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Selected Presentations

Brian Hawker (September 17, 2017)

What Are Principles?

In the last year of my B.A. my Educational Philosophy professor returned a paper to me with the comment, “I have to stop reading this paper because what you are saying is nonsense. You are using words recklessly, with no real understanding of their meanings. D minus.”  I found her comment a bit harsh but since then, I keep hearing her voice when I express my opinions about something. I learned that words, certainly most words outside the hard sciences, don’t have clear or universal meanings.

A little programming note here. I am going to say some things that many of you will disagree with. Please make note of your disagreements so we can discuss them after the service. I always learn from intelligent people who disagree with me.

In university I learned a new vocabulary that I never heard at home. I started to show off, throwing these new words around as if I understood what they meant – words like eclectic, existential, rhetorical, subconscious, hegemony, esoteric and phenomenology. . . . . . .  . “I just started going out with this wonderful woman. We have this great existential relationship.”  No, I didn’t. It wasn’t existential. It was hormonal.

I have a problem with words, especially nouns.  I used to use nouns with conviction but lately I have come to doubt the meanings of the words I use.  At aged 72 I have decided that I don’t know very much. This is not false modesty. I mean it. Not only is the world changing as we sit here, knowledge is being shaped by many with personal agendas and their voices are loud. It’s confusing. What I thought I knew yesterday doesn’t seem to carry much weight today.  Living a principled life hardy seems practical or realistic and certainly not easy.

The search for truth and meaning, sometimes even just to understand a single word, takes me in many different directions.  I take very little at face value anymore.  I will pursue the meaning of a word until I think I understand it and more often than not, I end up not understanding it but I do this anyway because the search energizes me. It may also provide me with an excuse to procrastinate, but I digress.

Last spring, the Sunday Services Committee was having a meeting at Burna and Jim’s house. We were brainstorming ideas for the upcoming year and we decided that we would focus more intensely on our Unitarian Principles. That’s when I chimed in that the word “principle” did not have a clear meaning for me at which point, Margie, being an excellent delegator, said, “How would you like to do a service on the word “principle”. Margie is not an easy person to say no to. If she thought I could talk for 20 minutes on a single word, how could I refuse such perceived confidence in my ability? So I said yes and here we are.

When I talk about a principle, how do I distinguish it from a rule or a value or a law? Dies this question matter? The search for meaning can even induce a type of Attention Deficit Disorder that can ruin your day. Here’s a simple scenario. I’m looking for my keys. I look in my office. They’re not there but while I’m there I notice that my waste basket is full so I take it to the garage and while I’m in the garage I notice that my bicycle tires are soft so I get out my little compressor to pump them up and while that’s happening I remember that I have to fix the leaking faucet in the garage so I get my vice grip and tighten it and that reminded me that the garden needs to be watered. And so it goes. My mind is working pretty hard but I still don’t have my keys. This kind of crazy search, practically, can lead to disaster. I would be terrible ER doctor. Speed is not my thing. Patients would die while I wondered why they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Do you ever have that experience, being distracted from what you started out to do?  This also happens with me and words, mostly nouns. 

A more complicated scenario is trying to find truth. The English language looks for precision. It matters little that consensus-based precision may be extremely difficult or impossible or not even desirable. Speakers of English are more confident in their understanding of an event or a process if they can attach a label to it. As soon as something is perceived, it is named, interpreted, compared with something else, liked, disliked, called good or bad and ultimately accepted or rejected. This dualistic way of looking at things leaves little wiggle room for appreciating the dynamic nature of the grey area where most of life happens. Any definition, by definition, limits what it defines. When we take information and mix it with our assumptions as to how it can be interpreted, we risk marginalizing certain aspects of meaning that are important to a more complete understanding. Dictionary definitions of the words “art”, “woman”, “Indian”, “Education”, “democracy” and “poverty” are okay but they leave me unsatisfied.

Our understanding of the words “order” and “right” and “good” are not universal, no matter how often our meanings are written down. And therein lies the problem. In my opinion, two perspectives on anything aren’t enough which makes a single perspective even worse.

Understanding what’s going on in the world is becoming more difficult. The airwaves are full of fake news and alternative facts and rhetorical sensationalism and political correctness and cognitive dissonance that’s enough to drive anyone to drink or go live in a cave. Where is our common literacy if anything goes, everybody is an expert on everything and I don’t have to listen to you if I don’t agree with what you’re saying?

