values cards project – respect

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: OK, I’ll start with that. I like to think of respect as a kind of mutual distancing, a power equilibrium if you want. It’s about finding stability, and it always involves, yes, distance between individuals.

B: Well, for me, respect has to do with authority. So, I have this impression that respect implies an unequal relationship, a power relationship. And it’s not about natural authority, like when you join a movement, because there’s a charismatic leader, but authority within an existing hierarchy. That’s what respect is about for me. Also, it’s the same when you think about filial respect, my impression is, it’s got to do with authority, with a relationship that’s clearly unequal.

A: I wonder how the two relate. I can’t, every time I think about respect… you know the commandment that says ‘respect your mother and father’. I had a conversation with a friend, it was a long time ago, when I was at university, but it stayed with me. They were studying Arabic, and said, based on the etymology, the words of this commandment said something like ‘far your mother, far your father’. Keep your parents at a respectful distance. That’s what it’s about, not a kind of emotional worship, or submission, but it’s about keeping your distance with them. Don’t get caught up in their affairs. Keep them at arm’s length.

B: I don’t know, when I think of respect… There’s two words in Japanese, ‘sonjo’ and ‘sonke’. The first is universal, unconditional respect, the kind of respect you should have for any human being. Even a jerk, they deserve that minimal level respect, sonjo. The other, sonke, it’s closer to what we would call esteem. It’s conditional. You don’t have to esteem everyone, or anyone. Esteem is based on a quality that someone has, whether it’s a certain ethical trait, or a technical skill, or a craft. But that’s not for everyone, not necessarily.

A: So, that makes me think of conversations I’ve had often about work and payment. With writers and artists, or with young people. That they feel a professional lack of respect, when they’re expected to work for free, talk for free, even when it’s an unpaid internship. It’s very strong in the arts, and the community sector, because there’s so many people there who don’t get paid, or not properly, and then after a while it breeds resentment, and it’s experienced, yes, as a lack of respect.

B: Maybe we’re touching something then, something about respect, youth, and anger. You know the figure of angry young men – angry young people in general – they’re angry because they want respect, and they’re not getting it. There’s an expectation there, from them, but it’s a confused expectation. Part of it is that unconditional human respect, and maybe that has to do with adulthood, they want to receive what any other human is receiving. But another part has to do with what we’re calling esteem, conditional respect. Only the two get mingled, it’s not quite clear what they want, so they feel frustrated, and angry.

A: We’ve got this way of thinking about unconditional respect, professionally when we say that ‘tout travel mérite salaire’. Because you do have the case of interns, who don’t get paid. And here, well, true, power relationships are not in their favour, they feel maybe, that they need to work for nothing, and they’re not respected in that sense. But then, it’s not necessarily the case that they should have esteem for what they do, many, they’re starting, it’s good that they’re out there, but they’re not doing wonderful work, they’re still learning. And so yes, the two things get mingled, and everybody’s angry.

B: So, maybe yes, there is a confusion between what we feel is our right to respect, unconditionally, and then this idea that you get respect on the basis of achievement, success. And the result is what you see sometimes, people who feel they have a right to be successful, and they get angry when they’re not, but that’s just because we messed up with the categories. It’s like, everybody wants to work in the sexy industries, like working for the arts or in graphic design or start ups, or whatever. But they won’t accept not to be paid for it. And that creates a power relationship that’s not favorable to the workers. And then, the personal desire for success, as the basis for respect, it becomes a problem for the whole community.

A: We had this thing, in Australia, a big movement to ‘pay the writer’. And I always found there was confusion in what people were asking for. It was surprising even, that writers, intellectuals, were confusing categories. I mean, they were looking for ways that writers would live with more dignity, and get their bills and rent paid, and that’s very fair. But then they were also – it was like, there was a right to be paid, for whatever you wrote, and the desire to be paid for their writing, not in another way – because that would somehow validate their status. It was messy, it still is, I find.

B: Well, we all have a need for recognition I think, but the question is, how is this recognition materialized, how is it generated socially, and how is it perceived? I mean, one characteristic of a neoliberal society is that we’ve commodified everything. And so, recognition goes through money. If you can’t get money for it, it has no value. So; the writers want to be paid for their writing because otherwise – it has no value, and they won’t be respected for it.

