On Sloth

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good lifeSin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and so, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation. 

On New Year’s Eve, my partner and I were throwing a big open-door party, as we’ve done every year since moving to the Melbourne CBD. In the hours leading up to the party, we received a number of messages, either on our event page or privately, that people would not be coming because they were ‘unwell’. ‘Unwellness’ is a frequent and accepted way to decline social engagements. The term is vague, and covers a spectrum of conditions from hangovers to food poisoning, mild social tiredness or the darkest pit of depression. ‘I’m unwell’ codes: ‘this is too much for me right now, I don’t feel that I can cope with it, and would rather retreat.’ To what extent, I wonder, is unwellness a manifestation of sloth?

The sin that we call ‘sloth’ has received various names over the centuries and across languages. Among those, ‘tristitia’, melancholy sorrow, and ‘acedia’, negligence, lack of care. Exploring those various names, I hope, will help me better understand elements of its nature. Sloth is not a deliberate decision to lie under warm sheets and watch an indulgent rom-com rather than cleaning the fridge, doing the tax, or conversing with a bore. It is a more insidious failure on our part, not stemming from the voluptuous pleasure of doing nothing and regaining shape, but rather a withdrawal from duties, engagements and activities based on a lack of appetite for the world, a ‘why bother’ attitude, or a sense of overwhelming despair.

What are the varieties of sloth, I wondered as I started the year? As a migrant to Melbourne, I have often called sloth ‘the Australian sin’. I amusingly remember this memorable quote from a Hong Kong friend ‘You know Australians, they’re a bit lazy sometimes.’ But isn’t everyone? Rather, I thought I should try and understand what form sloth takes in this country.

On my first trip, in 2007, I saw the piles of mess lining the walls of gigantic suburban houses as a sign of sloth – as I did the shapeless afternoons slumping on couches in a backyard, idly drinking beer. The curse of abundance? Maybe, but could that Australian form of sloth be more precisely defined as a chaotic relationship to time and space, and a lack of decisiveness regarding the best use of them. I wondered: could it be the natural reaction to the sheer size of the country – why make effort to keep things in order when space is abundant – to the disturbing overlap of a northern hemisphere culture and a southern hemisphere location – how could our days be structured when summer is winter and winter summer – and underlying both, the nagging but repressed question of land ownership and sovereignty – why make a deliberate and collective effort to create order and structure down here, if we’re not quite certain who the land belongs to, and what can be done on it.

Sloth is particularly noticeable in professional settings, where it adopts a number of forms. Sloth may be the basic failure to show up and keep commitments. Sloth may be slow replies or unclear communications. Sloth can be lack of preparation and a ‘she’ll be alright’ attitude. Sloth can also take a more perverse form, whereby one retreats into the mechanical execution of delegated tasks instead of making a difficult decision: there is such a thing as ‘busy’ sloth.

In all cases, sloth easily spreads. When one organ fails, soon the whole body collapses, either because essential functions are no longer performed, or because the pressure on other parts of the system becomes excessive. People weighed with an extra load of responsibility through the sloth of another will eventually give up – thus adding a new link to the chain of sloth. There is a logical consequence: that the person who failed us was surely failed by someone else, and that someone else by another, ad infinitum. We must resist sloth, as individuals and collectively. But we must also cultivate forgiveness, for others, and ourselves.

Sloth is not a voluptuous desire for the comfort of bed, but an absence of courage hiding under the veil of reason: sloth will more likely manifest itself when goals appear impossible, and therefore, action seems useless. I have been working for the last few weeks on a full draft of my PhD, which I committed to completing on the 17. By Wednesday last week, the text overall was in order, but I still had two and chapters and a half – over 30,000 words – that I needed to review before I could share them with my supervisors. I was overwhelmed, and started procrastinating in all sorts of way. Time before the deadline reduced, and the task of ‘completing a draft’ remained a seemingly never-ending path to the top of a mountain lost in clouds. Since I could not meet the deadline, should I not, rather, prioritise other things, so that I could better continue the PhD journey later, when the clouds cleared? And so, rather than making progress in any direction, my brain went in endless circles, spiraling into despair.

