Hi, I’m Julien

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Strasbourg-born, Paris-educated, Mediterranean-blooded, I am now based in Melbourne, Australia.  As a writer and educator, my main passion is to discern and articulate the various manifestations of cultural and linguistic diversity – listen, and look for common ground.

I currently share my time between three main activities.

I work as editor-in-chief with the Global Challenges Foundation, a Swedish philanthropic Foundation stimulating reflection on new models of global governance that could help us better address global catastrophic risk.

I design and deliver programs with schools, universities and community groups to help people living across languages and cultures develop self-awareness, resilience and empathy through Marco Polo Project, a cross-cultural education design agency that I founded in 2011.

I am enrolled in a PhD with Monash University, exploring the emerging digital ecosystem of Chinese language learning.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to work with a broad range of organisations on cutting-edge cross-cultural initiatives. I am always open to new projects and opportunities, and would love to discuss them with you.

Let’s do something together! You can reach me at Julien.leyre at gmail.com.

 

Fortitude – Week 12

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, temperance, and justice – I now reflect on fortitude, or the deliberate exercise of strength and courage in the face of evil. 

This week, I experienced despair, even as I broke down my sports routine into smaller chunks.

The number of reps in my exercise routine has now reached a point where – like with the books I decided to finish earlier in the project – they cause complete despair. As the end approaches, however, I try to calculate backwards. I have 781 reps of each exercise left, down to 735 at the end of Monday, and 158 for each element in my Qi Gong routine. I can visualise doing it all – but then, as I do, more things come up that I had not thought about, work to finish, books to read, and I feel so tired! So, on the Monday I try lateral strategies – 24 squats, that is 6 less for each of the remaining 4 days. I continue with other exercises – and reduce the burden. Qi gong, too, I go through multiple sequences, and reduce it to 9 reps per day for the week. So that, by the end of Monday, I calculate that I have roughly 3 to 4 hours of exercising to do.

Breaking up my Qi Gong practice, and rather than committing to 12 reps in a row, doing sequences of 4 or 5, was a genius move: now, each day, I am committed only to 5 repetitions for each element, much easier than 12. I sense the end with extreme excitement – by the end of Tuesday, there is only 93 x 5 Qi Gong movements to do, so little!

I land in the Philippines on Wednesday. Tropical heat and chaos, I have spent a day on the plane, it is late, there is jetlag, I have  a report to finish – but I push ahead, and on the tiles of my Quezon City airBNB, lift up my legs and arms for more dog-birds, before getting to the shower and sleep. The next morning, I experience despair again: I have done so much in advance, and yet, here I am, pushing ahead, weak, tired, on the hard floor, lifting myself up on my arms and legs.

Earlier I wrote – I put myself under pressure to see what would give. There were three weekly commitments: a physical strength routine, a qi gong routine, and meditation. I gave up on the last without realising – this week, I only did 3 short meditations, rather than the expected 12. As for my goal to clear all my files and prepare for death – well, I made some progress, and scheduled more around my birthday next year. But I do notice – I seem to be doing things faster, I worry less, and back pain is a thing of the past.

 

Fortitude – Week 11

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, temperance, and justice – I now reflect on fortitude, or the deliberate exercise of strength and courage in the face of evil. 

This week, I reflected on backlogs and focus.

Extremely tired after a bad night on the plane and a big week in China, I lie down in bed, and rest, rather than blindly commit to my exercise routine. By Monday, still feeling a bit sick, I have to push ahead nonetheless. I’m not alone in the office, there is a lunch and a dinner to be had – and I leave aside my exercise routine again.

By Tuesday, there is a backlog, and a decision to make: it’s been four days, will I give up entirely. I decide that fortitude is also, when the ball dropped, as soon as possible, to pick it back up, resume, and when possible, catch up. I do more than 150 reps of each exercise, and by 7h30pm, feel gently tired out.

