On Apologies

I once worked with a person who said ‘women apologize for existing. I take a more abrasive approach’. I didn’t see that person achieve much in the long-run, for anybody but themselves.

Apologies are an undervalued form of emotional labour. Far from showing weakness, I see them as a form of strength.

‘Sorry’ shows accountability: I am responsible for my actions. ‘Sorry’ shows power and self-confidence: I might have an impact on you. ‘Sorry’ shows restraint: I am not so desperate that I need to maximise every single opportunity, and I will hold back if the situation calls for it.  

‘Sorry’ does more. Any situation carries its own consequences in itself. This is the wisdom of the Yi Jing. The world is an evolving pattern, with a logic of its own. It is the mechanistic determinism of Vendetta, the tragic machine that unfolds inevitably towards catastrophe.  

Yet we could escape this logic, if only we were able to detach from the chain of cause and consequence. ‘You caused harm, I must punish’ is a full-stop to freedom. ‘You caused harm, I forgive’ offers an alternative.

Our direct power over the future is limited: freewill is an illusion. Yet we may change our perception of the past. Forgiveness and repentance offer an alternative to tragic causality. And it all begins with an apology.

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #8

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

22 december

I have just spent a long time on Facebook, over an hour maybe. Instead of reading a Chinese book and learning new characters, I followed the progress and recent posts of old friends or classmates.

Have I just lost an hour of my time? Many people talk about Facebook in that way – time drain, waste of time. I’ve never really thought of time as something you could ‘waste’ – maybe there’s something wrong with me? I enjoy memories. I enjoy looking back at the past, remembering what happened, recollecting. I have looked at the photos of H, and it brought back my life in Dublin, in their penthouse, with M, and C and A, and D.. I looked of pictures of A.M. and C. H. which brought me back to the lycee Kleber and my teenage years in Strasbourg. And a video with X., his video installations.

Doing this, I can trace trajectories from my own long past: X., not a top student, but personable and anarchic, has become an architect of ephemeral light structures in Paris, for concerts and night-clubs – hype, uncertain substance? Y. married – stunningly beautiful as before, her husband looks friendly, both look wealthy, and that seems to matter to them.  Z. lost hair, grew a beard, and stands in a photograph with his Turkish boyfriend. J. is now working with a feminist band. W. is now HR manager for Hewlett Packard in Vienna, looking prim and efficient.

I have been listening to ‘Tonight we are young’, over and over – seizing the last strands of my own youth, empathizing with young people. Am I refusing to grow,  still a student in my mid-thirties, desperately retaining youth, or acting like a responsible adult in a complex, fast-evolving world? I have, in certain areas, acted very responsibly. I own a house, I am in a stable and happy relationship. I founded an organization. I have recognized diplomas. I don’t have debt. I work in an area that I enjoy – though I hardly make money yet. People that I respect are encouraging me.

After Facebook, I looked at other websites: the Shanghaiist and their sensationalist news from China. ‘Tattoos you regret’. The appeal of the gruesome, the grotesque, the terrifying, the freakish, is old news: Plato wrote about it. A man with a hand grafted on his ankle. The woman whose husband gouged our her eye with his hand, or the woman who snapped off her husband’s penis with a pair of scissors. Who doesn’t want to see this?

In part, I take this as research. For some reason, possibly the way my father brought me up, I have grown to believe that ‘the best way to resist a temptation is yield to it’. I have played video games, sometimes to addictive levels, as a teenager – yet, I read extensively, passed exams, achieved things. Maybe not as much as if I hadn’t, maybe more. Who knows what bizarre unbalance might have come from me not playing Civ-Evo during my Wheeler Centre residency, or minesweeper when I was working from the Hub, or watched fewer random Facebook posts during my time in Nanjing.

So dwelling in the delights of remembering, and looking at gruesome news on the internet – is this a privilege I will later regret, time available by not having children and not trying to make money, time wasted now I will regret in my old age? Or is it my way of letting off some steam, in the culture and society that I live in, a way of not getting more deeply addicted to whatever I could get addicted to?  For I have not had a television since I was 18, and how many hours have I saved by not watching stupid shows on TV?


Values cards project – sensuality

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: Let’s start with this. What about, sensuality is about increasing you own sense of calm. ‘The best way to resist a temptation is yield to it’, right? So, when you satisfy your desire, you’re more calm. Temptation is gone. Sensuality, then, is about increasing your capacity to satisfy you own desire. That’s something I actually came to when I reflected on temperance: that paradoxically, if we became more able to gain pleasure, we would crave fewer things. And so, sensuality may be the cornerstone of temperance.

B: Ah, to me, it has more to do with physical distance, and physical contact, how close you are, or you’re willing to be. And this varies person to person.

A: Well, there is something about reciprocity. I like to think of sex as a massage. It’s pleasant, let’s have more of it. But then also, it’s not that meaningful. It’s somehow – interchangeable

B: I like this. But then, is a massage with a masseur sensual or not, and why?

