Temperance – Week 9

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.





Temperance – Week 8

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 marked the end of my Lenten Fast, and I reflected on the signs of lasting change resulting from it.

It is purely by chance that timing aligned my engagement with temperance and the Lent Festival – inspiring a fast. Yet, I did not follow strictly religious guidelines, and so, broke it gradually, starting Saturday morning with a short black, then a cup of ice cream in the afternoon, and a Facebook post. I waited until Sunday for a-feast of Korean fried chicken and a drop of beer. Yet I realised, right on the week-end and all through the week, that I did not feel impatience to lift a heavy burden of self-restraint; rather, a sense of spiritual achievement prevailed, far outweighing anticipated sensory delight. And as a way to gently return to my previous life, devoid of the clear restrictions I adopted during Lent, I deliberately focused on minor delays in gratification: slower sips, slower bites.

All through the week, I did notice that this fast had affected me. Monday morning, I was not craving meat, nor alcohol, nor porn, nor media, nor, even, snacks. I chose, on one morning, to not have a coffee – never had nor desired more than one. This feeling of tight contentment continued all through the week – while my reflections on temperance were short, and all obsessively returned to the same point: that the fast allowed me to chance, and now, I should simply maintain habits; and how a lesser appetite for sensory pleasures brought a profound sense of calm, inner strength, and safety.

Temperance – Week 7

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.

I initially planned a complete house declutter for my last week of Lent, discarding 12 items a day for 6 days. But inspired by a workshop on minimalism, by the end of Saturday, I had already built a pile in my living room with more than 72 things. So instead, I decided to focus on 6 areas where I face a form of clutter – and look for ways to simplify them. This will also serve as preparation for a personal retreat I am planning at the end of May, coinciding with my last week reflecting on temperance.

I started with learning. I have a list of things I want to learn or better understand – oral and written Chinese, global governance institutions, the limbic system, Qi Gong, facilitation techniques, indigenous languages, how to better relax. I also know various ways to learn each of those things, through reading lists, mentors, regular practice, a course, an experience, or a project. But I have never articulated these two dimensions together. The solution to my cluttered goals was as simple as making a list with three columns, what, how, and importantly, to the right, why?

When I consider my finances, I experience a mild sense of overwhelm. This makes no direct sense: both stocks and flows are in good order. But here is what I realised: in France, after passing a couple of competitive exams, I started an iron-rice-bowl career as an educator. I do more exciting and important things in Australia than I did or would have in France – and I am probably better off financially – but I face much greater short and long-term uncertainty, compounded by irregular patterns of income and spending. So. this is what I did: an Excell spreadsheet with my predicted budget, month by month, over the coming year. I plotted various scenarios on various sheets, none was catastrophic, and I felt nicely calm.

Goals are very prone to cluttering. They are, by their very nature, in a state of flux and change: once a goal is accomplished, another takes its place. I spent some quality time at the beginning of the year setting goals, but after just 4 months, things have already lost their clarity, and for many, the temptation to refocus or simply give up is high. To solve this, I believe the solution is to take inspiration from the non-profit world, and establish a personal theory of change, that articulates my goals (as outputs) in relation to outcomes and impact. This was too much for a full day, but may be the core component of my personal retreat.

When I migrated from France, I folded thirty years of life in one cubic metre. Most of that was books. My library forms a sensual extension of my brain: I like spending time with it, looking at the shelves, remembering books I loved, or anticipating the pleasure of reading new ones. In line with the French tradition, I organise my books mainly by language and country of origin. As my interest and attention shifted towards Asia in the last ten years, some of those sections inflated, while I cut through others to make room. But a deep reset was due: on Wednesday, I clearly separated my ‘China books’ from my ‘other Asian books’, and brought together my slowly growing collective of Arabic and African books. Now the bookshelves are breathing again.

On Thursday morning, I walked through my house pointing at various spaces: the two drawers next to the oven, here is clutter; the green salad bowl by the bathroom sink, here is clutter; the shelf in my study where I keep stationery, here is clutter. I made a complete list, cleared all the bathroom spaces, and made time – in the future – to go through the rest, slowly clearing the house of its various blockages.

