The first is the most important, and that’s the concept of principles. Principles should and actually do guide everything in the universe. Principles are true to all human beings all over the world. They are unchanging, unarguable, and self-evident. They are those things that all of us know in our hearts to be true. Principles are not internal as we may think, they are actually external to us. We can fail to live up to our principles, but the principles themselves remain, forever unchangeable.
Principles may be in harmony with our values, but they may not be the same as our values. Values change — they are what we like from time to time. But principles are true and unchanging. Gravity is a good example. You may not believe in gravity, you may not understand gravity, you may not like gravity, but if you jump off a building, you will experience gravity. There is no way you can change that. We have to go to great lengths to escape its pull, but when doing so we don’t change the principle of gravity. Principles are natural laws that involve cause and effect. They are long term. What you do today because of your principles influences you and your family and the people around you for generations to come.
Principles are true for all religions. We think that principles would be different in two very different sets of philosophical views, but they’re not. There is a basic agreement in every culture about principles such as integrity, kindness, and honesty — we all know they are essential for a healthy society.
Practices, on the other hand, change. Practices are the things we do that change with changing times. We may do something differently because of new knowledge. For example, a long time ago they gave babies opium when they cried. Now that would be considered child abuse. Obviously that is not a principle, it’s a practice. In the midst of complexity we always seek security in practices, so it is very easy to teach practices. A nurse mechanically rubbing a baby in a nursery is an example of practice without principle; the underlying principle for the practice of infant massage is the bonding between parent and baby. You may get short-term value from practices; you may get limited benefits. Principles, however, give you long-term benefits — on every level — that never end. President Thomas Jefferson’s words are worth reflecting upon:
“In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
A paradigm is a way of seeing things; it’s the picture we have in our minds of how our universe works. It’s our best guess at how things are, our best assumptions about how things work, where people are coming from, and what is true.
Paradigms, though, may be based on inaccurate information. Let’s say I invite you to my house in Colorado, and I mistakenly give you a map with a misprint — it says, “Colorado” at the top, but it is actually a map of Illinois. You get in your car and you get lost because you do not have an accurate map. That’s what a paradigm is : it is our map of the territory. But the map is not the territory. So our paradigms are subject to updating. This is where we try to cultivate teachability or humility, the frame of mind where you think you know what is right, but you are always open to new information.
For the longest time, we thought that babies couldn’t see at all when they were born, much less see in utero, so we behaved accordingly. Then suddenly — seemingly overnight — we discovered they can see and actually they can see quite clearly. It shifted our paradigm of what the infant’s reality is — and that shift continues to happen over and over again.
As soon as we think we know all about an infant’s experience — what the world looks and feels like to them — we discovered they know and experience more than we thought. At one point we also thought babies couldn’t feel until a certain age — that they didn’t feel pain! That paradigm was very convenient for adults, but it wasn’t true.
We correct our paradigms by listening — to other people and to information that comes to us when we study, when we think deeply about what our paradigms are, and by trying to adjust them to what is current, what is real. We use our principles as a guide for doing that.
A MISSION IN LIFE
One of the most useful projects I have undertaken is to write a personal mission statement for my life. I wrote a personal mission statement several years ago, and every year on the first of January, I review my statement and make changes to bring it into alignment with what I understand to be my chief principles. I also review the past year, and evaluate what I did and how I expressed my stated mission in my everyday life. If there is an area that is being neglected, I try to understand why and figure out how I might address that aspect in the coming year.
My personal mission statement comprises my guiding principles. It is statement, in my own words, about how I wish to be in every area of my life. Throughout the year, as I plan all my activities and goals, I review this statement and ask myself, “Does this project, plan, or goal resonate with my mission in life?”
You probably already have an overall sense of purpose about being good person, serving humanity, maybe even realizing God, and so on. Breaking that general purpose down into specific behaviors can be very helpful — you will find yourself doing more thinking, less reacting. We are often pressured, cajoled, manipulated, and maneuvered into doing countless things that do not necessarily move us any closer to our goals, and that may, in fact, pull us away from our fundamental principles. Stating these principles can be the first step toward gaining the inner strength and courage to be what we really, truly want to be, deep down in our souls.
YOUR “FLIGHT PLAN”
I read Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller Airframe, and it made me think about my favorite analogy about mission statements: the flight plan. Most of the time a commercial aircraft is off course, but using feedback systems it corrects its course and reaches its destination, usually on time. In much the same way, a personal mission statement serves as a flight plan. It tells you where you want to go. It can provide a system through which you can receive feedback to keep you on purpose in spite of the many events and decisions that may cause you to veer off your original plotted route.
In thinking about this analogy, I wondered what would happen if two pilots with different flight plans tried to fly the same plane? The plane would probably get off the ground easily, but as the pilots settled in for the trip, power struggles would erupt as each tried to steer the plane according to his or her own flight plan. Unless some kind of synergy could develop, there would be a crash.
In addition to writing personal mission statement, many people find creating a mission statement with their partner is an exciting and fulfilling thing to do — especially if you have children. Questions you never thought of before will come to you as you clarify what is deeply important to you both. In most partnerships, a shared mission can be arrived at joyfully.
© 2015 Vimala McClure