Specialists love nouns that they use to fill up categories and create classifications. They shut out most of the world except for their area of expertise. Perspective gets lost. “Facts” replace understanding. And knowledge, split into a thousand isolated fragments, no longer generates wisdom. Remember wisdom? Every science, and every branch of philosophy, has developed terminology intelligible only to its followers. As we learn more about the world, we find ourselves less capable of expressing what we have learned. The gap between life and knowledge has grown wider and wider. Those who govern cannot understand those who think. Those who want to know can’t understand those with the knowledge. We have the paradox of unprecedented learning existing side by side with ignorance. We adults don’t really worry about this. We’re okay. We’ve figured out most things but I worry about children and youth because in my work I have met far too many who are very lost and are at risk.

If I throw out these words and ask you to think of the first thing that comes to mind, I have no doubt we would end up with different understandings.

  • Communication
  • Truth
  • Love
  • Go forward
  • Conservative
  • Alt right
  • Populist
  • Neocon
  • SJW
  • White Privilege
  • Liberal extremist
  • Racist

We would agree on the labels but not the definitions. 36m people call themselves Canadian. A common definition escapes us. Not everyone likes hockey or Gord Lightfoot or corn on the cob.

It has been a worthwhile exercise for me to try to define the word Indian.  I still don’t have a satisfactory definition but I have had a great time trying. The search has opened up a whole new world for me.

I think our understanding of the word communication has become fuzzy although this is an example of where the dictionary definition is quite good. The root of the English word “communicate” is a Latin verb meaning “to make common.” It doesn’t describe a message-sender delivering facts or information or expertise to a message-receiver, on the assumption that the message is welcome, accurate, easily understood, and interpreted according to a common view of the world. Communication is not that simple. It has a creative element, one which reflects our ability to surprise ourselves by saying or writing something that has never been said or written before.

The noun “Education is defined as the teaching of the most important values and critical thinking skills in order to produce informed, productive members of society”, etc., etc. Whose values? Do we agree on what kind of society we all want? I’m not so sure that all Quebecois  and Indigenous people have the same values as other Canadians. I don’t find the definition adequate. And I am not alone. In one of the sub-dialects of Cree, there is a morpheme in the middle of their word for education that means “cry”.

Let’s take the word fascist. Is being a fascist always a bad thing? When it comes to homework junk food and screen time wouldn't all sane parents admit that there are times when nothing works like a confident dictatorship? Of course there are fascists who have committed unspeakable crimes but I am uncomfortable in situations where we replace engagement with name-calling.

Let’s take the word depression. Is depression simply serotonin deficiency? In our culture we see emotional illness as something that happens from the neck up. In some cultures it is defined as an inability to respond to social expectations. Today, in Japan, people who used to experience what used to considered culturally normal states of melancholy are now being given Paxil. If a flower is dying, we don’t try tofix the flower. We take a close look at the garden. Depression is often a perfectly normal response to an abnormal set of circumstances.

Curiosity is a great noun easily translated into a verb. It comes from a verb that means to care and caring is at the core of the Golden Rule.

What is love? How many hundreds of definitions are there? I think, first and foremost, that love is listening with every fibre of my being. I’d like to know how you define it.

Sometimes words have contrary meanings. When Andrea says to me, “Honey, you left the stove on or Honey, you left the garage door open”, I know she doesn’t mean “Honey.” “Honey” means something very different, especially if she adds the word “again” after reminding me about the stove or the garage door.

We wield nouns like weapons. Naming comes with a confident sense of understanding the world and everybody in it. “Nounism” is a way of “declaring things solid”. Nouns are the language of certainty, of things that can be grasped and dealt with. This distorts how we see the world, adding meaning to certain things that they don’t deserve. Convenient made-up nouns like “globalisation” and “recession” implicitly represent complex ways of seeing and relating to the world but simply using these labels collapses complexity. They oversimplify and make it easy to avoid any idea of human responsibility. The most knowledgeable among us are those with the largest lexicons of labels. Gifted with impressive memories, they are the quiz show winners.