A: OK, the way I like to think of it is this. Sport increases our capacity to act, build up muscles and project ourselves outwards. That’s one of the things we do with our bodies: it’s the shell, and the muscles to punch. But the body’s also a receptive tool, a sensory medium. And there are other practices – Qi gong, mindfulness, I guess that’s what tantra does as well – that are about increasing our capacity to perceive. Sharpen the senses so we understand the world more accurately. And so, sensuality then is about prudence and strategy.

And then, there’s an interesting paradox. Because in a way, if you train yourself to resist pain, it’s probably a good thing right, but then you probably reduce your capacity to feel pleasure as well. And what that means is, to reach the same level of excitement, you need greater stimulus. While sensuality is all about increasing the capacity to feel, so you can get excited faster, and be satisfied faster. And so, what I’m saying is, if the body gets trained too much, that is, if you’re just building the muscles as a shell, then you might be less receptive to pain. That’s what those gym people are about – but then, what about your capacity for pleasure. Pleasure becomes a form of guilt, or weakness, or it’s connected with excess. The simple satisfaction of the senses, that kind of animal well-being, it becomes limited.

B: So what you’re saying is, the more you go to the gym, the less satisfied you are, the more you consume, the more you serve the capitalist machine. I like that. There’s this seires I like. It’s called Bref, and it shows how the Paris metro attacks the five sense. If you’re going to take the metro in Tokyo, you have to block your senses, or it’s unbearable. In an inhuman place, you have to put the reception of the external world on off mode to preserve yourself. And so interestingly, orgies in the metro are super typical of Japanese porn. Fucking in the metro or at the back of the bus, it’s a kind of standard fantasy.

I’ve always found that a bit weird because – here’s a thing – when you do a mindfulness exercise with black chocolate, the quality increases when you try to feel all the flavours. But I tried that with a Mars Bar, and it’s really gross. Industrial chocolate bars only work if you put your sense on off mode, or lose attention.

A: Ha, so here’s a thing that would be fun – run a mindfulness workshop in McDonald’s – mindfully munching through your big mac, feeling the sweetness of the sauce, the crunch of the lettuce, the smell of the meat, savour all the flavours, and feel how shitty the thing is. That’s how we might get rid of it!


Temperance – Week 13

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 this last week with temperance, I reflected on its connection to prudence.

We treat our bodies as an instrument for pleasure: we direct our attention to food, sex, drink and the titillations of entertainment. So what if the body suffers in the process?  Maybe, by spending time, energy, money, we seek to restore balance: comfort food, social media scrolls, pornography, give us a momentary high – and this, we believe, will tip us back into sustained happiness. As if, by feeding fleeting passions, we could nourish our deeper core.

This – however – carries danger, as excessive pleasures loosen our connection to our own body. Sometimes, it is wise to stretch limits, accept a measure of pain, and disregard our body’s warning signals; sometimes, on the contrary, we should listen to the body, stop running, and rest, avoiding burn out. The more temperate we become, the more likely that we will perceive the right signals, rest when we need, extend boundaries when appropriate.

We should also think of temperance as a social virtue. Wednesday, I spent a pleasant evening sharing spicy food and sake with a friend. Sharing food or drink – and in certain contexts, even sex – is a potent bonding ritual. For over 25 years, I have reflected on a quote by Andre Gide, ‘it is our duty to make ourselves happy’. Temperance should not stand in the way, but rather, support wise indulgence – including appropriate excess.

When is excess appropriate? This will vary, from person to person, and culture to culture. I did something unusual on Thursday: I left half my lunch for the following day, I was full. At other times, I would keep eating, without considering my own hunger, following a script. For once, I did not act in a distracted manner. We live in highly complex environments, and in the resulting clutter, pleasure triumphs. Temperance has no worth of its own, if not guided by prudence. But, if prudence prevails, how potent is temperance.

Temperance – Week 12

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 temperance and the structure of our body.

Why tolerate mediocrity, when excellence is within reach. In Paris, this was my approach to bakeries. We feed ourselves three times a day: asking for good food is a way to respect our material selves. Temperance does demand a capacity to derive enjoyment from simple things – tolerating sloppy food is testing the devil.

Is temperance then no more than deep respect for the body – or better still, deep connection to the body? Monday, after concentrated hours of work, I said ‘it’s over’, respected my inner tiredness, and took rest. Tuesday, I rejoiced in a glass of Shiraz at a concert intermission – I responded to social cues, but respected advice from my Chinese doctor, that I needed ‘warming’ nourishment. I am bored of deliberately practicing temperance, yet my habits have changed over the last eleven weeks: I no longer crave for meat, alcohol, or a second coffee. I feel stronger. The culture of capitalism makes indulgence a default setting, so what if destruction follows; but I feel more willing and ready to resit

Engaging with temperance over three months has left me craving for activity – I look forward to no longer focusing on my body’s inner workings. Yet I do feel a deeper connection to my own weaknesses: appetites uncontrolled, ebbs and flows of energy, structural distraction. I know myself better, how fluid I am. I see potential in this. Solid is not the only state of strength. My body’s animated with constant currents and storms, cravings, passions, triggered by a chaotic environment, true; but if I can swiftly tie knots in the right places, and let the ropes loose in others, I can harness those inner gales, and sail onwards.