A: You’re right. There’s a need for recognition – esteem, for craft and effort – and there’s a need for food and shelter, but people conflate both, and they turn that into the need to be paid for their art, and so they can’t think about it creatively.

B: I wonder, if it’s the same for the young people you were talking about. They’ve got a need for some esteem, and that’s about identity, finding out who they are and where they can excel. It’s even, maybe, to help with their decision making. And then there’s a different aspect, that’s material needs to be met. And we’ve got a problem when we can’t find a way to separate those two.

A: That’s what I like about the idea of a universal basic income. It actually dissociates those two. You’ve got unconditional respect, on the basis of human dignity, and you get food and shelter. But then you’ve got esteem, and that depends on your achievements – and when you’ve got a universal basic income, that might be monetized or not, it no longer matters so much. I think, that need to monetise everything, it’s a problem for society. We push people to selfishness. While with all moral codes, they’re all about pushing people to be less selfish.

B: Maybe then it is about courage, and virtue. Because – there’s a lot of mediocrity. Generally speaking, we’re all rather mediocre. And we can move away from mediocrity, just a little, when we’re in the right environment. And if you’re in a setting that allows you to be less mediocre by default, then you don’t need so much courage to do things – but then do you deserve more respect? That’s what I wonder.

A: It’s like, international development, should you think of it as a form of justice, or charity? And if you’re simply doing the right thing, should you be praised for it? I mean, there’s this image in the Gospel of the widow who gives a little coin to the temple, but Jesus says she deserves most respect, because she had so little to start with.

B: It’s the same thing in Buddhism. If you give an offering of something you don’t need, it doesn’t count. You must give from the things you need, and then you will get merit.

A: Something I wonder, are we so decadent that we praise people for doing something like giving up what they don’t need. It’s a little depressing.

B: It is a little depressing. It’s, I mean it’s hypocrisy too, and I don’t know that it’s a new thing. I mean, there are many people who just want to look good, but then the cynicism comes through. Their way to gain respect is by moralizing others and judging them, but then they don’t apply the same criteria to themselves, and those people, I mean they deserve fundamental respect, yes, but not our esteem.

A: So, do you think, social, where we direct our esteem is fundamental question, and a fundamental mechanism, to promote certain behaviors?

B: Well, yes – and so, we might wonder then, what could we do, to give conditional respect in a way that promotes more prosocial behavior? Like, maybe we need not just universal basic income, but also more recognition for the most socially useful jobs, and then that will get us somewhere?

Values cards project – inner peace

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: Oof! I have an epidermic reaction to that word! It’s that thing life coaches will say, find your inner peace. What’s the assumption? That you should look for some sort of interior peace when things are moving too fast around you? Is this about a kind of peace that you can have complete control over, when there’s too much you can’t control? Like a kind of internal kingdom detached from the external world? Or is it just what you get when you go through Buddhist meditation practice, yoga, something spiritual? And so then I’m thinking, OK, but what is it useful for?

B: I’d say, when I hear about inner peace, it’s like you’re not dominated by your neuroses or your own contradictions. There’s an alignment between passions and desires, what you feel and what you want. And so, you’re free to act. You’re not limited by some uncontrolled desire, or a neurotic block, or a value conflict, or whatever. So, yes, your whole capacity to act, your whole capacity to create, depends on inner peace.

A: So, OK, what makes it a value?

B: Maybe it’s because inner peace is a sign of something. Ignatius says this when he talks about ways to discern between the good and the evil spirit. The voice of the good spirit is like the sound of water dripping on a sponge. That sense of inner peace, that calm, it’s telling you that whatever you’re sensing is right. If you’re feeling all agitated, it means you should hold off. So, inner peace is a value, because it’s telling you that you’re in the right path.

A: Is it about wisdom then? There was this image in Confucius, that wisdom is like a mountain, and intelligence like a river. I wonder then, if there’s something about wisdom that’s about calm, or inner peace.

B: Well maybe. I mean, maybe one way to think about it that peace is about finding satisfaction in something that repeats. There can be a lot happening when you’re at peace, but it’s all cyclical, it’s all stuff that repeats. While conflict is heading towards resolution, transformation. So, there’s something about inner peace that tells you the system is working, and the sign of it that you’ve got a sense of happy calm when you’re in the middle of it.