Nouns give us a false sense of control over reality. If I sound like I know what I’m talking about, I feel less like a victim of circumstance but that doesn’t change the fact that I am still a victim of circumstance and I have to play the cards I am dealt. I didn’t get to choose the deck.

Words that are nouns used as labels often polarize and separate us – atheists from believers, the NDP from the Conservatives, victims from criminals, Indigenous from mainstream and that category of words like right and wrong, good and bad that always get us into trouble because if my good is your bad, we can end up putting on the gloves and meaningful dialogue stops. So it’s not just nouns or I should say the overuse of nouns that bothers me. It’s also the overuse of many adjectives that support disagreement more than reconciliation.

Our English vocabulary has millions of words but our lexicon is still not complete. What verb means simultaneously both giving and receiving? How often do WE emotionally benefit by helping someone?  It’s a perfectly normal human experience, cooking someone their favourite meal, teaching someone a new skill, comforting a child having a bad dream, helping a friend find a job. Charity is often self-serving. But acknowledging that we often receive when we give is just being honest with ourselves. We don’t have a word that means both.

I am a dreamer, an idealist. I believe in universal principles. But what if MY idea of universal principles is different from the idea of universal principles in Saudi Arabia or Japan or Nepal? They aren’t universal if there’s disagreement and where there is disagreement, there can be conflict, a dualistic way of seeing and once again, we will find inequity and persecution.

Here is one of my favourite examples which highlights how, over time, we have shifted the emphasis away from fluid movement, from verbs, from doing, to nouns, to categories which identify and isolate objects in space. The word “sage” is a noun that started out as a verb. It is from the Latin “sapere” (to taste). In its original form, “sage” was a process or gesture to take in the world. Originally, it implied that we make sense of the world and find wisdom by tasting. While watching and thinking may be helpful, it is internalizing what we experience that opens us to wisdom. History tells us that the shift happened in the time of Socrates who named the wise ones, the Seven Sages of Greece – Thales, Pittacus, Bias, Solon, Cleobulus, Myson and Chilon. There was great disagreement over which figures should be counted among the seven and disagreement over the number itself. Arguments arose. Soon the curiosity and wonder by which we receive and filter the “hymns of the universe” were ignored as attention moved away from the tasting of life to debating who the greatest tasters were. The noun meaning replaced the verb meaning and power was given to a small number of people instead of to a process available to everyone.

Our written tradition has become a crutch. In my youth, I assumed that there was no rigorous intellectual activity without reading large texts subject to review and challenge by experts with multiple academic qualifications. The written word, in all its forms, for many centuries, has provided guidance, direction, explanation and roadmaps to invention and social harmony. The first five books of the Bible, commonly called the Pentateuch (literally “five scrolls”) which comprise the Torah, were written by Moses almost 3500 years ago and have continued to influence not only religious practice but also cultural and literary expression. When we hear someone say “Legally, he did nothing wrong”, we are referring to words on paper, written laws given greater importance than the necessarily ambiguous area of ethics where dilemmas are resolved by discussion, not precedent. We have replaced the oral tradition with the unexamined power of the written word and too much bafflegab in the media.

Responding to injustice takes more than words on paper. Civil rights did not erase racism. Equitable hiring policies do not guarantee an equal workplace. Strict prosecution of sexual assault does not promise women safe streets. Gun control doesn’t stop violence. A scrapped Indian Act replaced by new rules will not transform our relationship with Indigenous people. The Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women will not guarantee the safety of living Indigenous women.

I don’t mean to dismiss all of this good work. Legislation has helped and research is interesting and often raises awareness but there is no guarantee these things will change behaviour.

We associate the word “principle” with free speech and as a result, anything goes in the media.  Even if so much free speech is simply incorrect, do we want to put limits on it? Would it still be free? Is it okay to deny the holocaust? This is a dilemma. Speech can be hurtful. Where do we draw the line? Is there a line? There is a lot of sensitivity around this subject right now. Are you an anti-Semite because you criticize Israel’s policies in Palestine? Are you a racist because you don’t like Black literature? Are you an Islamophobe because you criticize Islam. If so, does that make you a dogophobe if you don’t like dogs? No, you don’t hate dogs and you’re not afraid of dogs. You just don’t want to associate with dogs. The comfort derived from naming is misplaced.

