On emotional shifts


Last year, one of my friends turned anti-vaxxer. There was an aggressive Facebook comment, a confused exchange on Messenger, a meeting in person after lockdown, and a few back and forth emails. Then silence.

He was not a very close friend, but we’d known each other for a while, and supported each other on various projects. This lost relationship affected me. So, a few weeks ago, I got curious and cyber-stalked him.

His Twitter feed got me locked in fascinated horror. I had expected links and videos vindicating Ivermectin and the dangers of the vaccine. The rest was a surprise: memes mocking trans-rights or vegan food, articles framing climate change as a hoax, and a snippet from a One nation senator, captioned ‘absolute legend’. 

I sensed a spiralling anger in myself, as I doom-scrolled through that feed. We used to build community together, joined efforts to make the world more hospitable. Now we were on opposite sides. I felt an urge to debate in my head, engage, change his mind.

I doubted it would achieve much. I let it cool down. Luckily, I had a martial arts class to go to. On the way back, anger washed off by sparring, I pondered. Apart from an occasional caption, nothing on that feed was my friend’s actual writing. It was all re-tweets and shares.

I started seeing the grotesque humour in the situation. Here he was, a proud advocate of independent thinking, serving as an echo chamber only. As if a grumpy conspiracy-bot had taken over his handle. 

With this came greater empathy. Savvy communicators, no doubt, crafted the content he shared. They got inside his brain, and reproduced there. I thought of the zombies in Dawn of the dead, repeating the routines of their past lives, locked inside a shopping mall. Like them, my friend was stuck in a loop of self-reinforcing belief. His brain was mush, and he wanted mine.  

‘He’s gone’, I thought, ‘let’s run.’ It was no longer about truth or justice. It was about staying alive, and safe. Certainly, any sense of blame had passed, and I was able to let go. I looked at his feed again, just now. I was amused, and a little bit sad. I think this is how mourning progresses.


The tragic character says ‘I would rather suffer and die than compromise my identity’. That’s Antigone, that’s Elektra, that’s Oedipus. By contrast, the comic character says: ‘I’ve got so many faces, I’m sure we can find an angle that will satisfy everyone.’

I see this approach as a celebration of human intelligence, in the service of peace. Things go wrong, the character shape-shifts, and projects an illusion to prevent catastrophe.

Contrast the romance of West Side Story with that in The Barber of Seville. The first unfolds like a doomsday machine, external forces pressing identities towards enormous pain, mutually assured destruction. In the latter, the lovers use tricks and costumes to bypass the desires of the old man who stands in their way. Desire trumps ego: they would much rather get what they want than remain who they are.


It’s my first time seeing Kabuki. I’m in Tokyo for just a few days. It seemed like a thing I should do. Plus, the friend hosting me suggested it. It felt rude to say no.

We’re sitting inside the dark theatre. I have no clear idea what’s happening. I know nothing about the art form. I notice, however, that once in a while, the actor takes a pose and freezes. The audience claps and shouts a name. Then the actor starts moving again.

Here’s what I noted then: it’s not a series of well-executed steps, not a melody, not a compelling monologue, that will yield admiration from the audience. It’s not movement, but stillness. And I thought, what if this was the result of a different stance towards the world? One where life is not perceived as a pile of rocks we must push up the slope until we die, but a constant whirlwind beyond our control – and noble effort is just about holding the flow for a moment. Then we detach, and let things return to their natural chaos.


The Catholic tradition presents a set of seven deadly sins, and seven virtues. Because the numbers match and I like symmetry, I’ve often reflected on the best way to match them.

For a long time, I used to think in terms of frontal opposites: deploy temperance as an austere shield against lust or gluttony, in a frontal battle for the soul. It didn’t work, and I would blame myself, or fall into moral despair. 

More recently, I developed a different approach, where each sin is the perverted form of a virtue. Resistance, then, becomes a lateral strategy. It’s not temperance raised up to keep out desire from the body. Rather, it’s temperance as the deflector of sloth. It’s finding joy and meaning in simply being there, rather than frenetically running around in pursuit of desire.


The change maker paradigm sets young people, with a burning desire for justice, against the rigid structures of the world. It teaches rebellion as the art of pushing walls till they crumble. When I think about change, I prefer chemistry to mechanics. Bring the right molecules in contact, and let them react.

Making yourself happy


I was at an event a few days ago. There was chilled Pinot Grigio, wooden walls, and the sound of a vacuum cleaner in the background. It was a bunch of thought leader types looking for ways to build a hopeful community. Well, that was the brief. The main speaker repeatedly mentioned how that event was all about ‘people connecting’. Meanwhile, he used his mastery – and what a master he was – to hog attention and energy. But hey, who’s free from such contradictions?

