Principle 3. The Principle of Timely Action. First Week
Do not oppose a great force. Retreat until it weakens then advance with resolution.
Last time: More Meditations
This time: Another Tale or Two
We will spend the next four weeks considering, and discussing the third of the principles of valid action from chapter XIII of the book (The Inner Look). This week we will be looking at its overall structure and general implications, as well as whether, and in what ways it might prove useful.
At our next meeting we will discuss and compare our reflections.
Here’s some raw material that I hope you will find useful in your own reflections.
It’s been mentioned on other occasions that some of the principles seem closely related. For example, the way this principle along with the previous two all deal with our relation to a kind of dynamics, to forces in movement. I get the impression that I’m situated in, and part of, a changing environment where everything is in motion, and evolving. This moment is not simple, or linear. It is complex and cyclical. I understand these three principles as inviting me to learn how to sail these changing waters. Waters which, in certain moments, can indeed become very turbulent.
Silo said that we should keep in mind that this principle does not suggest retreating in the face of every difficulty or inconvenience life throws our way. Rather, it points out a way of advancing even when confronting an overwhelming force. So that even when we are certain that we cannot overcome this force (this situation, etc.) by facing it head on, we can advance indirectly, by getting out of its way – for the moment and then advancing.
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 the previous principle, one rarely knows 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 must how, and when, you “retreat”. The same also holds true for how, or when, you “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 that is rushing toward you kicking and shoving might not be the way to go. Perhaps retreating in that case is best understood as: “get off the tracks!”
In a previous discussion Jorge told us about a situation that relates to this month’s principle, and to this idea of varied forms of retreating. He described a time that he had used a joke that provoked laughter as a form of retreat, in the sense that it disarmed the tensions in a difficult and uncomfortable situation.
Game of the Week:
Perhaps after meditating on these general aspects of the principle, you can provide us with a new version of the principle or some aspect of the principle and name the captures its essence.
Two little stories that perhaps will cast some light on the principle:
The first is an anecdote I’ve told many times but which for me says something important 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 the Horse Crossed the River
Puzzled and uncertain, someone (whose name I won’t mention) once asked Silo about a situation where, as they tried to advance beyond a certain point in their internal work, they felt increasingly uneasy.
He answered their questions with an odd question of his own. “Do you know how a horse crosses an unfamiliar river?” Feeling confused they responded that they didn’t even know how a horse crosses a familiar river. To that Silo 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 used his knife to open 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 spoke: “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 vengeance.”
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.
Next week we’ll look at how the principle of timely action applied in our past. All of this is not just in order to deepen our understanding this particular principle, but also to begin to reflect more rigorously about our daily behaviour.
Learn to recognize the signs of the sacred within you and around you.
Silo, The Path
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.
Next week we’ll look at how the principle of timely action applied in our past. All of this is not just useful in order to deepen our understanding this particular principle, but more generally to cultivate increasing awareness of, and insight into, and our daily behaviour.
Illustration of the principle: Rafael Edwards
Painting of the Fisherman and the Genie: Elihu Vedder
These notes have been posted on Facebook and sent to our email list. You will also find them along with other comments, and reflections on my website: dzuckerbrot.com
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