What’s missing in discussions of free speech as an important principle is the absence of any reference to self-regulation. Some will disagree with me. Free speech fundamentalists will say there can be no limits because limits stifle free expression. I believe that free speech implies an intention not to lie because to intentionally lie would cheapen the principle. Some external regulation is a good thing. There would be many more car accidents if we didn’t have stop signs and traffic lights but regulating human behaviour and language is a slippery slope because consensus is impossible. What is the relationship between the rule of law, an important principle, and free speech, another important principle?  For me, these are delicious questions because they encourage conversation, argumentation, dialogue, listening at the deepest level to discover how we can accommodate diversity, even when our differences crash up against each other and make us uncomfortable. However, while civilized talking is good, taking concrete steps to hold ourselves and our elected politicians and our school boards and our newspaper journalists to task is what makes democracy work because we don’t get to criticize without participating. Being a citizen is not a spectator sport. But what does this mean, hold them to task? To me it means pushing the conversation into a focus on giving everybody the tools to auto-correct, to be independent thinkers who can construct arguments that hold up and de-construct arguments that don’t. To be able to spot a non-sequitur is a survival skill in a complex world. This is much more important than a rule about something we might call politically correct behaviour or about the unspoken rule that to get ahead you must do anything, no matter what, to win.

The noun Islamophobe raises a hot button issue right now. I think there’s some legislation now being discussed that would make Islamophobia illegal. It implies that there are people who are afraid of Moslems and are acting out their fear whereas I suspect that what people are afraid of is people who commit acts of violence and it doesn’t matter if they are Rosicrucians or  Zoroastrians or  Moslems,  Baptists, atheists or  Animists. There are those who appear to be “Islamophobic” and commit acts of violence against Moslems despite the fact that they have probably never spoken to one but I refuse to call them Islamophobes. I think of them as stupid just as I prefer to think of members of ISIS and hate groups as stupid. Their behaviour is not grounded in any universal principle. I prefer the word stupid because I believe I can more easily open a door to dialogue by proving stupidity in a purely secular sense than by attempting to prove that their religion is flawed. If it IS flawed, it’s up to the members of the religion to self-regulate. My suggestions will not be welcomed and will likely only inflame the conversation. However, if members of that religion or any other religion or a hate group or wall street bankers abuse their freedoms to exploit and harm others, we have a justice system that has its own weaknesses but compared to that in most countries, it is pretty effective and it would be more effective if we took rhetoric, name-calling and emotion out of the conversation.

I should mention that I suffer from various forms of stupidity. I feel stupid when I try to do simple plumbing jobs or when I try to understand the stock market or when the Help feature in my Windows program leaves me tormented with frustration. I am quite useless with technology. I often find women’s circular conversation style difficult to follow. They can talk about many things simultaneously and I can’t. I have tried to understand relativity, the warping of space-time, but I still don’t get it. I REALLY feel stupid when I try to play euchre. I can never get the difference between the Right Bower and the Left Bower. It’s okay for us to be stupid unless we hurt people we must de-stupify those who abuse our hard fought for freedoms. Naming is mostly shaming and it’s not effective. Naming someone a racist or misogynist or fascist is not ultimately helpful. I say “ultimately” because although it’s useful to name a problem, this is only a first step. A racist or misogynist or fascist or terrorist today will be the same person tomorrow, maybe even more entrenched in their dualistic way of looking at the world because they thrive on opposition. Engaging a person with knowledge and facts and stories with an emphasis on verbs to truly communicate has no guarantee of success but it doesn’t alienate and close the door. I understand that sometimes we need to lock people up but we could learn a lot from the restorative practices traditionally used by Indigenous peoples.

My caveat to taking the pacifist approach is that there are exceptions. Nelson Mandela believed in non-violent protest until he realized it wasn’t working and changed to support state terrorism that landed him in prison for 27 years but he proved ultimately that reconciliation must happen.

