What Are the Three Principles?

One of the questions you somewhat predictably get when you’re involved with a field known as “the Three Principles” is “what are the Three Principles?” But the problem with the question is that it’s tempting to answer it with words – and words are woefully inadequate for the job. As the sage Lao Tzu said over 5000 years ago:

The Tao which can be spoken of is not the true Tao;

The name which can be named is not the eternal name.

But what then to do? Should we hold one finger in the air like the Zen master Joshu and say the word “Mu”, representing the infinite no-thingness of life? Or would it be better to answer the question by sending the seeker out into the woods to discover their own answers, encouraging them to find the wooden flute hidden inside the Bodhi tree?

While words are often inadequate, they’re also kind of what we’ve got to work with. And though they may never help us truly “eff the ineffable”, they can act like ​steam on the invisible man, allowing us to see the outline of what’s really there even without being able to fully articulate what it really is.

So…

You know that feeling of aliveness you sometimes get when you’re fully absorbed in a favorite activity or hanging out with some of your favorite people? Your eyes spark up and start to twinkle, and you’re filled with good feelings and an enthusiasm for life that may seem all out of proportion to what’s actually going on in the moment?

That feeling is an experience of the principle of Mind – what the theosopher Syd Banks described as “the energy of all things, whether in form or formless.” That energy is always surrounding us and running through us, but it can get more or less obscured depending on how caught up we are with the content of our moment by moment thinking. It’s the electricity we feel when we connect deeply with another living thing – the animating force that separates the quick from the dead.

And you know how sometimes you just know things without knowing how you know them?

That’s the principle of  Mind in action. When something new occurs to you, it occurs via the deeper Mind. Or to put it another way, when you’re in a creative flow, what comes to mind comes from Mind.

I sometimes talk about the principle of Mind as the intelligence behind life, in the sense that it seems to act as a sort of an organizing principle, insuring that acorns become oak trees, planets and stars almost never bump into each other, and nearly every time you open your mouth to speak words come out, even if you had no idea what you were going to say before you said it (and even if you regret having said it a few moments later… :-)

Have you ever wondered how it is that you can close your eyes and still know that the world hasn’t disappeared? And how in fact, sometimes when you turn your attention inwards the world feels even bigger than when you’re looking out into it?

That feeling of spaciousness is the principle of Consciousness – what Syd Banks described as that which “gives us the ability to realize the existence of life.” It’s the space of meditation – the sky within which the clouds of thought create the weather of feeling and the sunshine of the deeper Mind brings everything within it to life. It’s “the blue” out of which new ideas come and never before thought thoughts arise.

It’s consciousness that’s allowing you to read these words and make sense of them in your own mind. It’s that within you which notices that which is around you – the blank page that invites you to scribble all over it and brings those scribbles to life with the skill of a Hollywood special effects department.

And what makes up those scribbles?

The principle of Thought in action. Sometimes people attempt to dismiss an intense experience as “just a thought”, but that’s like saying a nuclear weapon is “just a bomb”. Thought – the creative force – is the most powerful scribbling pen in the universe. It lets us create heavenly, transcendent experiences when our circumstances are hell, and can make us feel like hell even when we’re resting on a king-sized mattress in heaven.

Together, the principles of Mind, Consciousness, and Thought create our reality. And in order to learn how to make better use of them, we first have to glimpse the fact that we’re made up of them.

One of my more memorable teaching experiences came a few year’s back when I was working with a group of coaches in New York City and someone asked a question about “the limitations of the three principles as a model for coaching”. After letting the conversation run for a bit, I jumped in and pointed out that while any coaching model is inherently limited, the fundamental principles of Mind, Consciousness, and Thought are the very things that make our own creative power unlimited.

I got on a bit of a roll, as I am sometimes wont to do, and before I stepped back off my soap box I completed my rant with a line that my then sixteen year old daughter immortalized by tweeting it out from the back of the room:

With all my love,
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