About two thirds of the way through, another speaker – a finance consultant – said the following. That he worked with the people who did well, if not best, in the current system. And that as much as he could see, those people were mostly not happy. Then the conversation moved on, and the thought passed.

It stayed with me – and has been resonating since, as one of the saddest things I’ve heard. I wrote a short Linkedin post about it – which resonated with people. So here I am, expanding on those reflections.


Aristotle proposes that happiness – eudaimonia – is the purpose of the good life. It is also the sign of a life well lived. Happiness here is not simply the experience of pleasure. It is an emergent property, arising from satisfaction taken in the exercise of an activity. But not only that, it is also the result of long term accretion, as one goes through life, and develops friendships, knowledge and healthy habits. So never listen to the life advice of a grumpy old man. Their misery signals a life poorly lived.

Sure, happiness is partly dependent on luck, placing material goods and people of compatible temperament in our way – or simply giving us a favorable starting point. It is, in equal part at least, dependent on our choices, our commitment to cultivate the cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, justice and temperance or moderation. Happiness is thus something that we develop consistently, over time. Irrespective of where we start, we can become happier.

More, in the views of Aristotle and other proponents of virtue ethics, happiness is something we must cultivate. As a teenager, I became obsessed with Andre Gide. In his journal he writes: ‘It is a duty to make ourselves happy’. I have adopted that sentence as a motto, and an encouragement to cultivate virtue. Not that I have never fallen prey to depressive or anxious spells, but that – as a fundamental beacon for my own life, I should look at what would yield consistent, long-term happiness.


How did we come to build a system where the people who ‘succeed’ are not happy? I mean – I see the contradictions of our post-colonial, partiarchal, neoliberal capitalist societies – but how does the model perpetuate itself? Why are leaders, and other ‘successful people’, not putting a stop to it all, saying ‘this makes me miserable’? For those who were less privileged to start with – or failed to build the right habits – well, their lack of happiness would make sense. But surely, a good system is one where success comes with profound fulfilment.

My default first step towards the answer is not exactly joyful. One of my favourite pieces of political philosophy is a text by Montesquieu, from The Spirit of the Laws, where he describes the distinct passions that underly different political regimes. A true republic, says Montesquieu, relies on a collective desire for virtue. Aristocracy relies on honour. Tyranny rests on fear. Corollary, you know what regime a country lives under by observing what passion dominates among its people.

This doesn’t bode well for us. In spite of much hand-wringing about democracy (and its purported threat from China, Russia, Iran and other rogue states), the dominant passion I observe around me seems to be fear, much more than a passionate love of virtue. Whether it’s corporate types avoiding responsibility, or millennials retreating from the world to nurture their generalised anxiety. Workplaces at least – no matter how many Chief Happiness Officers they might appoint – do not seem to nurture the consistent practice of healthy habits (or virtue), leading their employees to experience deep lasting happiness. Gin cocktails and ping pong tables notwithstanding.


In late 2020, I joined hands with a peer – facilitator extraordinaire Helen Palmer – to organise a little digital experiment. We brought together a bunch of friends to design and test mourning rituals. The proposal was to experiment with DIY models to process the negative emotions accumulated through the pandemic. The hopes and aspirations that would not manifest, the futures desired and never come to life, the senses of self shattered under the pressure of forced isolation.

It’s been a long obsession of mine, that the present times call on us to process enormous amounts of grief. It’s not just COVID – it’s climate change, environmental collapse, the death of species, and the overall experience of living in the end times. As many other middle class Europeans, I grew up in a joyful utopia of globalised consumerism. It was the end of the Cold War, infinite growth, human progress, and diminished suffering. Many of my childhood dreams played out against the background of an expanding world. And though new dreams have come, new real possibilities of real happiness – many ghosts remain.

I don’t think it’s just me. I sense it around me. That collectively, we need to process the enormous grief of a society that hit its environmental limits. Grief not only for what has been properly lost – the Pyrenean Ibex, the Western Black Rhino, the Baiji, all gone the way of the Dodo – but also for lost futures, for the loss of imagined opportunities, predicated on infinite resources and energy. I have not been trained to deal with that much grief, nor has anyone I know. Nor do I see much effort to process this grief. In fact, much of the current blockages, resistance to climate action and system change, I ascribe to this emotional weakness. The people who did well in the current system – older upper and middle class white men, for most of them – are hardly capable of processing grief at all that I can see. The prospect of dealing with the loss of future worlds continuing their legacy far outstretches their capacity. So they remain firmly stuck in denial. And meanwhile the world collapses.


