Archive for October 26th, 2020

There are spiritual principles, or what some call human values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well-intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems, but good intentions and practical knowledge are usually not enough. The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures. Leaders of governments and all in authority would be well served in their efforts to solve problems if they would first seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them.

(Universal House of Justice: The Promise of World Peace – page 9)

Four years ago I posted a sequence titled ‘From Veils to Values’ which included quotations from Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl and Kelly G. Wilson’s Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I was focused on the idea of withdrawing our identification with false ideas of our self. To help people step back from such identifications Hayes at al liken the mind to a chessboard. We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board.

The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.[1]

They place store by this aspect of the self, the one that remains the same as changing experiences flow past: they call it the observing self and believe, rather implausibly, that it derives from language. They believe that operating from the observing self enables us to unhook ourselves from disabling scripts and discover, choose to live by and enact our deepest values in spite of all the discomfort that inevitably attends upon such a commitment. Our lives become value- rather than language-centred.

In my draft of the post on my laptop I included a footnote which read:

Their thinking in this area is influenced, I think, by someone they don’t acknowledge in their references anywhere as far as I can so far tell. Stephen R. Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon & Schuster: 1992), has a Chapter on Principle-Centred Living (Habit Two: pages 97-144) interestingly titled ‘Begin with the End in Mind.’

That chapter deals at length with the importance of rooting your life in true values. More of that in a moment.

Time Management

What is of interest to me now is that in a conversation recently I was trying to help someone work out what their priorities should be if they were to disconnect from a chronic sense of anxiety about all the possible things they should be worried about. As I spoke I remembered a two-by-two table in Covey’s book.

I promised I would scan the table from the book and send it them. As I flicked through the pages I noticed a number of highlights, many of them to passages of which I had no memory at all. Not really surprising since it is 27 years since I read the book.

When I found the table I was looking for and read quickly through the surrounding text I realised there was an important, somewhat counterintuitive point about the way to use the table that I had completely overlooked:[2]

Effective people stay out of Quadrants III and IV because, urgent or not, they aren’t important. They also shrink Quadrant I down to size by spending more time in Quadrant II.

Quadrant II is the heart of effective personal management. It deals with things that are not urgent, but are important. It deals with… all those things we know we need to do, but somehow seldom get to doing, because they aren’t urgent.

This enables us to ‘think preventively,’ to be truly proactive, in a way that saves us from time-consuming remedial work at a later date, and more importantly enables us to truly match our efforts to our most important priorities, rather than mainly to priorities that have been imposed on us.

Values and Principles

I sent the table off, and knew at the same time that I must read this book again to find out what else I had failed to pick up on the first time round or forgotten about with the passage of time. In re-reading Donaldson’s book Human Minds, prior to my most recent sequence, I believe I have finally learnt the value of revisiting seminal books rather than constantly chasing the latest apparently promising publication in a chronic state of FOMO.

I can pick up this thread of mislaid insights fairy early on with Covey’s emphasis on our having only maps of reality which are not reality itself; as he puts it[3] ‘these maps are not the territory.’ I’ve held onto that idea with help from various quarters explored already on this blog. A distinction he makes which I had failed to hold in mind relates to the difference he defines between values and principles:[4]

Principles are not values. A gang of thieves can share values, but they are in violation of the fundamental principles we are talking about. Principles are the territory. Values are maps. When we value correct principles, we have truth – a knowledge of things as they are.

While it is possible to use the word ‘values’ in a way that suggests it means the same as ‘principles,’ on re-reading this again I could see the usefulness of making this distinction. We are prone to mistaking our subjective values for objectively valid principles by which to live. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, whose relative importance I have explored elsewhere on this blog, seems almost to collude with this. Hayes et al describe[5] morals ‘as social conventions about what is good’ whereas ‘values are personal choices about desirable ends.’ The therapist is encouraged to see ‘valuing as essentially a personal exercise.’

It would be far healthier, it seems to me, to subject our values to careful scrutiny before awarding them the accolade of truth. This does not mean we will have to fall into the trap of preaching to others about the values they should espouse: rather it means there should be a willingness to join together with others in our collective attempt to ensure that we are using a properly calibrated compass to navigate our way through life.

Covey is clear that connecting with our validated values helps us define the direction we wish our lives to travel along. Our happiness depends upon choosing wisely, in a way that helps us overcome the tendency of our primate brains to value immediate satisfactions over long-term gains. Covey doesn’t buy into the primate trap:[6]

Happiness can be defined, in part at least, as the fruit of the desire and ability to sacrifice what we want now for what we want eventually.

This was not an unfamiliar idea to me even on first reading. As a psychologist, I was well aware of our default position in this respect. Every smoker I knew, including myself in earlier days, was more than happy to forfeit future health and a longer life, for the instant nicotine hit.

What he goes onto to describe as the stages of maturity, an important variable to add into the mix, highlights a key goal to aim for that will enable us to overcome this deficiency:[7]

Dependent people need others to get what they want. Independent people can get what they want through there and effort. Interdependent people combine their own efforts with the efforts of the others to achieve their greatest success.

More on interdependence much later. The next post will focus on some of the early beneficial habits he describes.


[1]. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: page 192.
[2]. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – pages 153-54. Unless otherwise indicated all references are to this book.
[3]. Page 33.
[4]. Page 35.
[5]. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – page 230.
[6]. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – page 48.
[7]. Op. cit.: page 49.

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