Prudence – week 7

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.

My main focus over the week has been to find a point of balance appropriate to changing circumstances.

This was a week of peak activity for me. Four separate projects entered their phase of execution, and required my attention. In most of the work that we do, periods of execution succeed periods of preparation. Prudence is to recognise these as different, and adapt our behaviour and expectations accordingly. Sunday was dedicated to mapping out the week ahead – I try and reserve Saturday for rest. On a notebook, I drew a weekly schedule, marking where I would need to be physically located, and when the most demanding moments were likely to be. Then I looked around for more time – in the early morning or evenings. And I considered potential flexibility: if required, what could go? I then broke down activities for the week into smaller tasks, and made a firm resolution to postpone whatever could be postponed. I was ready to start a big week in calm.

Sometimes we check too much. Yes to collegial decision making – but there is such a thing as excessive consultation. “I just wanted to run this past you first” can be a dangerous form of cowardice, a refusal to decide. The bureaucratic attitude, whose main goal is avoiding personal responsibility, is the very opposite of prudence. We should err on the side of caution, yes – sometimes. But sometimes, erring on the side of risk is the sign of a prudent approach. By accepting personal accountability, we limit the burden we place on others, and contribute to a better, more solid and resilient world.

Adopting the wrong approach to a problem is a sure way to fail. On Tuesday, I reminded myself of the difference between complicated and complex problems, while training my team. Some problems require rare and difficult technical know-how – others entail an element of structural unpredictability. These are not the same issues. One of the greatest dangers, whether in our professional or personal lives, is denying structural unpredictability – though, for some of us, or in certain circumstances, the danger is opposite, and consists in believing that everything is unpredictable. When we cannot predict or understand, we must make judgements – judgements that may be wrong, and have important consequences. We can prepare for those, strengthen our core values and perceptiveness. But we must also realise that vast areas of our life operate without a blueprint. There is nothing but the broad field of possibility. What we decide is what will happen.

Prudence is an embodied virtue. As a way to physically reflect on prudence, I started Qi Gong classes this week. I learnt this, that certain parts of our body should be soft – and for that to be possible, others should be hard. Internal flows of energy do not require a complete loosening, but the right balance of emptiness and fullness, firm and soft. More importantly, this I realised: our bodies are in constant flow – as embodied beings, we are not static. Breathing, digestion, blood circulation, hormonal systems – our internal state is one of constant change. 70% of us is water – and this water moves. There are currents in us, flows, movements. The art of prudence is controlling, sensing and guiding these flows – not moving an inert sack of skin and bones.

Our energy varies – and prudence is adapting our actions and expectations not just on external circumstances, but also clear perception of our inner state. On Thursday, I was tired. My resolution for the day was to save energy, avoiding anger, irritation, annoyance. I actively relaxed, brain and body. And when a request came for something urgent, I attended to it, but signed out of another event. Strictly speaking, I had time to do both – but I didn’t have enough energy.

This continued on Friday, as I co-facilitated an event for independent art practitioners. During one of the conversations, on the need for more diversity, I articulated the following thought: our time and attention are limited – if we’re going to do more of something, whether following Indonesian news, inviting people with disability to the arts, or learn Mandarin, then there is something we must stop. The difficult but efficient question is not what more should we do, but what can we cut? This is also prudence, harsh virtue, that will ask: if you want change, don’t look only forward at the new that you desire, but also look around, and tell me, what is the old thing, the existing thing, here and now, that needs to go? Why? And how will you make it disappear?

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