It was half a year ago, at an event run by Regen Melbourne, exploring a regenerative future for the city. The closing circle invited participants to reflect on their vision for the future of Melbourne. ‘I imagine a city full of glitter, and lots of sex,’ I said. It was an obvious provocation, but one anchored in the intuition that we cannot build a better world based on sad passions alone. I am a Catholic at heart, and experience it as an exuberant religion. The first miracle was turning water into wine – and good wine at that. We need a sense of abundant gratuitous joy, if we are to channel enough energy to go forward – and rebound after accepting the weight of grief. For this, we need to nurture our capacity to experience greater pleasure, with less material input. And this is also the cornerstone of moderation, basis of all virtues, and hence of happiness.

Values cards project – trust

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: In French, we have a set of three words: ‘confiance, méfiance, defiance’. I like this philosopher, Andre Comte sponville, he discusses that, and that’s how he describes it. Confiance (or trust) is a belief that things will work out well. Mefiance (or wariness) is belief under condition, so in a way, it’s like a form of knowledge. Defiance (or mistrust) is a belief that things will work out badly. And so, mefiance, that form of confidence that involves a measure of wariness, is actually close to a virtue.

B: it’s a form of prudence.

A: Yes, while defiance, or mistrust, is a lack of virtue. In Japanese, there’s two different words for trust. There is ‘Shinlai’, which means to believe and take as a foundation, and ‘shiyo’, which means to believe and to use – for instance, that’s the word bankers use to talk about trust.

B: My friend was pointing at another way to think about it, when we were working together on a program about trust. We trust people on two different accounts: because of their competence and because of their intention. So we wonder, ‘do you have my best interest at heart’, but also, ‘are you competent enough that you can actually carry out what you say you will.’ And if you don’t have both, you might cause a lot of harm.

A: I like that. It makes me think, there’s this thing we call the trust equation, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. It says that trust = credibility + reliability + intimacy. Another way to look at it, it’s ethos, logos, and pathos. And that’s how you build trust as a consultant, for instance.

B: I like those kinds of equations. And I wonder then, is it possible to trust somebody for some things, but not everything? How does that work?

A: Yes, well, trust always has to do with what you don’t know, right? It’s about belief, not experience. You can’t have trust in things that you properly know, that’s not properly trust, that’s knowledge. It’s only when there is a measure of unknown that you start to talk about trust. So, people talk about the conditions required for it, but there is no specific or universal criteria. It’s more about a feeling…

B: One thing I like to think about is, how trust allows you to build something from nothing. I mean, money, creativity, any type of collective endeavor, it’s all about trust.

A: And if you think of it this way, Edelman publishes a trust index every year, and you see that the countries with the greatest level of trust are all wealthy countries. Actually, there’s one exception, which is the USA, where people don’t trust each other but they trust contracts. That’s another story, but otherwise, yes, you have this direct correlation between trust and wealth.

B: And that’s, that’s interesting, because whenever you think about trust, there is always that element of unknown. There is always a leap of faith. And so, this is directly connected to courage: you cannot trust unless you make that decision, and it’s always, yes, somehow, embracing a measure of unknown. While mistrust, not wariness, not prudence, not caution, but mistrust, it’s always a lack of courage. I mean, when you remain in the situation, but mistrust. Because not everything or everyone should be trusted, and sometimes, you sense that things will go badly, and you pull out.

A: It’s interesting if you look at Japan. There’s rules everywhere, and the principle is that something bad is going to happen. So, the rules stem from a spirit of mistrust. But then, you have a very high level of interpersonal trust among people. And I wonder if the two go together? Maybe, the rules create conditions where trust is boosted by the fear of getting a bad rep. You know that other people won’t be doing anything bad, they won’t break the rules, because they’re afraid of the consequences. And so, you can trust them. Maybe that’s how it works.

B: I like that, the collective structures that makes interpersonal trust possible. That’s, I wonder if that’s how blockchain works. They say things like, instead of trusting institutions, you trust the code, the mathematics. But there’s this element of blockchain that everything is transparent, and the way the code works, it’s not, you can trust the code, because other people are watching it, and if people try to mess up with the figures, they’ll be found out. So, there’s an element here that’s like what you describe in the way Japan works, with rules and interpersonal trust. You can trust others because there are collective rules in place.