Maybe the word hate makes us feel uncomfortable but in a society that values free speech, it’s okay to hate Walmart, fossil fuels and the cattle industry. Of course, it’s trickier with people but we can’t legislate against a person’s thoughts. Legally, misogyny is not a crime. Sexual harassment or inciting hatred against women or any other identifiable group ARE crimes. Men are allowed to hate women. Why they would do so I can’t imagine but they have a right to exist. Marc Lepine, the man who killed 14 women at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989 was a misogynist who crossed the line and committed a massacre. However, to focus our attention on his hatred of women is to avoid facing the deeper illness in our society, that – big generalization – we are losing the ability to understand complexity, to think clearly, even advance civilization with higher order problem-solving or to put it more simply, understand that what we do with children from K to Grade 12 can make the difference in producing either unthinking and sometimes dangerous time-bombs or youth with toolkits that can face complexity with wonder and excitement. Rollo May said that everything we do, everything, is motivated by either love or fear and if our graduates are leaving school with phobias instead of love, we have dropped the ball.

These words, like racist and fascist and misogynist are nouns, convenient labels that may have some element of truth in them but we are not seeing any real improvement in the quality of the conversation by shouting these words. The labels divide the world into two groups, those who think like you and those who don’t. I look forward to hearing how some of you may disagree with this after the service.

Attaching labels can convince us we have answers, knowledge and even power. Not using definitions and labels as if they hold immutable truths presents us with uncertainty but when we become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up.

So I am declaring today that life is a verb, not a noun, that knowing is good  as a first step but doing is better because doing always leads to knowing but there is absolutely no guarantee that knowing leads to doing.

I am declaring today that I am a verb. But I am not the first to make this declaration.

In 1970, Buckminster Fuller said

I live on Earth at present, and I don't know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing . I am not a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe.

Here is a concrete example of the difference between a verb person and a noun person. Excuse the long preamble. I will get to the point.

In 1995, I worked on a needs assessment project to determine what the Crees in northern Quebec were going to do with their settlement from signing the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. I talked to everybody in their nine communities who had a job to find out what educational requirements ideally suited them for the jobs they were already doing. I wanted to find out what they knew and didn’t know about their work. This information was used to produce a thick human resource development plan. The Cree Regional Authority gave it to the provincial and federal governments so their settlement cheque could be written to close the deal.

What was the deal? The total compensation was $225 million paid by the Canadian and Quebec governments in exchange for 981,610 square kilometres of the James Bay/Ungava territory. The Crees got their cheque 20 years after the agreement was signed. I think $225m today would buy 150 houses in Toronto. In 1995, maybe 300 houses.  Anyway, one of the people I spoke to was a mechanic on his lunch break in the community of Waskaganish. I walked into the garage where he was sitting on a box carving a bird out of a piece of scrap wood. Not wanting to jump right in to my list of questions, I said, “So, I see you are an artist.” He said, “No, I just like carving wood.” I used a noun. He used a verb. I used a title. He used a process.

This mechanic’s way of looking at reality was very different. It’s based on a different principle and I started wondering who was more evolved.

The world is way too dynamic a place to allow us to think we understand anything, at least for very long, using terminology. This is why verbs, denoting continuous change and movement, are important.

For the Montagnais Indians, also known as the Naskapi or Innu, there are no nouns to describe the weather – no rain, no snow, no heat and no cold. There is no morning, or afternoon, or night. Rather there are verbs, processes of time and processes of nature. All is process. All is transformation. All is animation.

Here is another example. The syntax of the Mi’kmaq language coincides with a view of reality which exists in a perpetual state of oscillation, matter becoming energy becoming matter once again. There are speakers of Mi’kmaq who describe speaking English as like having to put on a straightjacket.

Fritjof Capra, who wrote The Turning Point in 1982, was on the same page. He said “Relativity theory has made the cosmic web come alive, so to speak, by revealing its intrinsically dynamic character...There is motion but there are, ultimately, no moving objects; there is activity but there are no actors; there are no dancers, there is only the dance."

These messages tell me that life is more about energy than objects/stuff and if we manage our lives by rules we will be stuck in the concrete world. Maybe I’m an anarchist but I think we have too many rules. There is no shortage of rules and regulations. We curtail the freedom of students who break the rules in their classrooms while at the same time elementary teachers have externally imposed rules they must follow adding to their already significant responsibilities. Employees are valued for following policies and precedent. Rules provide security. They are clear. You are following the rule or you aren’t and if you are, you are doing your job. This is not enough. Acting on principle requires a different and longer conversation. One understood principle, say RESPECT, can easily replace a hundred rules.

