Listen to your anxiety

People in my circles are emotionally literate. They share the general wisdom that we should listen to our bodies and lean into our emotions. We all get in our heads too much. Emotion is our heart’s attempt at telling us something. It’s important, and we should listen.

Not all emotions, though, seem to be treated equal. Sad or angry, we should accept. But if we’re feeling anxious, we should breathe, meditate, or take pills.

I’ve observed this difference with interest. What would happen if we treated anxiety not as a trick of our minds, to cure with better breathing techniques, but as a signal of something important, that our heart is trying to bring to consciousness?   

Over the past year or so, two similar situations prompted a peak of anxiety. On both occasions, I was invited to run a workshop at a digital conference. Organisers hyped up the marketing – it was going to be grandiose, mind-blowing, ground-breaking. It put pressure on me to do well, of course, and I didn’t mind that. But as a presenter, I had access to the backend, and could see what they weren’t doing.

Experience design was neglected. The team was focused on sleek marketing and putting bums on seats – or eyes on screens. Nobody seemed to think through the details of parallel engagement, break-out rooms, or managing different and unpredictable size groups. As a workshop facilitator, this is where my attention went. Online formats are demanding, and new. Smooth transitions between sessions, group size and matching, all those would be the make or break for participants. I knew that I was unlikely to match the promises made.

The first workshop was a minor bomb. Organisers suggested I design for 100 people. Six turned up. Five of them were friends and colleagues. Second one was a bigger bomb. People kept dropping in and out, cameras off. The technical support person let break-out rooms run for longer than I asked for. And to be frank, my content didn’t match the participants’ expectations or interest.

Looking back, I realise that both times, my anxiety was a clear signal that I should have anticipated disappointment – even pull out. I was placed in a position to keep the promises of shiny marketing, without the means to deliver. I was cast in the role, not of educating and exploring truth, but of keeping up appearances on behalf of someone else.  

I’ve been wondering since. What if anxiety was a fine-tuned antenna, signaling collective illusion? Lies create an image of the world distinct from what is true. When discourse is thus splitting representation from reality, we face a choice. Either we maintain the collective illusion, so we can stay connected with the people around. Or we stand up and insist that the emperor is naked, with the risk of finding ourselves ostracised and cast out.

Anxiety marks a fear about the future. Common wisdom says, ‘it’s not about the now, therefore it’s unreal’. Hence breathing and visualisation techniques. I propose a different diagnosis. Anxiety signals an impossible dilemma – a future-oriented double bind. A collective lie is spreading, and I have to choose between the group or the real. No matter what I decide, the future will be tough. It is wise to fear this future. And maybe, the collective call to chill out is nothing but peer-pressure to keep pretending.

Young people face this anxiety. This is precisely what Great Thunberg and the climate kids are shouting about. A refusal to maintain the collective lie that things will be fine. Old white men in boardrooms and corporate jobs face that same anxiety, but their choice to remain silent is too much a part of their identity to change now, unless everyone changes.

Whether we have a way forward is unsure. But maybe, just maybe, we should all start leaning into this pervasive anxiety. It will not solve our collective disconnection from the real, it will not solve climate issues right away, and it will certainly come with an amount of pain. But only by doing this can we collectively return to the real – and stand a chance of building something worthwhile together.

The fear of a rip in the real

When I tell people that I’m afraid of public speaking, my words are typically misinterpreted. I receive well-intentioned advice on breathing techniques and other meditation tricks. Worse, I get reassurance that I’m a really good public speaker

Delivering has never been a source of worry for me. Give me a stage and an audience, I will keep them entertained. No, the fear goes deeper.

From as long as I can remember – from our very first oral presentation at school – I was afraid, because I took public speaking seriously. Our teachers would tell us to address the class live, not read from a text. I was one of the few – if not the only one – to follow that advice, always. And I could observe the difference, in how much attention I attracted, by presenting something part-improvised on the spot.

It continues to this day: whether conferences, programs or special events, I rely on a few notes at most. Here is my theory: humans are predators. We sense fear. We smell blood. We look. If you walk on a stage without a text memorized – without an armour of pre-digested words – but alive and vulnerable – then all eyes will be on you. People will give you their attention. If you play it well, then you have a chance to be heard, and impactful. A polished discourse, by contrast, is only make believe.   

So, yes, the fear comes from taking a risk – the fear of bombing, ridicule, embarrassment, and status loss, which I expose myself to by insisting on a measure of ‘aliveness’.

More precisely, the fear is of seeming deranged, and the rejection that would follow. This is the downside of genuinely wanting attention, so that I get a shot at stretching perceptions, and rewiring the brains of your audience.