I collected myself on Friday, and took a different approach. I opened my cloth-bound, grey 2018 agenda, looked over the coming week, and calculated that I had approximately 21 hours available to work on the draft before the deadline. With about 30,000 words to review, this meant I had to make progress at the rate of 1,500 words per hour. Since the goal was to write a first complete draft – not a final one – my goal should simply be to do whatever I could at that pace. I went through the three word files containing the current text of chapters 5, 6 and 7, and broke down my to-do list into 33 sections – each corresponding to one section which I would spend 15 to 45 minutes editing. My mood instantly lifted. I was out of the despair spiral.

Sloth has nothing to do with short breaks between sessions of concentrated work. Sloth is blankly looking at the wall and repeating in loop, since I can’t have it all, I might as well stop now. I met a partner to discuss a new project Friday, to reframe language learning as a way to better cope with failure, chaos and uncertainty. Whenever I coached anyone wishing to learn a language, I told them: ‘the only reason people fail is because they give up. Therefore, anything that will make you give up, you should stop; and anything that encourages you forward, you should pursue. Now let’s figure what will do that for you.’

Sloth may be the sin most opposite to prudence: it is absence of movement towards the good, born from a sense of overwhelming confusion. The best way to resist sloth, then, may be discernment and careful goal setting. But the path forward is not straight, and as we progress, the goals we set are no longer relevant. The world is chaotic, of its inherent nature, from the sins of others, and our own. Therefore, the work of careful discernment, goal-setting and decision-making is never-ending. Resisting sloth is learning to find joy in this ever-changing world.

Teaching concentration

I am reading a French book on Zhu Xi, compiler of Confucian knowledge and Chinese philosopher from the 12th century – a remarkable introduction to Chinese metaphysics. The fourth chapter, labelled ‘perfectionnement de soi’, focuses on education.

Speaking about meditation techniques borrowed from Buddhism and adapted to Confucianism, Zhu Xi writes: ‘To sit in calm is not about interrupting one’s reflection, unlike what happens in Zen sitting meditation. It is just about calmly collecting one’s heart and not letting it fly off to otiose ideas. The heart is then spontaneously in a state of serenity without any [disturbing] event, concentrated on its sole object.’ [This is my own second hand translation from the original Chinese via French]

I put down the book for a moment and pondered. I have been through years of schooling in France – and here in Australia. Not only did I receive solid knowledge, but I was also trained – rather well, I believe – in structuring and communicating ideas through language. Yet I cannot recall any specific training in the art of concentration. Looking back – how surprising! For I had to spend considerable amounts of time reading, memorising, analysing, and writing during those years of study. Yet the core competence to support this effort – the capacity to concentrate – was never part of the curriculum.

Here, I believe, lies the radical optimism of Confucianism: not only can people memorise facts and dates and not only can they derive knowledge from this information; more fundamental competences – attention, listening, concentration – can also be taught, irrespective of bloodlines or family background. If only western educators and institutions today could show the same level of optimism, and instead saw the systematic training of cognitive and emotional core strength as a full part of their mission!

Market testing

In innovation and entrepreneurship circles, it is often assumed that the market provides a sure test for the validity of a new project. The logic is apparently tight: if a product or service doesn’t sell, it means that it’s not needed, either because of a core design flaw, or inadequate positioning.

However, the very same circles encourage the development of pitching and sales skills, including a great buzz around storytelling – because this is how you gain the attention of your customers.

There is a gap in this logic that nags me. When a new venture fails, is it because their offer is inadequate – plagued by a fatal flaw or badly positioned – or is it because the people in charge of promoting it have insufficient skills in sales, and all the people in their target market have exhausted their funds and attention on other offers, less suitable, but better packaged?

Or should we then understand that innovation has nothing to do with the development of new services and products, but only the never-ending improvement of packaging techniques?

Prudence – Week 13

This year, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started and finished the year with prudence – or the rational capacity to distinguish good from evil. Every week, I published an update on this blog, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

This week, the last of the year, I reflected on the relationship between past and future, and the respective roles of saying yes and saying no.

