Prudence – week 3

vrThis 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.

After a first week looking for perspective and a second finding balance between plans and serendipity, my third week focused on identifying the nature of my various activities.

If prudence judges whether an action is good and bad, its exercise requires – as a logical preliminary – that we clearly distinguish between our various actions and activities over the course of a day. Yet, often, we conduct our lives in a state of great vagueness. I looked for a way to classify what I do, and decided that my key criteria should be the type of goal that I pursue. I distinguished four main types of activities: prepare for something yet undefined; define and design a specific project; execute a defined actions towards a specific goal; and finally, do ‘cleaning’, a category that brings together life administration, sorting through files, and taking a restorative walk. My original prompt was identifying my personal bottlenecks. I noted that, often, I do things without a clear goal in sight – and therefore get easily stuck or distracted. The blockage is largely cognitive: if I do not know what I am doing and why, then I will most likely stop, and do something else. This helped: I decided I had nothing specific I needed to do that day, and therefore could spend my afternoon ‘cleaning’ – lift old blockages, put things in order. So, I picked up a large book I started years ago but never finished, made significant progress, and felt a tremendous sense of achievement.

Our time is limited, and we should make the best use of it. Yet a closer look reveals a difficult aspect of the problem. My days are not like a single melodic line, a string of activities clearly separate from each other. Rather, it is like a fugue – with many notes occurring at the same time and weaving multiple intertwining melodies. One occasionally takes over, then recedes, while another comes forward. I wake up, I go to work, I go back home. I write emails, I draft a project plan, I make a phone call. I eat, I drink, I shit. I feel joy, I have an insight, I create new shared memories with a friend. I tried, for a day, to focus on these intertwining lines – and found it excessively hard. The capacity to describe our own lives is a crucial component of prudence – yet how difficult it is, and how limited our capacity to simply name the scope of our activities.

My work alternates between outward focussed engagement, and solitary periods of writing and design. I learnt to focus my days on either. Tuesday was an extraverted day, with five meetings in five different places. Retaining a sense of inner calm and continuity was my original goal, but in the middle of the afternoon, I realised I had entirely forgotten to do so – swallowed by the Maelstrom of other people. I tried a meditative correction: whenever I encountered a threshold, pause for a short moment, marking a transition. I failed, and so decided to try again the following day.

Wednesday was a quiet day, writing from a co-working space in Footscray. I decided that, before entering a new space, I would mark a short pause, and notice the change of setting. Once again, I did not do well. For six hours, the only change was getting in and out of the bathroom. Every time, as I came back to my chair, I realised I had forgotten to mark a pause. And so – I thought – could there be no clear boundary between what I accomplish at my desk, and what I accomplish in a cubicle?

Focusing on thresholds was a way to better notice environments. That’s what I did on Thursday. Walking through the streets of suburban Prahran, breathing in the beauty of a Melbourne midsummer morning, I reflected on the potential danger of complete absorption in the world outside: how easy to be lulled in the golden reflections of the sun playing in eucalyptus leaves and pink laurels. On the way back home, I noted how artificial my immediate environment was: not only manmade, but defined by the presence of other people engaging in complex webs of urban activities – commerce, trade, consumption. Not only their activities: I noted as I sat through a most problematic meeting how much my environment was defined by the perception of others. I met with a designer in the afternoon, we struggled to connect, I felt an ethical gap between us – and left off-balance. A set of basic shared norms and values bind our society together. When we differ, additional effort in truthfully describing our own inner world is required. In that instance, it failed, and I felt a pang. I wasn’t prepared.

Let’s be unprepared, then, I thought on Friday – and see what happens if I deliberately choose to change course over the day, following impulses. I was planning a day in Footscray, but instead, headed to my office in South Melbourne – saving myself an hour of commute and 40 dollars. Then events caught up with me. I was never going to be on Bourke Street when a madman rammed a car through pedestrians, but I found myself obsessively checking the Internet through most of the afternoon. At the last minute, I read from someone, somewhere, the driver made up his mind, swerved onto the mall, and drove through the crowd. And I was reminded of how little control we have over our lives – and how our plans can be disrupted by the sudden irruption of somebody else’s erratic course. I walked back home late from a friend’s place, noticing my changed urban environment. I had to walk up and down a few blocks until I was able to ask a police officer to escort me to my front door. My street was entirely cordoned off – the space outside my building had become a crime scene.

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