Principles as Platitudes
I’m about to tell you a story I’ve told before, with various degrees of detail. It involves the very first moment I encountered Silo’s teaching. In a number of ways it foreshadows the essence of what would develop as my take on his message.
Some years ago (1974, I was barely 20 years old) 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 homemade sign. It consisted of a diagram indicating how certain ideas and experiences could interact resulting in new comprehensions. I didn’t really get it all, but it caught my eye. Even more interesting to me was the list of ideas that followed under the heading “The Principles”. It was my first exposure to those principles of valid action that we reflect on each week. They immediately struck me as both something simple and obvious, but also intriguing and somehow powerful.
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 her tone was unforgettable, her response 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 intelligent.” After more than 40 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. Still, she could have chosen other terms that would have fit. She could have said they were: cliches, banalities 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 really 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 suggest how to make that happen.
Fetish or Mental Direction
“You get out what you put in”. That’s about it; its not some rules or aphorisms its all about what you do with them. 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. We might say that the principles as statements, as words on a poster, or slogans are in themselves worthless. Thinking that they are intrinsically valuable is to take things that are really peripheral, or incidental, and to mistake them for something that is central or operational. Hence, a fetish — not in a sexual sense but sort of in the anthropological sense — i.e. something to which power is falsely attributed.
Two things count here, and have become the mainstay for the approach to the principles that we find in our weekly discussion and meditation. 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 “when opposed withdraw”, instead of, “Do not oppose a great force” or “Retreat until it weakens then advance with resolution.”
The second important point is not what’s given in the principles, but what isn’t in them. As soon as you give one of them more than a passing glance unresolved issues arise. Each of them overflows with unanswered questions. 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 shortcoming of the principles. On the contrary it is a great virtue. Digging relentlessly into your own experience, consistently struggling to transform these slogans into the coherent expressions of a particular mental direction. Developing a growing sensitivity to the registers of unity and contradiction. That is learning to recognize difference between what it feels like when my thoughts, feelings, and actions are coherent, and what it feels like when I’m at war with myself. Those are exactly the kinds of things that can convert platitudes into principles— and even transform principles into a way of life, an unending and dynamic meditation.