The Dalai Lama said “Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.”

Why are we so much less prepared to challenge those who undermine principles than those who break rules? We seem to lie catching rule breakers. There is a negative criticism that is nothing but complaining and projecting. There is a positive criticism that is all about hope and development.

Rules are important but they are not sacred. Principles are sacred. While it is true that rules can prevent chaos, confusion and even disaster, they also support and even ensure mediocrity when it becomes clear that doing things only by following rules generates the same poor results leaving social conditions unchanged. Living a principled life means, occasionally, ignoring or breaking rules. This takes courage but we have the Dalai Lama as a role model!

What is a principle?

A principle is defined as a noun, “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.”

Sounds good. But what happens when two fundamental principles collide?

Acting on principle, emphasizing its verb quality over its noun definition isn’t easy. Here is a domestic example. I have been known to take something out of the compost, brush it off and eat it. Hmm. That half a tomato still looks okay to me. This makes Andrea question my judgement. I say I’m following a principle that food should not be wasted. She will say that the principle she is following is that eating borderline rotten food is unhealthy. The discussion can get complicated. Who’s correct? Don’t answer that!

Here’s a more serious example, okay, a slightly more serious example. The Charter of the United Nations unequivocally honours the protection of sovereign nations from foreign intervention. It should have acknowledged that Ruanda was an exception. It didn’t and Romeo Dallaire was left stranded and unable to stop a genocide. The UN failed to break a rule in order to support the principle of intervening to establish peace and security and save lives.

Lately, I have been experiencing some cognitive dissonance around the word "tolerance". Tolerance is a principle but I feel motivated to be intolerant of the intolerant (Trump, white supremacists, jihadists, etc.) but if that simply adds to the intolerance quotient, I am not being the change I want to see, the philosophy Gandhi advised us to adopt. Would anything be accomplished? Non-dualism is a great theory but how does it stack up against those who thrive on the binary, dualistic, us vs them worldview, who play by a very different set of rules? I sometimes think of Indigenous people and their "turn the other cheek" approach to every broken treaty promise. Maybe I have missed something (very possible) but I don't believe it has served them to be tolerant. It’s changing but my hope is that it won’t be too little too late.

I believe there are such things as universal principles. We may not all be on the same page but we’ve got to start reading from the same book if we accept that we are all members of one human race sharing the same pantry of resources. This is serious. When I was in high school the world population was 2.5b people. Now it’s almost 7b, an increase of 4.5b in less than one lifetime, and I’m not dead yet.

Practising our Unitarian principles, as verbs, is not easy . Mystery and struggle are embedded in the practice. There are people in this world who do not believe in, for example, the Inherent worth and dignity of every person or Justice, Equity and Compassion for all and I need to figure this out because how can I be inclusive of the non-inclusive.  I don’t have enough ability to convert dualistic thinking people (It’s my way or the highway kind of people) into more integral way of looking at the world we share. They have figured everything out. I have nothing to offer them. Similarly, I do not believe in an eye for an eye but by the same token I don’t always want to turn the other cheek. I just don’t know. Sometimes I think there's reward in mystery, not knowing, but maybe some of you have figured this out.

I have a personal principle. I derive more satisfaction from doubt than from certainty.

Maybe the universal good is not understanding but standing under, being in awe of mystery and magic not in some New Agey sense but coming to that point from having done the homework, from engaging in rigorous study and still not reaching confident conclusions. This is hard work. It takes effort, not rhetoric or bravado or being the loudest voice in the room or exaggerating the importance of one’s academic credentials or ones apparent status in society. What is the principle? It's ultimately trying and constantly failing to answer the question what does it mean to be human? We don't want to think of ourselves as random, accidental, commonplace and we search for a complete answer that will never be completely discovered.

The first step in the practice of mystery is to is to accept that so much of life and the world around us is  baffling, curious, hidden, and inscrutable. I have learned to live with paradox. I have given up the idea that I can always “get it”. I am suspicious of any and all of the “ologies” that try to explain everything – from astrology to psychology to theology.

