On Karuna

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 – empathy – cultivates a desire to end suffering, in oneself and others. Expanding my circles of empathy, the meditate 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 model say 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 智

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.

This round started with linguistic confusion. The process has been this: I found a digital version of the Analects, and used the search function to select passages where the virtue that I was practicing, using the browser search function. But when I put in ‘智’, wisdom, nothing turned up. I remained perplexed for a while, but as I scanned through the text, I wondered: there is another character with the same pronunciation – 知, to know – what if the two got somehow bundled. Bingo! now there was over 100 occurrences to scan through, which I filtered as best I could – and selected a few passages that seemed more particularly to reflect on the virtue that I was aiming to understand.

This passage offered a simple starting point, showing potential overlap between 知 – knowledge – and 智 – virtue: “I listen widely, select the good and follow their ways. I observe broadly and contemplate. This is the second level of knowledge.” [7-28] (多闻、择其善者而从之。多见而识之。知之次也。).  Wisdom is explicitly presented as derived from experience, more specifically from a process of observation, selection and imitation, applied to people.

Wisdom, indeed, appears not to be derived from the natural world, but other people. “Fan Chi asked about the meaning of ren. Confucius said “love others.” He asked about the meaning of “knowledge.” The Master said, “Know others.” [12-22] (“樊迟问仁。子曰。爱人。问知。子曰。知人。” But it goes beyond, and entails judgement, discrimination, followed by action.

Something about wisdom has to do with effectiveness: it is about doing the most we can with our time and energy. ” The Master said: “When a person should be spoken with, and you don’t speak with them, you lose them. When a person shouldn’t be spoken with and you speak to them, you waste your words. The wise do not lose people, nor do they waste their words.” [15-8] (子曰。可与言、而不与之言、失人。不可与言、而与之言、失言。知者不失人、亦不失言。) At first reading, this may sound harsh, but the passage echoes the fundamental optimism of all educators – and managers – that with the right attention, by carefully guiding our interaction with others, and identifying their passions and characters rightly, it is actually possibly to transform situations and the people themselves. Following the passage above, we read: “Fan Chi couldn’t get it. The Master said, “If you put the honest in positions of power and discard the dishonest, you will force the dishonest to become honest.” [12-22] (樊迟未达。子曰。擧直错诸枉、能使枉者直。)

 

Before starting reflection on this virtue, I had been attending an international conference on governance innovation. The key message was that it is easier to criticise than constructively develop – but that our collective goal at the conference was to do the difficult thing, and start building. At the conference, and later when I spoke about it with friends and family, I noticed a certain recurring type of response: people – often intelligent people – harnessing their analytical skills to demonstrate that the work we were doing was impossible, and why. When digging through their underlying assumptions, I found this: a belief that ‘human nature’ is ultimately both dark and unchangeable, that ‘people are like that’ or ‘things are like that’. Analytical cynicism then becomes an easy refuge for strong egos – and offers a rhetorical position from which they can avoid the difficult question – ‘so human nature is dark and unchangeable, people will not cooperate or rationally try to do good together – does that apply to you?’

By contrast, Confucian wisdom signals a fundamental optimism about humanity. Some people may be led by dark negative purposes, situations may be adverse. But if we can identify the character of people around us, and if we can wisely choose who receives power from us – starting with the more fundamental power that we have, the power of giving attention – then we can change not only the shape of a situation, but a person’s very character – including our own.

Wisdom perceives the world as liquid, changeable, and a space for joyful human activity : “The Master said: “The wise enjoy the sea, the humane enjoy the mountains. The wise are busy, the humane are tranquil. The wise are happy, the humane are eternal.” [6-23]  (子曰。知者乐水、仁者乐山。知者动、仁者静。知者乐、仁者寿。) The practice I derived from this analysis was a deliberate attempt to exert a sharper form of discernment in my interactions with people – a difficult task, I realised. It revealed that I could err on the side of softness, and invited me to think more about the tension between benevolence and wisdom – and in the Catholic framework that I explored last year, between prudence, justice and charity.

