This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.
Over the week, I reflected on the role of consumption in my present life, how beneficial and easy resisting would be, yet how I often fail to resist.
I have had a fear since a young age, that if I had to do without, I would dissolve: consumption underpins my very sense of self. I inhabit environments which – comparing across time and space – are of extreme luxury. Sunday, I sat inside the Europa cake shop on Acland street. Across my table, a wall covered in various pastries, and healthy, good-looking, well-dressed people outside, through the window. Is this where I naturally belong? Maybe, but as long as I feel that my existence fundamentally depends on this type of surrounding, I will not get rid of that nagging fear.
Obsessed by the French elections, I let media return into my life. Yet, it is no more important now than it was last week. Quietly reflecting might have equal power. Not only do we live among endless flows of information: engaging on social media provides a fake sense of agency. We share, we comment, and for a moment, imagine that this is a form of active citizenship. We forget that the business model of media platforms, whether newspapers or Facebook, is the promotion of generalised intemperance: advertisement is where their money come from. They will only survive as long as we give in, click on the links, and purchase.
Temperance is a slow virtue. Avoiding haste is a sure way to reduce excess. We rarely get sick on food and wine slowly sipped and swallowed. Temperance goes against our current culture of efficiency calculated as fast achievement of a narrow goal. On Tuesday, I resumed a daily practice of copying a page from a Chinese classic. It is the very opposite of listening to sped-up audiobooks while walking towards the train: copying is a slow-paced way to form a deep, physical connection with a text. Calligraphy tempers our hasty desire for knowledge. It anchors us into a calm present, where knowledge is not accumulation, but ongoing transformation.
Calming down is very simple: deliberate attention to the breath, slow movements of the arms up and down, a few minutes of meditation. And yet, how often we find ourselves in a state of quasi-panic, in which we then remain for long periods, radiating chaos around. I was early for a meeting, and chose, rather than fret or fill my time with deceitfully productive pursuits, to stand beneath a tree, and practice seven minutes of Qi Gong. I arrived refreshed and happy, with a deep sense of connection with the wind and the season.
If I was to eat only one thing for the rest of my life, it might be fried tofu. Food has a sensuality: crisp, soft, pearly, chewy – our mouth does more than taste and smell, it also touches. Quite on the contrary, pornography works an illusion through the eyes: it presents a shortcut, and fails to satisfy. This is the meaning of ‘food porn’, whereby the rich experience of texture, taste and smell gives way to framings and filters.
As the week ended, I a major project also came close to an end. The old goes, the new comes, and I started preparing for the transition towards a new phase of work. Yet I must acknowledge, my natural bend is to welcome the new, yes, actively chase it even; I spend comparatively little time saying farewell to the old. I wonder, however – will this result in ‘the old’ cluttering my brain with ghosts and tatters – or will it create new burrows and recesses where ideas and projects can slowly flourish, shadowed by the fallen remains of old things left in the corners? We might think of temperance as about creating a clear, empty space inside. But, maybe, it is rather about refraining our appetite for external things, so that, nourished by greater attention, the teeming life inside of us can better flourish.