Temperance – week 3

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.

In the third week of my engagement with temperance, I turned my attention from food to sex – and started abstaining from porn. Whenever I have spoken to people about the list of things I proposed cutting during Lent, pornography stood out: I articulated the word somewhat faster, with a mild sense of embarrassment. What makes porn so prevalent, yet so shameful? What makes it so fascinating? This is what I tried articulating over the week.

Pornography was pervasive in my childhood. From about the age of ten, I was very aware that on the first Saturday of the month at midnight, one of the TV channels played a porn movie, and that my step-father duly recorded it. I was aware that he stored videos in the library – later, I would sneakily watch them in the afternoon when he was away. Once, at the age of twelve, while walking around with a friend, I remember stopping at a suburban supermarket to buy a treat: there, we glanced for a long while at the jacket of ‘cum for lips’ that sat at eye level in one of the aisle, giggling and aroused.

Porn offers to satisfy a certain form of cruel curiosity. Photographs of sexual organs in extreme close-up appear in two distinct domains – pornographic movies, and medical books. Pornography rips open people, like anatomy does. Porn is an act of radical unveiling. It promises a form of perfect knowledge: it captures the moment when a person is completely revealed in its most naked form. To that extent, porn is a perversion of knowledge: rather than a slow, gradual, dialectic process of encounter, it proposes a shortcut to ‘knowing, in the biblical sense’. But that moment of complete revelation always eludes us – and so we watch more, and more, and more again, in a vain attempt to seize it.

When a new technology emerges, we overestimate its impact in the short term, and underestimate its impact in the long term. To what extent does that apply to the sexual revolution – of which endemic pornography may be no more than a symptom? The way that Aquinas articulates chastity is no longer relevant: not only because he draws explicit parallels between the beautiful dishes that whet our appetite and the beautiful women that arouse our lust; but also because his framing of ‘sexual acts against nature’ no longer aligns unproblematically with our understanding of how ‘nature’ operates in the realm of sexuality. From books on the bonobos to wildlife TV series, from ethnographic reports to the Kinsey survey, we’ve developed a more sophisticated understanding of the many roles played by sex in creating and nurturing diverse types of social relationships.

In our globalised world soon due to hit 8 billion people, if sexuality is to support the survival of our species, chastity should be reframed in the following terms: what sexual behaviour is most conducive to social harmony. Part of our fascination with pornography may stem from this question. Progress in modern medicine, birth control and paternity tests, challenges previous assumptions about what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour. So, what should we do? Should we rejoice and indulge without limits, just because we can? Or should we keep things ‘within measure’, and if so, what is this measure? While we’re figuring out these questions, porn offers a temporary satisfaction: it invites us to join a fantasy world where sexual acts occur outside of any context, and have no consequences.

A pragmatic logic underpins most support for pornography: since people want it, let’s  normalise it, rather than afflict users with guilt, and push the whole industry to some dark underbelly. Yet, on the Internet, porn exists in shady condition: who’s the owner of the many videos that circulate, soft and hard-core, professional and amateur? Were actors willing participants? Is all of it, or most of it, within the clear realms of legality? Yet somehow, either by the very nature of the thing itself, or the conditions that surround our engagement with it, these are not questions we raise: we search, we click, we watch. And that’s where much of the problem may be: not that there is something inherently bad about pornography, but that it freezes thought, and distracts us from more valuable pursuits.

The silence that covers our engagement with porn certainly contributes to these shadows. ‘The Internet is for porn’, joke the characters of Avenue Q. To what extent is this true? There is a lot of porn online, there must be physical and economic counterparts: server farms, web designers, production companies – yet I have no critical understanding of it. Don’t ask, don’t tell. The same applies at a personal level. I have read dozens of articles describing in details what food I should eat and when in order to reach various forms of personal optimum. I am quite aware of what my friends eat, and even what they drink. I know nothing of their pornographic habits, nor have I ever come across an article listing ’10 ways that pornography can help you find inner calm and increase your creative output’. We collectively Febfast and Meat-free-Mondays, but porn remains an entirely private experience.

