Temperance – week 6

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 cut off digital media from my daily life, and reflected on the surprising upsides of fasting.

I originally thought that, as time passed, the fast would cut closer to the bone. But at the start of week 6, habit and adaptation seem to have the opposite effect. The fasts of the previous weeks hardly register anymore – I’ve even overcome the drowsiness of abstinence from coffee – and I found ways of accomodating. On week 6, I originally aimed to fast from Facebook. For professional reasons, keeping off Messenger is problematic: this is how I interact with many contacts and collaborators, and asking each of them to swap for email seems tedious. Instead, I decided to fast from ‘digital media’, defined as anything I would read on a screen and involves ‘scrolling’. That is feeds from Facebook and Twitter, as well as online papers – Le Monde and The Age. My engagement with the outside world will be through personal contacts, environmental clues, or targeted searches. I will see what this does to my brain, but I can’t imagine it being very noxious.

Previous fasts required discipline, this one will require attention. On the second day, I caught myself browsing my Facebook feed without even realising it. Digital media is such an important part of our lives that it no longer registers as an activity. I didn’t crave it, I just entered the URL and started scrolling out of pure, mindless habit. While other fasts had more to do with fortitude – persistence in doing something slightly difficult, even overcoming a measure of social awkwardness – fasting from digital media brings me closer to prudence. What I need is not so much discipline as mindfulness.

We associate temperance with austere discomfort. I am developing a different understanding of the virtue: it is, rather, about acknowledging the power of our appetite for pleasure, and developing a wiser relationship to it. The Lenten fast, by imposing rules and forcing me to give up on habitual sources of gratification, releases a reservoir of energy which I harness towards new pursuits – the lofty kind, yes, but also sensory pursuits beyond my usual scope. By doing so, I might also reset other habits. The week had a difficult start, I was tired and upset on Tuesday. I knew that I couldn’t compensate with meat, snacks, alcohol, coffee, porn or mindless scrolling. So lunchtime, after a large tofu sandwich, I went on a quest for the perfect dessert. It took me to a pastry shop at Emporium I often pass and, for some reason, was always too shy to patronise. One hot cross-bun and caramel Zonut* later, I was ready to face my afternoon (*a Zonut is a blend between a croissant and a donut – and yes, even though my fast is rather strenuous, zonuts clearly fall within the ‘allowed’ category).

In certain traditions, halfway through Lent, you can relax the fast for a day, and have a small portion of something you gave up. I woke up at 5h15 on Wednesday, with a headache and a long to-do list. At 8h30, after a dawn of intense editing, I took a pause on my coffee-fast. At Brother Baba Budan, I ordered a double short black. And you know what, I didn’t enjoy it that much. This made me further reflect on the meaning of a fast, and temperance more generally. It is not about depriving yourself of the thing you love for sheer self-punishment, but to create a temporary distance, and assess whether your relationship to a certain consumption habit – drink, food, sex or information – is a source of deep enjoyment, giving the sense of a life fully lived; or whether it is an inherited addiction, a habit formed in the past vampirising the present. The latter, it handles through cunning. Temperance does not say ‘nevermore’ and face the risk of a backlash, no, it more gently says, ‘of course, but not right now, soon though’. When later comes, simply repeat.

After six days abstaining from digital media, I couldn’t but wonder how pointless the thing is. Not only did I not suffer but, after mindfulness took me off automatic mode, I noticed the lack of scrolling activities about as little as I did their presence earlier in the week. This, even as I saw breaking news of an American missile launched at Syria. Learning more about the what, the why, the where, the who, the how of this potential crisis right away would only distract me from anything else I might achieve on the day. While I believe we should make effort in understanding the workings of the world we live in, at the local, regional, national and global level, I don’t believe that has to be done right here, right now. Much better to wait a little, let journalists and analysts do their work, let the public digest the first wave of emotion – and then only, if the issue hasn’t already died of its own, gather enough knowledge to form a solid opinion, and – if this proves to be the right path – organise action. For the rest, our lives are simply too short to follow the news.

Temperance – Week 5

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 cut coffee off my diet and, while struggling to stay focused, reflected on drugs and freedom.