 

There is a dark side to fortitude. I push ahead with blind determination, but the bigger picture disappears. Why again am I doing those exercises, or this project even? I only write a few lines every day, the brain is blank, focused on work and push ups. I’ve adopted a certain military logic: here is the mission, let’s do the mission – not, why this mission, and how to get it done best? Maybe this is precisely why I feel so torn apart by multiple commitments. The very fact that I turned an entire 11 weeks, originally conceived as a long reflection on death, into no more than a gigantic work out, shows the limitation of the virtue, or my understanding of it. In the books I read, including Aquinas, fortitude has no more than a few pages. What is there to understand?

By the end of the week, I have caught up on my backlog of purely physical exercise, though meditation slipped off. I have finished, also, the Story of the Stone, and am on track to finishing my entire backlog of books. I don’t know that my room is in order, but my files and shelves are, kind of. I’m planning for a fortieth birthday next year on the theme of death. I have no more back pain, and I notice that I seem to be doing things faster. Maybe, during this time, I have achieved something after all?

Exercise tally

Over the season, I will systematically train mind and body. For this, I will do a daily set of 6 physical exercises, with particular focus on core muscles, adding 1 rep/day for each, execute a daily qi-gong routine based on the 5 elements, adding 1 rep/element every week, and practice meditation, adding 1 session of 30’ every week. 

Exercise tally

Push-ups: 381

Sit-ups: 381

Squats: 381

Dog-cows: 381

Bird-dogs: 381

Back twists: 381

Qi-gong – 5-elements: 5 x 11 reps for each element

Meditation: 8 sessions

 

 

Fortitude – Week 10

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, temperance, and justice – I now reflect on fortitude, or the deliberate exercise of strength and courage in the face of evil. 

Over the week, I reflected on the need for accomodations under pressure.

As I grow stronger, I realise how exercise engages more than external muscles: if I increase the rhythm, and go through fifty-five sit-ups, push-ups and squats in a row, my heart pumps faster, and I start sweating. The goal now is not only to grow my biceps or my gluts, but engage my entire body.

When I arrive in Shanghai late at night, and the Great Firewall sets all my tech systems amiss, I reflect on the benefits of fortitude: that not everything has to be pleasurable, that sometimes, shit happens, and you must deal with it, but you don’t have to take it to heart.

On my first morning in Shanghai, I go through push-ups and sit-ups and squats in a row: now that I’ve developed a habit, time is no longer an issue. But when it comes to lower back strengthening, and even more so with Qi Gong, the same does not apply. As we develop strength and competence, we can do more in the same amount of time – but we still need as much time to stretch and rest.

There is a certain form of courage whereby we deal with the known. There is another whereby we deal with the unknown Travel subtly trains the second. In a familiar environment, years – or even just months – of repeated journeys have made us intuitively tuned to the surroundings. We know where obstacles will be, where the going will be smooth. But when we go beyond the familiar, every corner hides a dragon, and we must always keep on guard.

Sometimes, things press on, and we must give up either on practice or reflection. I attended a conference on Thursday, two days in Xuzhou, departing hotel at 7h40am, return expected at 9h30pm. I woke up early, and followed through with all my exercises – but only wrote a couple of lines. On Friday, same schedule, but there was a paper to give, conversations to continue, a Skype call to Sweden, and a dear old friend to finish the night with – and so, I decided, on that one day, I set aside my physical training, and simply focused on presence.

Exercise tally

Over the season, I will systematically train mind and body. For this, I will do a daily set of 6 physical exercises, with particular focus on core muscles, adding 1 rep/day for each, execute a daily qi-gong routine based on the 5 elements, adding 1 rep/element every week, and practice meditation, adding 1 session of 30’ every week. 

Exercise tally

Push-ups: 285

Sit-ups: 285

Squats: 285

Dog-cows: 285

Bird-dogs: 285

Back twists: 285

Qi-gong – 5-elements: 5 x 10 reps for each element

Meditation: 9 sessions

 

Fortitude – Week 9

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, temperance, and justice – I now reflect on fortitude, or the deliberate exercise of strength and courage in the face of evil. 