A: OK, but then what about this thing of inner peace as detachment from external influence then? This whole inner peace thing, I don’t know, it’s just pop Buddhism to me.

On Uphekka – equanimity

From September to December 2018, I will explore the Buddhist Tradition of the Brahmavihara – four virtues or ‘sublime attitudes’ and a set of associated meditation practices. I am conducting this project in parallel with Patrick Laudon in Tokyo. Each month, we will focus on one of the virtues, starting with a daily meditation on the first week, then observing its impact on our daily life, and finally reflecting on the reasons for this impact, capturing the experience in a short written reflection. This is not an attempt at embracing Buddhism or meditation, but rather, explore how inherited frameworks can apply in a contemporary setting.

Uphekka – equanimity – is the capacity to remain unaffected by the flood of emotions arising from the constant ebbs and flows of social interaction. The meditation calls a person to mind and, without breaking contact, repeats: ‘May you be responsible for your own happiness. Every creature is responsible for their own karma’.

Cold? Yes – and respectful. Uphekka warrants other people’s right to emotional independence. As my virtue-buddy Patrick underlined, it evokes the distance between a therapist and their patient: it creates an open space to reveal and process complex emotions without the fear of rejection, or the fear of dragging others down the spiral of our own despair. Uphekka captures the Shakespearean ideal presented by Hamlet – ‘Give me a man who is not passion’s slave, Horatio, and I shall hold him to my heart of hearts!’ For in the heat of passion, the perfect friend may not be they who join in our turmoil, but they who gently cool us down.

The world has its own determinism, recognises Uphekka. All living creatures suffer the consequences of their actions. This came real to me professionally during those weeks, as I leave a role I started three years ago. We finished a major project in June, leadership changed after that, but no new direction emerged – or if it did, the stars did not shine bright enough to reach from Northern Europe, where the organisation is based, all the way down to Melbourne. In the face of ongoing uncertainty, I diversified my commitments which, in turn, increased structural tension. As the year – and my current contract – came to an end, things unravelled. Should I believe in statements that I was highly valued, things would improve, and all we needed was a bit more patience – or acknowledge that the combined mechanics of distant timezones, portfolio careers, cultural differences and internal restructures had a logic of their own, making exit a better choice? Rather than strive to keep this long-distance professional relationship alive any longer, I accepted gravity, and let myself detach.

Uphekka is a melancholy virtue: it embraces the sadness of things that pass, and our incapacity to save them. Cherry blossoms that fall off the branch and decay. Mono no aware. Lacrimae Rerum. No matter what we may desire, says Uphekka, things will evolve, under the deep influence of forces we cannot resist. This applies to the world at large, and the minds of others. Best, then, to calmly sit by and repeat, ‘may you be responsible for your own happiness. I hope that you behave in such a way that the mechanical consequence of your actions will bring happiness to you.’

One of my oldest friends, a refugee from communism, once told me that the freedom to fall straight on your face is a fundamental right. This requires Uphekka. For if your failure affects me, I will deter you from taking risks; but if I can remain unaffected by your collapse, then I might let you try. Could Uphekka, then, be the condition for a more resilient world? Last Sunday, I joined a philosophical dinner. The topic was ‘peaceful revolutions’. It struck me, as I followed the conversation, that when we consider ways to prevent conflict, we tend to focus on actions – how might we stop whatever will precipitate an entire system into chaos. Meanwhile, we disregard another form of intervention: develop and encourage emotional resistance – whether to pain or boredom – and by doing so, reduce the likelihood that our social fabric will rip under pressure.

 

 

On Mudita – empathetic joy

From September to December 2018, I will explore the Buddhist Tradition of the Brahmavihara – four virtues or ‘sublime attitudes’ and a set of associated meditation practices. I am conducting this project in parallel with Patrick Laudon in Tokyo. Each month, we will focus on one of the virtues, starting with a daily meditation on the first week, then observing its impact on our daily life, and finally reflecting on the reasons for this impact, capturing the experience in a short written reflection. This is not an attempt at embracing Buddhism or meditation, but rather, explore how inherited frameworks can apply in a contemporary setting.

Mudita – empathetic joy – is the deliberate cultivation of positive feelings associated to the success and happiness of others. The meditation practice starts with an evocation of my own joy – whether energetic or content, grand or modest. It then invites me to think about three people in turn, a good friend, an indifferent person, and somebody who frustrated me – and in turn, think of those people as able to experience joy, and rejoice in their happiness, repeating, ‘May you be happy, may your joy continue, I am happy for you.’