I grew up an only child, liking books and movies. I enjoy my current social life, where the boundaries of friendship and work often blur, as do pleasure and duty. But  I I was never properly trained for a life where I’m expected to network and gather business cards. There are dear friends I don’t see quite enough, and events I regret not attending. Rather than a complex plan to decide in advance where I might spend my evenings over the next month, I might organise regular gatherings at my place – as my partner and I once did – and as for outside commitment – maybe take the chance of organisers disliking me, and decide on the day.

Temperance – week 6

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 cut off digital media from my daily life, and reflected on the surprising upsides of fasting.

I originally thought that, as time passed, the fast would cut closer to the bone. But at the start of week 6, habit and adaptation seem to have the opposite effect. The fasts of the previous weeks hardly register anymore – I’ve even overcome the drowsiness of abstinence from coffee – and I found ways of accomodating. On week 6, I originally aimed to fast from Facebook. For professional reasons, keeping off Messenger is problematic: this is how I interact with many contacts and collaborators, and asking each of them to swap for email seems tedious. Instead, I decided to fast from ‘digital media’, defined as anything I would read on a screen and involves ‘scrolling’. That is feeds from Facebook and Twitter, as well as online papers – Le Monde and The Age. My engagement with the outside world will be through personal contacts, environmental clues, or targeted searches. I will see what this does to my brain, but I can’t imagine it being very noxious.

Previous fasts required discipline, this one will require attention. On the second day, I caught myself browsing my Facebook feed without even realising it. Digital media is such an important part of our lives that it no longer registers as an activity. I didn’t crave it, I just entered the URL and started scrolling out of pure, mindless habit. While other fasts had more to do with fortitude – persistence in doing something slightly difficult, even overcoming a measure of social awkwardness – fasting from digital media brings me closer to prudence. What I need is not so much discipline as mindfulness.

We associate temperance with austere discomfort. I am developing a different understanding of the virtue: it is, rather, about acknowledging the power of our appetite for pleasure, and developing a wiser relationship to it. The Lenten fast, by imposing rules and forcing me to give up on habitual sources of gratification, releases a reservoir of energy which I harness towards new pursuits – the lofty kind, yes, but also sensory pursuits beyond my usual scope. By doing so, I might also reset other habits. The week had a difficult start, I was tired and upset on Tuesday. I knew that I couldn’t compensate with meat, snacks, alcohol, coffee, porn or mindless scrolling. So lunchtime, after a large tofu sandwich, I went on a quest for the perfect dessert. It took me to a pastry shop at Emporium I often pass and, for some reason, was always too shy to patronise. One hot cross-bun and caramel Zonut* later, I was ready to face my afternoon (*a Zonut is a blend between a croissant and a donut – and yes, even though my fast is rather strenuous, zonuts clearly fall within the ‘allowed’ category).

In certain traditions, halfway through Lent, you can relax the fast for a day, and have a small portion of something you gave up. I woke up at 5h15 on Wednesday, with a headache and a long to-do list. At 8h30, after a dawn of intense editing, I took a pause on my coffee-fast. At Brother Baba Budan, I ordered a double short black. And you know what, I didn’t enjoy it that much. This made me further reflect on the meaning of a fast, and temperance more generally. It is not about depriving yourself of the thing you love for sheer self-punishment, but to create a temporary distance, and assess whether your relationship to a certain consumption habit – drink, food, sex or information – is a source of deep enjoyment, giving the sense of a life fully lived; or whether it is an inherited addiction, a habit formed in the past vampirising the present. The latter, it handles through cunning. Temperance does not say ‘nevermore’ and face the risk of a backlash, no, it more gently says, ‘of course, but not right now, soon though’. When later comes, simply repeat.

