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On The Virtues
Or Having the experience, but missing the meaning
By David Gorman
Copyright (c) 1999 David Gorman, all rights reserved world-wide
In April of 1998 I found myself on a long train ride travelling from a workshop in
Stockholm to another in Göteborg. The train periodically stopped in small towns, but mostly it flowed
on past woods and lakes and through fields and farms. For a while I absorbed the flavour of the
austere and rugged Swedish countryside, but then picked up a book and began to read.
It was a novel, taking place in protestant New England in the nineteenth century.
One of the individuals in the book was discoursing on the 'virtues' that form the moral foundation to
a good person and a good society — patience, honesty, courage, temperance,
humility, and so on. She was suggesting, in no uncertain terms, that most of society's ills were
to be accounted for by the sad lack of these virtues in most people. Their baser natures tempted them
into vices or sent them into blind loss of control. But (she said), if any right-thinking person took
the time and the trouble to practise these virtues, well... he or she would be a better person and the
world would be a better place.
Admirable enough sentiments — whether in the nineteenth century or the soon-to-be
twenty-first. But it got me thinking… Just what are these virtues that we can have them or be
lacking them? And if we don't naturally have them, just what sort of practice does
one do to get them? Are they some sort of skilled activity we learn, like golfing
or playing a violin, through practice and study? Or perhaps it is more a repetitive kind of practice,
like tying our shoelaces, that will turn the virtues into automatically incorporated habits by doing
them often enough?
But, if they are simply skills or practised habits, then why are they virtuous?
Is a well-practised golf swing described as virtuous? Is there the virtue of mastering a good
shoelace knot? Well, perhaps only in the smallest sense of the word. But, it certainly was implicit
in the point of view of our character in the novel that the word virtue conjured up elements
of a moral standard — right and good as opposed to wrong and bad. And she was saying that
this standard was reachable through some direct process, though it seems that not many succeed.
Which, of course, raises the further question, if these virtues are so 'good', why
do so few manage to achieve them?
This started me wondering whether these virtues were, in fact, qualities in themselves
that one could possess or states that one could dwell in. Take patience as an example. If we were
patient all the time, would we be aware of being virtuous? Would we even be aware of being
patient? Probably not. However, when we are being impatient, or someone around us is being impatient,
we certainly do notice that. The unpleasantness of the experience wakes us up and we recognize impatience.
This in turn reminds us of its opposite and how we should immediately try to be more virtuously
That is, the virtues seem most obvious when we are not being virtuous. In other words,
they appear to be most noticeable by their absence.
Then, does this mean that the virtues, in practice, are not so much final places
to arrive at, but more a choice of direction toward that better moral standard in the face of
its opposite? Toward patience instead of impatience; toward honesty rather than lying, etc.?
Would we be patient, by default, if we could just choose away from impatience whenever it comes up?
Would we be patient if we were just not impatient? Is patience the absence of impatience or an
actual act in itself?
I had a long train ride and it seemed there were a lot of questions here, so I decided
to look more closely in turn at several of these virtues. Partly to see if I could more clearly pin
down what they really are — if we are being admonished to practise them it might be a good idea to know
what we'd be practising — but also to see exactly how one might go about such practice.
As everyone knows, it is when we are impatient that patience seems the hardest virtue
to practise. This is unfortunate, since it is precisely those moments of impatience that would seem
to be the most important times to practise patience. So if patience is the absence of impatience, perhaps
we need to look more at the nature of impatience than the nature of patience. What is it about impatience
that seems so hard to get out of?
Is not impatience the state we get into when we want things to happen faster than
they are actually happening? That is, when the actual reality of how fast things are happening
does not match our idea of how fast they should be happening.
In addition, when we have an expectation of the speed at which things should be happening
(but they are not), is it not our impatience that spurs us on to try to hurry things up and make them
happen as fast as we want? As you know from experience, of course, all this hurrying up
results in a lot of struggling and pushing ourselves to do things faster, creating a lot of stress and
tensing up which results in further mounting 'feelings' of impatience.
So given all that, why is it so hard to be patient? Well, as I looked into
my own experience (always a good place to look) it seemed that the crux of the matter is that we hang
onto the idea we have of how fast things should happen. In the most obvious and tangible
way, reality is clearly showing us the speed at which things actually do happen, but because
of our fixed idea, we do not register this as a fact, we register it as a problem.
Even in the face of repeated experiences that our idea does not match reality, we
nevertheless keep trying to get reality to fit our idea of what should be. As long as we hold
onto our idea as being more real than what really happens (perhaps more ideal might
be a better word) we will continue to experience impatience. How could we not?
It struck me that this is not a moral issue in the normal sense of that word
having to do with right and wrong, but rather it is an issue of ignorance and learning.
It is not about good virtue (patience) and bad vice (impatience), but about our misconception
of how things work. Over and over again, we have the feeling of impatience, but each time
we completely miss the meaning of that feeling.
So what is the meaning of this feeling? Notice that we have our expectations
of how long things take and the impatience wakes us up in the very moment when these expectations are
not being met. That is, functionally speaking, the experience of impatience appears just at the moment
when it can serve to alert us that things are not as we think they are. If we can take this experience
as a wake-up call rather than a bad thing, we will then be available to register the information that
reality is showing us — namely the speed at which things actually do happen. We are then available to
realize the inaccuracy of our previous conception. Then we can adjust our idea to fit the reality, rather
than trying to get reality to fit our idea.
Looked at this way, the initial experience of impatience is not a problem
nor is it a vice. It is a necessary part of the learning process — in fact, arguably the most essential
part, for without it we would not even know there was anything at all to be learned!
Note how beautifully it works. Each time we underestimate the time things take, we
will definitely be woken up by this very tangible experience of impatience, We are woken up so that
we can register a more accurate assessment of the time things really do take. After one or more times,
we will then know how long these things take. We will have more accurate knowledge we didn't have before.
We will have learned.
When we know how long things take, why would we have an expectation that they would
take less time? We will no longer be impatient for we can see that things are simply taking the
time that they take.
If we know how long things take and are no longer impatient, we will no longer be
trying to do the job faster to match our idea, so we will no longer be causing ourselves tension
nor interfering with our natural coordination by hurrying up our movements.
In addition, when we're not ahead of ourselves trying to finish faster, we will be
more in the present moment of everything that we're doing and hence more able to really see what we're
doing and therefore do a better job. Not only that, but we will be in a better position to see more
clearly what else needs to be done, and so will be able to learn more about the job. In this way, learning
begets more learning.
If we look carefully at those impatience moments, we can see that many times
we are not impatient simply because of how long the process is taking. We often get impatient because
we have not fully appreciated what is involved in the process and all the steps necessary to complete
the task. In other words, there is an ignorance of the extent and nature of the job at hand. Here too
learning is needed. That is to say, the wake-up call of impatience alerts us to an essential
level of knowledge — knowing what we don't know. This acknowledgement of our lack of knowledge invites
us to open ourselves up willingly to a learning process to gain that knowledge.
Looked at in this way, it makes no sense to practise patience, if by patience
we mean trying not to be impatient or trying to slow down and calm down. It makes no sense, in other
words, to try to get rid of the impatience. We need the wake-up call of impatience in order to
learn more accurately about the world and our activities in it.
After we have learned and our expectations are more in accord with reality, will
we end up experiencing something we would call patience? Or will we simply be living our lives
better — without impatience?
As a result of this learning we end up not just perceiving reality more accurately.
We actually end up living in a different reality than we did before — one that includes a changed
understanding of the meaning of the experience of impatience and how to use it to learn. With this changed
understanding we can then take a completely different pathway than we would have before.
Normally we would take the experience of impatience to be the vice and try
to change it to the virtue of patience. Now we can see that there is indeed something wrong,
but it is not the impatience. It is the underlying concept of how long things take which is wrong. The
fact is that the experience of impatience appears naturally at just the moment when the information
of how long things really take is available to correct our ideas. Does this not suggest strongly that
we have a wonderful kind of learning ability built right into our very nature?
This led me into thinking about frustration, another unpleasant experience
similar to and closely linked with impatience. What if I applied the same way of looking at it?
When we go into any activity to achieve a particular goal, we go in with our current
ideas (or knowledge) of how to achieve it. And, of course, we then actually use these
means to try to achieve the goal. But what happens if we do not get the result we want?
Often what happens is that the power of our wanting the result and the fixedness
of our idea of how to get it, are such as to keep us locked-in to this trying even though it continually
fails to deliver the result we're after.
The experience of this blind trying and retrying is that we end up getting more and
From this point of view, what is frustration but the experience of trying to do
what cannot be done? Or at least of trying to do what cannot be done by the means that we
are using at the moment? Once again, whether we keep on flogging away so the frustration mounts
or we quit in disgust, we are having the experience, but missing the meaning.
In the same way as in impatience, notice that the frustration experience occurs
just when we get stuck repeating a certain means, repeatedly expecting a certain result, but not actually
getting that result. It seems obvious that we truly believe that the means we are using will, in fact,
deliver us that result. So we keep on trying and keep on failing - as long as we hang on to our
belief about the way things should work.
If we apply our learning model from above to this feeling of frustration,
we can see further similarities with impatience. The extremely tangible experience of frustration is
the very way we have of being woken up to what reality is showing us each time — that it does not work
the way we thought it did. This alerts us that learning is needed, not further reaction. Once
alerted, we then have the opportunity to look closely at the means we are using and the results being
produced in order to see where our misconceptions lie.
We usually experience frustration as an extremely negative state. But is it fundamentally
negative in its own right or does it have this negative quality simply because we are missing the meaning
and so are helpless in it, doomed to either provoke further frustration or give up and quit?
We can answer this question easily. If we use the initial frustration experience
to wake up and recognize that we are in a learning situation, would we travel so far down the road of
trying the same thing over and over and would we arrive at the same frustration? Would the resulting
experience of recognition, exploration and learning be negative or be one of curiosity as to why things
were not working and satisfaction when we figured it all out?
I felt I was getting somewhere with understanding the question of whether these
virtues were things or states in themselves. In effect, they did appear to be states in themselves
— but not states of moral behaviour. They are states of knowledge! They are certainly not about
experiences of right and wrong but about learning better how the world works.
If this is so, then I could see why the virtues are seen as so big a challenge and
why they appear to demand such a difficult choice in the face of their opposites that so few can prevail.
If we misunderstand them and fail to see the meaning in the experience, we will repeatedly be stuck
in experiences of impatience or frustration.
I decided to go on to look at another of the other virtues to see if these
same principles applied there too.
What is honesty but telling the truth or stating the way things are? But is honesty
a thing or state in its own right? Are we practising honesty when we look up and say that the
sun is shining? Or are we just stating a fact of the way things are? When we are describing
these facts of the way things are, do we have an experience of honesty? Not usually.
But when we are being dishonest, we usually have a quite definite and tangible experience
— fear, nervousness, guilt, a narrowing into a self-conscious, multi-level complexity of thoughts.
In fact, is it not that we have an actual experience of honesty only when
we are not expecting someone to be honest, or in a situation where it is surprising? If the used-car
salesman starts telling us honestly about the accident the car was in before they covered it all up,
we'd notice their honesty. Or we notice our own honesty if we have been used to being dishonest
and now feel the relief of confessing.
But then, is this to say that most of our actual experiences have been ones of the
absence of honesty - of the consequences and feelings raised by dishonesty? Probably like most
people, there have been experiences of dishonesty from both sides - the problems we've had from lying
and the problems we've had from being lied to.
If dishonesty causes so many problems, then the obvious question is, why is it so
common? Or the converse, why does honesty seem to be such a difficult virtue for many people?
That is, for many people it seems to be a tougher and harder thing to be honest than to be dishonest,
at least in certain situations.
Why is this, I thought? If I looked to my own and other's experiences, I could
see that it stemmed from one of two situations. Either we feel that we have something we'd lose by being
honest (something to gain by being dishonest) or we have something we wish to avoid that we believe
would happen if we were honest.
It's possible to be even more precise than that. The measure of how hard it is to
be honest is a measure of the strength of our need to have what we want or our need to avoid what we
don't want. In other words, it is harder to the degree to which it would be unacceptable
to be without what we want, or the degree to which we feel it would be intolerable to have the
experience we wish to avoid.
So, we make up another version of 'reality' which we think will give us what we need
or keep us from what we fear. It goes without saying that we believe at the time that this made-up version
will be taken as real by those we lie to; that they won't be able to tell the difference. In other words,
we believe we can simulate reality and pass it off as the real thing.
Of course, there is a big contradiction here. We don't want the reality that
actually is, we want our 'ideal' version. This ideal version that we want is a made-up version, i.e.
unreal. But we don't really want a made-up version, we want it to be real - except that it is not.
