Prudence – week 5

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.

A key principle of prudence that I articulated in my first month of reflection is the right combination of inwards and outwards – in order to develop a truthful understanding of one’s own particular position within external circumstances themselves truthfully understood. After a week looking inside, I decided to turn outwards, and more specifically consider other people.

I started on the Sunday by getting out of the house – I was invited to a Chinese New Year’s party in the northern suburb of Preston. Rather than linger at home, leave late, and tram, I went on a long walk, stopping at three different cafes along the way. At each stop, I looked at the people around, talking, smiling, interacting. But one main idea resonated through the day: people lie. I was reading about the Chinese communist party, and how the famine of the Great Leap Forward was hidden, because acknowledging it would endanger the positions of those in power. I was reading about the multiple atrocities of Trump’s first week in power, and noted the self-interested framing of all the statements he made. And I read a message by Pope Francis, identifying hypocrisy as the most unchristian attitude, the one most denounced in the New Testament. This, however, on a pessimistic reading, would only confirm the darkness of our nature. Other people will lie, if it’s in their interest – most likely, so will I. And so the first act of prudence is, at least, try not to deceive myself. Wherefore this first day of looking outwards brought me back to myself.

On Monday, I decided that I would continue focusing on observing people. I was out in my Footscray co-working space, not alone. But it was a busy day, where I struggled to focus on the right task, juggling too many projects. I realised, as it ended, that I had been engrossed in my own world most of the time, oblivious to those around. I did seek distractions, I almost completed a jigsaw puzzle, I played a stimulating self-discovery game, I looked at social media – all this with myself and in my own head, rather than observing others.

Tuesday 31 was the last day of the month, a time of transition. Acknowledging that, so far, I seemed very focused on myself, I thought might as well do so productively. I’m entering a first peak period at work, until February 24, and my partner is about to restart school. I looked at the various tasks ahead of me, and realised how anxious they made me. Not that any was overbearing, but there were simply too many together. Some would need to be completed, others to be postponed. This simple scheduling was much simpler that I thought. Four grants I must apply to don’t open until early March. Two quite important administrative tasks that nag at my conscience will take at most an hour to complete. My commitment to regular Chinese practice can be twisted rather than postponed: an extra couple of hours now will give me two weeks off during the highest peak. I realised how much we can live in the future, absorbed in the consideration of things to do. Yet this bringing of a sequential future in the unique present moment is a dangerous recipe for anxiety: a series of tasks that individually do not take long, when considered as a bundle, exceed our capacity to compute, and overwhelm us, clouding our sane judgement. On this day, I accepted my limits, completed a few steps, and made room inside my brain for a productive month of February.

On Wednesday, I was ready to resume my week observing people. I experience early attempts as efforts, and failed on that account. What if I reframed a focus on others as a way to relax?  I have long suffered from upper back pain when I’m under stress, and jokingly named it ‘Atlas Syndrome’ – the feeling that the world is resting on my shoulders. The weight of a cathedral is equally distributed among its pillars, allowing for greater space inside. In the same manner, as free society requires that its weight be distributed around many people. I was sitting at a sushi-bar/café on Flinders Street, looking out the windows at the pedestrian flows of early morning Melbourne. The staff spoke enthusiastically, alternating Cantonese and Mandarin. A certificate from the Multicultural commission hung on the wall, celebrating the owner as a community leader. Some people play a greater role than others in organising crowds – but it is important, I thought, as I saw the flows of pedestrians across the glass, that each of us can be part of multiple communities, balancing each other. These hold society together, and balance off each other. Later in the day, I resumed my intentional observation, while waiting for friends at QV. But sitting still was hard – and I noticed myself starting to stretch, reminisce, evaluate. Before sleep, I imposed this last exercise on myself: sit completely still, thinking neither about the past nor the future. After just a few minutes, I felt an intense sense of calm, and a very restorative sleep followed.

This coloured my Thursday: during the day, I would take regular pauses, doing absolutely nothing, whenever I finished an activity. This had a significant impact. I felt more clear-headed, more present to the task at hand, more in control. A few minutes, adding up to fifteen at most over the day, where I paused, observed and breathed, made enormous internal space, and gave me both great happiness, and a great sense of achievement.

The week ended where it started, considering other people. Donald Trump has been playing in the background all through the week, on my social media pages. Controlling our attention, I read, is key to our own happiness. I decided that I would focus on two pillars of resistance, as sources of positive inspiration, Angela Merkel and Pope Francis. Whenever Trump came on a feed, I didn’t click, but instead thought about those two. I deliberately spent time reading about them. None aligns perfectly with my own politics or idea of a desirable society. Pope Francis is socially conservative, Angela Merkel is economically conservative. Yet they bring a sense of solidity, patience, and an alternative to self-serving, impulsive politics. A bulwark against collective madness.

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