Over the week, I reflected on the relationship between rest and effort.

My muscles ache – I sit on the floor for a while, after dinner, and when I try to stand up, I’m all stiff. I realise that I set up on a strengthening routine, yet never thought of building in time for stretching.

Indeed, there are two different ways that we can think of rest. One is to stop all activity, sit on the couch, and gaze into the air. The other, a more truthful description of rest maybe, certainly more useful, would go something like this: rest allows our strained muscles to relax by tensing the ones opposite – emotionally, physically, cognitively. Therefore, the answer to ‘tired’ may not be ‘rest more’, but ‘do something different’.

Not everything that we do needs to be filled with an intrinsic sense of joy and purpose. Sometimes, we must clean up shit. After a plumber came to my house and a pipe blockage exploded out of the floor drain in my bathroom, I found myself literally doing so. It’s not always about finding a way to delight in the prospect of a task, but, rather, acknowledging: this is unpleasant, but has to be done, and I’m responsible. That is fortitude at its most basic.

Much of our lives are spent not on making new things, but caring for what is already there. Whether it’ exercise to tone up our brains and muscles, the drudge of repeated housework, or the broader needs of maintenance and administration, more effort is invested in keeping channels open than dredging new ones. Patience is accepting this.

Thursday six pm, tired, I made a list of all things I had to do. There was a lot, with limited time, and I felt that I should get some done that evening. ‘Maybe you should start with your exercises,’ says Philip, ‘since when you spoke about them, you said, I hate them.’ This regular strengthening routine is an enormous burden – I’m enjoying the new muscles, but it makes me physically tired without improving my sleep, and I’m not relishing an added line on my to-do list. But since I decided not to give up, I pushed ahead. By 7pm, I had finished not only my routine for the day, but also for the next – leaving two-days off to rest. I was on a high after this proper work out – and until 10pm, was able to tick a few more things off my list.

We do so little with the freedom we have. I have the luxury to work on my own terms – as long as I deliver. There is, in particular, no constraint on my physical location, apart from occasional meetings and workshops. I live in a beautiful city, with hills and the beach and world-class terraces – where I can now afford as much cake and coffees as I like. Yet I often stay home for most of the day, working from the kitchen table or the desk – not because this is productive, but from pure lack of spirit. Energised by my work out of the previous day – inspired by beautiful weather – I embraced my freedom on Friday. Took trams and sat on terraces, in short productive bursts, and a long afternoon pause. Then, from 8pm, I finished off the day reading Hong Lou Meng.

Over the season, I will systematically train mind and body. For this, I will do a daily set of 6 physical exercises, with particular focus on core muscles, adding 1 rep/day for each, execute a daily qi-gong routine based on the 5 elements, adding 1 rep/element every week, and practice meditation, adding 1 session of 30’ every week. 

Exercise tally

Push-ups: 309

Sit-ups: 309

Squats: 309

Dog-cows: 309

Bird-dogs: 309

Back twists: 309

Qi-gong – 5-elements: 5 x 9 reps for each element

Meditation: 9 sessions

Fortitude – Week 8

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, temperance, and justice – I now reflect on fortitude, or the deliberate exercise of strength and courage in the face of evil. 

Over the week, I reflected on structural build up and the ways that I deal with it.

I have a lot to do, structurally. Commitments add up, and start interfering with each other in my head. So, to start the week, I decided to make space. On Sunday, after visiting Hokusai at the State Gallery, I finished a small legacy project to copy the Dao de Jing by hand, as a way to better connect with Chinese thought and language. Then, I prepared for a full week ahead with anticipated training exercises and three sessions of Qi Gong, enjoying the beautiful spring weather.

Reading and physical exercise take incompressible time, but creative work, generating ideas, writing even, can be surprisingly fast, especially with a clear head! But then – getting a clear head can be the challenge.

The result of long-term neglect can manifest as a sudden change in a system, calling for immediate attention. There is a clog in my kitchen sink. It is likely to be the result of accumulated fat. Eight years of oil lining the pipes, slowly congealing and slowing flow, suddenly formed a block, which I must now attend to. This is, and isn’t, a new problem – the symptoms are, but the cause has built up over a long time. The same holds of our lives and bodies.

