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?

Telling truth to power

It order to tell truth to power, we must understand where power lies, so we know what language to use. So far so good, but sharing the same grammar and vocabulary so we can tell truth to power, is it not a first step towards collusion? And so, rather than telling truth to power, should we not simply defiantly pretend it doesn’t exist, until it disappears on its own?

On repentance and equanimity

Repentance, if we practice enough, can liberate us from the burden of past determinations. It says, I do not want my future to be determined by my past – and believe I can get rid of whatever ruts are currently there in my life. It comes with tears, melting the solid shape of our individual past: in the moment of repentance, we are fully present with God – that is, with everything that is. New connections can be made then, and a different trajectory becomes possible.

The same is true of Upheka meditation, or the practice of equanimity: it is a deliberate detachment from the past, an appeal to take actions today that, on their own impetus, will lead to positive consequences.

A dangerous blindspot – leadership and uncertainty

I was talking with a friend a while back about her work coordinating high stakes meetings. We were discussing uncertainty – the growing need to consider it. She told me, ‘in big business and high level meetings, every minute counts. By the time you arrive there, you need to have no uncertainties or elements that are out of your control.’

I reflected afterwards: is it the case that the people running our largest organisations, because of their very function, or the dominant norms surrounding them, are plagued by an illusion of control, an illusion of certainty? Admitting uncertainty is a sign of inadequacy; acknowledging the limits of control, a sign of weakness.

Yet uncertainty, and limited control, is the basic human condition. As we see now: because a wet-market somewhere, a sneeze, a handshake, a wrong move, a political leader saying ‘don’t talk about it’, we have a global pandemic on our hands.  Certainties shake – travel is disrupted, schools closed, countries cut off. Covid-19 simply magnifies our limits. The best we can do is reduce uncertainty to some degree; what we can control is so little, compared to what eludes our capacity.

And so, if we do not accept this radical uncertainty as a premise, we live in an illusion, and everything we believe is untrue. How concerning, then, that our leaders – or so it seems – live their life in such disconnection with the real?