Moving Beyond Principles (WFL 7)

(An excerpt from Walking a Fine Line: Being Professional in the New Age, a book I wrote in the early  90’s that’s been living in my closet.)


I once took a class in Transpersonal Psychology, when I went to the University of Michigan, back in the late 80’s.


Using a fascinating culture depicted in Ursula Leguin’s Always Coming Home as a model, 18 students formed a group.  The wealth of the group and its members was determined by how much was shared.


Just as Ursula Leguin so beautifully demonstrated in her book, the more we shared, the more wealthy we became as individuals and as a class culture.  For quite a long time, we shared poems, songs, works of art, thoughts and experiences, and we enjoyed the harmonious, supportive and nourishing group environment.  We were all greatly inspired, and for the most part, whenever we shared from our inner wells of creativity, we felt spiritually received and understood by those around us.


We experienced no conflicts in our group until the topic of abortion came up.  Actually, I raised the issue.  I had written a poem about an experience I had defending an abortion clinic, and I shared it with the group.  The poem reflected my mixed feelings about participating in such an action.


Although I felt strongly about supporting a woman’s right to choose at the time, I was also deeply disturbed by the warring atmosphere the event generated.  The “pro-choicers” and the “pro-lifers” were all at each other’s throats.  Wearing bands and symbols which made it clear whose side they were on, the two armies, each sure of their cause, strategized and planned to defeat each other.  I had an especially difficult time making peace with the fact that my own “army” seemed just as self-righteous and dogmatic as the opposing army, and found myself engaging in conversations with the ‘other side’, in a (perhaps futile) attempt towards mutual understanding. (What are you gonna do? I was an idealistic 18 year-old.)


My intention in sharing the poem with my class was not to discuss abortion, but to use my experience as a metaphor, a way of shedding light on the dynamics of war and the prices all people pay when they stick so solidly to their principles that they are blinded to the humanness of their “enemies” — both inner and outer.


To my surprise, a very heated dialogue about abortion developed in the group.  For the first time in the class culture’s history, strongly opposing opinions and feelings were expressed, and the general atmosphere turned from one of ease and mutual affirmation to one of tension and confrontation.  Since group members were accustomed to communicating with each other through the computer systems outside of class hours, a hot and heavy discussion unfolded on the screens before us.


Just when I was feeling most confused — and in a way misunderstood — by the group’s intense reaction to my sharing, our transpersonal psychology professor, a very wise man named Richard Mann, wrote a response which has stuck with me to this very day.  In his response, he shared with us the true story I will now share with you.  I have probably left out or changed the details because it has been a long time since I heard the story, but the essence is here:


One day, a very wise guru was sitting in his office providing spiritual counseling for couples seeking guidance.  His assistant, who was present during the sessions, witnessed all that took place between the guru and his devotees. 

In the morning, one particular couple who was contemplating getting an abortion went into the guru’s office to ask him for advice.  When they came out of the room, the translator went over to Richard Mann and whispered, “Wow! I had no idea our guru was so opposed to abortion.  I’ve never seen him so furious with anyone before.” 

Later that day, another couple contemplating making the very same choice went to the guru for help.  When they left, the assistant came out of the guru’s office looking even more surprised.  She went over to Richard Mann again, and this time she said, “Wow!  I had no idea our guru could be so supportive of a couple’s decision to get an abortion!”


Somehow this story helped me out.  It helped me to move beyond the stiffness of  principle and into the fluid truth residing in each unique moment and situation.  Although principles and philosophies can provide all of us with valuable guidelines for living, they can also become prisons if we adhere to them with rigidity.


“I’d rather be true to myself than be consistent.”   

–Ram Dass


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