After six days abstaining from digital media, I couldn’t but wonder how pointless the thing is. Not only did I not suffer but, after mindfulness took me off automatic mode, I noticed the lack of scrolling activities about as little as I did their presence earlier in the week. This, even as I saw breaking news of an American missile launched at Syria. Learning more about the what, the why, the where, the who, the how of this potential crisis right away would only distract me from anything else I might achieve on the day. While I believe we should make effort in understanding the workings of the world we live in, at the local, regional, national and global level, I don’t believe that has to be done right here, right now. Much better to wait a little, let journalists and analysts do their work, let the public digest the first wave of emotion – and then only, if the issue hasn’t already died of its own, gather enough knowledge to form a solid opinion, and – if this proves to be the right path – organise action. For the rest, our lives are simply too short to follow the news.

Temperance – Week 5

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 cut coffee off my diet and, while struggling to stay focused, reflected on drugs and freedom.

Since the age of 16, I have not spent more than two days without coffee. It may be the substance I most depend on. For years, the first thing I did when I woke up was put on the coffee machine. This year, I decided to change my morning routine: I only have coffee outside, and take that time to read and think. On Sunday mornings, I generally go to the wonderful Neapoli Café to plan the week ahead. I anticipate the cup of long black, I inhale the fumes when it comes, and quickly take a first sip, eager for my morning jolt. The first cup never lasts long, and I often have a second. This week, my pot of ‘strong English breakfast with milk’ sat untouched for a while. The pleasures of city life wane with fasting. Later that day, I had more thinking and writing to do. Only nature appealed. I lay down on a bench in the Treasury Gardens, closing my eyes – then headed to the pond and, while watching the ducks waddle – precious insights came.

It was clear from the second day that coffee would be the hardest fast. Meat and porn I would happily give up. Snacks are a simple matter of convenience and planning. Alcohol is pure pleasure, an evening social drug, stimulating the tastebuds, that I enjoy in moderation, and could easily replace with cake. Coffee differs: it is the core of my personal morning ritual, and omnipresent. I plan my days in cafes, Melbourne prides itself on coffee, people meet for coffee. When travelling abroad, it is the only thing that will genuinely get me out of my way. I have paid ridiculous amounts in China for a cup of coffee. I have it black, short or long, with no milk or sugar. Coffee is an encounter with a force outside myself that drives me forward. As long as I can have coffee, I don’t have to carry myself forward entirely: the substance helps.

From the third day onward, I started feeling an eerie sense of calm. There are things I can’t do now, oh well – I won’t do them then! I found myself lying in the grass of the Carlton Gardens on Tuesday, before a meeting. Rather than plan and prepare, I watched the sun play in the leaves, laughing to myself, in a sort of daze. How much is physiological, how much is in my head, I don’t know, but I sense change. I operate on lower energy, and adapt. If needed, I learned that I can change regime.

With this coffee fast adding to the others, some core anxiety diminished. As my available energy diminished, I have to prioritise. I can sacrifice certain pleasures, and instead, read, relax, and work more efficiently. With less energy comes a greater sense of freedom, and a certain joy: not the exhilaration of excess, but the peaceful calm of contentment. And I relish it.

Fasting forces creativity. Desires don’t die, but limitations force experimentation. At 11am, I had a crumbed mushroom burger and chips with Sichuan pepper. While waiting for a meeting in the afternoon, I had a Nutella hot chocolate with complimentary Ferrero Rocher (if a snack is presented on a wooden stick as part of a drink, I can have it: you have to draw the line somewhere). And in the evening, after an experimental concert, I reconnected with the taste of meat through the broth of a pig trotter soup that my partner had ordered.

The resolute pursuit of temperance is having an effect. With calm and weakness comes a deep sense of joy and a deep sense of inner strength, in spite of the yawns and headaches. This is probably the longest time I have gone without meat, alcohol, porn, snacks or coffee in over twenty years. I won’t call it easy, but I’m not dying, I’m productive, and I’m still happy. I might enjoy these things – but I know that I don’t need them. Is it what ritual purification feels like? I have submitted myself to discipline, and by doing so, tapped into my own sense of power. Thus temperance nurtures fortitude, and opens the possibility for justice and prudence.

Temperance – Week 4

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 cut snacks off my diet, and reflected on hollow spaces and social coordination.

