Principle of Well Timed Action. Week 5
The Principle of Well-Timed Action” says: “Do not oppose a great force. Retreat until it weakens than advance with resolution.” We’ve spent the last few weeks examining some of the implications of this principle. We’ve thought about how it applied to situations in our past, and how it could apply today, and in the future. What follows is a personal and more wide-ranging reflection on my own attempts to transform the principles from slogans to a way of facing life.
A personal confession:
Principles as Platitudes
Some 40 years ago I was walking with a friend to a favourite bookshop. Just at the entrance was a notice board, posted among the announcements of things like, rooms for rent, cooking classes, and yoga courses was an odd looking sign. It consisted of a diagram indicating how certain ideas and experiences could interact resulting in new comprehensions. I didn’t really get it, but it caught my eye. Even more interesting to me was the list that followed under the heading “The Principles”. There I read those same principles of valid action that we reflect on each week. They seemed so simple and obvious, but also intriguing and somehow powerful. One of them seemed to speak to me most powerfully since it seemed to apply so well to a situation I needed to deal with. It was subject of our current meditations the Principle of Well-Timed Action.
I stood in front of that small poster for some time and then drew my friend’s attention to that list of principles. I recall her response vividly, not that I remember these things word for word but the tone was unforgettable, quick and clear. “Platitudes. Just empty phrases. The kinds of things everyone just says”. My response to her was less incisive. Somewhat taken aback I replied “No they’re simple ideas but behind them is something very smart.” After 40 plus years of reflecting on these platitudes/principles and trying to apply them — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — I have come to certain, at least provisional, conclusions.
First, she was right these are platitudes, i.e. as the dictionary has it: remarks or statements, especially ones with a moral content, that have been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful. A clever young person with a steel-trap mind she had chosen just the right word to express her insight.
She could have said cliche, banality or even that they were hackneyed bromides. Any of these would have expressed her intent, and would have been, I think, correct. I don’t say this for effect — I have come to agree with her assessment. The phrases we were gazing at were just that. But — perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear — I think I was right too. Not because they are not platitudes, but because that they can become more than that. And all it takes is another platitude laden comment to tell us how make that happen.
Fetish or Mental Direction
“You get what you give”. That’s it. From that point of view it’s not the “principles”, not those particular 12 points, that are so powerful. It could be 16 principles or 6 or maybe even one. As I see it the principles as statements, as words on a poster, or slogans are in themselves worthless. Thinking they are intrinsically valuable is to take things that are really peripheral or incidental and mistake them for something that is central or operational. The principles are not what is important to this.
What counts here are two things. The first is what we could call the “mental direction” implicit in those slogans. Its kind of obvious that there is a different mental direction inherent in saying something like “smash all resistance” or saying, “Do not oppose a great force. Retreat until it weakens than advance with resolution.” The second important point isn’t what’s given in the the principles but what isn’t in them. What does the principle mean? How do I apply it? How do I know if it’s a “great” force? How do I retreat or advance? What is resolution? The lack of obvious answers to those questions, and so many others, is not a short coming of the principles. Digging relentlessly into your own experience, consistently struggling to transform these slogans into the coherent expressions of a particular mental direction, those are the kinds of things that can convert platitudes into principles.
If you have personal reflections on the principles it would be great if you sent them along. I’ll try to include them in these postings. So for the next one if you have thoughts about this principle I’d appreciate hearing from you.
I hope you find these comments of interest. This brief note has also been posted to the email list and the Facebook page for The Community of Silo’s Message, Toronto Annex.