This may be why it grates against even a very liberal understanding of chastity. To what extent will our private engagement with naked bodies on a screen contribute to social harmony? Will it bring peace through generalised sexual relief? Will it increase frustration and feed aggressive desire? Or will it isolate us, lost on a solitary quest for impossible knowledge? Without some collective discussion, we cannot answer these questions. As long as shame hampers conversation, pornography will remain problematic.

 

 

 

 

 

Temperance – week 2

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.

This week, I reflected on cycles, adaptation and emptiness, as I started my second week of Lent by cutting off alcohol.

I attended a family baptism on Sunday. After the service, we went for lunch at a nearby pub. I strongly desired a burger and beer, or fish and chips and a glass of white wine – but I had to settle for a Caesar salad with no bacon or anchovies, and a glass of water. To celebrate the special occasion, I treated myself with ‘extra avocado’ for five dollars. My desire for beer and burger was part habit, part conformity: that’s what I would usually get, that’s what others were having. My abstinence was noticed, and I noticed something about our culture: in numerous occasions, we’re invited and expected to join in celebrations; but there is little collective down-time. Collective excess is a thing, collective temperance is not. Should we, therefore, aim to revive Lenten periods, embrace ‘Febfast’ and other movements that aim to make collective meaning of temperant behaviour? Or are these institutionalised rituals of fasting insufficient, because temperance is at its core an individual practice?

What we must and choose to abstain from is culturally determined. When I lived in Paris, I had a friend from North Africa, who worked as a part-time drug dealer. He was a tea-totaller, but was a daily pot-smoker, and episodic consumer of harder drugs. I used to tell him that liquor is my cultural drug of choice. Only two days into six weeks, and the temptation is there to find an ersatz of some sort.

Temperance is not easy. Wednesday marked a week of fasting – and my craving for meat and alcohol were much stronger than I anticipated – so distracting that I ended up compensating with chips and cake. Yet I did sense a greater connection to my body: it felt leaner and keener.

Fasting trains our capacity to change. It is the backbone of resistance. Lean figures evoke a measure of suspicion: Antigone, Cassius, show dangerous anorexic determination. With the cheerful plump lover of earthly pleasures, we can always find a way forward: they will round off the angles, and make concessions. But the dry, tempered body, has its sharp edge on display: some things will simply not be tolerated, in any shape or form. Temperance, in that manner, may underpin justice and fortitude. But fasting is also the first step towards potential long term change. We may dread radical transformation, but this is different: I’m not giving up anything for good over these weeks of Lent, I’m just giving up for now. Yet over that time, I will realise the possibility to do without, and when Easter arrives, make a deliberate choice, either to resume, or not. Temperance, in that manner, creates the needed space for the exercise of prudence.

This goes against the grain of the consumerist environment that I was brought up in, where hunger should be dealt with in great haste, rather than cultivated and enjoyed. In my work designing education programs, appetite is often the missing hinge: programs and resources exist to support for efficient learning – if people had a burning desire to learn, they would easily find a way. But that desire is weak. Yet I have encountered few people and even fewer institutions who clearly prioritise the kindling and nurturing of that hunger for knowledge. This is a mindset shift I would like to further focus on during my time engaging with temperance. We do not nurture hunger like we nurture satisfaction. It’s not about what we should add, but what we should take away. We’re not adding knowledge to people’s brains, we reveal an inner emptiness, and a simultaneous desire to protect it, transforming learners into conscious vessels. We create a space where the natural capacity to learn can exert itself.