Since the age of 16, I have not spent more than two days without coffee. It may be the substance I most depend on. For years, the first thing I did when I woke up was put on the coffee machine. This year, I decided to change my morning routine: I only have coffee outside, and take that time to read and think. On Sunday mornings, I generally go to the wonderful Neapoli Café to plan the week ahead. I anticipate the cup of long black, I inhale the fumes when it comes, and quickly take a first sip, eager for my morning jolt. The first cup never lasts long, and I often have a second. This week, my pot of ‘strong English breakfast with milk’ sat untouched for a while. The pleasures of city life wane with fasting. Later that day, I had more thinking and writing to do. Only nature appealed. I lay down on a bench in the Treasury Gardens, closing my eyes – then headed to the pond and, while watching the ducks waddle – precious insights came.

It was clear from the second day that coffee would be the hardest fast. Meat and porn I would happily give up. Snacks are a simple matter of convenience and planning. Alcohol is pure pleasure, an evening social drug, stimulating the tastebuds, that I enjoy in moderation, and could easily replace with cake. Coffee differs: it is the core of my personal morning ritual, and omnipresent. I plan my days in cafes, Melbourne prides itself on coffee, people meet for coffee. When travelling abroad, it is the only thing that will genuinely get me out of my way. I have paid ridiculous amounts in China for a cup of coffee. I have it black, short or long, with no milk or sugar. Coffee is an encounter with a force outside myself that drives me forward. As long as I can have coffee, I don’t have to carry myself forward entirely: the substance helps.

From the third day onward, I started feeling an eerie sense of calm. There are things I can’t do now, oh well – I won’t do them then! I found myself lying in the grass of the Carlton Gardens on Tuesday, before a meeting. Rather than plan and prepare, I watched the sun play in the leaves, laughing to myself, in a sort of daze. How much is physiological, how much is in my head, I don’t know, but I sense change. I operate on lower energy, and adapt. If needed, I learned that I can change regime.

With this coffee fast adding to the others, some core anxiety diminished. As my available energy diminished, I have to prioritise. I can sacrifice certain pleasures, and instead, read, relax, and work more efficiently. With less energy comes a greater sense of freedom, and a certain joy: not the exhilaration of excess, but the peaceful calm of contentment. And I relish it.

Fasting forces creativity. Desires don’t die, but limitations force experimentation. At 11am, I had a crumbed mushroom burger and chips with Sichuan pepper. While waiting for a meeting in the afternoon, I had a Nutella hot chocolate with complimentary Ferrero Rocher (if a snack is presented on a wooden stick as part of a drink, I can have it: you have to draw the line somewhere). And in the evening, after an experimental concert, I reconnected with the taste of meat through the broth of a pig trotter soup that my partner had ordered.

The resolute pursuit of temperance is having an effect. With calm and weakness comes a deep sense of joy and a deep sense of inner strength, in spite of the yawns and headaches. This is probably the longest time I have gone without meat, alcohol, porn, snacks or coffee in over twenty years. I won’t call it easy, but I’m not dying, I’m productive, and I’m still happy. I might enjoy these things – but I know that I don’t need them. Is it what ritual purification feels like? I have submitted myself to discipline, and by doing so, tapped into my own sense of power. Thus temperance nurtures fortitude, and opens the possibility for justice and prudence.

Temperance – Week 4

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 cut snacks off my diet, and reflected on hollow spaces and social coordination.

The sharing of a meal is the symbolic heart of the Christian ritual. It is central to building and maintainting relationships, whether in business or family. Eating together is an act of peace: the shared meal is an equalitarian utopia, where each gets according to their needs, irrespective of status or performance. For the magic to work, however, appetites must be coordinated, so that neither will eat too much or too little. The first rule of a polite guest is, don’t arrive at the feast with a full stomach. Loose eating habits signify more than a general lack of discipline: snackers will satisfy their hunger before considering the welfare of the group, and cannot be fully trusted.

Snacking is not eating whatever you want, but whenever you want. A friend came for lunch with cake and slice on Sunday and asked, surprised: ‘So you can eat snack food, if it’s part of a meal?’ The same applies to snacking and pornography: what exactly qualifies as such? The categories we use to guide ethical decisions are often vague. This is the cause of many conflicts. Yet this vagueness is not in our heads only: the world is full of things that do not fall within clear-cut categories. Some foods are clearly snacks: chips, lollies, mars bars, packaged in small individual portions, optimal for a quick rush of energy. Snacking is not eating whatever you want, but whenever you want. Yet ‘whenever’, we’re more likely to consume certain types of products, support the companies that produce them, and strengthen their underlying antisocial norms.

