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.

Values cards project – passion

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: There’s a certain discourse around that ties everything back to passion. ‘Follow your passion’, that kind of thing. To me, that sounds awful. It’s like you’re trapped in your own emotions, and nobody’s helping you get out of it.

B: Well, I’ve been thinking about that actually. I started working with this guy who is very lymphatic, like super calm and non-neurotic. And whenever I’m with him, I think about this quote from Hamlet: ‘Give me a man who is not passion’s slave, Horatio, and I will hold him to my heart of hearts’. That’s how I feel with him. It’s such a gift to be not passionate, but calm and rational. I think we certainly don’t value this kind of people enough!

A: Well I think… There’s this belief, this theory, it comes from neuro-linguistic programming, that passion, desire, is a pre-requisite for anything. If there’s a will, there’s a way. If you want something strongly enough, it will happen. And if you don’t want it, there’s a lot of chances it won’t happen. That kind of thing. It’s on Oprah too. And sure, you need an intention, but intention doesn’t lead to results, not necessarily. So, there’s this myth of passion as the driving motor. And when that plays out, it’s often in a situation that is not viable. You see that a lot in Japan. That if you’re motivated enough, you will succeed. That’s just not sustainable.

B: Do you remember this song from the 2000’s in France? I think it became an anthem for the Besancenot party, that left-wing group, whatever their name was. ‘Motivé, motivé, il faut se motiver’. It was in all the demonstrations too. And it’s a cool song, it’s great when you’re marching, but I always thought about it as a kind of… tautological stupidity. My etymology-nerds moment, sorry, but if you want movement, you need to get motivated, duh! It makes me think of communist propaganda, you know, Stakhanovism, Leng Fei, that kind of things. Let’s pump up enthusiasm so we can do big things together. And if you’re not motivated enough, that’s probably because you’re not the right kind of believer, or there’s something wrong in your ideology. Agitation over execution or strategy. It’s a dangerous form of dumbness. it’s actually killed a lot of people. And there’s this air of exalted morality about it. I find it rather scary.

A: Well, I like to say that a moral injunction only works in the first person. And always in the negative form. It’s about ‘I wont do that’, not ‘you do that’.

B: I was talking about communist propaganda, but there’s something I find very American about this discourse on passion, very moralistic, this passion for passion. You’ve got to be passionate or you’re a failure. It’s part of that whole authenticity thing. On the one hand, you’ve got to be yourself at all times, and on the other, you’ve got to be seen to do things. So, you need to be passionate, and if you’re not, well, pretend. That kind of stuff will drive you crazy. It’s something I experienced in my family, when I was a teenager. My parents had completely different ways of seeing the world, and they wanted completely different things from me. My mum was fine in a way, all she wanted was for me to get good marks and stay out of the way, and I could do that – it kind of made sense. My father, it came from a good place probably, but he wanted me to feel things all the time. And if I didn’t, I was just a ‘cold monster’. And I didn’t know what to say, but I was just sitting there thinking, you can ask me to do anything, that’s fair, but ask me to feel something, it’s not in my control. I can’t be responsible for my feelings. What do you want from me, lie about it? I mean, maybe that’s what it’s all about, like this quote from La Bruyere, hypocrisy’s an homage paid by vice to virtue. Except here, it’s like passion means virtue, and cold rationality means vice. I’m really not sure that’s how it works.

A: You know, there’s this concept of Ikigai that people have been bringing up lately. It’s that point of intersection between what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. Passion, mission, vocation, profession. And I think that’s completely disconnected from, say, the Confucian model, where it’s about your place in society.

B: This whole idea of society as an ‘alienating thing’ that you should ‘free yourself from’, it never made sense to me. Maybe that’s generational, maybe that’s what the Boomers had to do when they were young. But now, it seems just… I don’t know, made up. It’s like this American idea that you should always try and aim higher up. It sounds really tiring, and not particularly useful.

A: I mean, society as a source of alienation, that’s just a soft left-wing cliché. This idea that plain rejecting society is always a good thing, it’s this kind of punk position, and it’s just quite dumb. I mean, we were looking at passion as a value here. I’d say that it’s morally neutral. But then people often try to make it into a virtue, and that’s where it becomes dangerous. I’m thinking now about the way we talk about ‘passions’, and how it has a negative connection.

B: Well, if passion is the motor, it’s pushing you forward. And so, it’s out of your control. And now if intelligence is what’s allowing you to be rational, and being rational is what allows you to do something independently from passions, then there is an implicit opposition and intelligence. And so – yes – there’s something about it that seems just, a celebration of dumb.

A: So, is it important to be passionate? I’m not convinced. It’s about either something that makes you do more, or something that starts controlling you. It’s not a virtue, it’s not about the point of balance between two vices. It’s something else. It’s like it’s about chance, like a lottery. It’s about, have you found your passion. That’s, have you come across something that you like? If you can figure it out, or if you stumble upon it, you’re lucky.