Friday night drinks are a ritual way to relax. Alcohol releases tensions and loosens inhibitions. We leave our worries behind, at least for a while, enjoy the party, then sleep. I have always found it difficult to stop and pause. This is a form of gluttony, resting on the deep fear of my own inner emptiness – and so, rather than abstain peacefully, I would rather circulate through various forms of stuffing: food, wine, entertainment, knowledge. But engaging with temperance forces me to change my attitude. On Friday, I took the afternoon off, and deliberately connected with the land. After a workshop at Ivanhoe Girls Grammar, I walked along bike trails, through reserves and past a creek, stopping for Qi Gong practice. Then, in Darebin Park, I followed an indigenous spiritual healing path. I walked slowly, contemplated, felt the trees, the water, the rock. And this I realised, while pausing by a wetlands: the spaces we think of as empty are actually teeming with life, which itself feeds other life. The riverbed fills with water, which fills with plants and insects, feeding fish, birds and small mammals. Hollows become dwellings for the flows and cycles of nature. In the same way, by keeping our inner selves empty, we welcome the flows of ideas, projects, connections. We recognise and allow for circulation.We trust that the little things that will breed greater things. Temperance is this the capacity to stay still, holding ourselves open, and let life pass through us. Accepting our fluid nature. Embracing a cyclical attitude. Demonstrating faith and hope.

Temperance – week 1

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.

On my first week practicing temperance, I explored the paradoxical relationship of constraint and freedom, and started my seven-week Lent by cutting meat.

As I did on the First of January, I started on Sunday with a simple commitment to mindfulness. Mindfulness led me to deprioritise food and, as a result, I did unexpected things. After a light morning tea following a church service, rather than shape my afternoon on the basis of lunch, I decided instead that I would go to the park and do some work until I got hungry – the scone and slice of quiche from morning tea was enough for now. I had plans to complete a quarterly report project that day, with vague intention of repeating what I did for the last one: treat myself to a fancy cocktail as a way to celebrate the ritual completion of my executive summary. Guided by temperance, I went for a simple beer instead. A friend was coming over for dinner that night. I bought a chicken from the David Jones FoodCourt and put it in the oven – I had not roasted a chook for years, but haven’t lost my hand. Money saved in the afternoon was used for better quality product in the evening, and a shared experience.

Gluttony takes many forms – excessive quantities, excessive refinement, excessive speed. At the core, it is an excessive interest in food. I have been brought up in a glutton family. My grandmother used to repeat a phrase from her father: “little belly, rejoice, rejoice, every penny I make is for you.” Temperance is a serious challenge to my heritage. On Monday, waking up, I decided I would not care about food that day. The surprising result was a day indulging other obsessions. February was a professionally demanding month, and as a way to compensate, I resumed re-watching of Gossip Girl, picking up where I left in September, at Season 4(in another post, I may write why this is a favourite drama). Now, however, I had to focus on new things, and had about 10 hours of episodes left to the end of the last season, distracting me from anything else. To give myself space over the week, enjoying a gorgeous late summer day, and geared by my deliberate focus to seek freedom from food obsession, I spent a day with Gossip Girl – interrupted in the late morning by a whimsical affogato stop on Bourke Street followed by a chicken and bacon burger on Russell – then  again, in the evening, by a function followed by a home meal of smoked salmon and salami. At 11h30, I finished the last episode, and went to bed ready for a return to my PhD. Over the course of the day, I felt extremely relaxed, with not a touch of guilt from this complete indulgence.

Two characteristics make temperance difficult. The first is structural: the virtue requires balance rather than complete abstinence, and therefore includes an element of personal judgement. The second is historic: our consumerist and sexually liberated culture defines identity through taste rather than effort, and equates fulfilment with the satisfaction of our appetites, not the capacity to moderate them. The practice of temperance therefore requires that we re-learn to think of desire as otherness, and resistance as an expression of the self. It also requires that we get ready for opposition: temperance is not aligned with the spirit of the time, and if we practice too conspicuously, we may well irritate many.

Wednesday was the start of Lent. This chance alignment of the lunar calendar with the change of season encouraged me to weave Lenten abstinence into my engagement with temperance. Over the next six weeks, every wednesday, I will substract one thing from my life. Meat is the first to go. In this, temperance ties in with justice. Whenever we mindfully consume meat, we weigh our enjoyment of food against the life and suffering of another sentient being, and give the former priority. This may but reflect our status as a predator species. What I noted, however, in just one day of resolute vegetarianism, is how matter-of-fact the consumption of meat has become. This may also explain why we consume so much, in spite of its environmental impact. Avoiding meat had a clear liberating effect. As happened on Sunday and Monday, creating a constraint on food opened a space of freedom elsewhere. I marked off the day for PhD work. High level narrative construction was required – this would be better done among eucalyptus trees than in a closed office. And so, I went off on a walk from Belgrave to Ferntree Gully. I had lunch at a bakery in Upwey. There were about a dozen types of pies; only two were vegetarian. Lent had this added benefit: choosing food was made simple. I could devote my attention to more important things.

