Principle 3, First week
This month we will take as a subject of meditation “The Principle of Well-Timed Action” it says: “Do not oppose a great force. Retreat until it weakens than advance with resolution.” It can be found with the other Principles of Valid Action in chapter Xlll of the book The Inner Look by Silo.
We will spend the next weeks considering, and discussing this principle and its implications, whether, and in what ways, it can be useful. We will look at how I applied it or could have applied it in the past, how it might apply in my current situation, how I imagine it might in the future.
What’s With These Principles?
It can be hard to grasp the idea of a principle of behaviour that is not exactly a law, a moral obligation, or a threat. However, the Principles of Valid Action are not any of those things. Rather their importance is in how they help configure a way of approaching life based on registers of unity (agreement with myself) and contradiction. This internal unity is registered when my thinking, feeling and actions go in the same direction and aren’t warring with each other. That’s why the Principles are sometimes called Principles of Valid Action. A valid action, is unitive, ends in others, and is something we want to repeat.
Consider them sign posts toward a certain mental direction. I find it useful to think of them as a kind of instructive riddle or “moral” koan — the ethical equivalent of “what is the sound of one hand clapping”. Trying to figure out the hows and whys of their application not only reveals their power and depth but brings me to reflect more rigorously about my behaviour. And without proposing to directly that practice gives my life a new and different direction. In light of that I discover for myself how the principles can be woven into a discipline that I can practice at every moment of my life, a kind of dynamic meditation.
We’ll start by focusing on the general structure and implications of the principle. This week’s meeting will give us an opportunity to discuss our thoughts, doubts, questions, and insights about the principle and its possible applications
General considerations about this principle
Perhaps the first thing to note is that this Principle is clearly related to the previous one (When you force something to an end you produce the contrary). Like principle 2, the principle of action and reaction it does not suggest retreating in the face of every difficulty or inconvenience life throws our way. In this case we find a tactic that can be applied when confronting an overwhelming force. That is, when we are certain that we cannot overcome this force (this situation, etc) by facing it head on we get out of its – for the moment.
Retreating before small difficulties weakens us. It makes us timid and afraid. On the other hand not retreating from very powerful forces sets you up for all kinds of accidents and disasters. So it’s important to evaluate these things carefully.
Of course, and this is another factor clearly shared with principle 2, one often doesn’t know beforehand whether a difficulty is simply that – something you can overcome and which in doing so will make you stronger – or if it is a “great force”. What seems appropriate then is to test it out. To shove back at it but in a way that doesn’t commit you to moving forward or not. Increasingly strong actions on your part allow you to gauge the situation more accurately.
Just as how to sound out the strength of the force varies from situation to situation so will how and when you “retreat”. The same also holds true for how or when you will “advance”. The Principle cannot address every specific instead it offers a useful maxim. If you can forgive the “violent” example, it’s like in some of the subtler martial arts where they talk about things like “yield to hard, hard to yielding” in that context “get out of the way of that punch, and then shove them once they’ve lost balance, encouraging them to continue in that direction”. In the case of confronting a freight train rushing down on you kicking and shoving might not be the way to go. Perhaps retreating in that case is best understood as: “get off the tracks!”
So here’s two little stories to illustrate the idea. The first is an anecdote to illustrate something about the attitude of “retreating”. The second is an old legend perhaps best known as one of the many interwoven tales of the 1001 Nights (or Arabian Nights, or more formally Tales of a Thousand Nights and a Night, or the Stories of Sheherazade, etc). The version I used here is loosely based on Andrew Lang ‘s 1819 translation titled, The Arabian Night’s Entertainments.
How a Horse Crosses the River
Puzzled and uncertain, someone once asked Silo was about a situation where they found themselves unable to advance beyond a certain internal situation no matter how they tried. He responded to their questions with an odd question of his own. “Do you know how a horse crosses an unfamiliar river?” They responded that they didn’t even know how a horse crosses a familiar river. He said, “It doesn’t plunge in. It steps forward with one foot and feels around until that foot is secure. It then places the next making sure it is secure before advancing further. And it proceeds in that way until it is across. Nothing dramatic is required, on the contrary.”