The practice of mystery enhances our understanding of the complexity of reality. It is an affront to the modern need to have answers to every question and our tendency to create tidy systems with a cubbyhole full of nouns for every problem and aspiration. Some people simply ignore the mysterious because it lies outside the hallowed precincts of reason and logic. The antidote to these reductionist approaches is to rest in the riddle of not knowing. If you sometimes think that answers are wisdom, it is time to try practising mystery.

I know an Elder up north who has figured out how to have the best life possible. Her name is Ruby. She teaches Ojibway and Oji-Cree at a distance education centre. She is a recovered alcoholic. She went to Lakehead University for her B.A./B.Ed. many years ago and suffered the indignity of racism in Thunder Bay, a city that still traumatizes many youth when they come out of the north to continue their education. I asked her one day how she had managed to overcome the obstacles she had faced. She said she used the Medicine Wheel to keep herself mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically in balance and she used the Seven Grandfather Teachings every day to keep growing.  She said that when she was drinking she lost her rudder but she found it again when she returned to her culture. She explained that she did this by putting the Seven Teachings – Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility, Wisdom and Truth on separate pieces of paper which she put in a bowl in her bedroom. Every morning she would choose a Teaching from the bowl and practised this Teaching all day. The next morning she would choose another Teaching and if she chose the same Teaching, that was perfectly okay. I guess you could say those were her principles and she had figured out how to turn the nouns of those principles into verbs.

We could each do the same thing. Make up our own Teachings, put them in a bowl and practise whatever those things are that we think we need to practise.


Wise people say wise things. I’m lucky. I’ve met many wise people like Ruby.

Here are some possible Teachings that I like:

  • friendship
  • kindness
  • patience
  • compassion
  • acceptance
  • courage
  • wonder

What does it mean to live a principled life? I am getting to know what it means for me but we are each the sum total of many different stories. We are all on our own path. Sometimes it’s lonely but it’s never boring.

The French philosopher, Albert Camus, said there was only one question – “Why should you not kill yourself” which sounds pretty dark but when I started to answer the question I realized that it was a great question and I made up a list of reasons why I should not kill myself. My answers had a lot to do with enjoying the fascinating and infinite bounty in nature and the amazing people I am still getting to know and the books I have yet to read and the challenges that test my ability and resilience but make me feel more alive.

Here’s another personal principle. I try to be an "honest hypocrite" – to admit that I struggle to follow the principle that I might be preaching. I want to be honest about how I fall short. I believe that admitting my inner struggles and conflicts and contradictions makes me more vulnerable and therefore more human.  I’d rather regulate myself than need someone to do it for me. I am a chatty person and I often talk more than act.

My professor was right. It’s not a good idea to pretend to know. I am not what I say but what I do.

What’s the point of all this? If I were to summarize what I have been rambling on about this morning, I would say it’s that the nouns we use and the adjectives we use to describe them are much less important than our behaviour but we are not simply conditioned creatures, responding to the demands of society. ehaviour is a cart, not a horse. It is a consequence, not a cause. It is an end, not a beginning. Behaviour is what we do, not why we do it. Behind the behaviour, there is a motivation, maybe a principle, and I will end with this principle contained in a story.

Many years ago, in my hippy days, I went to hear the famous yogi Swami Satchinananda Saraswati speak at a local church. He sat cross legged at the front on a small raised platform. There was incense of course and flowers. Some of the incense was definitely weed. The people there didn’t need Justin Trudeau to make it legal. The audience consisted of people in their late teens and early twenties and a few scattered old people in their thirties. He spoke very energetically, often laughing. He talked about how the goal and the birthright of all of us is to realize the spiritual unity behind the diversity throughout creation and to live harmoniously as members of "one universal family". This goal would be achieved by keeping our bodies healthy and strong, and our senses under control, and our minds clear and calm, and our hearts full of unconditional love and compassion and our lives filled with supreme peace, joy and bliss.

There were questions at the end which he patiently answered but he got tired and eventually said he would take one more question.  A woman stood up and asked, “Swami Satchinananda, before we leave tonight, can you give us one last simple message that you would like us to remember? He paused a little and then said in his musical sing-song voice.  Don’t be being a nuisance to yourself. Don’t be being a nuisance to others.”

Elders up north have this wonderful way of ending stories. They often just make the comment – That’s all I have to say.” So, that’s all I have to say . . . except, the next time someone calls you “Honey”, pay attention.

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