Fortitude meets hope and faith in the capacity to pace our action. I often get overwhelmed at the beginning of a cycle: there is so much on my plate, and I wonder how I could ever get through the lot. It is, in part, a default of projection. I imagine myself completing all tasks in the early days – and as much as I can, do, sometimes at the cost of serious strain. Then, halfway through the cycle, I find myself in a lull, and start nursing my tiredness. Eventually, unexpected last minute changes come up, requiring attention. Things happen in sequence. Some come first, others second. Fortitude is the courage to do things, and patiently continue doing them – but fortitude is also the courage to delay some, because others have to take priority.

What is the best way to pace oneself, though? Is it, as I did at the beginning of the week, to clear space by packing in recurring commitments, and leave room for focused attention later? Or is it, quite on the opposite, the deliberate preservation of empty times for rest and nurture, so that, when the time of action arrives, we can address challenges with a rested head? Trust, here, plays in – that others can take over and watch while we rest, and that, when the time for action does arrive, we will be ready to face it, and effectively deal with the challenge ahead.

Over the season, I will systematically train mind and body. For this, I will do a daily set of 6 physical exercises, with particular focus on core muscles, adding 1 rep/day for each, execute a daily qi-gong routine based on the 5 elements, adding 1 rep/element every week, and practice meditation, adding 1 session of 30’ every week. 

Exercise tally

Push-ups: 273

Sit-ups: 273

Squats: 273

Dog-cows: 273

Bird-dogs: 273

Back twists: 273

Qi-gong – 5-elements: 5 x 8 reps for each element

Meditation: 8 sessions

 

Fortitude – Week 7

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, temperance, and justice – I now reflect on fortitude, or the deliberate exercise of strength and courage in the face of evil. 

This week, I reflected on the calm that emerges from getting things done.

Since all I could think about was finishing my endless list of half-read books, I decided that, over a week-end set aside for rest, I would finish four. That was about 18 hours of reading in two days which, strictly speaking, seemed possible. I even thought it might be relaxing. It worked. By the end of Sunday, I was down to 55 hours by the end of the year, and two books only: Musil’s Man Without Qualities, and Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone. Which came with a deep sense of calm.

A month of travel in June, directly followed by intense activity, left me flustered and exhausted. It was a cold winter in Melbourne, I had a string of deadlines to meet, and major PhD writing to do. I pushed all sorts of minor things aside and – therefore –  accumulated a guilty backlog of mental to-do’s: follow up emails to write, clusters of mess in drawers and folders, and a general sense of impending doom and profound inadequacy. With my PhD mid-candidature deadline passed, I decided to clear this up. On Monday, I took the morning off to write down each of the things in my brain on a yellow post-it note, and start classifying them. Then, one-by-one, I started getting them done.

Unexpected things happen, we change course, and leave a commitment pending. Over time, this accumulates, and we live with a constant work-lag. It’s not much – 3 to 5 hours would suffice to get rid of it – but it creates a grating nervous tension. The solution is either to resolutely tick the log off by putting in extra work, pass it on to someone, or firmly decide that it will never get done. That’s what I did on Tuesday, killing off some past commitment, then tackling others face-on. I spent an evening finishing a range of web-design and editing tasks. It was not a particularly pleasant process, but when I closed off my computer by 10h30, I felt a deep satisfaction. As we do when we travel overseas, and finally reach the room: we feel weary from the plane and buses and jetlag, but here’s a bed, we’ve done what we needed, and now the only thing we should be doing is rest.

We spend a lot of our lives in the past and the future – ruminating on failures and frustrations, or anxiously waiting for things to come. But fortitude brings a great sense of presence: it is about adapting to what the moment requires of us. Part of courage is a capacity to drop our worries, so that we can better engage with what is there. Fortitude exists in the present.