To do this meaningfully, the trick is to focus not on delivery, but content. What you say, not how you say it. And here, I believe, is where the core of the fear lies. The same fear shadows my editorial work. It stems from taking language seriously.

The Chinese tradition distinguishes the feelings of fear and worry.

Worry, associated to the element Earth, is what you feel when you place a seed in the ground, and wait for it to grow. It is what you feel when your child is at school, your husband abroad, or whenever things must happen that are beyond your control.

Fear is associated with Water. It is about excess and brutal danger. It is a flooding river suddenly breaking the dyke, and wiping off in a moment the work of centuries. It is a release of tension, forces greater than the human unleashing over us. It is visions of horror. 

Language holds humanity together. It is the medium that holds our social worlds, by shaping the stories and beliefs that guide our day to day decisions. Mess with it too much, and who knows what chaos will ensure. Revolutions all started with a speech.

We’re at a crossroads of history. We must urgently shift our paradigm, develop new myths and beliefs to guide our day to day decisions. We must work on minds and hearts. Language is an ideal tool to that end. But not an entirely safe one.

My work, as a writer, speaker or editor, is to rewire brains: separate concepts and ideas, bring others together, associating them with new emotions, to build new pathways connecting different planes of reality. And as I try to do that, I fear that, unwittingly, I might create a rip in the fabric of our common world, disturb old forces, and unleash a demon.

Emotional labour as a shock absorber

Our bodies are made up of bones, muscles, and organs. Yet that’s not all. There is a wide network of nerves, blood and lympathic vessels to connect them, and there is connective tissue to hold the whole system together: cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and membranes.

Our animal life depends on that connective tissue. Elastic fibres enable movement by stretching, collagen holds the structure in place. This is what keep us whole, and mobile.

The same applies to the social world. Collectives are made of more than bones, muscles and organs. They need shock absorbers, cartilage and glue, to keep us from hurting too much as we bump against each other.   

Diplomats, connectors and care-takers play that role. Gentle movements to soothe inflammation, politeness to reduce the risk of ripping a fragile social fabric. Emotional labour of all sorts.

Those efforts are particularly valuable in all settings where misunderstandings arise easily. Whenever there is difference, injustice, or inherited tensions. Whenever things shift, rub or chafe. Yet as for all harm prevention, we fail to value those who keep society together, then clap those who remediate – or worse, encourage the trouble-makers.

As we face major disruption around the world, it may well be time we rewarded our shock absorbers – or at least, celebrated them enough that they don’t leave us dry when we need them most.

Never reward blind effort

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

When I taught English at University, back in France, we would have a meeting at the end of each term to discuss borderline students. ‘Oh, but they’re working really hard’, one of my colleagues would say, to justify lifting the mark. And I would reply ‘Well, if they’re working hard and that’s the result, all the more reason to fail them.’

Embarrassed laughter, and the mark would eventually be lifted. Yet I made my point seriously. Is it ethical to reward effort, irrespective of consequences? Or should we fight our bias towards action, and properly value the art of doing nothing, and feeling satisfied by it?

By contrast, when I was working in government policy, I once heard a precious piece of wisdom from a colleague. ‘When you’re doing work,’ they said, ‘there’s three types of things you can achieve. You can contribute to the goal. You can sit and do nothing. Or you can flap around and stand in the way. So, if you think maybe you’re not able to contribute, better go surf the web.’

Should we be fully rational, encourage doing nothing, and punish misdirected effort? At least, this might help us shift our collective mindset, and better appreciate the worth of anything that saves energy.

To catch the bug, learn from the spider

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Software is a precarious, multi-layered bricolage, always evolving. If something in the new code conflicts with the old, the system crashes. We call this a bug.

The metaphor applies to all human systems. To solve a new problem or satisfy a new demand, we build new technology, we propose new norms, we create new narratives. Those come in conflict with existing ones, and the system stalls.

What’s hard is not fixing it. It’s finding where the problem is.

Jordan Peterson, in his ‘9th rule for life’, writes that women are often frustrated by men in conversations. Men want to fix the problem, efficiently and quickly. ‘It might be easier for my male readers to understand why this does not work, however,’ adds Peterson, ’if they could realize and then remember that before a problem can be solved, it must be formulated precisely. Women are often intent on formulating the problem when they are discussing something, and they need to be listened to – even questioned – to help ensure clarity in the formulation. Then, whatever problem is left, if any, can be helpfully solved.’

Climate change’ is not a clearly formulated problem. We have a carbon emission governance problem. We have an energy grid stability problem. We have a material greed problem. We have a free-rider problem. Only, by formulating each of those problems, and their interaction, can we start solving them.

To catch our bugs, let’s learn from the spider. Patiently lay traps, follow the process, then sit still, like a hunter waiting. And maybe we can save our society from collapse.

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.