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?

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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.

autocollant-sticker-voiture-croix-camargue-moto

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.

writing-on-stone

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 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.