The sharing of a meal is the symbolic heart of the Christian ritual. It is central to building and maintainting relationships, whether in business or family. Eating together is an act of peace: the shared meal is an equalitarian utopia, where each gets according to their needs, irrespective of status or performance. For the magic to work, however, appetites must be coordinated, so that neither will eat too much or too little. The first rule of a polite guest is, don’t arrive at the feast with a full stomach. Loose eating habits signify more than a general lack of discipline: snackers will satisfy their hunger before considering the welfare of the group, and cannot be fully trusted.

Snacking is not eating whatever you want, but whenever you want. A friend came for lunch with cake and slice on Sunday and asked, surprised: ‘So you can eat snack food, if it’s part of a meal?’ The same applies to snacking and pornography: what exactly qualifies as such? The categories we use to guide ethical decisions are often vague. This is the cause of many conflicts. Yet this vagueness is not in our heads only: the world is full of things that do not fall within clear-cut categories. Some foods are clearly snacks: chips, lollies, mars bars, packaged in small individual portions, optimal for a quick rush of energy. Snacking is not eating whatever you want, but whenever you want. Yet ‘whenever’, we’re more likely to consume certain types of products, support the companies that produce them, and strengthen their underlying antisocial norms.

Snacking is rarely mindfully. The distinction between a snack and a meal is primarily one of attention: do we carve time out for the purpose of personal reconstitution through food? Meals give structure to our daily experience of time. Breakfast marks a beginning. Lunch ends the morning build up, and opens an afternoon movement towards completion. Dinner transitions to rest and sleep. Meanwhile, we consume snacks when things did not go quite according to plan, and we need an energy boost to face unexpected needs, whether cognitive, physical, or emotional. Snacks equate not only slack planning, but an attitude towards it: rather than pause to reconsider goals and deadlines, then compromise, postpone, or decisively renounce – we choose to embrace more. Snacking is lack of prudence. Hybris. For if our days are so full that we cannot afford a restorative pause, surely, we’re making wrong decisions. And a lunch eaten at the desk, while staring at the computer screen, should count as no more than a snack.

Meal times are set on the basis of a ‘standard’ day – but what happens when the schedule shifts? On Wednesday, I ran a workshop from 6 till 8, immediately followed by a Skype call. Should I plan dinner at 5, or at 9? For the whole morning, this questions nagged at me: if I don’t eat before the workshop, I won’t have enough energy to run it properly – but for a 5pm dinner,  I have to leave my co-working space at 4, and that’s too early. Then I realised, I was not looking at the situation honestly. Slack preparation was the root of my anxiety. And so, deciding to face the challenge head on, rather than schedule a 5pm dinner, I went on a long walk from Footscray to the City, during which I redrew plans for my workshop, stimulated not by an external fix of food, but self-generated movement. The workshop went well, then I had my Skype call, and a happy late dinner at 8:45.

During my childhood, meals were the most important moment of the day. On holidays, I stayed with my grandparents. I would wake up to find my grandmother in the kitchen, preparing lunch and dinner. Nothing took precedence. Yet this was not at the expense of social engagement or other pursuits: rather, this focus on preparing meals seemed to ripple into more general discipline.  After three and a half weeks of fasting, I sense a temptation to let go of anything other than the fast, and hibernate until Easter. I need to resist, weaving courage into my practice of temperance: social pursuits must take precedence over the quest for pleasure – anorexic retreat is just another form of indulgence.

After a while, you find new balance. When the week started, I increased portions, afraid I would starve between meals. It passed. I had a 5pm dinner on Thursday, woke up at 7h30 the next day, and didn’t feel the need to gorge. I tuned in to my own sense of satiety. Our  culture is built on excess. High input, high output. We snack to face our busy lives, then go to the gym and burn out excess calories. What would it be like if, when we feel pressure if, rather than shift into higher gear, we took time off, and focused on saving energy. Fasting supports deliberate efforts to maintain our inner space. If I feel a drop in my attention, if I feel upset, if the cognitive load increases, the solution is not ‘eat honey’, but go for a walk, stand up, reflect. Cyclical rhythms alternating fullness and emptiness underpin every part of our lives. If circumstances threaten to fill up our days, the wise response is not to balance off that pressure with more food intake, and sink deeper into the treadmill – but to more preciously guard our inner hollows.

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.