Temperance – Week 11

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 strength of my appetite of pleasure – and how celebrating it may be the best pathway to temperance.

I started the week with a  stomach ache – yet found it strangely difficult simply to reduce portion. Something in me was eager to keep eating more, more, more – as if this would make me heal faster. On Sunday, exhausted, I went to bed at 8pm, with a very light dinner, but all I could think about on the Monday was dinner. We go through much hardship for material satisfaction, yet would not go through the same trouble to prevent much greater personal pain. Is it, perhaps, that we’ve become addicted to pleasure, so much so that its sheer absence is pain. And so, we no longer seek pleasure, we simply try to flee the pain of recovering from our material addictions.

In a workshop I ran on Tuesday, I invited international students to describe their sensorial experience of Melbourne: what are the smells, tastes, sounds, sights and sensations that they’ve enjoyed most in Australia. One of them, a sweet young man from Shenzhen with a beautiful smile, told me, “I can’t do this exercise, I don’t feel anything, I simply stay in my room, and do nothing, feel nothing, or I just go out and buy something.” This absence of any feeling is not temperance, I thought – but it could be the very opposite.

I finished a major project in the middle of the week. On Wednesday, to celebrate, I headed to the supermarket and decided to grab ‘anything I liked’ for lunch. I headed home with beetroot burgers, vegan sausages and unsweetened almond milk. This was not self-restraint though, but genuinely what I felt would give me most enjoyment, not simply the passing caress of pleasure, but a deep, wholistic sense of good.

Thursday was the first day for six-weeks where I didn’t have to think of a major project. I had an acupuncture session scheduled, and focused on rebalancing. All through the day, I allowed myself to do whatever I felt like. I vaguely considered movies, porn, food orgy. Instead, I resumed work on projects I had set aside from various terraces in quiet South Melbourne, enjoying a mild late autumn afternoon. As evening came, I stood on the street and considered my options: what would bring me the most joy: head home and collapse, go to the cinema and watch Alien, or spend as long as the film would last on a long walk through Albert Park, via St Kilda West, and along the beach. This is what I chose, and thought, as I moved through the fresh air, among the eucalyptus trees, and on the sand, this is a genuine act of temperance: given the freedom, I made a sensual choice most conducive to my own happiness.

Our stomachs are me-making machine: food and drinks continuously nurture the machine that is our body, where transformation processes occur non-stop. Intemperance is ignoring of the delicate balance of these internal processes for the short-lived enjoyment of a passing contact, whether food, drink, caresses or images, on our sensitive membranes. Temperance is finding happiness in the quiet, regular functioning of our body. It is deep sensual connection to the simple pleasures associated with well-ordered internal activity.

Temperance – week 10

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 meaning of temperance in our historical moment. 

We live in times of  exceptional affluence. For much of the world, abundance is a greater problem than scarcity. Is this a new normal, however, or a passing apex? And is temperance preparation for inevitable collapse, adaptation to plenty forever, or a way to stretch abundance over space and time? Is temperance, therefore, a matter of prudence, wisdom, or justice?

I headed over to university for a workshop on Monday. I was early, deliberately, and looked for a cafe to sit down, relax, and do some writing. None felt inviting enough. After a walk around the block, I grabbed a 1$ coffee from 7/11, and sat on public tables and chairs outside a building. I had a great time. How odd, however, I reflected, that my initial impulse was to trade money for a space, when so much was available for free. And how odd that I was unable to simply sit and think without purchasing a drink.

We live in times of exceptional abundance. Over a billion people today – that’s about as much as the entire planet at the time of the French Revolution  – live in unprecedented abundance. Meanwhile, 60% of species are heading towards extinction, forests are disappearing, and oceans turning to jellyfish. This is the dark side of our times: material plenty for humans, extreme duress on other living forms.

On Wednesday morning, I headed over to Riverland, by the Yarra. Instead of the usual urban Neapoli cafe, I enjoyed the seagulls, ducks and palm trees; the sun rippling on the water, the bristling leaves of a eucalyptus tree. This, I thought, is more nourishing than music or pastry.

What will we sacrifice in the name of abundance? Since the 1950s, exploitation has grown exponentially. This is the trend I inherited, alongside all people my age. ‘I will never be hungry again’, we say in unison, nor experience material frustration. So what if nature goes.

When I struggled with deadlines and multiple pressures on Friday, when the weather suddenly dipped into winter, my body reacted with a deep sense of hunger. I grabbed a block of tofu, spread spicy sauce over it, toppled half a bag of peanuts, and ate. I grabbed a piece of cheese, and ate. I grabbed an ice-cream, and ate. I grabbed a rockmelon, and ate. I stayed clear of meat – but not clear of excess. I followed an inherited script: this is how I was brought up. The practice of temperance requires active resistance not only towards impulses and urges, but towards our ingrained habits and cultural norms. I consume, I conform. Abstinence, even restraint, is an outlier.

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.