Temperance – week 2

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 reflected on cycles, adaptation and emptiness, as I started my second week of Lent by cutting off alcohol.

I attended a family baptism on Sunday. After the service, we went for lunch at a nearby pub. I strongly desired a burger and beer, or fish and chips and a glass of white wine – but I had to settle for a Caesar salad with no bacon or anchovies, and a glass of water. To celebrate the special occasion, I treated myself with ‘extra avocado’ for five dollars. My desire for beer and burger was part habit, part conformity: that’s what I would usually get, that’s what others were having. My abstinence was noticed, and I noticed something about our culture: in numerous occasions, we’re invited and expected to join in celebrations; but there is little collective down-time. Collective excess is a thing, collective temperance is not. Should we, therefore, aim to revive Lenten periods, embrace ‘Febfast’ and other movements that aim to make collective meaning of temperant behaviour? Or are these institutionalised rituals of fasting insufficient, because temperance is at its core an individual practice?

What we must and choose to abstain from is culturally determined. When I lived in Paris, I had a friend from North Africa, who worked as a part-time drug dealer. He was a tea-totaller, but was a daily pot-smoker, and episodic consumer of harder drugs. I used to tell him that liquor is my cultural drug of choice. Only two days into six weeks, and the temptation is there to find an ersatz of some sort.

Temperance is not easy. Wednesday marked a week of fasting – and my craving for meat and alcohol were much stronger than I anticipated – so distracting that I ended up compensating with chips and cake. Yet I did sense a greater connection to my body: it felt leaner and keener.

Fasting trains our capacity to change. It is the backbone of resistance. Lean figures evoke a measure of suspicion: Antigone, Cassius, show dangerous anorexic determination. With the cheerful plump lover of earthly pleasures, we can always find a way forward: they will round off the angles, and make concessions. But the dry, tempered body, has its sharp edge on display: some things will simply not be tolerated, in any shape or form. Temperance, in that manner, may underpin justice and fortitude. But fasting is also the first step towards potential long term change. We may dread radical transformation, but this is different: I’m not giving up anything for good over these weeks of Lent, I’m just giving up for now. Yet over that time, I will realise the possibility to do without, and when Easter arrives, make a deliberate choice, either to resume, or not. Temperance, in that manner, creates the needed space for the exercise of prudence.

This goes against the grain of the consumerist environment that I was brought up in, where hunger should be dealt with in great haste, rather than cultivated and enjoyed. In my work designing education programs, appetite is often the missing hinge: programs and resources exist to support for efficient learning – if people had a burning desire to learn, they would easily find a way. But that desire is weak. Yet I have encountered few people and even fewer institutions who clearly prioritise the kindling and nurturing of that hunger for knowledge. This is a mindset shift I would like to further focus on during my time engaging with temperance. We do not nurture hunger like we nurture satisfaction. It’s not about what we should add, but what we should take away. We’re not adding knowledge to people’s brains, we reveal an inner emptiness, and a simultaneous desire to protect it, transforming learners into conscious vessels. We create a space where the natural capacity to learn can exert itself.

Friday night drinks are a ritual way to relax. Alcohol releases tensions and loosens inhibitions. We leave our worries behind, at least for a while, enjoy the party, then sleep. I have always found it difficult to stop and pause. This is a form of gluttony, resting on the deep fear of my own inner emptiness – and so, rather than abstain peacefully, I would rather circulate through various forms of stuffing: food, wine, entertainment, knowledge. But engaging with temperance forces me to change my attitude. On Friday, I took the afternoon off, and deliberately connected with the land. After a workshop at Ivanhoe Girls Grammar, I walked along bike trails, through reserves and past a creek, stopping for Qi Gong practice. Then, in Darebin Park, I followed an indigenous spiritual healing path. I walked slowly, contemplated, felt the trees, the water, the rock. And this I realised, while pausing by a wetlands: the spaces we think of as empty are actually teeming with life, which itself feeds other life. The riverbed fills with water, which fills with plants and insects, feeding fish, birds and small mammals. Hollows become dwellings for the flows and cycles of nature. In the same way, by keeping our inner selves empty, we welcome the flows of ideas, projects, connections. We recognise and allow for circulation.We trust that the little things that will breed greater things. Temperance is this the capacity to stay still, holding ourselves open, and let life pass through us. Accepting our fluid nature. Embracing a cyclical attitude. Demonstrating faith and hope.

On regular status

This morning, for the third time in a week, I spent a couple of hours in the back room of Gil’s Alley Diner. It is a large square room with tall ceilings, industrial deco style. The room has a mix of round and square wooden tables. A large metal-frame window visually connects the dining room with the kitchen. They make excellent bombolone – small Italian style doughnuts filled with a thick custard.

Today was my third time in a week, and I’m beginning to feel like a regular now. I certainly behave like one: same coffee order – long black – same seat if it’s available – a little round table close to the wall in the main room. I think I got a look of recognition today from the waitress.

With regular status comes a sense of obligation. Tomorrow, I should go back, and certainly not somewhere else. I should keep the same order, maybe vary the choice of pastry, but not go for just a coffee. When I think about it more, I sense an odd feeling that the place is now counting on me for its bottom line regularity, and for the social fabric of the day – little as I contribute, I have become part of that small community.

This feeling bothers me. I have experienced it before with other places, and each time it came creeping in, I stopped going. Worse – I felt a sense of guilt associated with the place, and after not going for a week, would feel incapable of ever going back.

I wonder where that feeling came from. Maybe the fear of dependence? Maybe the guilt of staying there for so long? Maybe resentment that, when they prepare the tables for lunch service, I’m not welcome to stay – unless I order food. I hope I can get over these feelings this time – I would like to keep going to Gil’s diner. It’s a beautiful place to work and think, and they make excellent bombolone.

On rituals

There is a particular pleasure to rituals, whether inherited, or made up. Such is – for me – the January 1 action movie that I watch with Philip on DVD, as we finish a slow day, started late, purging the excesses of New Year’s Eve. This year, it was Ant-man.

To talk of celebrating a ritual, the Chinese say ‘过节’. The character 过 refers to the physical act of crossing a river or a road,  but is also used as a grammatical particle to mark a form of the past tense, equivalent to the English past perfect – I have been, I have gone.节 refers both to a festival, and a joint. Celebrating festivals is therefore represented as crossing an articulation in the skeleton of time, and transforming a past period into an experience. Rituals accompany this transformation.

2015 has become our past. By celebrating New Year, and accomplishing the rituals that accompany the celebration, we make it history, converting the loose threads of remembered moments, images and sounds into patterns of meaning and causality. We cross the border, and move onto the next segment of our articulated lives, 2016, January, the new cycle.

And so the wheel turns, rituals marking each of its spoke: Australia Day, Easter, Bastille Day, August 15, Halloween, Christmas – celebrations we share – and our own personal ones: birthdays, anniversaries. Cyclically repeating, every year.

In Australia, as in France, it is common to make resolutions with each new start of the cycle – committing to doing one thing at least differently. Not so that our lives will spin into a different groove; but so that our spiral may go both higher,  and deeper.