychological and intellectual qualities which form the basis of his own particular, unique contribution to the sanctification of God's name."
— Eliyahu Dessler in The Gift of Kabbalah by Tamar Frankiel

"Each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived."
— James Hillman in The Soul's Code