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

On 礼

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.

‘Li’, variously translated as ‘ritual’ or ‘propriety’ – written 禮 in the traditional form, and礼 in the simplified form – represents the third of the five Confucian virtues, and the one most often typically associated to some ‘Chinese’ spirit. Before delving into the Confucian texts, and basing myself on pure generalisation, I considered this relationship to ritual as the condition of possibility for a certain eccentricity that I noted among my Chinese friends. If external behaviour is not about expressing an authentic inner truth but performing a ritual, then in areas that are not strictly determined by ritual, it is possible to be radically free.

However, when I started reading Confucius more closely, I realised that this interpretation was somewhat superficial. “When Confucius entered the Grand Temple, he asked about everything. Someone said, “Who said Confucius is a master of ritual? He enters the Grand Temple and asks about everything!” Confucius, hearing this, said, “This is [precisely] ritual.” [3-15] (子入大庙、每事问。或曰。孰谓邹人之子知礼乎。入大庙、每事问。子闻之、曰。是礼也。). The linguistic form of 礼is not imperative, but interrogative. 礼 is also, therefore, present and relational: it emerges in the course of an interaction between two people. There is a certain naïve, post-romantic way of understanding ritual as a pure act of mindless repetition. This may be ritual in the 19th century, but it is certainly not 礼.

I practiced the virtue while on a work trip in Stockholm. I was living in a friend’s home with four other people, and working with a multicultural team on a major global forum. Questions of protocol needed to be resolved in both settings, and I had little immediate cultural understanding to guide me. I embraced 礼, and asked. This I realised: at first, I imagined that the purpose of this questioning was for the other to share their predetermined understanding of what was expected – allowing me, then, to comply. But instead, often, the question elicited a new form of shared understanding on matters that had not been properly thought through. This was the case at home, but also during the forum. There was no mastermind holding every detail of what should happen and how. Rather, knowledge of rules and rituals required by the event were distributed in the team. There was no proper way to behave that existed as a preconceived idea to follow: proper behaviour – 礼 – emerged as a shared conscious decision through the act of questioning.

There is a measure of collective magic to ritual. “If you govern the people legalistically and control them by punishment, they will avoid crime, but have no personal sense of shame. If you govern them by means of virtue and control them with propriety, they will gain their own sense of shame, and thus correct themselves.” [2.3] (子曰。道之以政、齐之以刑、民免而无耻。道之以德、齐之以礼、有耻且格。) If we know that our behaviour is exposed to questioning, self-regulation emerges naturally – and both parties eschew selfishness for mutual benefit. This understanding of ritual, in turn, opens a new way to understand justice. ”The Master said: “The noble man takes justice as essential. He actualizes it through propriety, demonstrates it in humility, develops it by truthfulness. This is the noble man!” [15.18]  (子曰。君子义以为质、礼以行之、孙以出之、信以成之。君子哉。。 ) Justice actualized is precisely the collective construction of a shared world.  Eliciting assumptions as to the right action in a certain circumstance, and making assumptions as to the right behaviour conscious, is a way to surface underlying patterns and reveal the underlying order of this shared world.

礼 does more: it allows us to stand firm. “Structure yourself with propriety” [8.8] (立于礼) encourages Confucius. We all run the danger of becoming trapped in our own nature. “Studying liberal arts broadly, and disciplining yourself with propriety, it is easy to stay on the narrow path.” [12-15] ( 子曰。博学于文、约之以礼、亦可以弗畔矣夫。) )“The noble man who studies culture extensively, and disciplines himself with propriety can keep from error.” [6:27] (君子博学于文、约之以礼、亦可以弗畔矣夫 。) 礼 frees us from tyrannical self-attachment, and the associated risk of drifting off into self-delusion. Ritual reveals the structures of the world -– the bones of social relationships – and thus makes flexible practice possible. “In the actual practice of propriety, flexibility is important. This is what the ancient kings did so well— both the greater and the lesser used flexibility. Yet there are occasions when this does not apply: If you understand flexibility and use it, but don’t structure yourself with propriety, things won’t go well.”[1:12] (有子曰。礼之用、和为贵。先王之道、斯为美、小大由之。有所不行。知和而和、不以礼节之、亦不可行也。)