B: Well, in Jesuit practice, we talk about the good and the bad spirit. You should closely listen to your passion, because that comes from God and it’s telling you what you should be doing. But when you’re hearing something, or sensing something, it’s never quite sure if it comes from the good spirit or the bad spirit. So, when you feel something strongly, you should always pause and ponder whether you should follow, or resist. So yes, look, this whole idea that passion is something you must look for, something you should pursue, it just feels dumb dumb to me. It’s not something you’re pursuing. Competence, virtue, it’s about discernment between the positive and the negative passions. And if that’s what it’s about, then consideration ‘passion’ as this one whole thing that you should aspire to, just like that – well, it’s a buzzword, but it’s just not properly thought-out, and it just doesn’t make sense.

On ‘busy’ – a dialogue

– It’s been over a month since I last wrote here. I started the year committing to daily practice. But things changed. I started a new role, and have found myself unable to continue, for a while at least. I got busy.

– Hey, I’m catching you here. Weren’t you the one mocking ‘busy’ people earlier? See – now you’ve become busy, like the rest of us.

– Wait a minute. I had a moment of weakness, true, but I think I’m getting out of it.

– OK, so you were busy, now you’re not, what happened?

– Well, here’s a thing I understood. Last week, a friend said the following thing, he said: “I’ve got so much to do! It’s not that there’s anything complex or difficult I have to do, but there’s a lot of small tasks, and I haven’t found anyone who could do them for me fast enough, so I have to spend a lot of my time.” Funnily enough, the previous day, I had lunch with another friend who said the exact opposite: “It’s not that the things I have to do take a lot of time,” she said, “technically, I could do it all very fast. But everything is so complex that I have to spend a lot of time thinking about all the details and the consequences.” They’re very different situations.

– OK, so you found out there’s two types of busy – which one are you then?

– You didn’t quite get my point. I still think ‘busy’ means disorganised, and I think neither of my two friends were actually ‘busy’. One had a lot of small things to do, the other a lot of complex things to think about. But as I said before, I did become ‘busy’ during the last few weeks, and I think I just got out of the hole today. Hopefully, I learnt something in the process.

– I like the honesty. Tell me what you learnt.

– Well, this is what I think happened. I started a new role, in a new field, with new people, working on a new project. There’s a lot I have to understand, new relationships, new strategies, new concepts. Meanwhile, there’s a deadline to the project, and I felt I had to start moving before I could get the full picture. That’s how I became ‘busy’.

– So what you’re saying is, ‘busy’ means moving forward with no clear sense of direction.

– I guess that’s what I’m saying. ‘Busy’ can be be triggered by many small things to do, or it can be triggered by complexity, but in essence, they’re different things. ‘Busy’ is an emotional state of restlessness that makes you start anxiously shifting from one action to the other. Yet none of these actions really feels like a step that gets you closer to the goal – rather, it’s as if the goal was shifting with each new step. It’s not a pleasant state to be in, and if you’re not careful, it can easily start feeding on itself. ‘Busy’ may be one of the circles of hell.

– But you said you got out of it, right? What did you do?

– I guess the most interesting is not how I got myself out of it, but how I realised what was happening. I’ve always trusted my intuition to make decisions, especially when I’m dealing with complex things. If there’s more factors to consider than I can hold, and I have to take a course of action, I believe it’s a wise thing to let my brain detect a pattern.

– But when you’re running around trying to do seven things at once, it’s hard to find a pattern.

– Exactly. Here’s how the sequence unfolded this time. I saw myself getting into a state of emotional confusion, and I took it as an alarm signal. So I downloaded a mental health app called ‘Supebetter’

– I’ve heard of ‘Superbetter’

– It’s cool. I followed some of their suggestions – chugged a glass of water, walked around the block, danced in my room. It helped, but it didn’t fundamentally change anything. One particular suggestion, though, felt incredibly appealing. The app recommended: ‘engage in a hobby’. It resonated with me. I went to the Myer Toy shop, bought myself a world-map puzzle, and started working on it.

– Random

– Maybe, but that’s how things fell into place. Maybe my brain was looking for a solution, and it needed the puzzle to cristallise. It did feel like instinct. Anyway, over the last two days, I spent quite a lot of time on the puzzle. Continents emerged on the floor as I put the pieces together. But they formed independent islands, and I wasn’t sure where to place them in relation to each other. Then this morning, I found the piece between Europe and America – a narrow strait of ocean between Ireland and Newfoundland – and connected the various parts. I looked at the map in front of me, now forming a whole, and I had a flash of emotional insight. This was precisely what I’d been struggling with in my new role – I was trying to find out how the various components fit together, but more broadly, what I needed was to connect them with the rest of my life, and figure out the shape of the whole picture. Suddenly, it felt as if my body had found its balance. I felt a pattern emerge. I couldn’t put it into words, but the restlessness evaporated, replaced with calm and confidence.

– So you’re essentially saying, to get out of ‘busy’, you should stop and relax, and things will get better.

– Maybe that’s all it takes, and let the body finds its bearings. At least it worked for me. Now I’m back to writing in this blog, and I’m even experimenting with form.

– Well, wait until you start work again tomorrow, and you’ll see whether that was an actual shift, or just you feeling better after you got a break.