Snacking is rarely mindfully. The distinction between a snack and a meal is primarily one of attention: do we carve time out for the purpose of personal reconstitution through food? Meals give structure to our daily experience of time. Breakfast marks a beginning. Lunch ends the morning build up, and opens an afternoon movement towards completion. Dinner transitions to rest and sleep. Meanwhile, we consume snacks when things did not go quite according to plan, and we need an energy boost to face unexpected needs, whether cognitive, physical, or emotional. Snacks equate not only slack planning, but an attitude towards it: rather than pause to reconsider goals and deadlines, then compromise, postpone, or decisively renounce – we choose to embrace more. Snacking is lack of prudence. Hybris. For if our days are so full that we cannot afford a restorative pause, surely, we’re making wrong decisions. And a lunch eaten at the desk, while staring at the computer screen, should count as no more than a snack.

Meal times are set on the basis of a ‘standard’ day – but what happens when the schedule shifts? On Wednesday, I ran a workshop from 6 till 8, immediately followed by a Skype call. Should I plan dinner at 5, or at 9? For the whole morning, this questions nagged at me: if I don’t eat before the workshop, I won’t have enough energy to run it properly – but for a 5pm dinner,  I have to leave my co-working space at 4, and that’s too early. Then I realised, I was not looking at the situation honestly. Slack preparation was the root of my anxiety. And so, deciding to face the challenge head on, rather than schedule a 5pm dinner, I went on a long walk from Footscray to the City, during which I redrew plans for my workshop, stimulated not by an external fix of food, but self-generated movement. The workshop went well, then I had my Skype call, and a happy late dinner at 8:45.

During my childhood, meals were the most important moment of the day. On holidays, I stayed with my grandparents. I would wake up to find my grandmother in the kitchen, preparing lunch and dinner. Nothing took precedence. Yet this was not at the expense of social engagement or other pursuits: rather, this focus on preparing meals seemed to ripple into more general discipline.  After three and a half weeks of fasting, I sense a temptation to let go of anything other than the fast, and hibernate until Easter. I need to resist, weaving courage into my practice of temperance: social pursuits must take precedence over the quest for pleasure – anorexic retreat is just another form of indulgence.

After a while, you find new balance. When the week started, I increased portions, afraid I would starve between meals. It passed. I had a 5pm dinner on Thursday, woke up at 7h30 the next day, and didn’t feel the need to gorge. I tuned in to my own sense of satiety. Our  culture is built on excess. High input, high output. We snack to face our busy lives, then go to the gym and burn out excess calories. What would it be like if, when we feel pressure if, rather than shift into higher gear, we took time off, and focused on saving energy. Fasting supports deliberate efforts to maintain our inner space. If I feel a drop in my attention, if I feel upset, if the cognitive load increases, the solution is not ‘eat honey’, but go for a walk, stand up, reflect. Cyclical rhythms alternating fullness and emptiness underpin every part of our lives. If circumstances threaten to fill up our days, the wise response is not to balance off that pressure with more food intake, and sink deeper into the treadmill – but to more preciously guard our inner hollows.

Temperance – week 3

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 the third week of my engagement with temperance, I turned my attention from food to sex – and started abstaining from porn. Whenever I have spoken to people about the list of things I proposed cutting during Lent, pornography stood out: I articulated the word somewhat faster, with a mild sense of embarrassment. What makes porn so prevalent, yet so shameful? What makes it so fascinating? This is what I tried articulating over the week.

Pornography was pervasive in my childhood. From about the age of ten, I was very aware that on the first Saturday of the month at midnight, one of the TV channels played a porn movie, and that my step-father duly recorded it. I was aware that he stored videos in the library – later, I would sneakily watch them in the afternoon when he was away. Once, at the age of twelve, while walking around with a friend, I remember stopping at a suburban supermarket to buy a treat: there, we glanced for a long while at the jacket of ‘cum for lips’ that sat at eye level in one of the aisle, giggling and aroused.

Porn offers to satisfy a certain form of cruel curiosity. Photographs of sexual organs in extreme close-up appear in two distinct domains – pornographic movies, and medical books. Pornography rips open people, like anatomy does. Porn is an act of radical unveiling. It promises a form of perfect knowledge: it captures the moment when a person is completely revealed in its most naked form. To that extent, porn is a perversion of knowledge: rather than a slow, gradual, dialectic process of encounter, it proposes a shortcut to ‘knowing, in the biblical sense’. But that moment of complete revelation always eludes us – and so we watch more, and more, and more again, in a vain attempt to seize it.