On Thursday, I reflected on the connection between food and my own body. I grew up in a family where women were both obsessed with food and constantly dieting. I inherited this tension. During a Qi Gong class on Tuesday, I had a postural breakthrough. Our instructor told us that our back should be firm, while the front part of our body should be soft. My breath seemed to be shorter than most other people in the class. Then I realised that I had been holding in my stomach, and thereby disturbing natural breathing patterns. All through Thursday, I gently patted my soft abdomen, rising in smooth rhythm – and reconciled myself to the idea of a potbelly.

On Friday, I focused again on mindful eating, reflecting on this paradox: is temperance increased indifference to food, or increased attention? Mindful eating made me better appreciate the act of bringing a grape to my mouth, touching it with my lips, cracking the skin with my teeth, the juice exploding on my tongue and palate,  and the pleasant act of swallowing. Could these sensations form a more solid ground for temperance than blindness to them?

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Prudence – week 8

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.

This week is the last of my first engagement with prudence. To bring together these first two months, I focused on the relationship between duration and insight.

Prudence is deliberation, judgement, and resolution to act. Deliberation takes time, but results in a set of options for future action, a decision branch, and a capacity to choose among various paths. Something very particular occurs then: we leave the realm of pure duration, where cause follows consequence, to touch what the Greeks would call Kairos, crucial instants of opportunity. The fruit of prudence is therefore nothing else than freedom, escape from the plane of determinism through regular encounter with pure instants of self-determination.

Prudence entails creativity – which I understood in a new manner on Monday. I was invited to contribute ideas on a web-forum for a foreign policy White Paper discussion. In the shower, I had an insight: decentralise decision-making. It is not a radically new proposal, but not one I had seen in this context. The hot water allowed me to loosen the attachment between an idea and its usual domain of application. This is how creativity operates, by simple transfer. Yet I was not able to share the idea in a convincing manner. I had an intuition that there was something there, but lacked the form to give it full meaning in the context of reception. And so, the proposal fell flat.

On Tuesday, I reflected further on the connection between my work and prudence. I am finalising a report for the Foundation that I work for. My role as editor-in-chief requires me to sharpen the texts I receive and clarify the logic of their argument. Beyond this, I must also write short prefaces. Many readers will only skim through the full version, their expectations largely framed by these short introductory texts. As their eyes glance over the pieces proper, they will seek keywords and ideas based on the few words in italics at the beginning.I wondered, if a 1000-word text can be summarised in 75 words, why bother with the long form? But without the text in full, prefaces would have no value. We may only care about the core insight – but will not accept it unless we have proof that it was formed over time, and requires a measure of time to be fully grasped. We want, in idea at least, the possibility to reproduce the slower pace of deliberation before we resolve.

The last two weeks have been exhausting. This week I had to shift gears. It is not something I am very good at. When I woke up on Wednesday, I realised I would probably not be able to do much in the morning – I was invited to a whole afternoon and evening function already. I remembered precious wisdom from my father. A friend of his had an unusual piece of real estate to sell, a cellar in a middle suburb of Paris, and didn’t know what to do with it. My father’s tip for creativity was: what if you were to give it away, who would most benefit from it? Ideas started to flow. Since I was not going to do anything productive, what if I thought of that morning as a gift to myself? What would I choose to do with it? The weather was warm, I sat at Riverland Café by the Yarra, with no particular goal in mind, simply looking over the river at palm trees, watching a man hose down his boat, and rowers pass by. I opened a notebook, and found myself reflecting on personal strategy, then articulating the next steps of my various projects. I made a short action list of immediate to do’s. Then left for another café, refreshed, inspired, and ready to restart.