A: So, that’s interesting, because if you look at institutions, or many companies, there’s people you can trust and people you can’t. It’s like, you place your trust in a certain person, and hopefully, the person in charge is someone you can trust. And because you know they’re in charge, because they’re accountable, you can trust an institution. While in Blockchain, nobody’s responsible. It’s the same thing in a Teal style organization, people don’t want to be responsible, and so what you find is, you trust the process, not the people. I’ve been wondering actually what it does to the people who work in those kinds of systems, to their personal sense of virtue, when there is no personal accountability.

B: Do you mean, whether they’re still responsible people?

A: Yes, when trust is no longer about the people, but the process, how does that affect us, as people?

Corona thoughts – Consistency

Whenever working on a project with others, my biggest source of frustration has always been that silly game where people give themselves a fake deadline on purpose. ‘This must be done by the 20th’ meaning ‘by the 23st, or ‘by the 27th’ or who knows when. What I find more precisely irritating is the self-evident statements that often accompany late delivery, ‘well of course, the deadline was never realistic, it was just a way to get myself going.’ I find this inconsistent relationship to time and language not only confusing and frustrating, but also dangerous. Because it erodes trust – or predictability – and therefore increases the cognitive burden of getting anything done: attention needed to get the task done, and attention needed to figure out what is real and what is a  just a motivational decoy.

The same applies, I believe, to current self-isolation measures. When Australia first imposed a rule on gatherings, with a strict limit of two people, I was outraged. Surely, my partner and I meeting a friend in the park, sitting at a distance, or inviting them over for dinner, will not cause Corona-doomsday. But then I listened more, and started understanding things differently. It wasn’t about us. From one account, 99 of 400 people who were supposed to strictly quarantine had been found by the police out of home. From another account, people were planning to continue with their home-party plans, only maybe reduce the frequency, or the number of guests. From yet another account, the same self-evident statement came out directly: ‘Of course it’s excessive, but if you say 500, or 100, people don’t listen, so you have to be strict, and maybe people will start to do something.’ 

I perceive a direct correlation between the complacent impulse that leads to semi-consciously setting artificial deadlines, and the present erosion of civil liberties. In the Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu proposes that we can recognise the nature of a political regime from their dominant emotional driver. Aristocracy relies on a sense of honour, tyranny works on fear, Republics depends on virtue. Freedom and discipline always walk hand in hand. Now, I wonder if an added element may account for this: that a Republic is more complex than a tyranny. Republican freedom entails a large amount of personal variation, hence greater variation and complexity. Without self-regulation through virtue, without a commitment to simple consistency, the system might edge towards chaos. Fear then steps in, and lays the ground for tyranny. In other words, freedom demands attention. And so, not so much staying home to protect the weak among us, but ensuring consistency between language and action is a gift of freedom to those who surround us.

On repentance and Upheka

Upheka, if we practice it, creates a measure of freedom from past determinations. If collectively practiced, it might lead to a world of greater freedom. Repentance says, I do not want my future to be determined by my past. It is a narrative re-writing of the past in a present that connects to God – in hope that the future can bring absolute consolation. It comes with an overflow of emotion. Upheka meditation, in the same way, is a detachment from the past, an appeal to take actions today that, by their own weight, will lead to positive consequences. It is anchored in the present, finding its boundless possibilities.

In a complex system, the consequences of our action are radically uncertain. Calculated efforts to control outcomes might have severe unintended consequences. Therefore, holding on to firm values becomes a better way to lead our lives. I was invited to write about my biggest fear for the future at a leadership retreat that I joined a few weeks ago. I realised that, after three years working on global catastrophic risk, I no longer feared the material collapse of civilisation itself, the deaths of billions, resource exhaustion. My fear had gone deeper, touching on the moral and spiritual consequence. Should we try to stop climate change, or reduce its effects – certainly we should. But there is another task ahead: when the consequences come, how will we live then?

On Uphekka – equanimity

From September to December 2018, I will explore the Buddhist Tradition of the Brahmavihara – four virtues or ‘sublime attitudes’ and a set of associated meditation practices. I am conducting this project in parallel with Patrick Laudon in Tokyo. Each month, we will focus on one of the virtues, starting with a daily meditation on the first week, then observing its impact on our daily life, and finally reflecting on the reasons for this impact, capturing the experience in a short written reflection. This is not an attempt at embracing Buddhism or meditation, but rather, explore how inherited frameworks can apply in a contemporary setting.

Uphekka – equanimity – is the capacity to remain unaffected by the flood of emotions arising from the constant ebbs and flows of social interaction. The meditation calls a person to mind and, without breaking contact, repeats: ‘May you be responsible for your own happiness. Every creature is responsible for their own karma’.