When a new technology emerges, we overestimate its impact in the short term, and underestimate its impact in the long term. To what extent does that apply to the sexual revolution – of which endemic pornography may be no more than a symptom? The way that Aquinas articulates chastity is no longer relevant: not only because he draws explicit parallels between the beautiful dishes that whet our appetite and the beautiful women that arouse our lust; but also because his framing of ‘sexual acts against nature’ no longer aligns unproblematically with our understanding of how ‘nature’ operates in the realm of sexuality. From books on the bonobos to wildlife TV series, from ethnographic reports to the Kinsey survey, we’ve developed a more sophisticated understanding of the many roles played by sex in creating and nurturing diverse types of social relationships.

In our globalised world soon due to hit 8 billion people, if sexuality is to support the survival of our species, chastity should be reframed in the following terms: what sexual behaviour is most conducive to social harmony. Part of our fascination with pornography may stem from this question. Progress in modern medicine, birth control and paternity tests, challenges previous assumptions about what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour. So, what should we do? Should we rejoice and indulge without limits, just because we can? Or should we keep things ‘within measure’, and if so, what is this measure? While we’re figuring out these questions, porn offers a temporary satisfaction: it invites us to join a fantasy world where sexual acts occur outside of any context, and have no consequences.

A pragmatic logic underpins most support for pornography: since people want it, let’s  normalise it, rather than afflict users with guilt, and push the whole industry to some dark underbelly. Yet, on the Internet, porn exists in shady condition: who’s the owner of the many videos that circulate, soft and hard-core, professional and amateur? Were actors willing participants? Is all of it, or most of it, within the clear realms of legality? Yet somehow, either by the very nature of the thing itself, or the conditions that surround our engagement with it, these are not questions we raise: we search, we click, we watch. And that’s where much of the problem may be: not that there is something inherently bad about pornography, but that it freezes thought, and distracts us from more valuable pursuits.

The silence that covers our engagement with porn certainly contributes to these shadows. ‘The Internet is for porn’, joke the characters of Avenue Q. To what extent is this true? There is a lot of porn online, there must be physical and economic counterparts: server farms, web designers, production companies – yet I have no critical understanding of it. Don’t ask, don’t tell. The same applies at a personal level. I have read dozens of articles describing in details what food I should eat and when in order to reach various forms of personal optimum. I am quite aware of what my friends eat, and even what they drink. I know nothing of their pornographic habits, nor have I ever come across an article listing ’10 ways that pornography can help you find inner calm and increase your creative output’. We collectively Febfast and Meat-free-Mondays, but porn remains an entirely private experience.

This may be why it grates against even a very liberal understanding of chastity. To what extent will our private engagement with naked bodies on a screen contribute to social harmony? Will it bring peace through generalised sexual relief? Will it increase frustration and feed aggressive desire? Or will it isolate us, lost on a solitary quest for impossible knowledge? Without some collective discussion, we cannot answer these questions. As long as shame hampers conversation, pornography will remain problematic.






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.

Temperance – week 1

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.

On my first week practicing temperance, I explored the paradoxical relationship of constraint and freedom, and started my seven-week Lent by cutting meat.

As I did on the First of January, I started on Sunday with a simple commitment to mindfulness. Mindfulness led me to deprioritise food and, as a result, I did unexpected things. After a light morning tea following a church service, rather than shape my afternoon on the basis of lunch, I decided instead that I would go to the park and do some work until I got hungry – the scone and slice of quiche from morning tea was enough for now. I had plans to complete a quarterly report project that day, with vague intention of repeating what I did for the last one: treat myself to a fancy cocktail as a way to celebrate the ritual completion of my executive summary. Guided by temperance, I went for a simple beer instead. A friend was coming over for dinner that night. I bought a chicken from the David Jones FoodCourt and put it in the oven – I had not roasted a chook for years, but haven’t lost my hand. Money saved in the afternoon was used for better quality product in the evening, and a shared experience.

Gluttony takes many forms – excessive quantities, excessive refinement, excessive speed. At the core, it is an excessive interest in food. I have been brought up in a glutton family. My grandmother used to repeat a phrase from her father: “little belly, rejoice, rejoice, every penny I make is for you.” Temperance is a serious challenge to my heritage. On Monday, waking up, I decided I would not care about food that day. The surprising result was a day indulging other obsessions. February was a professionally demanding month, and as a way to compensate, I resumed re-watching of Gossip Girl, picking up where I left in September, at Season 4(in another post, I may write why this is a favourite drama). Now, however, I had to focus on new things, and had about 10 hours of episodes left to the end of the last season, distracting me from anything else. To give myself space over the week, enjoying a gorgeous late summer day, and geared by my deliberate focus to seek freedom from food obsession, I spent a day with Gossip Girl – interrupted in the late morning by a whimsical affogato stop on Bourke Street followed by a chicken and bacon burger on Russell – then  again, in the evening, by a function followed by a home meal of smoked salmon and salami. At 11h30, I finished the last episode, and went to bed ready for a return to my PhD. Over the course of the day, I felt extremely relaxed, with not a touch of guilt from this complete indulgence.