That sense of presence also directly stems from a regular exercise routine: daily gymnastics, meditation and qi-gong affect the brain, and bring a sort of mechanic joy. This joy extends to the act of training itself, which I am now beginning to relish for its own sake. As the number of reps increases, I notice that their level of intensity, and my capacity to give them full attention, is growing in parallel.

Over the season, I will systematically train mind and body. For this, I will do a daily set of 6 physical exercises, with particular focus on core muscles, adding 1 rep/day for each, execute a daily qi-gong routine based on the 5 elements, adding 1 rep/element every week, and practice meditation, adding 1 session of 30’ every week. 

Exercise tally

Push-ups: 237

Sit-ups: 237

Squats: 237

Dog-cows: 237

Bird-dogs: 237

Back twists: 237

Qi-gong – 5-elements: 5 x 7 reps for each element

Meditation: 7 sessions

Fortitude – Week 6

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, temperance, and justice – I now reflect on fortitude, or the deliberate exercise of strength and courage in the face of evil. 

This week, I focused on the relationship between fortitude, effort and difficulty.

I can control the way that I relate to the world and others – what some would call my energy, or my presence. I can make myself large or small, harsh or smooth, erect imaginary walls to protect myself, or aggressively project myself forward. Modifying the quality of my presence requires a deliberate effort of attention and imagination which, with habit, becomes easier. If I anchor myself deep in the ground, project a goal, conjure allies behind me, and actively take centre, I will have greater influence in any situation. But often I simply let things happen, and others take over. This fleeting state of being in the world goes against fortitude.

I experiment with new ways of sequencing my physical exercises – in particular, rather than getting through thirty-two push ups, then do 32 squats, I alternate. Certain muscles relax while I flex others, and not only can I do more in less time, but the difficulty reduces, so that I recover faster. The goal of exercise is not to be tired, but strong: therefore, smart pacing is part of fortitude.

This is where two versions of the virtue may clash – let’s call them Greek and Chinese. In the Greek tradition, the dominant way to think about courage is under the guise of heroism: this is not about results, but an individual facing danger, even when death is certain, to make a point or set an example, because it is the right thing to do. This is courage in the Iliad. Odysseus achieves the result of bringing the Greeks inside Troy through cunning, yet receives ambiguous respect. In contrast, the Chinese tradition considers result over subjective drive. Fortitude here is about the great man patiently bearing with a negative situation so that, when it changes, they can rise up to the occasion, and make things right again. This is the wisdom of the Yi Jing: bear with evil, for it will pass on its own; preserve yourself, for you will be needed later.

On Thursday morning, I did a mediocre PhD mid-candidature presentation. I have chosen to pursue three strands of work: research on digital learning tools, editing for the Global Challenges Foundation, and program development for Marco Polo Project. This is an ongoing debate in my head: is fortitude the courage to let one of those go, because the workload is too high and I will disappoint? Or is fortitude tolerating a lower level of achievement on more secondary aspects of each project, and the mild discomfort that goes with it? The same tension echoes within my PhD research: I deliberately positioned my attempt at understanding digital Chinese language learning across disciplines, for I believe it is the only way to properly grasp the nature of the object. As a result, I must pay special attention to conceptual consistency and accessibility to readers with different types of expertise. This is not unacknowledged, yet I’m not getting too much slack for even attempting. I wonder therefore: is fortitude better supported by cheers, or by consistently demanding high standards irrespective of difficulty? And to what extent do the structures of our training and learning institutions support fortitude – and the decision to do what is important and relevant, rather than what can be done with perfection within an existing paradigm?

Then I started thinking of a new way to understand fortitude: the virtue reduces the role that difficulty plays in our decision-making. It helps us guide our lives and actions not on the basis of whether something will be hard, but whether it is right, important, and fulfilling.

Exercise tally

Push-ups: 201

Sit-ups: 201

Squats: 201

Dog-cows: 201

Bird-dogs: 201

Back twists: 201

Qi-gong – 5-elements: 5 x 6 reps for each element

Meditation: 5 sessions