Cold? Yes – and respectful. Uphekka warrants other people’s right to emotional independence. As my virtue-buddy Patrick underlined, it evokes the distance between a therapist and their patient: it creates an open space to reveal and process complex emotions without the fear of rejection, or the fear of dragging others down the spiral of our own despair. Uphekka captures the Shakespearean ideal presented by Hamlet – ‘Give me a man who is not passion’s slave, Horatio, and I shall hold him to my heart of hearts!’ For in the heat of passion, the perfect friend may not be they who join in our turmoil, but they who gently cool us down.

The world has its own determinism, recognises Uphekka. All living creatures suffer the consequences of their actions. This came real to me professionally during those weeks, as I leave a role I started three years ago. We finished a major project in June, leadership changed after that, but no new direction emerged – or if it did, the stars did not shine bright enough to reach from Northern Europe, where the organisation is based, all the way down to Melbourne. In the face of ongoing uncertainty, I diversified my commitments which, in turn, increased structural tension. As the year – and my current contract – came to an end, things unravelled. Should I believe in statements that I was highly valued, things would improve, and all we needed was a bit more patience – or acknowledge that the combined mechanics of distant timezones, portfolio careers, cultural differences and internal restructures had a logic of their own, making exit a better choice? Rather than strive to keep this long-distance professional relationship alive any longer, I accepted gravity, and let myself detach.

Uphekka is a melancholy virtue: it embraces the sadness of things that pass, and our incapacity to save them. Cherry blossoms that fall off the branch and decay. Mono no aware. Lacrimae Rerum. No matter what we may desire, says Uphekka, things will evolve, under the deep influence of forces we cannot resist. This applies to the world at large, and the minds of others. Best, then, to calmly sit by and repeat, ‘may you be responsible for your own happiness. I hope that you behave in such a way that the mechanical consequence of your actions will bring happiness to you.’

One of my oldest friends, a refugee from communism, once told me that the freedom to fall straight on your face is a fundamental right. This requires Uphekka. For if your failure affects me, I will deter you from taking risks; but if I can remain unaffected by your collapse, then I might let you try. Could Uphekka, then, be the condition for a more resilient world? Last Sunday, I joined a philosophical dinner. The topic was ‘peaceful revolutions’. It struck me, as I followed the conversation, that when we consider ways to prevent conflict, we tend to focus on actions – how might we stop whatever will precipitate an entire system into chaos. Meanwhile, we disregard another form of intervention: develop and encourage emotional resistance – whether to pain or boredom – and by doing so, reduce the likelihood that our social fabric will rip under pressure.



On Mudita – empathetic joy

From September to December 2018, I will explore the Buddhist Tradition of the Brahmavihara – four virtues or ‘sublime attitudes’ and a set of associated meditation practices. I am conducting this project in parallel with Patrick Laudon in Tokyo. Each month, we will focus on one of the virtues, starting with a daily meditation on the first week, then observing its impact on our daily life, and finally reflecting on the reasons for this impact, capturing the experience in a short written reflection. This is not an attempt at embracing Buddhism or meditation, but rather, explore how inherited frameworks can apply in a contemporary setting.

Mudita – empathetic joy – is the deliberate cultivation of positive feelings associated to the success and happiness of others. The meditation practice starts with an evocation of my own joy – whether energetic or content, grand or modest. It then invites me to think about three people in turn, a good friend, an indifferent person, and somebody who frustrated me – and in turn, think of those people as able to experience joy, and rejoice in their happiness, repeating, ‘May you be happy, may your joy continue, I am happy for you.’

The setting was peculiar: shortly after I started my daily Mudita meditation, I went on a silent retreat and begun my journey with Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, where – as a first step – I prayed for gratitude at the magnificence of the created world. The two practices somehow merged, Christian and Buddhist empathetic joy. And – possibly through the make-up of my own mind, or the circumstances, feeling joy at the joys of others was incredibly easy, like plugging a lamp into the mains and pressing on a button for light to shine in the room.

This kind of joy, however, I experienced as closely connected with humility. Mudita says, it is irrelevant where the joy comes from, or who feels it first – it can and it must circulate. Therefore, let go of your critical ego: instead, align yourself emotionally to the positive emotions of others. In other words – let a situation affect you, rather than critically standing aside and judge. Be not a cold observer, but a warm participant.