Ritual does more: it not only makes practice possible, but provides a sense of historical continuity,whereby practice gains meaning. “Zi Zhang asked whether the state of affairs ten generations hence could be known. Confucius said, “The Shang based its propriety on that of the Yin, and what it added and subtracted is knowable. The Zhou has based its propriety on that of the Shang and what it added and subtracted is knowable. In this way, what continues from the Zhou, even if 100 generations hence, is knowable.” [2:23] (子张问:十世可知也 子曰。殷因于夏礼、所损益、可知也。 周因于殷礼、所损益、可知也。其或继周者、虽百世、可知也。) Here again, however, careful reading is required, and yields a surprising interpretation. Rituals do not evolve over time in a Darwinian fashion, shedding elements least adapted to the circumstances through the pure passage of time. Rather, ritual past and present is an act of ongoing questioning and emergence: so it was with the Yin, so it was with the Shang, so it was with the Zhou, and so it is with us. We are at great risk of projecting perfection on the past. There is no reason to believe that the past was any less chaotic than the present, nor that our ancestors – and with them, any people we think of as representative of an ‘old culture’ – simply repeated an inherited script, while we moderns are living in an age of free collective decision, where the sense of ritual got lost. No, what 礼 reveals is that all human societies – past and present – are at equal risk of chaos ,unless we make the concerted effort to build a common world through the questioning act of ritual. And by keeping this in mind, we are protected from the dangerous myth of a golden age.

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

 

 

 

On 仁

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,义,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.

仁 – pronounced rén with a rising tone – is  variously translated as benevolence, kindness, or humaneness. Popular etymology describes the character as composed of the key for ‘man’ (亻) and the number two (二) – therefore identifying 仁  as the virtue that manifests when two people come together. This first arrested my attention. 仁is not about guidance from a higher being or a set of rules that the self should follow: it is anchored in concrete human relations. From the very start of the Analects, this relationship is presented as defined on the basis of seniority: “孝弟也者、其为仁之本与” (are not filial piety and obedience to elders fundamental to the actualization of fundamental human goodness? Analects 1:2). In a later commentary, 仁 is said to manifest itself in the person who rescues a child playing on the margin of a well. 仁 informs each relationship not on the pure basis of our joint humanity, but also based on each parties’ lifespan – and therefore, the same virtue will manifest as a different behaviour in each situation. This, I thought, addresses a point which I often hit upon when thinking about morals and ethics: when exactly should a child be considered ethically mature? 仁 offers a lateral way to think of the answer: when the child finds themselves in a situation where the relational duty demands that they be the adult, on the basis of their seniority to the person they interact with.

The word仁has another unrelated meaning: it refers the kernel of an apricot pit or the flesh of a shrimp. Is it therefore, I wondered, the warm rich human core that lies inside the social shell, and acts as the principle of movement? 仁 cannot be deducted from external behaviour, as this long passage indicates:  “孟武伯问子路仁乎。子曰。不知也。又问。子曰。由也、千乘之国、可使治其赋也、不知其仁也。求也何如 子曰。求也、千室之邑、百乘之家、可使为之宰也、不知其仁也。赤也何如 子曰。赤也、束带立于朝、可使与宾客言也、不知其仁也。(Meng Wu Bo asked Confucius whether Zi Lu was a ren man. Confucius said, “I don’t know.” He asked again. Confucius said, “You could direct the public works forces in a state of 1, 000 chariots, but I don’t know if I would call him a ren man.” Meng again asked: “What about Qiu?” Confucius said, “Qiu could be the governor of a city of 1, 000 families, or of a clan of 100 chariots, but I don’t know if he is a ren man.” Meng asked: “What about Chi?” The Master said, “Dressed up with his sash, placed in the middle of the court, he could make conversation with the guests, but I don’t know if he is a ren man. Analects 5:8). Instead, it can be captured through patterns of subtle harmony that are experienced aesthetically: “里仁为美。” (As for a neighborhood, it is its ren that makes it beautiful. Analects 4:1) “人而不仁、如乐何” (If a man has no ren what can his music be like? Analects 3:3). In turn, the collective enjoyment of a world infused by 仁 can trigger a positive spiral where aesthetic refinement nurtured by 仁brings together people who, through their relationship, strengthen each other’s 仁: “君子以文会友。以友辅仁。” (The noble man uses his refinement to meet his friends, and through his friends develops his ren. Analects 12:24)

