There is a lineage of wisdom for the every day. For nuns and monks in times gone by, they carried a Book of Hours that reminded them to pray throughout the day, to take time from their more mundane tasks and go within. This continuous referring to the spiritual was a way of reinforcing wisdom and clarity, hour by hour and day by day.
Proverbs are a way of passing scholarly and spiritual wisdom among the common folk and exist in every culture. We speak of listening to the still, small voice, settling ourselves so that we can listen. In meditation, we come back to the fullness of the present moment. In meditation master Thich Nhat Hahn’s communities, a mindfulness bell is rung at random times throughout the day.
Everyone stops what they are doing, become silent, breathe and pay attention. There is a synchronizing of outer and inner. All of these are paths to a deeper reality beyond the tyranny of anticipating the next thing and being hounded by the passage of time.
Can you believe that time was once viewed in segments and seasons before we wound our way into the age of atomic clocks and nanoseconds? Delineation of morning, afternoon, evening, planting time, harvest time was specific enough.
Time has become an end in itself, often disconnected from a larger perspective. It can be incredibly easy to forget where we are, what we are doing and why we are doing it. It’s as if we are driving a car on a six lane highway while trying to read a map and check the exits while speeding along. “Oops, was I supposed to turn there? Oh well, gotta keep going.” Our lives start living us.
Unifying principles: Umbrella of awareness
Unifying principles are loving reminders to ourselves and honor the wisdom stream within us. They are a way of tapping into where we are right now in our lives. They, in a sense, are our own personal mindfulness bells.
This can be especially helpful when working with mood disorders when mind can roil with harsh self judgement. The depressed mind can flicker between feeling no energy to do anything and heavy judgement about what “should” already be accomplished. Unifying principles can gently bring us back to what is right in front of us.
We usually have themes in our lives that reflect what we are currently working on. Maybe it’s an intention to be a better parent, or to move our bodies or to be more compassionate or to not leave our dirty socks on the floor. At first, we often try to bully ourselves into better behavior. But we are more trustworthy than that. Ever try to tell yourself you must go to the gym five times a week you lazy son of a gun. That approach doesn’t usually work well if at all. But beneath that self aggression is a longing in real time. A yearning to move or feel better or smell the autumn air. That is the voice we are looking for to shape a unifying principle.
Questions that help us find our unifying principles
What expresses your true nature? What gives life meaning? What is your heart’s desire? What is life giving?
What is at the center of your life? What opens your heart? What is most important to you? What is the glue that makes your life make sense?
Let me give you some examples to make this more real.
Think of times that you just knew what you wanted to do. Maybe you decided to go to dental school. A sudden knowing that this is it, this is what is right for me. Ever come down with the flu and find yourself fretting about work and projects? Then at some point surrendering to the reality, speaking kindly to yourself, “The office will manage without me, it will be all right, if you need me I’ll be curled up in bed.”
These are simple examples but easily access that voice of kind wisdom. In times of great uncertainty a unifying principle can be as simple as “Don’t know and that is okay.”
When explaining unifying principles I often share the example of being a new mom trying to start back to work. It seemed to take hours to get out of the house. More than once I found myself in a meeting and looked down to find baby goo on my shoulder. My unifying principle for several months was “Look into Alex’s eyes.” I can still feel it all these years later. Repeating the phrase look into Alex’s eyes, I would melt. I knew completely what was important to me. I knew all the random details would get sorted out. See the question list above. Look into Alex’s eyes was an answer to every one of those questions.
More specifically, in working with depression, it may be helpful to have a unifying principle that helps you stay in the present. For many, a simple reminder during a depressive episode has been “my brain isn’t working very well right now.” This simple reminder has helped to decrease dives into negative thinking whirlpools, assisted clients to remember that their state of mind is temporary and not their usual mind state. It’s allowed them to be gentle with themselves when their concentration is poor or they get easily overwhelmed.
So you see unifying principles don’t have to be fancy or scholarly. They only have to have meaning for you. Your own personal proverb. And it is perfectly fine to use favorite phrases from music or poetry, or an image. At another phase of transition in my life I had a picture of Captain Picard with the command “Engage!” beneath it. I adored that unifying principle. I smiled and felt encouraged every time I looked at it.
Unifying principles have a quality of: Satisfaction. A sense of “yes.” Goodness.
Simplicity and completeness. Coherence. Fullness.
Another way to state it is that your unifying principles trigger relaxation in your body and mind.
Unifying Principles and Schedule
Unifying principles are like the fine wine that is paired with a good meal. While we work with our basket of a week, scheduling our lives, unifying principles take on the quality of our own personal Book of Hours. We reflect on it several to many times a day.