The time between Christmas and New Year is a time where – in Australia – everything closes, and the weekly rhythm is collectively suspended. There is a sense of abundance in this one week between the birth of Christ and the New Year. Time to rest, reflect, and prepare.

I woke up multiple times on the 25th, inspired by the spirit of the day – or maybe the spirits of the previous night. I headed over to the study, jotting down insights, then back to bed, and up again for more. Freedom and wealth are categorically distinct, as are freedom and power. Freedom in wealth and poverty differ, as do the freedom of the powerful and the freedom of the powerless – but wealth nor power are the form nor condition of our freedom. Their pursuit, therefore, should be subservient to the more fundamental pursuit of freedom – which I understand as the practice of virtue. For this, religion is a precious gift, which we celebrate on Christmas day. Religion is best understood not as a statement of belief, but as a language – an inherited structure that determines and enables our relationship to the world, each other, and our own self. In that perspective, different religions should be thought of not as logically distinct and mutually exclusive statements, but as different languages, each shaping the world in a unique manner. Therefore, there is no direct intelligibility between different religions. Rather, translation is required, possible – and, for those who put in the long hours required – immensely rewarding.

The best way to know what you want, and achieve proper discernment, is probably to look back, and consider what you’ve done. This proposal should be held along the one that liberation from the chains of our past is the path to contentment. This year in June, on the way to Europe, I took four days of stopover in Singapore to think about my 40s, and how I would like to live them. For this, I considered the goals I had given myself in 2017. For each in turn, I asked myself ‘why’ nine times over, digging deep in my intentions, until a pattern emerged. On Tuesday, I applied a similar approach to think through my goals for 2018. I reviewed my notebooks of the past 15 months, looking for goals I set myself, challenges I faced, and how I reflected on my past achievements. I realized, as I did so, that I made real progress on some fronts: recurring worries and challenges that I explored at length in the last months of 2016 and early 2017 have now disappeared. On other aspects, I was surprised how stuck I had been. After this exercise, I wrote new goals for the year to come, small and big. Develop a sustainable education and training portfolio. Deepen my spiritual practice. Read and listen to Chinese smoothly. Crystallize and share thoughts on knowledge and collective narratives as public goods. Finish my PhD. Review the ways I interact online. Pilot four new training programs. Develop four healthy habits. Block off six long week-ends with my partner. Do twelve adventurous things. These goals, I hope, are framed in a way that will allow me to break the circle, and go further up the spiral.

This year, I attempted to practice virtue. This was an exercise in saying yes. But as I repeatedly realized, for this, I often had to say no. However, it is only by the end of December that I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept. Proper understanding of sin is a crucial part of prudence: by helping us identify what we should avoid, it also limits the field of possibilities, thereby making it simpler to distinguish the right choice. Sin is a drive we should resist – but it comes in many forms, and often confuses us. What appears as resisting lust or gluttony may, in fact, be following the path of pride or sloth. Sometimes we feel that an action was wrong, but we’re unsure exactly why: this, again, shows an inadequate understanding of sin.

One particularly dangerous form of sin, I realized on Thursday, is the pride that we take in our own achievements, and our gluttony for getting things done – best manifested by the terrible adjective ‘busy’. I didn’t take time to reflect on prudence that day, but simply jotted down those thoughts before heading to bed – with a belief that this was, in fact, acting with prudence.

Friday, this year-long project finished. I dedicated four sets of thirteen weeks to the deliberate practice of the four cardinal virtues. The end of a commitment often comes with a sense of relief – as if a burden was lifted from one’s shoulder. In this case, however, the feeling is different. The result of this project is not only the fifty blog posts I produced. I changed.

I will not repeat the project next year, nor engage in one exactly similar. I will continue writing regularly – but on a broader range of topics. And I will continue to practice virtue, but no longer write about it systematically.

 

 

 

Prudence – Week 12

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started and finish 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, I reflected on the pursuit of excellence and the secret undercurrents of desire that reveal the patterns of our lives.