There is a profound hospitality to Mudita: celebrate with the traveller, make them feel welcome, do not critically judge their customs or experience, but give a space for their feelings to resonate. Joy has a preventive effect. It connects people, increases the perceived value of time spent together, and thus avoids relationships or situations collapsing. As warm air rises, allowing the balloon to gently glide above the ground, the collective uplift of empathetic joy allows a group to float above petty differences and swamps of despair, easily moving past obstacles which, to those heavier souls creeping on the ground, stand in the way of many collective endeavours. Mudita – thus – should be cultivated for its transformative power.

More keenly than ever, I noted how dangerous the absence of Mudita could be. I went out with a friend for dinner – an intelligent friend, with one of those dark, cynical forms of intelligence. I would share some joyful details of my life, and he would crush them down with questions to make a point. This, I realise, is the absence of Mudita – refusing to partake in the small joys of others on ethical grounds, because we see them as unfounded, vain, or slightly ridiculous.

Moliere painted this remarkably in his Misanthropist. The protagonist, Alceste, is quick to criticise those around him, their vanity, their lies. He dreams of finding ‘a distant place where one could have the freedom to be a man of honour’, but instead, sees vice everywhere. Romantic interpretations have made him a hero of truth, and this play a satire on social hypocrisy. But I like to read Moliere differently, as a much more incisive critic of pride: the fierce egotistical belief that some of us have an ethical duty to tell the truth, all the truth and nothing but the truth, at all times and in all settings – preferably covered in a thick coat of black paint, in case anybody may be distracted by gentle reflections of light on the shape of that truth. The consequence resembles the sins of the angels: a terrifying drop  into despair which, through sheer power of gravity, threatens to drag everyone around us down the same pit of darkness.





On Karuna – compassion

From September to December 2018, I will explore the Buddhist Tradition of the Brahmavihara – four virtues or ‘sublime attitudes’ and a set of associated meditation practices. I am conducting this project in parallel with Patrick Laudon in Tokyo. Each month, we will focus on one of the virtues, starting with a daily meditation on the first week, then observing its impact on our daily life, and finally reflecting on the reasons for this impact, capturing the experience in a short written reflection. This is not an attempt at embracing Buddhism or meditation, but rather, explore how inherited frameworks can apply in a contemporary setting.

Karuna – compassion – cultivates a desire to end suffering, in oneself and others. Expanding my circles of empathy, the meditation process I followed invited me to wish “May I be free from suffering. May my close ones be free of suffering. May my enemies be free from suffering.” Metta came easily – flows of loving-kindess rippled through my brain like a gentle stream on demand. Karuna was dry: an experience of profound boredom. While I would close my eyes and experience metta right away, when it came to Karuna, I felt nothing – and simply sat through, patiently, repeating the mantra, seemingly to no end.

Reflecting on this blockage, my first guess is that I experienced a reluctance at a practice that appeared selfish. When I wished for the relief of someone close to me, someone neutral, or even someone I rather disliked – I couldn’t help but think: their suffering makes my life difficult. Wishing for an end to their suffering, therefore, has nothing disinterested: quite the opposite, it is entirely self-centered.

Yet, when I thought about it deeper, my resistance was profoundly irrational. Why should I not want the end of others’ suffering, particularly if it causes mine? Is this not a form of empathy, that I should fully experience the suffering of others as my own? Does Karuna, then, reveal an invisible hand of suffering – whereby if everyone was to focus on reducing their own pain, then the collective would improve as well.

I reflected further – why should that be a problem? I realized I hold a belief that suffering is good, is inevitable on the path to growth and experience. Whether imitatio Christi, or a post-Hegelian embrace of contradiction, this belief in the value of suffering now strikes me as very European. Often, concretely, it result in a light form of mania: increase pleasure so that pain will drown. A vision of the good life as one where good things are accomplished. As Patrick and I jokingly said – the Buddhist rule model stayed under a tree for years. And yet, within my own tradition, this image resonates: as Pascal wrote, the world would be at peace if men were able to sit in a room doing nothing.

As I reflected further yet, I realised that the same pattern – focus on reducing pain rather than increasing pleasure – echoed one of my regular rants when it comes to business. Profit is about spending less than you make – and yet, in most companies, the salesperson bringing in 10k will be celebrated more than the procurement person saving 100k. That same logic underlies our highly wasteful economies. If we were to all embrace more of Karuna, what pain might we then avoid – to ourselves and the planet. The price to pay may be temporary boredom. But the result is something I left aside: a lightness, a greater capacity to act, and rather than temporary manic pleasure, the deep bliss of lasting, effective and purposeful activity.

