Values cards project – sensuality

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: Let’s start with this. What about, sensuality is about increasing you own sense of calm. ‘The best way to resist a temptation is yield to it’, right? So, when you satisfy your desire, you’re more calm. Temptation is gone. Sensuality, then, is about increasing your capacity to satisfy you own desire. That’s something I actually came to when I reflected on temperance: that paradoxically, if we became more able to gain pleasure, we would crave fewer things. And so, sensuality may be the cornerstone of temperance.

B: Ah, to me, it has more to do with physical distance, and physical contact, how close you are, or you’re willing to be. And this varies person to person.

A: Well, there is something about reciprocity. I like to think of sex as a massage. It’s pleasant, let’s have more of it. But then also, it’s not that meaningful. It’s somehow – interchangeable

B: I like this. But then, is a massage with a masseur sensual or not, and why?

A: OK, the way I like to think of it is this. Sport increases our capacity to act, build up muscles and project ourselves outwards. That’s one of the things we do with our bodies: it’s the shell, and the muscles to punch. But the body’s also a receptive tool, a sensory medium. And there are other practices – Qi gong, mindfulness, I guess that’s what tantra does as well – that are about increasing our capacity to perceive. Sharpen the senses so we understand the world more accurately. And so, sensuality then is about prudence and strategy.

And then, there’s an interesting paradox. Because in a way, if you train yourself to resist pain, it’s probably a good thing right, but then you probably reduce your capacity to feel pleasure as well. And what that means is, to reach the same level of excitement, you need greater stimulus. While sensuality is all about increasing the capacity to feel, so you can get excited faster, and be satisfied faster. And so, what I’m saying is, if the body gets trained too much, that is, if you’re just building the muscles as a shell, then you might be less receptive to pain. That’s what those gym people are about – but then, what about your capacity for pleasure. Pleasure becomes a form of guilt, or weakness, or it’s connected with excess. The simple satisfaction of the senses, that kind of animal well-being, it becomes limited.

B: So what you’re saying is, the more you go to the gym, the less satisfied you are, the more you consume, the more you serve the capitalist machine. I like that. There’s this seires I like. It’s called Bref, and it shows how the Paris metro attacks the five sense. If you’re going to take the metro in Tokyo, you have to block your senses, or it’s unbearable. In an inhuman place, you have to put the reception of the external world on off mode to preserve yourself. And so interestingly, orgies in the metro are super typical of Japanese porn. Fucking in the metro or at the back of the bus, it’s a kind of standard fantasy.

I’ve always found that a bit weird because – here’s a thing – when you do a mindfulness exercise with black chocolate, the quality increases when you try to feel all the flavours. But I tried that with a Mars Bar, and it’s really gross. Industrial chocolate bars only work if you put your sense on off mode, or lose attention.

A: Ha, so here’s a thing that would be fun – run a mindfulness workshop in McDonald’s – mindfully munching through your big mac, feeling the sweetness of the sauce, the crunch of the lettuce, the smell of the meat, savour all the flavours, and feel how shitty the thing is. That’s how we might get rid of it!

 

Corona thoughts: obsessive cleanliness

I never understood obsessive cleanliness, but always knew that it’s a thing. When I was growing up, I had two cousins who were ‘maniaque’, as the French used to say: “you could eat on the floor in their place.” The rest of us mocked them, slightly – and I never quite understood them. Why spend so much time on something so pointless.

Covid-19 taught me something in that regard. I have read descriptions of the virus surviving on surfaces for hours, entire days even. And noticed myself, going out of my apartment, relating to the built environment differently. I touched a doorknob, pressed on the elevator button. There might be germs, and they might kill me. I even bought an antiviral aerosol, and found myself spraying doorknobs, table surfaces and phone screen. Was this the way my cousins had related to their homes the whole time?

I wonder, then, how Covid-19 will impact our desire to control, and our capacity to let go. For isn’t obsessive cleanliness a desire to control: through bleach and mop, make the surrounding world an extension of the self, by destroying any trace of ‘pollution’.  The virus is an alien presence, threatening our sense of continuity with the world. Will we let it take over surfaces, textiles, and doorknobs, and accept its destructive potential – or will we not give up on controlling it, and bleach it out of our self-isolated existences?