Clearly defining ‘why’, and identifying priorities on that basis, is essential for happiness. This may be the only way that we can resist the pressure of leading ‘busy lives’, and replace intelligence with a to do list. I started the week blocked, aimless, burdened. Sunday morning I woke up before dawn, wandered from café to café doodling – and understood this one point: that over the past two years, I had been torn between activities  – Global Challenges, Marco Polo Project, my PhD, my writing, and many smaller projects and commitments which somehow made sense at the time. It is not, however, a simple matter of ‘choosing one’, but rather, to reflect on these dispersed activities and develop a deeper understanding of my own inner drives, look for the secret undercurrents shaping these various involvements. Then, led by a more conscious intuition of my deep inner motives – I can more surely say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to whatever 2018 will bring.

After the French revolution, the burden of proof shifted, I read in Roger Scruton’s opus on Conservatism: the defenders of the statu quo should now justify ‘why preserve’, rather than revolutionaries arguing ‘why change’. This brought to mind some of the change makers, entrepreneurs and ‘people to watch’ I have come across in the past few years, proudly waving their impatience around and questioning the state of affairs. These people are dissatisfied with the state of the world – often rightly so. They call for change, therefore, proposing the big vision of a different world, asking their opponents, real or imaginary, how they can justify the status quo. But when it comes to the fine details of the big vision, and the long pathway towards implementing it – it’s not really their job to figure this out, they see themselves more as catalysts and big picture person – but surely somebody can. Or maybe things will simply sort themselves out once their efforts bear fruit, and their grand vision is adopted by all. These may not be the people I have most respect for.

Around a pot of dark beer, with a musician friend on Thursday, we came to speak about excellence, humility, and the character of Australia. The shortfall of this country may be laziness and complacency – but I have not seen it averse to the pursuit of excellence. Rather, it healthily reminds us all that our lives have many dimensions, and nobody should see themselves as more accomplished human beings only because they reached a certain level of competence or recognition in a given field of activity. This, in turn, breeds a certain balanced, original and optimistic creativity, a deep-rooted interest in the many facets of the human world, a superb sense of comedy, and a rare capacity for collective pursuits.

 

 

What is a cliche?

A cliche is a statement that replaces the complexity of life with the superficial self-evidence of a temporary generalisation. 

Like photography, it pretends to capture the essence of a moment, and imposes the illusion of hyper-reality, distracting attention from its own artificial framing of the situation. The very elusive nature of the expression and arrangement it captures becomes a fixed truth, and a canon to judge the many various and infinitely varied ripples of moral life that somehow bring it to mind. 

As such, as an instrument to simplify the world, it serves power and order, and is the most dangerous impediment to personal judgement and moral freedom. 

Prudence – Week 11

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started and finish 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, I reflected on rest-after-the-fact, and how to deal with the confusion of things ending.

It is prudence to prepare early, but sometimes, schedules are not optimate, and things have to be done at the last minute. When that is the case, as it was for me this week on Monday, it is prudence – maybe – to take time off after the fact. But how should one approach that period of time after things are completed, yet before a new cycle starts?

This is how I found myself on Tuesday, the year not ended yet, but all my goals for 2017 either completed, or deliberately postponed. Leaving days to pure chance, vacant, seemed unwise – but for some reason, I recoiled at calling the three weeks to the end of the year ‘holidays’. Instead, I listed a few things to do by December 31: see friends, plan for 2018, clear my folders and notes, and – whatever that means – progress on my PhD.

Wednesday was another day off – I had booked a massage and flotation tank experience from a Facebook ad over two months ago, and headed off to Heidelberg West – of all places – where the clinic was located. I left early, coffee’d on the mall, floated, got a massage, then ate a delicious falafel at Kebabs on Bell, hiding in the aircon from the 36+ degree day. The trip, though seemingly absurd, was a fun adventure, where I discovered a new part of Melbourne, new stories, new people – and I found this a good way to rest.

There is prudence in saying this is too much, and even if I disappoint, I will not deliver the goods. I was reminded of this over the end of the week, as I saw myself failing to ‘get things done’, on Thursday, then on Friday. Instead, I hovered rather aimlessly, till, Friday 6pm, I gave in, sat in the Henley Club armchair with a glass of wine, and finished off the week with friends.