Two characteristics make temperance difficult. The first is structural: the virtue requires balance rather than complete abstinence, and therefore includes an element of personal judgement. The second is historic: our consumerist and sexually liberated culture defines identity through taste rather than effort, and equates fulfilment with the satisfaction of our appetites, not the capacity to moderate them. The practice of temperance therefore requires that we re-learn to think of desire as otherness, and resistance as an expression of the self. It also requires that we get ready for opposition: temperance is not aligned with the spirit of the time, and if we practice too conspicuously, we may well irritate many.

Wednesday was the start of Lent. This chance alignment of the lunar calendar with the change of season encouraged me to weave Lenten abstinence into my engagement with temperance. Over the next six weeks, every wednesday, I will substract one thing from my life. Meat is the first to go. In this, temperance ties in with justice. Whenever we mindfully consume meat, we weigh our enjoyment of food against the life and suffering of another sentient being, and give the former priority. This may but reflect our status as a predator species. What I noted, however, in just one day of resolute vegetarianism, is how matter-of-fact the consumption of meat has become. This may also explain why we consume so much, in spite of its environmental impact. Avoiding meat had a clear liberating effect. As happened on Sunday and Monday, creating a constraint on food opened a space of freedom elsewhere. I marked off the day for PhD work. High level narrative construction was required – this would be better done among eucalyptus trees than in a closed office. And so, I went off on a walk from Belgrave to Ferntree Gully. I had lunch at a bakery in Upwey. There were about a dozen types of pies; only two were vegetarian. Lent had this added benefit: choosing food was made simple. I could devote my attention to more important things.

On Thursday, I reflected on the connection between food and my own body. I grew up in a family where women were both obsessed with food and constantly dieting. I inherited this tension. During a Qi Gong class on Tuesday, I had a postural breakthrough. Our instructor told us that our back should be firm, while the front part of our body should be soft. My breath seemed to be shorter than most other people in the class. Then I realised that I had been holding in my stomach, and thereby disturbing natural breathing patterns. All through Thursday, I gently patted my soft abdomen, rising in smooth rhythm – and reconciled myself to the idea of a potbelly.

On Friday, I focused again on mindful eating, reflecting on this paradox: is temperance increased indifference to food, or increased attention? Mindful eating made me better appreciate the act of bringing a grape to my mouth, touching it with my lips, cracking the skin with my teeth, the juice exploding on my tongue and palate,  and the pleasant act of swallowing. Could these sensations form a more solid ground for temperance than blindness to them?


Cardinal virtues – a project for 2017

prudence-2 temperance-2fortitude-2 justice-2

This is a sharp memory from my grade Ten French class. We were studying French moralist writers of the 17th century, and our teacher explained one of the fundamental religious debates of the time: the respective role of Grace and Virtues on our salvation. It was the height of religious wars in Europe, and the question of Grace was at the core of a theological opposition between Protestants and Catholics, echoed in France in a polemic between two Catholic factions, the Jesuits and the Jansenists (represented by Pascal). According to Jesuit views – inspired by Renaissance Humanism – God offers his supernatural grace to all humans; it is our duty to meet Him halfway, and use our free-will to deliberately cultivate virtues and accomplish good works. This goes directly against the belief of Jansenists – as well as most Protestant theology – who take a more pessimistic view of mankind: our sinful nature is such that only the Grace of God has efficacy to grant us salvation. All attempts at cultivating moral virtues and conducting good works carry the risk of fostering pride and delusion.