On Metta – loving kindness

From September to December 2018, I will explore the Buddhist Tradition of the Brahmavihara – four virtues or ‘sublime attitudes’ and a set of associated meditation practices. I am conducting this project in parallel with Patrick Laudon in Tokyo. Each month, we will focus on one of the virtues, starting with a daily meditation on the first week, then observing its impact on our daily life, and finally reflecting on the reasons for this impact, capturing the experience in a short written reflection. This is not an attempt at embracing Buddhism or meditation, but rather, explore how inherited frameworks can apply in a contemporary setting.

Metta – generally translated as ‘loving kindness’ – is a feeling of benevolence towards other human beings, wishing them happiness, peace and calm irrespective of our relationship to them. The meditation practice unfolded in that manner: after a few minutes of breathing exercises to focus attention on the present, I was invited to visualize a series of people, in turn, and tell them “I wish that you can be well” or “I wish that you can be at peace”.

When I read about Metta meditation, I understood that I should start with people close to me, and gradually extend the circle to people I felt indifference or hostility towards. But the meditation track I adopted gave only loose directions, and I followed an invitation to simply notice where my attention went, and let things happen. What I noted was how easily faces came to my mind: people I knew from various periods of my past – and how many there were – but also people I met casually during the day, the waiter at a café where I stopped, the person who sold me tea in Guangzhou, a child I crossed at the airport, or even actors I saw.

The practice was cheerful and easy: I felt myself overflow with love. Maybe, the fact that I was travelling had an impact. I left a long Australian winter for a beautiful stopover in subtropical China, and an exciting project in Europe. At the Guangzhou airport, our midnight flight to Paris was delayed by two hours. People were grumbling. I visualized them, wishing them peace, calmly breathing in and out.

But here is what I noticed as well. After about a week, as planned, I stopped the practice. The overflowing sense of loving kindness for my fellow humans quickly waned. Worse – I found myself angrier than before, for small things: a waiter ignored me, somebody blocked my path on the street, the cashier was too slow. Feelings of anger bubbled up easily, quickly, stronger than usual – then slowly receded. Again, this might have been a side-effect of living far from home, cultural differences, a difficult project. But I wondered – could it be the side-effect of Metta meditation?

The practice was quick to bring up self-suggested feelings of love towards everybody, yet nothing else changed, not my expectations, not my relationships, not other people’s behavior. All my negative feelings, anger, frustration, had no outlet – they were unvoiced, repressed. And so, when meditate stopped, up they came, back to the surface, poison stored in a dark bladder now pouring out.  Metta meditation acted like a drug, affecting perception for a short period, but leaving a difficult hangover in its wake.

I wondered then – is the purpose of meditation transformation, or self-knowledge? The darkness of the soul did not disappear – but I understand it better now. Loving-kindness, sustained over time, is harder than I thought, requires more self-transformation than a simple shift of intention: this I know now. Could it be, then, that Metta meditation was never intended to bring about greater perfection in a direct manner, but rather, through the winding path of awareness, guilt, and slow change.


On 信

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

The character 信 – xin, typically translated as trust – brings together the character for ‘man’ on the left and the character for ‘language’ on the right. A superficial reading would identify the following simple metaphor, that a trustworthy person it true to their word – they are reliable, they tell the truth, and there is consistency between their actions and the promises they make. But as I considered the character further, 信 started reminding me of the first virtue that I examined in this Confucian cycle, 仁. Ren is the virtue that prevails in a relationship between two people – benevolence as a basis for all positive human interaction. Could 信, then, connecting man and language, represent the other end of the spectrum, the virtue that binds a large group of people together through shared language and stories?

Looking through the Analects, I noted how xin was repeatedly mentioned in relation to friendship. Articulating a definition of the noble man, Confucius says “He takes loyalty and good faith to be of primary importance, and has no friends who are not of equal (moral) caliber.” [1:8] (主忠信。无友不如己者。). This statement is repeated almost word for word at [9:25]: “Base yourself in loyalty and trust. Don’t be companion with those who are not your moral equal. ” (主忠信。毋友不如己者。) One of the things that qualifies a person as ‘learned’ (学) is to “be honest in speech when dealing with your friends” [1:7] (与朋友交、言而有信。). When the Master is asked about his aspirations, again, trust and friendship are mentioned: “I would like to give comfort to the aged, trust to my friends and nurturance to the young.” (5:26) (老者安之、朋友信之、少者怀之。). Earlier in the text, at [1:4], as part of an introspective series of questions, we can read the following: “In my interactions with friends, have I been untrustworthy?” (与朋友交而不信乎。) – for this would be the biggest failure in friendship.