The setting was peculiar: shortly after I started my daily Mudita meditation, I went on a silent retreat and begun my journey with Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, where – as a first step – I prayed for gratitude at the magnificence of the created world. The two practices somehow merged, Christian and Buddhist empathetic joy. And – possibly through the make-up of my own mind, or the circumstances, feeling joy at the joys of others was incredibly easy, like plugging a lamp into the mains and pressing on a button for light to shine in the room.

This kind of joy, however, I experienced as closely connected with humility. Mudita says, it is irrelevant where the joy comes from, or who feels it first – it can and it must circulate. Therefore, let go of your critical ego: instead, align yourself emotionally to the positive emotions of others. In other words – let a situation affect you, rather than critically standing aside and judge. Be not a cold observer, but a warm participant.

There is a profound hospitality to Mudita: celebrate with the traveller, make them feel welcome, do not critically judge their customs or experience, but give a space for their feelings to resonate. Joy has a preventive effect. It connects people, increases the perceived value of time spent together, and thus avoids relationships or situations collapsing. As warm air rises, allowing the balloon to gently glide above the ground, the collective uplift of empathetic joy allows a group to float above petty differences and swamps of despair, easily moving past obstacles which, to those heavier souls creeping on the ground, stand in the way of many collective endeavours. Mudita – thus – should be cultivated for its transformative power.

More keenly than ever, I noted how dangerous the absence of Mudita could be. I went out with a friend for dinner – an intelligent friend, with one of those dark, cynical forms of intelligence. I would share some joyful details of my life, and he would crush them down with questions to make a point. This, I realise, is the absence of Mudita – refusing to partake in the small joys of others on ethical grounds, because we see them as unfounded, vain, or slightly ridiculous.

Moliere painted this remarkably in his Misanthropist. The protagonist, Alceste, is quick to criticise those around him, their vanity, their lies. He dreams of finding ‘a distant place where one could have the freedom to be a man of honour’, but instead, sees vice everywhere. Romantic interpretations have made him a hero of truth, and this play a satire on social hypocrisy. But I like to read Moliere differently, as a much more incisive critic of pride: the fierce egotistical belief that some of us have an ethical duty to tell the truth, all the truth and nothing but the truth, at all times and in all settings – preferably covered in a thick coat of black paint, in case anybody may be distracted by gentle reflections of light on the shape of that truth. The consequence resembles the sins of the angels: a terrifying drop  into despair which, through sheer power of gravity, threatens to drag everyone around us down the same pit of darkness.

 

 

 

 

On Karuna – compassion

From September to December 2018, I will explore the Buddhist Tradition of the Brahmavihara – four virtues or ‘sublime attitudes’ and a set of associated meditation practices. I am conducting this project in parallel with Patrick Laudon in Tokyo. Each month, we will focus on one of the virtues, starting with a daily meditation on the first week, then observing its impact on our daily life, and finally reflecting on the reasons for this impact, capturing the experience in a short written reflection. This is not an attempt at embracing Buddhism or meditation, but rather, explore how inherited frameworks can apply in a contemporary setting.

Karuna – compassion – cultivates a desire to end suffering, in oneself and others. Expanding my circles of empathy, the meditation process I followed invited me to wish “May I be free from suffering. May my close ones be free of suffering. May my enemies be free from suffering.” Metta came easily – flows of loving-kindess rippled through my brain like a gentle stream on demand. Karuna was dry: an experience of profound boredom. While I would close my eyes and experience metta right away, when it came to Karuna, I felt nothing – and simply sat through, patiently, repeating the mantra, seemingly to no end.

Reflecting on this blockage, my first guess is that I experienced a reluctance at a practice that appeared selfish. When I wished for the relief of someone close to me, someone neutral, or even someone I rather disliked – I couldn’t help but think: their suffering makes my life difficult. Wishing for an end to their suffering, therefore, has nothing disinterested: quite the opposite, it is entirely self-centered.

Yet, when I thought about it deeper, my resistance was profoundly irrational. Why should I not want the end of others’ suffering, particularly if it causes mine? Is this not a form of empathy, that I should fully experience the suffering of others as my own? Does Karuna, then, reveal an invisible hand of suffering – whereby if everyone was to focus on reducing their own pain, then the collective would improve as well.