What mainly struck me when I read through the words Confucius was a seeming paradox inherent to the virtue. On the one hand, 仁 is presented as an always available option “仁远乎哉。我欲仁、斯仁至矣。”(Is ren far away? If I aspire for ren it is right here! Analects 7:30). And yet, we consistently fall short of it, and few can maintain it for any period of time: “囘也、其心三月不违仁、其余则日月至焉而已矣。” (Hui could keep his mind on ren for three months without lapse. Others are lucky if they can do it for one day out of a month. Analects 6:7).

In line with this observation, when I developed a practice that would help me cultivate 仁, I decided to focus on deliberate attention: at least once a day, when I found myself in a public setting, I would pause and think about my relationship with every person present. I would do this in two stages: first establish common humanity, then consider our respective status based on age, and how this should inform my behavior to each person around, should I interact with them.

The practice revealed a few things about myself. As a gay man, I noticed how skewed my attention is to people of different gender – and how little attention I spontaneously pay to women in public places: another confirmation of unconscious bias, and its rippling effects. As a 40 year-old, I noticed how time has passed, how most people are now slightly younger than me, and how I should therefore start adapting my default behaviour. I also noticed how solitary my professional life can be – how much of my time is spent ‘alone in company’ or even entirely on my own.

The practice was strangely transformative. When I was looking at people sitting or standing in a group – friends, families, co-workers – through this deliberate relational attention, I entirely stopped thinking of them as ‘another group’, a ‘them vs me’, but rather, each of them became part of a consistent human web that I also belonged in. Through the practice of仁, I feel that I was able to expand my circle of empathy: most likely by offering a simple framework that allowed me to think of my relationship with every other human as concretely defined by age – the length of time we spent alive, and how this determines a certain type of duty. This also made it more possible for me to see the world from the perspective of others, and in their company, feel a sense of calm and beauty.

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

 

On Envy

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

In French, the word ‘envy’ became synonymous with desire before I was born. It is therefore highly difficult for me to natively think of it as a sin. I can hear the voice of parents and friends asking me ‘Qu’est-ce qui te fait envie?’ literally ‘what makes you envy’, meaning, ‘what would you like?’ I can hear the lyrics of an 80s rock song that played on the radio through my childhood: ‘On m’a trop donné, bien avant l’envie – qu’on me donne l’envie, envie d’avoir envie’ – and though the song is about the exhaustion of desire in a consumerist world of material abundance, a word-for-word translation would read ‘I’ve been given too much, way before envy – let somebody give me envy, envy to have envy.’ It’s an odd reversal of values when the radio broadcasts an aspiration to sin.

The lyrics of that song echo my experience of material abundance as an only child of wealthy divorced parents. Toys and games rained over me – both parents, I guess, and parts of the broader family vying for my affection through gifts. I had more things, I think, than any kids at school. I remember moments of envy, when one of them had a toy that I didn’t – but this never lasted very long: either I came back home and appreciated how superior my collection was, or I was able to acquire the plastic object of my desire.

Material abundance protected me from material desire, but a different and deeper form of envy characterised elements of my life that compared unfavourably with others. I envied the children of married parents, who didn’t have to shuffle around from one apartment to the other, nor act as mediator in the financial and emotional struggles of adults. When my father left for the capital, I envied anybody whose two parents lived in the same city, and were spared a fortnightly plane commute. Later still, I envied kids without hostile or manipulative step-parents. Envy led me to regular bouts of despair, a belief that my family situation would make it impossible for me to reach happiness, ever – while others around, though materially less fortunate, were given all the right emotional and spiritual circumstances to lead balanced happy lives. And I became incapable of seeing the good in my own situation.

