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!

 

Prudence – Week 13

This year, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started and finished the year with prudence – or the rational capacity to distinguish good from evil. Every week, I published an update on this blog, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

This week, the last of the year, I reflected on the relationship between past and future, and the respective roles of saying yes and saying no.

The time between Christmas and New Year is a time where – in Australia – everything closes, and the weekly rhythm is collectively suspended. There is a sense of abundance in this one week between the birth of Christ and the New Year. Time to rest, reflect, and prepare.

I woke up multiple times on the 25th, inspired by the spirit of the day – or maybe the spirits of the previous night. I headed over to the study, jotting down insights, then back to bed, and up again for more. Freedom and wealth are categorically distinct, as are freedom and power. Freedom in wealth and poverty differ, as do the freedom of the powerful and the freedom of the powerless – but wealth nor power are the form nor condition of our freedom. Their pursuit, therefore, should be subservient to the more fundamental pursuit of freedom – which I understand as the practice of virtue. For this, religion is a precious gift, which we celebrate on Christmas day. Religion is best understood not as a statement of belief, but as a language – an inherited structure that determines and enables our relationship to the world, each other, and our own self. In that perspective, different religions should be thought of not as logically distinct and mutually exclusive statements, but as different languages, each shaping the world in a unique manner. Therefore, there is no direct intelligibility between different religions. Rather, translation is required, possible – and, for those who put in the long hours required – immensely rewarding.

The best way to know what you want, and achieve proper discernment, is probably to look back, and consider what you’ve done. This proposal should be held along the one that liberation from the chains of our past is the path to contentment. This year in June, on the way to Europe, I took four days of stopover in Singapore to think about my 40s, and how I would like to live them. For this, I considered the goals I had given myself in 2017. For each in turn, I asked myself ‘why’ nine times over, digging deep in my intentions, until a pattern emerged. On Tuesday, I applied a similar approach to think through my goals for 2018. I reviewed my notebooks of the past 15 months, looking for goals I set myself, challenges I faced, and how I reflected on my past achievements. I realized, as I did so, that I made real progress on some fronts: recurring worries and challenges that I explored at length in the last months of 2016 and early 2017 have now disappeared. On other aspects, I was surprised how stuck I had been. After this exercise, I wrote new goals for the year to come, small and big. Develop a sustainable education and training portfolio. Deepen my spiritual practice. Read and listen to Chinese smoothly. Crystallize and share thoughts on knowledge and collective narratives as public goods. Finish my PhD. Review the ways I interact online. Pilot four new training programs. Develop four healthy habits. Block off six long week-ends with my partner. Do twelve adventurous things. These goals, I hope, are framed in a way that will allow me to break the circle, and go further up the spiral.

This year, I attempted to practice virtue. This was an exercise in saying yes. But as I repeatedly realized, for this, I often had to say no. However, it is only by the end of December that I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept. Proper understanding of sin is a crucial part of prudence: by helping us identify what we should avoid, it also limits the field of possibilities, thereby making it simpler to distinguish the right choice. Sin is a drive we should resist – but it comes in many forms, and often confuses us. What appears as resisting lust or gluttony may, in fact, be following the path of pride or sloth. Sometimes we feel that an action was wrong, but we’re unsure exactly why: this, again, shows an inadequate understanding of sin.

One particularly dangerous form of sin, I realized on Thursday, is the pride that we take in our own achievements, and our gluttony for getting things done – best manifested by the terrible adjective ‘busy’. I didn’t take time to reflect on prudence that day, but simply jotted down those thoughts before heading to bed – with a belief that this was, in fact, acting with prudence.

Friday, this year-long project finished. I dedicated four sets of thirteen weeks to the deliberate practice of the four cardinal virtues. The end of a commitment often comes with a sense of relief – as if a burden was lifted from one’s shoulder. In this case, however, the feeling is different. The result of this project is not only the fifty blog posts I produced. I changed.

I will not repeat the project next year, nor engage in one exactly similar. I will continue writing regularly – but on a broader range of topics. And I will continue to practice virtue, but no longer write about it systematically.

 

 

 

Prudence – Week 12

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started and finish the year with prudence – or the rational capacity to distinguish good from evil. Every week, I will publish an update on this blog, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

This week, I reflected on the pursuit of excellence and the secret undercurrents of desire that reveal the patterns of our lives.