I reflected further – why should that be a problem? I realized I hold a belief that suffering is good, is inevitable on the path to growth and experience. Whether imitatio Christi, or a post-Hegelian embrace of contradiction, this belief in the value of suffering now strikes me as very European. Often, concretely, it result in a light form of mania: increase pleasure so that pain will drown. A vision of the good life as one where good things are accomplished. As Patrick and I jokingly said – the Buddhist model say under a tree for years. And yet, within my own tradition, this image resonates: as Pascal wrote, the world would be at peace if men were able to sit in a room doing nothing.

As I reflected further yet, I realised that the same pattern – focus on reducing pain rather than increasing pleasure – echoed one of my regular rants when it comes to business. Profit is about spending less than you make – and yet, in most companies, the salesperson bringing in 10k will be celebrated more than the procurement person saving 100k. That same logic underlies our highly wasteful economies. If we were to all embrace more of Karuna, what pain might we then avoid – to ourselves and the planet. The price to pay may be temporary boredom. But the result is something I left aside: a lightness, a greater capacity to act, and rather than temporary manic pleasure, the deep bliss of lasting, effective and purposeful activity.

 

 

 

On Metta – loving kindness

From September to December 2018, I will explore the Buddhist Tradition of the Brahmavihara – four virtues or ‘sublime attitudes’ and a set of associated meditation practices. I am conducting this project in parallel with Patrick Laudon in Tokyo. Each month, we will focus on one of the virtues, starting with a daily meditation on the first week, then observing its impact on our daily life, and finally reflecting on the reasons for this impact, capturing the experience in a short written reflection. This is not an attempt at embracing Buddhism or meditation, but rather, explore how inherited frameworks can apply in a contemporary setting.

Metta – generally translated as ‘loving kindness’ – is a feeling of benevolence towards other human beings, wishing them happiness, peace and calm irrespective of our relationship to them. The meditation practice unfolded in that manner: after a few minutes of breathing exercises to focus attention on the present, I was invited to visualize a series of people, in turn, and tell them “I wish that you can be well” or “I wish that you can be at peace”.

When I read about Metta meditation, I understood that I should start with people close to me, and gradually extend the circle to people I felt indifference or hostility towards. But the meditation track I adopted gave only loose directions, and I followed an invitation to simply notice where my attention went, and let things happen. What I noted was how easily faces came to my mind: people I knew from various periods of my past – and how many there were – but also people I met casually during the day, the waiter at a café where I stopped, the person who sold me tea in Guangzhou, a child I crossed at the airport, or even actors I saw.

The practice was cheerful and easy: I felt myself overflow with love. Maybe, the fact that I was travelling had an impact. I left a long Australian winter for a beautiful stopover in subtropical China, and an exciting project in Europe. At the Guangzhou airport, our midnight flight to Paris was delayed by two hours. People were grumbling. I visualized them, wishing them peace, calmly breathing in and out.

But here is what I noticed as well. After about a week, as planned, I stopped the practice. The overflowing sense of loving kindness for my fellow humans quickly waned. Worse – I found myself angrier than before, for small things: a waiter ignored me, somebody blocked my path on the street, the cashier was too slow. Feelings of anger bubbled up easily, quickly, stronger than usual – then slowly receded. Again, this might have been a side-effect of living far from home, cultural differences, a difficult project. But I wondered – could it be the side-effect of Metta meditation?

The practice was quick to bring up self-suggested feelings of love towards everybody, yet nothing else changed, not my expectations, not my relationships, not other people’s behavior. All my negative feelings, anger, frustration, had no outlet – they were unvoiced, repressed. And so, when meditate stopped, up they came, back to the surface, poison stored in a dark bladder now pouring out.  Metta meditation acted like a drug, affecting perception for a short period, but leaving a difficult hangover in its wake.

I wondered then – is the purpose of meditation transformation, or self-knowledge? The darkness of the soul did not disappear – but I understand it better now. Loving-kindness, sustained over time, is harder than I thought, requires more self-transformation than a simple shift of intention: this I know now. Could it be, then, that Metta meditation was never intended to bring about greater perfection in a direct manner, but rather, through the winding path of awareness, guilt, and slow change.