At school, struggling with my own romantic attraction to men, growing up in a period when gay was not OK, I envied couples of male platonic friends who shared a clear mutual desire to spend time together. Some times, instead of letting new friendships and attachments emerge, I let myself be possessed by envy, targeted and seduced – soon resulting in embarrassment, or even harm.

Envy lost its grip on me when I came out and moved out of home. But the possibility to do this depended on so much – high levels of privilege, a scholarship system, decades of activism from LGBT groups, and the sheer luck of remarkable encounters leading to friendships and romantic relationships that, I hope, were mutually nourishing. And so, when I look back at my own experience of envy, I sense how difficult it is to curb its power, and how dangerous it is for all communities and social relations.

Tragedies of the commons are all based on envy. Prisoner’s dilemma: what if I was to reduce my carbon emissions, and others don’t. Why should I work harder for lower benefits? Why should less developed countries – hey, China – get a right to burn more cheap coal and save money to buy beef, while we must forsake immediate satisfaction to build more expensive insulated buildings and wind farms? Why should future generations be protected, and live in a world of greater potential abundance than us? Why should I go to the effort of looking after the public good, if the public does not look after my interest?

Envy squares greed: while greed is a perverted relationship to the material world, envy looks at other people and their possessions or attributes, seeking discrepancies, and aiming to get even. Envy derives from a scarcity mindset: you have more of something than I do, whether brains, looks, money, relationships, or attention. Envy wears a mask of heroic justice – I would rather risk both of us losing everything, than let such inequality continues. But the same person, here, is both judge and party.

I am writing this – the last of my reflections on sin – on Easter Day. Judah betrayed for greed, but envy led the Pharisees to condemn and kill Christ: why should this man receive such attention – yay, claim to be son of God – rather than us? I would rather take the chance of killing the Messiah than let this uneducated man steal the love and respect of the people from us. Easter, however, is not a revenge story. The judges and executors simply disappear, while abundance returns for the believers who did not let envy possess them. And on this day, at least, it is possible to dream of a future community where envy does not exist, and a genuine sense of abundance prevails.

On Sloth

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good lifeSin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and so, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation. 

On New Year’s Eve, my partner and I were throwing a big open-door party, as we’ve done every year since moving to the Melbourne CBD. In the hours leading up to the party, we received a number of messages, either on our event page or privately, that people would not be coming because they were ‘unwell’. ‘Unwellness’ is a frequent and accepted way to decline social engagements. The term is vague, and covers a spectrum of conditions from hangovers to food poisoning, mild social tiredness or the darkest pit of depression. ‘I’m unwell’ codes: ‘this is too much for me right now, I don’t feel that I can cope with it, and would rather retreat.’ To what extent, I wonder, is unwellness a manifestation of sloth?

The sin that we call ‘sloth’ has received various names over the centuries and across languages. Among those, ‘tristitia’, melancholy sorrow, and ‘acedia’, negligence, lack of care. Exploring those various names, I hope, will help me better understand elements of its nature. Sloth is not a deliberate decision to lie under warm sheets and watch an indulgent rom-com rather than cleaning the fridge, doing the tax, or conversing with a bore. It is a more insidious failure on our part, not stemming from the voluptuous pleasure of doing nothing and regaining shape, but rather a withdrawal from duties, engagements and activities based on a lack of appetite for the world, a ‘why bother’ attitude, or a sense of overwhelming despair.

What are the varieties of sloth, I wondered as I started the year? As a migrant to Melbourne, I have often called sloth ‘the Australian sin’. I amusingly remember this memorable quote from a Hong Kong friend ‘You know Australians, they’re a bit lazy sometimes.’ But isn’t everyone? Rather, I thought I should try and understand what form sloth takes in this country.