A few weeks ago, I classified the various types of activities that I do for work. One set of those I labelled ‘cleaning’: ordering folders, clearing my inbox, stretching my limbs. Thursday was a cleaning day. Simple oversight: I had two weeks under high pressure and deprioritised anything that could be postponed. As a result, I had a backlog to clean, and it was clogging my brain. It took me three days to catch up, and return to order. I realised once again that insights and ideas can occur in a flash, but only when the right structures are in place. Often, we focus wrongly thing: it’s not that we need to push and strive for new projects and initiatives, they come fast. But for that, we need to keep the channels clean – and this requires more time than we’re generally to allocate.

There had been two strands over the week – insights and duration; doing and ordering. They came together on Friday, when I realised that the insights we have are a direct factor of the type of order we make around us. Out physical position will determine perspectives – alignments reveal symmetries, shadows hide or highlight key features. To the same extent, the way we choose to think of the world around us will reveal parallels and differences. Prudence, through deliberation, generates options, and reveals our own freedom. This freedom depends on our capacity to categorise adequately. Efforts we make to see the world in a more complex fashion, integrate new perspectives, consider different potential groupings, will this directly result in greater degrees of freedom.

 

 

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?

Prudence – week 6

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 sixth week, I chose to reflect on various methods to train prudence.

As a starting point, Sunday focused on general principles. Prudence is the capacity to correctly assess the particulars of a present situation, and our capacity to bring about a different situation, which we believe is good. Prudence, therefore, must rest on radical honesty with oneself, and a resolute willingness to name and assess the present. For this, it requires a careful balance of perception and introspection. Its opposite is self-delusion, a wrong appraisal of the world around us, and our own place in it.

We are not alone in this world. Therefore, a crucial element of prudence is understanding the limits of our responsibility. This, in turn, requires an understanding of other people’s responsibilities, as well as their willingness and capacity to act. Prudence is a balancing act, between too much and too little responsibility. To help with this, I proposed myself a pair of distinct prudence hashtags, which I applied through the week, #myproblemtosolve and #myproblemtonotice.

The world we live in is too complex for us to predict much in advance. Prudence therefore entails a capacity to deal with unexpected situations, and urges us to be ready for the unknown. Excessive planning shows a lack of prudence: attention, energy, resources are invested in a future that may not come about, and distracted from an ever-shifting present. This uncertainty can cause anxiety, it is tempting to turn our heads away, bury them in a blueprint. Deliberate relaxation and a resolution to remain calm are therefore key components of prudence – and these may come from ongoing breathing exercises, and regular meditation.

It is better to stay still than actively make progress in the wrong direction. This is the wisdom I shared with my team on Wednesday, and applies particularly when we’re exploring new things. We feel lost, not because we carelessly wandered off, but because the path does not exist, and we must find our way. Trusting in the process becomes crucial here – whether it’s applying design thinking or another method, we must accept the regular return of a lost-feeling, not knowing where we are. No matter how far we go, there is always an untrodden path ahead.

Working with others, it is prudence to know what our strengths are, and lead accordingly. Two years ago, during the THNK program, I received an excellent model of leadership styles, through four distinct archetypes. The warrior brings movement and energy; the architect develops plans and structures; the healer aligns emotions and mediates conflicts; the chief articulates vision and provides direction. My personal preference is to work as a healer. On Thursday, I deliberately led like one, with a clear focus on maximally reducing friction. When this occurs, minimal amounts of energy can yield considerable results. It is no better or worse than other modes of leading – I resolved I should learn how to operate in others – but for the time being, focus on my strengths.

All through the week, the methods I explored focused on mental models, thinking, appraising. But prudence is more than strategic thinking: it involves commitment, and is geared towards action. This action must be timely: prudence is not rash, but speed is of the essence. Vision must lead to movement. And so, the method to train prudence is to set oneself close deadlines, put oneself in a situation where prudence is required – and hold a measure of self-trust, that when required, the virtue must emerge. Here again, balance is necessary, to try and avoid both harm and stagnation.

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.