And here’s the legend:
The Story of the Fisherman
Sire, Scheherazade began, there was once a poor and aged fisherman who had three sons. Every day he would go to the shore and cast his nets. Over the years his catch had proved enough to sustain him and his sons – but barely. One day after twice pulling in an empty net he was overjoyed to feel the weight as of a good load of fish. Though he had been feeling tired the promise of a good catch filled him with renewed energy and he quickly hauled the net to the shore. When disappointment struck it was almost overwhelming. The rotting remains of some old dog was all he had caught.
Lamenting his luck the pious fisherman prepared to cast the net a last time and he cried out to the sky, “The mercy of Allah has no limit. Who knows what he has written for me.” And with little hope he once again cast his net.
Then he threw his nets for the fourth time. When he thought he had a fish he drew them in with a great deal of trouble. There was no fish however, but he found a yellow pot, which by its weight seemed full of something, and he noticed that it was fastened and sealed with lead, with the impression of a seal. He was delighted. “I will sell it to the founder,” he said; “with the money I shall get for it I shall buy a measure of wheat.”
Curious to see what it contained he took his knife, and opened it. There seemed to be nothing inside – but why seal an empty vessel he thought setting it down in front of him. Suddenly he jumped back as a cloud of thick smoke began to pour out of it. The smoke rose up to the clouds, and stretching over the sea and the shore, formed a thick mist, which caused the fisherman much astonishment. When all the smoke was out of the jar it gathered itself together, and became a thick mass in which appeared a genii, twice as large as the largest giant. When he saw such a terrible-looking monster, the fisherman would like to have run away, but he trembled so with fright that he could not move a step.
“There is no god but Allah and Solomon is his prophet. Oh Great lord Solomon, cried the genii, “I will never again disobey you!” At these words the fisherman said: How can you speak such nonsense everyone knows Solomon has been dead now many long generations and Mohamed (blessings and peace upon him) is the final prophet. Are you making fun of me or are you crazy.”
At this, the genius glared at the fisherman and said. “Silly? Crazy? Speak more civilly to me” he said, “before I kill you.””Alas! why should you kill me?” cried the fisherman. “I have just freed you; have you already forgotten that?”
“No,” answered the genii; “but that will not prevent me from killing you; and kill you I most certainly will.” “But what have I done to you?” asked the fisherman.
“It must be so” said the genii, “and if you would know why, listen to my story. My name is Shar. I was one of those genies who rebelled against the Solomon the king and prophet. To punish me, he shut me up in this vase of copper, and he put on the leaden cover his seal, which is enchantment enough to prevent my escape. Then he had the vase thrown into the sea. During the first period of my captivity I vowed that if anyone should free me before a hundred years were passed, I would make him immortal. But that century passed, and no one freed me. In the second century I vowed that I would give all the treasures in the world to my deliverer; but he never came.
“In the third, I promised to give him my strength, my power and my wisdom; but that century passed away as the other two had done, and I remained in the same plight. At last I grew angry at being captive for so long, and I vowed that if anyone would release me I would kill that person at once. That person is you and nothing can save you from my vengance.”
The fisherman replied. “What an unlucky man I am to have freed you! I implore you to spare my life.” “I have told you,” said the genie, “that it is impossible. You are just wasting time asking.” The fisherman knew that his fate depended on his being clever. So he devised a plan which he clung to like a shipwrecked sailor might cling to a plank that happened to float by. “Since I am about to die,” he said, “I must ask that before you kill me to first explain something that I do not understand about your story. On your honour tell me if you really were in that vase? I really cannot believe it. That vase could not contain one of my hands. How could your whole body go in it? I will not believe it possible unless I see you show me.”
Then the genie began to change himself into a column of smoke, which, entered back into the vase until there was nothing left outside. Then a voice came from the vase which said to the fisherman, “Well, unbelieving fisherman, here I am in the vase; do you believe me now?”
The fisherman instead of answering took the lid of lead and quickly sealed the vase with it. On realizing he was once again trapped in his prison the genie began to scream and threaten. Then he started to plead for his release. The fisherman ignored both the promises and the threats. Faced with the threat of being thrown back into the sea the genie swore loyalty to the fisherman with a powerful oath.
These notes have been sent to the email list and Facebook page of The Community of Silo’s Message Toronto Annex, as well as here.
We’d all love to hear your comments, thoughts about, considerations of, or artwork inspired by, any of this.
PS. Since they made these notes twice as long and always contained the same information I’m no longer including the general information about, the principles, materials, parks, etc that were included each week. You can find more info at the Silo Net website and here at The Silo’s Message website.