What exactly do we mean when we talk of virtues? For over twenty years, I’ve worn a symbol of my father’s home region around my neck, the ‘guardian cross’, blending a heart, an anchor and a cross. The symbol represents Faith, Hope and Love – three virtues that Paul’s Epistles identify as defining Christianism, and known together as theological virtues. Today, in our post-Christian world, the word virtue evokes at worst a conceited bigot, at best a coy individual, looking for shelter from a corrupting world. But it was not always this way: in its original meaning, virtue has the same root as ‘virile’, and refers to the character of a good citizen – in a famous reflection on the dominant affect in various, Montesquieu associates Virtue to Republican rule. Through the works of Sts Ambrosius, Augustine and Thomas,Catholic theology considers not three, but seven fundamental virtues. Four cardinal virtues, identified in the works of Aristotle, and therefore common to Christians and Pagans, complement Faith, Hope and Love: known as Cardinal Virtues, they are Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude. On a recent public profile I wrote – ‘I like to listen and look for common ground’. My exploration of Cardinal Virtues in 2017 will both allow me to reconnect with my own Catholic heritage, and reflect on universal forms of good behaviour – what makes a good citizen in a range of tradition, and how to cultivate one’s own character.


Last year, I started a daily blogging project – a daily page of handwriting which I posted online after light editing. After three months, this was interrupted by a demanding new role with the Global Challenges Foundation. The project I was in charge of setting up has now found its shape, systems are in place, and I’ve been able to reduce the extent of my engagement. This allows me to resume daily writing meditation. So this is what I propose for 2017. I will associate a virtue to each season: Prudence and Summer, Temperance and Autumn, Justice and Winter, Fortitude and Spring. Every day, I will reflect on the season’s virtue, decide a way to practice it over the course of the day, and write about the experience in the evening in a diary. At the end of each week, I will write a short blog post summarising what I did and learnt. Marking the end of each season, I will take a full week to reflect, and compose a deeper written meditation. The project will blend writing and practice – and hopefully, lead both to personal transformation and valuable intellectual insights.

I look forward to this year exploring virtues – and hope we can all learn from this.

On sugar

Last week, I watched an Australian documentary called ‘That sugar film’. The main storyline follows the director experimenting the effects of sugar on his own body. After years of a no-sugar diet, he converts to the Australian average of 40 grams a day, which he sources entirely from food usually perceived as healthy: low-fat yogurt, cereal bars, fruit juice. Result: in two months, he gains 10cm of waist circumference, shows early signs of fat liver disease, and suffers from lower attention spans and mood swings.

It was impactful: after watching the film,  I cut my sugar consumption. It was already rather low – I don’t eat much processed or so-called ‘health’ food, I never drink juice or soda. But I do like ice-cream, cake and chocolate. I went from three to one a day – usually one of the delicious pastries from Gills Diner.

Speaking with friends about low-sugar diets, I used to quip that cutting it is good for physical health, but keeping it is good for mental health. As it turns out, it might not be the case. Sugar highs and sugar lows might affect our moods and attention. But implications go deeper. My memories of eating sweet things are associated, mostly, with comfort and happiness. It’s my grand-mother’s apple tart, generously sprinkled with pure white sugar. It’s her mashed strawberries and cream. It’s the lollies I bought from the shop across my school as a kid. It’s the tub of ice-cream I dug in while watching TV with my parents.

More deeply still, sugar is involved in many social celebrations. Yesterday, I was invited by a friend to join the celebratory eating of a gingerbread  house. There were also brownies. I joined, and ate – then soon after, felt the effect of too much cake: heavy stomach, slightly dizzy head. How much of it was nocebo from watching That Sugar Film, I don’t know, but it took a 1h walk back to the city to shake it off. And yet – while we were at it, I had a very good time.

My evening walks often headed to the cake shop or the ice-cream shop. The prospect of an evening treat took me out of the house. Now I’ll have to find a replacement. But it will take effort, beyond committing to sugar cuts, to develop more than an alternative diet – build alternative daily rituals, social, and personal.

On procurement

We seem conditioned to value the visible result over the long preparatory process, the house over the foundations, the gain earned – no matter how trivial – over the pain avoided – no matter how great.

A friend from China used to work in supply chain management. She has exceptional procurement skills, and saved her company millions of dollars. Her achievements barely received acknowledgement. Meanwhile, when the sales team brought in a few hundred thousands in contracts, everybody cheered. Eventually, she quit.

A balance sheet has two sides, income and expenses. Yet the dominant wisdom I absorbed from business people is, focus on income. The Business Model Canvas presents elegant symetry between cost and revenue structure, but most of the tips and case studies I read celebrate clever ways of bringing in more money.

In our age of abundance, we do not value temperance. There may be reason for it. After all, a danger avoided offers no chance for heroics. After complex research, modelling and bargaining, we did not incur a certain sum – but were we ever going to pay that much? The risk did not manifest, was it through complex strategy, or pure luck? And who can tell if it was ever even present? My sale, however, the crisis I solved, the monster I slayed, that’s concrete, and should be dutifully rewarded.