Clearly defining ‘why’, and identifying priorities on that basis, is essential for happiness. This may be the only way that we can resist the pressure of leading ‘busy lives’, and replace intelligence with a to do list. I started the week blocked, aimless, burdened. Sunday morning I woke up before dawn, wandered from café to café doodling – and understood this one point: that over the past two years, I had been torn between activities  – Global Challenges, Marco Polo Project, my PhD, my writing, and many smaller projects and commitments which somehow made sense at the time. It is not, however, a simple matter of ‘choosing one’, but rather, to reflect on these dispersed activities and develop a deeper understanding of my own inner drives, look for the secret undercurrents shaping these various involvements. Then, led by a more conscious intuition of my deep inner motives – I can more surely say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to whatever 2018 will bring.

After the French revolution, the burden of proof shifted, I read in Roger Scruton’s opus on Conservatism: the defenders of the statu quo should now justify ‘why preserve’, rather than revolutionaries arguing ‘why change’. This brought to mind some of the change makers, entrepreneurs and ‘people to watch’ I have come across in the past few years, proudly waving their impatience around and questioning the state of affairs. These people are dissatisfied with the state of the world – often rightly so. They call for change, therefore, proposing the big vision of a different world, asking their opponents, real or imaginary, how they can justify the status quo. But when it comes to the fine details of the big vision, and the long pathway towards implementing it – it’s not really their job to figure this out, they see themselves more as catalysts and big picture person – but surely somebody can. Or maybe things will simply sort themselves out once their efforts bear fruit, and their grand vision is adopted by all. These may not be the people I have most respect for.

Around a pot of dark beer, with a musician friend on Thursday, we came to speak about excellence, humility, and the character of Australia. The shortfall of this country may be laziness and complacency – but I have not seen it averse to the pursuit of excellence. Rather, it healthily reminds us all that our lives have many dimensions, and nobody should see themselves as more accomplished human beings only because they reached a certain level of competence or recognition in a given field of activity. This, in turn, breeds a certain balanced, original and optimistic creativity, a deep-rooted interest in the many facets of the human world, a superb sense of comedy, and a rare capacity for collective pursuits.

 

 

Prudence – Week 11

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started and finish the year with prudence – or the rational capacity to distinguish good from evil. Every week, I will publish an update on this blog, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

This week, I reflected on rest-after-the-fact, and how to deal with the confusion of things ending.

It is prudence to prepare early, but sometimes, schedules are not optimate, and things have to be done at the last minute. When that is the case, as it was for me this week on Monday, it is prudence – maybe – to take time off after the fact. But how should one approach that period of time after things are completed, yet before a new cycle starts?

This is how I found myself on Tuesday, the year not ended yet, but all my goals for 2017 either completed, or deliberately postponed. Leaving days to pure chance, vacant, seemed unwise – but for some reason, I recoiled at calling the three weeks to the end of the year ‘holidays’. Instead, I listed a few things to do by December 31: see friends, plan for 2018, clear my folders and notes, and – whatever that means – progress on my PhD.

Wednesday was another day off – I had booked a massage and flotation tank experience from a Facebook ad over two months ago, and headed off to Heidelberg West – of all places – where the clinic was located. I left early, coffee’d on the mall, floated, got a massage, then ate a delicious falafel at Kebabs on Bell, hiding in the aircon from the 36+ degree day. The trip, though seemingly absurd, was a fun adventure, where I discovered a new part of Melbourne, new stories, new people – and I found this a good way to rest.

There is prudence in saying this is too much, and even if I disappoint, I will not deliver the goods. I was reminded of this over the end of the week, as I saw myself failing to ‘get things done’, on Thursday, then on Friday. Instead, I hovered rather aimlessly, till, Friday 6pm, I gave in, sat in the Henley Club armchair with a glass of wine, and finished off the week with friends.

 

 

 

 

Prudence – Week 10

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started and finish the year with prudence – or the rational capacity to distinguish good from evil. Every week, I will publish an update on this blog, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

This week, I reflected on prudence and action.

“I learned three things about happiness during this program,” I shared in the closing circle of the three-day Manila Remix program I co-facilitated with the School of Slow Media, on Sunday evening. “First, that happiness often comes not from calculation, but irrational decisions – as, for me, the decision to fly twice to the Philippines, and be here with you. Second, that happiness is not something that we consume, like a magic pill, but something that emerges as a result of our own activity. And – consequently – I learned, also, that happiness can often manifest even as we feel completely depleted of energy, when we finished a cycle of action, and all we need is rest.”

We develop routines and ways of living that balance the various elements of our life. When we travel to new places, often, one element can be disrupted, and we topple. With my French and Italian background, good food has been a staple in my life, and – as I articulated over lunch on Monday – served as a repeated source of pleasure balancing off the many small frustrations of everyday life. The food in Manila did not suit my palate – and by Monday, I felt a growing sense of lack. Luckily that day, lunch at the Brave Design house had fresh basil from the garden in abundance – and as I chewed eagerly, I could feel myself getting back into shape.