Values cards project – consistency

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: I wonder, how does the word ‘consistency’ translate into French? Is it ‘constance’ – the stability of a person over time – or ‘fiabilité’ – the fact a person can be trusted to do what they say they will do – or ‘coherence’ – an internal logic between actions and discourses?

B: Here’s how I would approach it. If we adopt a constructionist perspective, we’ll say that conversations create a new reality. But this can only happen if people believe that what is said in the conversation is true. Consistency, then, is about creating an impression of truth. If people believe that the conversations are lies, they develop alternative strategies.

All we do in business is based on a future that does not exist. Consistency creates confidence. It gives value to those conversations that shape a shared reality. If you don’t believe that what the person says will happen will, indeed, happen – then it’s hard to have an impact on the future.

So, consistency is about avoiding a mad organization, one where the different departments do not align.

A: Or is it about reducing the gap between promise and reality? Consistency increases our capacity to predict the future – which is a fundamental human need.

B: Well, psychometric assessments are about consistency: they predict how people will react. And here’s the thing. We like predictability for others, but we don’t like it for ourselves. That’s why there’s a mistrust towards psychometrics. It’s about the illusion of freedom. If we can predict things based on genes, then we might have a position in society that is based on our genome. And then what happens when a part of the population is considered good for nothing?

A: So is it that with consistency, racism is the most fundamental problem? Here’s a thing I’ve been saying for a while: that when dealing with China, or people from other parts of Asia, we – that’s, we westerners – just can’t imagine that they have the same level of complex subjectivity. So we go to cross-cultural trainings, and we learn about cultural traits and strategies, and that helps. To some extent. We can anticipate a few things.

But here’s the crux. One of the premises of cross-cultural understanding is still that everyone is fundamentally different. It’s impossible to reach predictability on the individual level. So we need shortcuts, like evaluation grids or other thing like that, artificially created. They give us an illusion that we’re getting closer to the individual – because we know that they come from a collective culture, and so they will be doing x, y, z. But in fact, this might just cement our prejudice.

B: OK, here’s another angle. At any moment, any situation can evolve in an infinite number of ways. We face an infinite number of possibilties. And so, consistency might be about reducing the risk that we’ll be overwhelmed by the burden of choice. So, consistency reduces freedom in a way – because it’s about letting the past shape the present – but it also reduces cognitive load, and that’s a form of freedom.

A: So what you’re saying is, consistency can fall on the side of prudence, or the side of sloth?

B: Yep. And that would mean consistency is morally neutral. it is not in itself a virtue, or a value.

A: OK, so then, consistency – is it a form of mediocrity, dumbness? Should we say that it obliterates our capacity to understand the world in its complexity, and have us behave the same in all situations, rather than adapt. That if we’re consistent, we lack the capacity to understand the unique originality of any situation? Or the willingness to do that? Then it would mean that our life is just the performance of a stereotype. And at worst, consistency is just the pure banality of evil?

B: I think it depends. In a leadership situation, what if a person makes different decisions but has consistency in their principles, a line, or a direction that they follow consistently? This creates predictability, not in the manner that the person adapts, but how the person adapts, but what remains important. And this can create trust. So here, consistency is capacity for a person to act with just one voice, in all different situations, rather than changing all the time. It’s the opposite of schizophrenia, or hypocrisy.

A: So then, if we were to push for greater consistency between the personal and the professional, that could lead to higher virtue – and a stop to the practice of acting as a sociopath in business, and a good citizen privately.

 

Values cards project – acceptance

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: So, when I think of acceptance I think, is it a virtue? If it’s about the capacity to accept any type of difference, then we’re in the field of pop philosophy. It sounds like accepting everything and detaching from the world, Buddha style. But then, how do you manage that kind of society?

What you might end up with is a group of ‘perfect beings’, and the rest. That’s what you see with the Cathares in France, and you see the same thing in Thailand. Thai Buddhism, the ‘Little Vehicle’: it’s about personal practice, with a clear distinction between the perfect and the non-perfect. It’s very different from Chinese, Korean or Japanese Buddhism, where the goal is to reduce the suffering of other people – and so, it’s also about playing a role in the community.

B: Yes, there’s this kind of extreme realism in Asia. While monotheism is more a project of self-transformation.