I was brought back to my early readings of the Greeks and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where friendship is defined as a primary virtue – the source of our deepest happiness – and a cornerstone of political life. Indeed, Xin must prevail not only between friends, but also  between rulers and the ruled. When asked what a government needs to succeed, Confucius replies: “Enough food, enough weapons and the confidence of the people.” [12:7] (足食、足兵、民信之矣。) When asked which of those three is most important, Confucius identifies trust, because: “ From ancient times, death has come to all men, but a people without confidence in its rulers will not stand.” [12:7] (民无信不立。)

Trust is, indeed, what allows a ruler to guide the action of the people: “After the ruler has the trust of the people, they will toil for him. If he doesn’t have their trust, they will regard him as oppressive. Only after gaining his trust will they criticize him openly. If he doesn’t trust them, he will take their criticism as backstabbing. ” [19:10] (君子信而后劳其民。未信、则以为厉己也。信而后谏。未信、则以为谤己也。) We know that there is a correlation between the level of trust that prevails in a country and its wealth. Indeed, this is not surprising: if I operate in a high trust environment, then I will build teams and coordinate projects on the basis of talent and motivation. But if trust is lacking, I will work only with people that I already know, and whose behaviour is controlled through a dense network of mutual connections, mafia style.I ndeed, xin is the hallmark of a person’s usefulness: : “If a person lacks trustworthiness, I don’t know what s/he can be good for. When a pin is missing from the yoke-bar of a large wagon, or from the collar-bar of a small wagon, how can it go?” [2:22] (人而无信、不知其可也。大车无輗、小车无軏 , 其何以行之哉)  This primacy given to trust is universal. “If your speech is sincere and honest, and your way of carrying yourself is earnest and reverent, such behaviour will work even if you live among the Southern and Northern barbarians. But if your speech is insincere and dishonest and your way of carrying yourself is neither earnest nor reverent, then even if you live in your hometown, you will have problems.” [15:6[] (言忠信、行笃敬、虽蛮貊之邦行矣。言不忠信、行不笃敬、虽州里行乎哉。立、则见其参于前也。在舆、则见期倚于衡也。)

When I considered a potential practice to better understand this virtue, I chose to write down what expectations I had of my friends, my government, and the people leading various projects I am involved in. The intention was, after identifying those expectations, to figure where they stemmed from, whether explicit promises had been made, or what assumptions I made as to their expected future behaviour.  With surprise, I noticed a recurring incongruence: there is a gap between what I wish for, and what I expect. In all cases, my expectations were inconsistently both high and low. I hope for the greatest levels of support, transparency, reliability – yet anticipate situations where friends, governments and leaders fail on all fronts. Am I setting myself up for constant disappointment on the basis of past negative experience, doubts about my own trustworthiness, or the side effects of working with global catastrophic risks?

A discussion with Patrick yielded a precious insight. The conversation was going sideways, exploring an inherent tension in the coaching practice. On the one hand, a coach must create a safe space where ‘what is’ for the client is accepted with no judgement – as a therapist; on the other hand, a coach must help their client identify patterns of possibility inherent in their situation, and help them go through personal transformation, leaving ‘what is’ in favour of ‘what may be’. I realised how strongly the second appealed to me, and how thinking about that aspect of my own practice resonated with a number of elements in my mental pantheon: Shiva, god of creative destruction; the family myth of a grandfather in the French resistance during the Second World War; my ongoing fascination for power as the basis for transformation.

Could it be, then, I thought, that when considering friends, government and organisations, trust is about focusing not on ‘what is’, but ‘what may be’. Patterns emerge, hinting at future potential – which I see, giving me those high hopes – but I remain aware that what I perceive is not ‘what is real’, only ‘what could be’ – and that many negative ‘could be’s’ are latent in any situation, and need to be accepted from the start. This – I thought – may very well constitute the essence of trust: not a promise made and kept, but the willingness to keep space open for an uncertain future.

Trust, then, is not about firmly constructing an island of reliability within the chaos of a threatening world, but rather, the deliberate opening of a collective space that welcomes and embraces transformation. Where trust prevails, it becomes possible for individuals not only to identify the many potential futures latent in the present, but also, to weigh in on the situation and, hopefully, with help from their friends, bring about one of those futures. Trust offers an alternative to determinism and fatalism: when trust exists, the future is no longer simply conditioned by the past in a linear manner. Trust is not blind continuity, but narrative potential imagined in conversations with friends and emerging from coordinated action, whereby a group of people establish a joint reading of their collective past that leads towards their chosen collective future. Trust, understood in that manner, is then the political virtue par excellence, grown through friendship, extending across teams and governments – and the cornerstone of human freedom.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller