One book that I finished reading over the past few days is “The Path – What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life” by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh. Michael is a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University and Christine is a journalist and author who happened to sit into one of his classes to write an article. The collaboration that followed gave us this book. And boy, is it a real game-changer of a book. I haven’t read a book in awhile that really gave me such pause because so many concepts that were introduced are pretty antithetical to the prevailing mindsets that we’ve all been accustomed to from young. At least for me, that is. There are so many interesting ideas that I’ll probably end up re-reading this book in order to get a better handle over them but a couple of them really piqued my interest and I wanted to share them here. It’s funny because well, I did study Chinese all throughout my school years up till junior college and Confucius is someone we were introduced to at a young age for being a well-known sage. But apart from the phrase, ‘Confucius said…’ which would usually preface a seemingly astute statement (employed in a joke more than anything else), few of my friends would be able to rattle off an accurate Confucius quote and certainly not me. I do feel that it’s a bit of a shame how I’m often learning about so-called Oriental ideas and philosophies through the lens of Western scholars but well… The important thing is that we all have something to gain from such teachings regardless of who introduces it to us.
1. Transformation – the power of rituals and artifice
One Confucian concept expounded upon in the book was that of refining ourselves and our responses through the use of ‘As if’ rituals.
“…when we have learned to refine our responses, we can start to respond to people in ways that we have cultivated, instead of through immediate emotional reaction.”
Using ‘As If’ rituals can enable us to transform ourselves by creating an alternate reality in which we can become a different person for that time being, eventually altering the outcome of an interaction or situation. By noting the patterns of behavior that we tend to fall into, we can use the ‘As If’ ritual to allow a different side of ourselves to emerge. One of the examples given was that of a husband making it a point to greet their wife at the door when she gets home from work though he would rather stay glued to the computer. Or the child who, instead of sighing as usual when his/her father goes into his usual political tirade, suppresses the sigh and responds in a different way.
Of course, some people might say that this is just us being fake. Why pretend to be someone that we are not?
That then goes on smoothly to the next concept of:
2. Letting go of the notion of a ‘true self’
“What we in the West define as the true self is actually patterns of continuous responses to people and the world; patterns that have built up over time.
“Instead of thinking of ourselves as single, unified selves who we are trying to discover through self-reflection, we could think of ourselves as complex arrays of emotions, dispositions, desires, and traits that often pull us in different and contradictory ways. When we do so, we become malleable.”
Often we think that a behavior shouldn’t be carried out because we’re just not that type of person, e.g. I don’t want to give my sibling a hug because I’m just not the touchy-feeling, sentimental kind. Or I’m usually the very liberal minded friend so I don’t think I should tell my friend exactly how I feel about her behavior because that’s not how I usually would do things. But by thinking of ourselves as a certain type, or having a ‘true self’ that we always need to be authentic to, we could very well be limiting our potential of the type of person we could become. By “being loyal to a ‘true self’ you end up concretizing destructive emotional habits.”
This really struck a chord in me because immediately I could think of a friend who recently told me that he’s just not the sort of person who can be alone. He always needs to be in a relationship because he just can’t change who he is. I couldn’t help but think that that’s precisely the mental block that is preventing him from being a fuller, better, stronger version of himself.
For my own self, I started thinking about the many times that I’ve played the role of someone because that’s who I’ve grown up thinking I am. Say, the role of the ‘spoilt, less responsible younger daughter’ because well, I had the ‘stodgy, dutiful older daughter’ sibling playing her role too. But by playing out a less than ideal role, I think there were times when I was using it really just as an excuse for my own behavior.
“Life is actually a series of ‘untrained patterned responses’.
A lot of what we tend to think of as conscious decision making is just us playing out old patterns.”
By breaking our established patterns, we can become more malleable people who are able to transform ourselves for the better. Why act in a way that limits ourselves, when there is a chance to act in a way that opens up more possibilities? Or as Confucius would say according to the authors, we then ‘gain the ability to sense how to be good to those around us… to draw out their own better sides.’
This is something that I think is definitely worth trying out in every day life.
Just today I found myself thinking, well what if for now I just break a pattern and try being more of a friendly daughter to my father and accompany him to do something instead of retreating to my room as I usually do? In the end, I accepted his invitation to watch him make guacamole. ;p And ended up getting involved in making it too. I think he was secretly pleased with that.
I suppose there’s no limit to the possibilities that can result from varying our patterns. And at least now I’m keeping in mind the fact that we have the ability to draw out different sides of people based on the way we act. If we always want to end up in the same argument with our parents and ending it off the same way with both sides storming off or resorting to nasty comments, what if… we try a different approach to bring out a more caring side of the other person?
Besides, if we think about it, the person we show to the world is a constructed persona as well. “Even when we think we’re being ‘natural’ and ‘real’, being like that is a choice, and thus it is a kind of artifice too. Being artifical is a good thing – as long as we’re aware we are doing it so that we can do it well.” Fake it till you make it really does have its role then, as long as we have good intentions of who we want to become.
3. Learning to live with the capriciousness of the world
A corollary to the idea of us having no ‘true self’ also plays out in another philosopher, Mencius’ teachings, as he felt that “the very things we believe to be true when we plan out our lives are also the things that, ironically, limit us”.
By thinking of ourselves as a certain type of person, we are thinking about ourselves at a certain stage in our life. It’s a ‘snapshot of who we are at a particular time and place’. Following the labels that have been placed on us by others/by ourselves, can mean that they end up led us on the road of self-fulfilling prophecies.
“You eliminate your ability to grow as a person because you are limiting that growth to what is in the best interests of the person you happen to be right now, and not the person you will become.”
Furthermore, when we plan out our lives, we often assume that the current conditions will continue on till we reach our goals. Mencius emphasized on being aware of the capriciousness of the world. And that the only way to cultivate a full awareness of the complexity of situations is to cultivating our ability to understand how our actions can lead to positive trajectories. If we think of things in terms of their long term trajectories, we can start to build room in our lives for all sorts of possibilities.
For example, just because we start out at a particular job now does not mean we will always enjoy it. By paying attention to our interests, then keeping open and responsive to changes, we can be like a farmer who tends to his field according to the changing seasons, but keeping in mind all the while the goal of wanting his crops to flourish.
I love the idea of tending to our own inner crops the way a farmer would.
‘By being responsive to how your interests change over time, you will not be locked in – you will be able to alter your life and your schedule to allow for growth. […]
You can’t plan out how everything in your life will play out. But you can think in terms of creating the conditions in which things will likely move in certain directions: the conditions that allow for the possibility of rich growth…You become the fruit of your labor.”
I suppose I might have overdone it a bit with all the quotations but I couldn’t put it in any better way. These are just some of the concepts that I really enjoyed thinking about and there are so many more in the subsequent chapters of the book. It is such a good book that I’m planning on getting it for my close friends this year for Christmas. At least read this article and this article too to get a better idea of what else you can expect from it.