A: I also think that acceptance sounds a bit like nihilism. When you of an extreme level of acceptance, it’s actually not something you would want. You don’t give a shit because nothing matters. It’s harder to spread high level enlightenment than nihilism – and so, when you try to promote acceptance, you might just promote nihilism

B: Another way to think of acceptance is to frame it as politeness, where you ‘round up the angles’. I do that with a colleague: you don’t give up on your own internal shape, you just present it in a way that reduces conflict. That’s politeness, it’s both self-acceptance – you know your own shape – and self-transformation – you transform some of the outer layer, or you angle in a way that avoids conflict. In fact, acceptance might even be a preamble to resolve conflict. It allows you to communicate better, because you’re not in denial, and you can tell it like it is. It’s also the underlying principle of non-violence communication. Before you can express you feelings and needs, you must be able to accept them.

A : In Japan, we say that people can ‘read the air’, but in fact, it’s more about the capacity to understand the prevailing norms. It’s about information sensing. Japan is a very unified and uniform society, so things work even if people don’t understand each other. Now if you look at the US, you have to make everything explicit, because there are no more unified norms.

B: When I think about acceptance, I also think about tolerance, in its physical sense: tolerance as strength, what makes it so that a bridge does not collapse when a big trucks goes over. It’s about the capacity not to break down when there is something unforeseen or undesirable.

A: I like that. But acceptance is not the same as tolerance. It doesn’t stay in a place of discomfort.

B: Yes. It’s like there is a form of realism in acceptance – and so, it ties back with prudence. Once I’ve accepted that there are trucks outside my door, I accept this as being reality. Then I can change strategies to change it, or I can accept this new situation and change myself, or I can sell my house and move elsewhere – change the context.  So I wonder if a way of understanding this more was to ask, what would be the opposite of acceptance? Is it belief? Idealism? And so, is acceptance like a cousin of realism, which is a form of prudence?

A: Well, here’s another example: Islam in France. France has this ‘state atheism’. Islam is challenging the atheistic vision of the world – but that’s also because this French idealism is projected onto Islam. A more realistic way to approach this would be to say that there are different value systems, and a significant part of the population has one that’s different. Then the question becomes, how can we adapt our society within the system collapsing?

B: Yes. It goes back to Buddhism right? We suffer because there’s a gap between our expectations and reality, and that’s not useful. Then acceptance is a way to reduce suffering.

Corona-thoughts: the virus as an alien

**Spoiler alert**  There is a twist at the end of the Watchmen. To foster unity among the nations, and avoid a nuclear apocalypse, Ozymandias fakes an alien invasion. And it works: nothing beats a common enemy to create a sense of unity.

This is a common trope in many sci-fi narratives, from Independence Day to the Three-Body Problem. Bring in the aliens, and our petty fights falter in the face of the new menace.

Could this be what Covid-19 is offering us? A common, non-human enemy threatening to kill us all, and against which we could all rally?

A need for grief

As environmental collapse threatens, we need to grieve the future we thought we had, and the person we thought we would become. Grief for the plans and goals and trajectories we thought we were on, and which will not happen.

This grief is painful, but as long as we block it off, it will prevent us from integrating the truth of our situation. Leave us disconnected from the real, and each other. While, if we were to let ourselves feel the things that come with this new future, we might hope to build a new sense identity, start a new story, and imagine a new world we can build together.

But for this, we need to accept that this world is in its last gasp, and the pain that comes with it.

On repentance and Upheka

Upheka, if we practice it, creates a measure of freedom from past determinations. If collectively practiced, it might lead to a world of greater freedom. Repentance says, I do not want my future to be determined by my past. It is a narrative re-writing of the past in a present that connects to God – in hope that the future can bring absolute consolation. It comes with an overflow of emotion. Upheka meditation, in the same way, is a detachment from the past, an appeal to take actions today that, by their own weight, will lead to positive consequences. It is anchored in the present, finding its boundless possibilities.

In a complex system, the consequences of our action are radically uncertain. Calculated efforts to control outcomes might have severe unintended consequences. Therefore, holding on to firm values becomes a better way to lead our lives. I was invited to write about my biggest fear for the future at a leadership retreat that I joined a few weeks ago. I realised that, after three years working on global catastrophic risk, I no longer feared the material collapse of civilisation itself, the deaths of billions, resource exhaustion. My fear had gone deeper, touching on the moral and spiritual consequence. Should we try to stop climate change, or reduce its effects – certainly we should. But there is another task ahead: when the consequences come, how will we live then?