This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started the year with prudence – or the rational capacity to distinguish good from evil. Every week, I will publish an update on this blog, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.
This whole week, I have been looking for the right perspective to consider prudence.
It began with a simple proposition: what good is a virtue that we do not practice? To start the year, I set myself a simple task: before each action, pause for a moment and ask, is this a good thing to do? Though the scope of my activities was pretty trivial, after hosting a large New Year’s Eve party, this simple temporary suspension had a considerable effect. I realised how much of my actions had become automatic – eating, playing on my phone, fluffing around the house. More important, the deliberate exercise of prudence revealed how often I found myself in a morally confused state, not knowing, in each moment, whether I was doing the right thing or not – particularly when I chose to rest. On the first night of the year, after a full day, I told myself: sleeping is the right thing to do now. My mind grew calm, and the day ended happily. The deliberate exercise of prudence turned out to be a powerful form of mindfulness.
The second day put an immediate stop to my enthusiasm. It should have been simple. prudence considers the past to make decisions for the future. I took time to reflect on the decisions I made in 2016, hoping to learn from them. I hit a wall, almost instantly. How can I assess whether decisions have been good or bad, if I cannot follow the full ramifications of their consequences? A concrete example stood out: in 2016 accepted a difficult role and I did OK. Was it a good thing, because I learned and delivered – or was it a bad thing, because another would have done better, and I would have been better off doing something else? The more I pondered, the deeper I went down the spiral. How presumptuous to believe that we can assess the consequences of our actions, and say with remote confidence: this was good! Yet if we cannot ever say so, can we still aspire to prudence?
I shifted perspective on the third day, and thought about danger. Every morning, I copy one page of the Yi Jing. The following sentence appeared: ‘when there is danger all around, you can only solve minor problems’. Chinese wisdom prompted me to think of danger in a new manner: the point is not to avoid or seek danger, but change our goals on the basis of our environment. If there is danger, we should pare down our goals, temporarily. I thought back of a sign I saw when visiting the sacred mountain of Taishan, in Shandong province. It said: “danger, falling stones, move fast”. I realised at the time, here is an alternative to the risk-averse, legalistic and hypocritical signs of Australia, ‘don’t go, don’t touch, don’t drink’. The Chinese proposed a wiser approach: ‘don’t linger’, they said. Act in proportion to the conditions of your environment.
Prudence is intimately connected to time. Certain actions are appropriate at certain moments, not others. when I lie in bed at night, resting is right. When I sit at my desk in the middle of the day, it is not. On the fourth day, I thought of prudence as a guide to the right use time – and wondered how I should plan my day. A paradox arose: to use time well, I should spend some of that time assessing my goals and how to reach them. Yet is ‘planning’ not a wasteful use of time better spent ‘doing’. Over the past years, I explored various models for personal and professional productivity – planning each hour of a day, identifying high level goals… On Wednesday, I was in my shared office in Footscray, aiming resume serious work on a PhD, but failing to do so. I took a walk to nearby Seddon, and things clarified. I realised I needed three things to support my commitment to this large, long-term work. Two were there: a clear why and a clear roadmap. But the third was missing: I had not assessed how long the next few steps ahead would take, and therefore recoiled. I came back to my desk, and happily went through notes and quotes for the rest of the afternoon, then was able to pursue this later in the week, all the while repeating to myself: this is the right thing for me to do now.
Acting with prudence is a commitment to make the best use of our most precious non-renewable treasure, time. Prudence therefore demands of us, every single moment, to consider what we should agree to, and what we should refuse. Every ‘yes’, whether conscious or automatic, forced or freely consented, entails an infinite number of ‘no’s’. Whatever we do, we sacrifice all the things we might otherwise be doing. Considering how little we can assess the consequences of our actions, the temptation is high to seek a higher power, act as told, and avoid responsibility. What if, then, prudence consists in willingly foregrounding this immense responsibility: know that every single thing we do, and every single thing we don’t, is our own decision. Prudence, thus considered, is a tough school of humility: it exposes our many failures, and leaves us begging for forgiveness.
Can we, nonetheless, improve the way we lead our lives? On the last day of the week, I wondered how I might physically train prudence. If prudence is conscious consideration of alternative choices, then deliberately looking left and right, up and down, would certainly be the right physical exercise. This I have to credit to THNK body-mind trainer extraordinaire, Andra: she made us aware of how much our lives focus on the little square in front of us, the screen we look at, the road ahead, and invited us, through regular twisting movements, to break this dangerous habit. Yet something unexpected happened. I was in my favourite cafe, on a stool in the window, and as I deliberately twisted my neck left and right, realised I could see behind myself through the window – the whole room was mirrored. Later, on the street, I tried again, laughing at the paradox that my act of prudence was not looking ahead. There was a construction site on the left. In the large, dark ground floor windows, I could see my own image moving forward, and obstacles on my path, reflected. The penny dropped. Prudence is represented holding a mirror. Our environment, and the tools that we make, multiply our perspectives, giving us artificial eyes behind our backs. Prudence is not just about physical training, but also learning to wisely use artifacts and technology to guide and improve our activity.
And so, the first week is over. I take this the seventh day to rest, reflect and share. Tomorrow, I shall return to daily practice.