If you’re looking to live a peaceful life then a principled life provides the greatest levels of consistency and the most positive results overall. Yes, statistically the principled life can mean prices can be high, but the reward is the calm equanimity of a life with a peace of mind. So how do these principles work?
Keep in mind, this isn’t me reading a dictionary to you. This is my definition based on my understanding of how the human mind is wired up. A principle is like a conceptual limit. Anything outside of it would exist outside your definition of yourself. So if you don’t believe in murder, then imagining yourself killing someone would be highly unpleasant because the thought would conflict directly with your principles.
If you claimed to hold the principles stated above, then killing someone for money would be to sell your character. Because that deal means you’ll be forced to function outside the framework of the principles you claimed to have. As soon as you’re outside that line you’re behaviour lacks character and you are a wild card for the rest of the world and for yourself. A great deal of energy is expended in being this way because each experience becomes strictly an emotional outcome rather than the larger philosophical growth opportunity it could be. Because if we take enough of those growth opportunities and we add them together we eventually end up at wisdom. So if you’re operating from a basis of principles you can climb quite high in life. But if you’re only using your daily opinion then 20 years of experience gets turned into the same year re-done 20 times.
The reason wisdom is important is because our mood—our thought chemistry—can drastically impact how we’ll react to any given circumstance. Something that seemed reasonable 10 minutes ago can suddenly seem horrifying, or insane and the opposite’s true too. So we can’t be making decisions based only on how we feel, especially during a pique of emotion. Even the Dalai Lama will admit to having a temper. So we need something to filter out the kinds of errors we’ll make when we’re overly emotional: enter principles.
These are like pre-decided conceptual ideas. If you claim to value human life then you are in principle against murder. That means that when you get asked whether or not the government should be able to use the death penalty you know the answer must be no because yes would exist outside of your principles. Likewise, if you value human dignity then you would in principle want people to be treated with respect. And that would mean you that you absolutely would not take advantage of a date who was under any kind of influence. To the contrary you would protect them.
You can’t buy character. You pay for character. If you believe people should be treated equally, then character dictates that if you work for a CEO that lays off a bunch of low level employees and then he applies their salaries to the bottom line to boost executive bonuses, then you have to quit or figure out what charity you’re going to give that money to. Because spending it would be to allow one group to take advantage over another, and if you truly believe in everyone being treated equally then you know the money was obtained through unprincipled means and you have to find some reasonable way to get yourself back on-side with your principles.
If this sounds expensive sometimes it really is. But do not underestimate how much easier it makes life. Because when you see tortured people trying to make the “right” decision in some tense or difficult situation, you can just calmly look at it and know what the mathematics of your principles would dictate and your answer would be spit out by your pre-determined belief structure, rather than your current brain chemistry. That often leads to much better long term outcomes, and the nature of it means that you’ll do less actual thinking than the people who are trying to feel what the right thing to do is, rather than calculate it based on their carefully chosen principles.
Take the pressure off yourself. Set your principles and then live by them. You’ll be surprised at how good you feel when you pay a price to live up to them. It’s only then that you realize that most of the heroes in the movies and books and shows of your life have all been the one who exercised strong principles—even if you didn’t always agree with their values. But in the end, the closest thing anyone can consistently be is the decisions that emerge from their character. Their thoughts will change, their cells will change, but only by experience and by choice will their decision-making change.
Figure out where your lines in the sand are. What are your absolutes? Build yourself a framework of principles and then spend some time living with them. They’re trickier than you first realize if you’re serious about it. But after you fall into the habit they make a wonderful decision-making tool.
Here’s to easier decisions that are more in alignment with our values and which should therefore create more peace of mind and the opportunity to more deeply enjoy the very act of living. I wish you the very best.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.