On my first trip, in 2007, I saw the piles of mess lining the walls of gigantic suburban houses as a sign of sloth – as I did the shapeless afternoons slumping on couches in a backyard, idly drinking beer. The curse of abundance? Maybe, but could that Australian form of sloth be more precisely defined as a chaotic relationship to time and space, and a lack of decisiveness regarding the best use of them. I wondered: could it be the natural reaction to the sheer size of the country – why make effort to keep things in order when space is abundant – to the disturbing overlap of a northern hemisphere culture and a southern hemisphere location – how could our days be structured when summer is winter and winter summer – and underlying both, the nagging but repressed question of land ownership and sovereignty – why make a deliberate and collective effort to create order and structure down here, if we’re not quite certain who the land belongs to, and what can be done on it.

Sloth is particularly noticeable in professional settings, where it adopts a number of forms. Sloth may be the basic failure to show up and keep commitments. Sloth may be slow replies or unclear communications. Sloth can be lack of preparation and a ‘she’ll be alright’ attitude. Sloth can also take a more perverse form, whereby one retreats into the mechanical execution of delegated tasks instead of making a difficult decision: there is such a thing as ‘busy’ sloth.

In all cases, sloth easily spreads. When one organ fails, soon the whole body collapses, either because essential functions are no longer performed, or because the pressure on other parts of the system becomes excessive. People weighed with an extra load of responsibility through the sloth of another will eventually give up – thus adding a new link to the chain of sloth. There is a logical consequence: that the person who failed us was surely failed by someone else, and that someone else by another, ad infinitum. We must resist sloth, as individuals and collectively. But we must also cultivate forgiveness, for others, and ourselves.

Sloth is not a voluptuous desire for the comfort of bed, but an absence of courage hiding under the veil of reason: sloth will more likely manifest itself when goals appear impossible, and therefore, action seems useless. I have been working for the last few weeks on a full draft of my PhD, which I committed to completing on the 17. By Wednesday last week, the text overall was in order, but I still had two and chapters and a half – over 30,000 words – that I needed to review before I could share them with my supervisors. I was overwhelmed, and started procrastinating in all sorts of way. Time before the deadline reduced, and the task of ‘completing a draft’ remained a seemingly never-ending path to the top of a mountain lost in clouds. Since I could not meet the deadline, should I not, rather, prioritise other things, so that I could better continue the PhD journey later, when the clouds cleared? And so, rather than making progress in any direction, my brain went in endless circles, spiraling into despair.

I collected myself on Friday, and took a different approach. I opened my cloth-bound, grey 2018 agenda, looked over the coming week, and calculated that I had approximately 21 hours available to work on the draft before the deadline. With about 30,000 words to review, this meant I had to make progress at the rate of 1,500 words per hour. Since the goal was to write a first complete draft – not a final one – my goal should simply be to do whatever I could at that pace. I went through the three word files containing the current text of chapters 5, 6 and 7, and broke down my to-do list into 33 sections – each corresponding to one section which I would spend 15 to 45 minutes editing. My mood instantly lifted. I was out of the despair spiral.

Sloth has nothing to do with short breaks between sessions of concentrated work. Sloth is blankly looking at the wall and repeating in loop, since I can’t have it all, I might as well stop now. I met a partner to discuss a new project Friday, to reframe language learning as a way to better cope with failure, chaos and uncertainty. Whenever I coached anyone wishing to learn a language, I told them: ‘the only reason people fail is because they give up. Therefore, anything that will make you give up, you should stop; and anything that encourages you forward, you should pursue. Now let’s figure what will do that for you.’

Sloth may be the sin most opposite to prudence: it is absence of movement towards the good, born from a sense of overwhelming confusion. The best way to resist sloth, then, may be discernment and careful goal setting. But the path forward is not straight, and as we progress, the goals we set are no longer relevant. The world is chaotic, of its inherent nature, from the sins of others, and our own. Therefore, the work of careful discernment, goal-setting and decision-making is never-ending. Resisting sloth is learning to find joy in this ever-changing world.