Prudence – week 4

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.

On my fourth week exploring prudence, I shifted my focus inside, and centered on myself.

Prudence requires that I pay close attention to my environment: will I discern more if I can be more present? I started the week with a simple exercise: while engaging in other activities all through the day, I focused on my breathing. Two things emerged. First, that I would naturally slow down whatever else I was doing when I consciously paid attention to my breath – but very soon, I was able to pick up speed, while maintaining a strong sense of presence. Second, I noted a sort of clear-headedness – my mind emptied, leaving space for the world to come in.

The second day reached eleven thirty before I could sit down and set myself a deliberate goal. I decided to go with it, and see whether I was able to simply trust my existing systems and routines. It learned that it didn’t work: looking back, it was a reasonably productive day, but I left with a sense of incompletion. Is it the case, then, that if we live our days without a goal, we’ll never feel a sense of accomplishment?

That’s where my reflection picked up on Tuesday. Why do we give so much importance to ‘doing’, as opposed to ‘not doing’. Surely, restricting ourselves, in many circumstances, is an act of prudence. But for this, we need to discipline our own aspiration to more, more, more – beyond material greed, we need to restrain a more spiritual form of greed that pushes us to read more, write more, achieve more. Curb hybris. And inspired by this, I found myself writing on the stream of a Facebook friend asking ‘what do you believe is the purpose of life’ that it is about accepting death or, even better, rejoicing in the finitude of our own existence.

Wednesday was a particular occasion: I received an award as new Australian of the Year, and had a speech to make. I never write my speeches – in the belief that presence is key to gaining attention, and a structured but partly improvised speech ensures a considerably higher level of presence. In line with this, my key goal was to focus on my own voice and balance. I realised I learnt a key lesson of prudence from my mother: as a kid, when I tried apologising for bad behaviour saying ‘such and such also did it’, she would invariably reply, ‘and if they jump in the river, will you jump after them’? Conformism is no excuse, and nothing will justify renouncing our own independent judgement. The speech when well – you can find the full text here. A few people came saying: ‘this was very moving’. More importantly, I not only was able to talk of how my own tradition was carried forward in Australia, but also performed as myself, embodying a delicate, calm and sensitive version of masculinity. Whether it had a direct impact, I’m unsure.

On Thursday, guided by a sense of accomplishment, I pondered on the rest of the year. Part of prudence is anticipating what might be done, and I thought of a few things I could do to train temperance, justice, fortitude. A favourite: ‘praise women’. Since one of the great injustices of the world is the systematic lower level of recognition that women receive, why not start systematically praising the women around me for the good things that they do? And so, this may be a short blog post series for July and August.

I ended the week with a mild hangover from excessive tension leading up to my Wednesday speech – a knot in my stomach, a pulsing headache, tensions in my shoulders. I took it as an opportunity to connect with my body, and acknowledge my own weight. I am limited by gravity, systematically pulled downwards. Yet before heading to bed, I did some QiGong exercises, calmly raising and releasing my arms, sensing my own verticality, the circulation of the air inside of me – and even as I felt the weight of my flesh, I could also feel the empty space inside, the potential that comes with it, and my own power, even if limited, to stand erect, and lift up my arms.

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