It is important to take time off, but to do so, we must leave aside things that have to be done. There is no end to the work of cleaning and caring and organising. Therefore, time off happens only when we choose to neglect something that calls for us. This is the wisdom embedded in the Gospel scene of Mary and Martha. Yes, it is important to fuss over the kitchen and give guests a good meal – but there will be always be more to be done, and the moment will never repeat. Therefore, wisdom demands that, sometimes, we push our work aside, and take time to sit with the visitor – or with ourselves – trusting that those around us can bear with a bit of chaos, so that we be more present.

There is no centre to Manila, nor is there a clear cultural narrative of what it means to be Filipino. The people I met are open-minded, original, warm, and diverse. Life here seems to follow an ever-repeated quest for meaning, integrating the various elements that come from outside, rather than the deliberate unfolding of a predetermined existential script. This is a trading seaport – a place of creative chaos – an open structure.

Developed infrastructure reduces the need for individual prudence. Everything works as expected, and, in some aspect, this increases the range of our potential action: reliable infrastructure is a valuable public good, if we prioritise productivity. In Manila, the wrong choice of work, commitment, timing, location, can result in hours blocked in traffic. Apps and collective wisdom reduce uncertainty, but only to a degree. What’s more, in this polycentric city, there is no clear intrinsically better place to be. Prudence is therefore not only required, but cultivated – together with a different attitude – patience, and a cheerful embrace of the creative possibilities inherent in chaos.

I landed back in Melbourne on Friday, after a short and fitful night on the plane. I had discounted that entire day, projecting myself into zombie state, comatose in my armchair – but I was surprisingly with it, I finished a book, I cleared a backlog of admin work, and I chatted with friends. We can often do more than we believe – whether it’s embracing activity, or deliberately resting and reflecting – as long as we choose to resist the siren call of emptiness. And this will bring us joy.

Prudence – week 9

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started and finish the year with prudence – or the rational capacity to distinguish good from evil. Every week, I will publish an update on this blog, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

This week, I reflected on prudence and priorities.

While practicing fortitude, I let most of my regular planning slip off – to simply focus on the present and exercise. On the first of returning to the practice of the virtue, I carried with me some of that wisdom, and deliberately restrained the range of my activities. I was in Adelaide for a conference. My default approach would be to move around the city through the day, looking for good food and memories. Instead, I limited the scope of my movements to a small set of streets in the East End, while working on a paper due the next day. I prioritised rest and work over exploration – and was immensely satisfied.

There is a lot of hype around the abundance mindset – if only we could think beyond scarcity, what would then be possible! Sure – but prudence also demands that we recognise where scarcity exists, and how we might best deal with it. In the opening speech of the LCNAU conference, a local MP came to speak and invited language teachers to do more this and more that – sure, but if we must do more of and more of, without ever doing less of – then we shall burn out, and give up. Instead, I anchored my talk in this idea: by understanding the new digital tools available for Chinese language education, could we figure out what we might be able to do less of?

Prudence combines active decision-making, and the subtle art of going with the flow. At the LCNAU conference, for two days, I followed natural affinities, spent fun times with people I got along with and had further chats with a few people I already knew, and might want to work with on existing projects. There were a number of experts in indigenous language education. I had been keen to meet some of them to discuss potential new projects – yet, on this occasion, didn’t. Was it a missed opportunity, something I should mourn over and resent myself for? Or should I rather think of it as a small step forward, and a wise way to approach each thing in its time?

I flew to the Philippines on Wednesday, 7h45 minutes on the plane. I normally would have fallen for the big Hollywood pictures, but noticed, increasingly, that they do not nurture me. Since I was heading to Manilla for a ‘mindful media’ program, I thought I should apply prudence to my choice of cinematic fiction on the plane. I read, and watched the two Chinese movies on offer instead of War for the Planet of the Apes – which triggering long, cathartic flows of tears, and had the added benefit of allowing me to practice my Mandarin.

There’s a thing I would like to call the ‘if only’ mindset: when a place or a person appeals to us – if only that one annoying characteristic could change. Manila, certainly, calls for this – if only the traffic was better. Maybe, but cities, and individuals, are systems of interconnected parts, and who knows if what people rave on about – the friendliness and resilience of the people – is not somehow connected to the crazy traffic. This is not to say that we should never aim for change, and accept everything as it is – but rather, that we should appreciate places (and people) as they are, in the moment, appreciate that the most irritating aspects could be directly connected to what we most love about them – and when we wish for change, be very very careful what we specifically wish for.