So if we want the real, why could we not just practise the virtue of honesty
and tell the truth? Honesty, after all, is nothing more than knowing the way things are and recognizing
that they are that way - in other words, the truth. Honesty is literally the easiest way
to be in the world. There is nothing to do but just to be with what is, as it is. What could be easier
than that? Then all is real. In fact, honesty is nothing more than being in this world. Anything
else is NOT being in this world.
If it's so easy, what stops us from being virtuous, honesty-wise? The reasons
above explained part of it, but they only come into play in certain moments in certain situations, specifically
when a particular truth seems hard and a lie seems easy. But it struck me that there is an underlying
belief or construct acting as a constant factor to predetermine that at certain moments we will find
the lie easier than the truth. This constant is our strongly held ideas about what our lives should
be like — what we must have or what we must avoid.
Notice the similarities with the situations of impatience and frustration. We have
an expectation that things should be one way and reality keeps showing us that they are different. We
keep on trying to perpetrate our fixed idea (ideal) in the face of reality and continue to suffer all
the consequences. Interestingly, this in spite of the fact that we already live, and always have lived,
in the actual reality as it is!
On top of all this, we also end up feeling worse because "the good that we would,
we do not; but the evil which we would not, that we do" to paraphrase St. Paul. In other words we
have framed a moral choice of good and evil and then find we cannot successfully make the
right choice, when a closer look at the facts shows that once again it is more a question of
ignorance and learning.
Notice too that just as in impatience and frustration we also have very tangible
symptoms showing up at exactly the moment when we need to learn the way things work rather than
how we would have them work. If we were to recognize these experiences of dishonesty (fear, nervousness,
shame, guilt, etc.) as wake-up calls, we would be present enough in the moment to learn. And one of
the things we would be available to learn is how bad we feel when we prepare to lie and when
we get found out and how those bad feelings do not happen when we stay with what is as it is.
We would also be available to perceive who we actually are rather than who we want to be.
The learning goes much deeper if we can wake up in those moments when what is happening
is not what we want. Rather than lie to get what we want, we would be available to look at the means
we used to get it and why those means did not get it for us. Rather than lie to avoid what we don't
want, we would be able to look at what we did that led to those results so that it would not be likely
to happen again.
It is knowledge and understanding, not honesty that is going to obtain for
us what we want or allow us to avoid what we don't want. But it is honesty, or at least looking clearly
at the truth, that can help us get that knowledge.
There is another correspondence with impatience and frustration. If we undertook
this learning and over time came to better means to get what we want and avoid what we don't, would
we find ourselves having quite a different experience in those moments when we are not getting things
we want or are afraid of what might happen? Might we not find ourselves with more curiosity than
If we look at how things work with curiosity rather than trying to distort them to
suit ourselves, how could we feel guilt or shame? We've done nothing wrong.
If we manage to meet these moments with learning responses instead of moral
reactions, perhaps we'd also see that we can meet them… and not only survive, but prosper.
Wouldn't we then be able to meet other such moments, no matter how unknown and scary,
with enough courage to be open to learning too? And wasn't courage another of those virtues
to look at?
However, at that moment I discovered another virtue — punctuality. The train
had just pulled into the station and it was time for another workshop.
There is a small biography of personal details about the
About the Author
David Gorman has been studying human
structure and function since 1970. He is the author of an illustrated 600-page
text on our human musculoskeletal system, called
The Body Moveable (now in
its 6th edition and in colour), and numerous articles and essays, including
the book, Looking at Ourselves (2nd
edition in colour).
David has been working with performers (singers,
musicians, actors, dancers and circus artists) for over forty years. He is a
trainer of teachers of LearningMethods and of the
Alexander Technique and has taught all
over the world in universities, conservatories, performance companies, and orchestras;
for doctors in hospitals and rehabilitation clinics; and in training courses
for Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, physiotherapy, osteopathy, massage & yoga.
Over the years, his changing understanding about the
root causes of people's problems led him to gradually extend his Alexander Technique
teaching into the development of a new work, LearningMethods (and an
offshoot, Anatomy of Wholeness about our marvelous human design), which
is being integrated into the curricula of performance schools in Europe, Canada
and the United States by a growing number of LearningMethods
Teachers and Apprentice-teachers.
Since 2010, David has been running online post-graduate
groups for Alexander Technique teachers and groups for those who want to learn to
use LearningMethods in their own lives, as well as those who want to integrate the
work into their existing professional work as a teacher, therapist, medical or
Telephone: +1 416-519-5470
78 Tilden Crescent, Etobicoke, Ontario M9P 1V7 Canada (map)