Friday was the beginning of the School of Slow Media Remix program – three days of Mindful media training. We finished the design of one activity the previous night at 11pm, some were not even entirely completed that night – and yet, it was a brilliant success, deeply transformative, and moving. I cried at times, while participants mapped out their ‘story universe’ on the floor of Pineapple Lab, and later, when Samuel presented the principles of Slow Media. Participants were moved as well, it seemed – and, as far as I could see, teams were bonding fast. Things do not need to be perfect in order to work – in fact, sometimes, cracks and imprecisions in the run sheet allow for on-the-moment creative insights, and make a facilitated program alive, and fertile. Consciously delaying completion goes against our perfectionism and anxiety, but may be the condition for truly great things to come to the world.

 

 

Prudence – week 8

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started the year with prudence – or the rational capacity to distinguish good from evil. Every week, I will publish an update on this blog, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

This week is the last of my first engagement with prudence. To bring together these first two months, I focused on the relationship between duration and insight.

Prudence is deliberation, judgement, and resolution to act. Deliberation takes time, but results in a set of options for future action, a decision branch, and a capacity to choose among various paths. Something very particular occurs then: we leave the realm of pure duration, where cause follows consequence, to touch what the Greeks would call Kairos, crucial instants of opportunity. The fruit of prudence is therefore nothing else than freedom, escape from the plane of determinism through regular encounter with pure instants of self-determination.

Prudence entails creativity – which I understood in a new manner on Monday. I was invited to contribute ideas on a web-forum for a foreign policy White Paper discussion. In the shower, I had an insight: decentralise decision-making. It is not a radically new proposal, but not one I had seen in this context. The hot water allowed me to loosen the attachment between an idea and its usual domain of application. This is how creativity operates, by simple transfer. Yet I was not able to share the idea in a convincing manner. I had an intuition that there was something there, but lacked the form to give it full meaning in the context of reception. And so, the proposal fell flat.

On Tuesday, I reflected further on the connection between my work and prudence. I am finalising a report for the Foundation that I work for. My role as editor-in-chief requires me to sharpen the texts I receive and clarify the logic of their argument. Beyond this, I must also write short prefaces. Many readers will only skim through the full version, their expectations largely framed by these short introductory texts. As their eyes glance over the pieces proper, they will seek keywords and ideas based on the few words in italics at the beginning.I wondered, if a 1000-word text can be summarised in 75 words, why bother with the long form? But without the text in full, prefaces would have no value. We may only care about the core insight – but will not accept it unless we have proof that it was formed over time, and requires a measure of time to be fully grasped. We want, in idea at least, the possibility to reproduce the slower pace of deliberation before we resolve.

The last two weeks have been exhausting. This week I had to shift gears. It is not something I am very good at. When I woke up on Wednesday, I realised I would probably not be able to do much in the morning – I was invited to a whole afternoon and evening function already. I remembered precious wisdom from my father. A friend of his had an unusual piece of real estate to sell, a cellar in a middle suburb of Paris, and didn’t know what to do with it. My father’s tip for creativity was: what if you were to give it away, who would most benefit from it? Ideas started to flow. Since I was not going to do anything productive, what if I thought of that morning as a gift to myself? What would I choose to do with it? The weather was warm, I sat at Riverland Café by the Yarra, with no particular goal in mind, simply looking over the river at palm trees, watching a man hose down his boat, and rowers pass by. I opened a notebook, and found myself reflecting on personal strategy, then articulating the next steps of my various projects. I made a short action list of immediate to do’s. Then left for another café, refreshed, inspired, and ready to restart.

A few weeks ago, I classified the various types of activities that I do for work. One set of those I labelled ‘cleaning’: ordering folders, clearing my inbox, stretching my limbs. Thursday was a cleaning day. Simple oversight: I had two weeks under high pressure and deprioritised anything that could be postponed. As a result, I had a backlog to clean, and it was clogging my brain. It took me three days to catch up, and return to order. I realised once again that insights and ideas can occur in a flash, but only when the right structures are in place. Often, we focus on the wrong thing: it’s not that we need to push and strive for new projects and initiatives, they come fast. But for that, we need to keep the channels clean – and this requires more time than we’re generally willing to allocate.

There had been two strands over the week – insights and duration; doing and ordering. They came together on Friday, when I realised that the insights we have are a direct factor of the type of order we make around us. Out physical position will determine perspectives – alignments reveal symmetries, shadows hide or highlight key features. To the same extent, the way we choose to think of the world around us will reveal parallels and differences. Prudence, through deliberation, generates options, and reveals our own freedom. This freedom depends on our capacity to categorise adequately. Efforts we make to see the world in a more complex fashion, integrate new perspectives, consider different potential groupings, will then directly result in greater degrees of freedom.