The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life - by Michael Puett

Myth: We Live in an Age of Freedom Unlike Any Other

Myth: We Know How to Determine the Direction Our Lives Will Take

The way we think we’re living our lives isn’t the way we live them. The way we think we make decisions isn’t how we make them. Even if you did find yourself in that trolley yard someday, about to see someone killed by an oncoming trolley, your response would have nothing to do with rational calculation. Our emotions and instincts take over in these situations, and they guide our less spontaneous decisions as well, even when we think we’re being very deliberate and rational: What should I have for dinner? Where should I live? Whom should I marry?

Seeing the limitations of this approach, these Chinese philosophers went in search of alternatives. The answer, for them, lay in honing our instincts, training our emotions, and engaging in a constant process of self-cultivation so that eventually—at moments both crucial and mundane—we would react in the right, ethical way to each particular situation. Through those responses, we elicit positive responses in those around us. These thinkers taught that in this way, every encounter and experience offers a chance to actively create a new and better world.

Myth: The Truth of Who We Are Lies Within Us

Many of the Chinese thinkers would argue that you are not and should not think of yourself as a single, unified being. Let’s say that you think of yourself as someone with a temper; someone who gets angry easily. The thinkers we are about to encounter would argue that you should not say, “Well, that’s just the way I am,” and embrace yourself for who you are. As we will see, perhaps you aren’t inherently an angry person. Perhaps you simply slipped into ruts—patterns of behavior—that you allowed to define who you thought you were. The truth is that you have just as much potential to be, say, gentle or forgiving as you do to be angry. These philosophers would urge us to recognize that we are all complex and changing constantly. Every person has many different and often contradictory emotional dispositions, desires, and ways of responding to the world. Our emotional dispositions develop by looking outward, not inward. They are not cultivated when you retreat from the world to meditate or go on a vacation. They are formed, in practice, through the things you do in your everyday life: the ways you interact with others and the activities you pursue. In other words, we aren’t just who we are: we can actively make ourselves into better people all the time.

The title of this book comes from a concept the Chinese philosophers referred to often as the Dao, or the Way. The Way is not a harmonious “ideal” we must struggle to follow. Rather, the Way is the path that we forge continually through our choices, actions, and relationships. We create the Way anew every moment of our lives.

On Relationships: Confucius and As-If Rituals

Rather than start with the great big philosophical questions, he asked this fundamental and deceptively profound question: How are you living your life on a daily basis? This is what life is about: moment after moment in which people encounter one another, react in an infinite number of ways, and are pulled to and fro emotionally.

Developing propriety does not mean overcoming or controlling the emotions. Feeling emotion is what makes us human. It simply means cultivating our emotions so that we internalize better ways of responding to others. These better ways become a part of us. 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. We do this refining through ritual.

Customs and Rituals

When we go through life performing most social conventions by rote, they lose their power to become rituals that can profoundly change us. They don’t do much to help us become better people. In order to help ourselves change, we must become aware that breaking from our normal ways of being is what makes it possible to develop different sides of ourselves. Rituals—in the Confucian sense—are transformative because they allow us to become a different person for a moment. They create a short-lived alternate reality that returns us to our regular life slightly altered. For a brief moment, we are living in an “as-if” world.

We tend to fall into patterned, habitual responses. They may be social conventions and customs we follow unthinkingly, like our greetings or the way we hold a door open for someone. They may be routines that we don’t even notice, such as the whine we slip into when we’re talking to a sibling on the phone, or a tendency to become quiet when distressed instead of expressing our needs clearly. But we do these things all the time. Some patterns are good, and some are less so. If we were always “true” to ourselves and behaved accordingly, we would be stuck in old behaviors, never forgiving, and limiting our potential to transform.

But we already know how to break these patterns. When we visit a friend’s family, for example, as outsiders we notice their routines and small actions: their Sunday morning pancake breakfast, the way they hug one another to say good morning. These rituals stand out to us because they are new to us. When we observe or even participate in them, we do so with a consciousness that we don’t bring to our own lives. When we travel, breaking from our everyday routine can allow us to develop new sides of ourselves. And when we return, we feel the lingering effects of those changes. Why, then, don’t we do this all the time? Perhaps it is because deliberately constructing ritual moments in our “real” lives feels contrived. But as-if moments can lead to tremendous movement.

The key for the players is to be conscious that they are pretending; that together they have entered an alternate reality in which they imagine different sides of themselves. If they can do this, then not only will experiences like playing hide-and-seek help cultivate a mutually more joyful and respectful relationship, but also these accumulated moments will influence the sort of person each becomes over time. These repeated rituals will develop aspects of each of them that eventually enhance other relationships in both of their lives.

Confined by our commitment to authenticity, we seldom allow ourselves to act as-if. It feels like pretending, like child’s play. Yet Confucius might well point out how contradictory it is that we resist rituals because we think they tell us what we should do, yet we unwittingly follow so many social norms and conventions. When we are blind to the value of the possible rituals that pervade our lives, we end up performing them by rote. We are the ones who are becoming automatons.

What would happen if we took steps to move out of the rote stage in which so many of us are stuck? Like the child learning to say “please” and “thank you,” like the college students learning how to adopt a different demeanor to open themselves up to challenging ideas, we would see the value of all these alternate realities, of experiencing the tension between the way things are and the pocket of order we have created. We’d be training ourselves to develop better ways of engaging with others over the course of our lives.

This may seem like a surprising way to think about ritual or change in general. After all, our model for ritual is based so often upon things like a baptism, a wedding, a graduation: ceremonies in which we move from being one thing (sinful creature, single person, student) to another (believer, spouse, graduate). There is a before and an after, and through the rite, we are transformed. Confucius offers a very different vision of transformation, which focuses not on the grand, dramatic event but on the small repeated moments. Like saying “I love you,” these as-if moments create moments of connection throughout the day that build up slowly, but no less dramatically, over time.

The Malleable Self

Before we can be transformed through as-if rituals, we have to let go of the mentality of the “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. For example, you might think, I’m just the kind of person who gets annoyed easily. On the contrary, it’s more likely that you have become the kind of person who does get irritated over minor things because of how you’ve interacted with people for years. But that’s not because you are, in fact, such a person. By being loyal to a “true self,” you ended up concretizing destructive emotional habits.

A Confucian approach would be to note your patterns and then work actively to shift them. Over time, breaking those patterns—say, suppressing your usual sigh when your father starts in on one of his political tirades (even though you are irritated); or making it a point to greet your wife at the door when she gets home from work (even though you’d rather stay glued to your computer)—will allow different sides of you to emerge. Over time, you internalize a more constructive way of acting in the world instead of being led by your undisciplined emotional reactions. Little by little you develop parts of yourself you never knew existed, and you start becoming a better person.

Breaking patterns helps us recognize that other people are malleable too. Perhaps you’ve been having a conflict with your mother. She disapproves of your life choices, and she’s made hurtful comments that seem intended to make you feel guilty. It’s gotten to the point where just thinking about talking with her makes you feel alienated, and now you avoid it altogether. You just know that you will have the same conversation over and over, and the thought fills you with hopelessness. In most cases like this, the problem between the two of you is not that your personalities are incompatible or that your mother is prone to guilt-tripping you. It’s that your communication has fallen into a pattern. You’re stuck in your roles: she’s the harping mother, you’re the recalcitrant offspring. Neither of you feels good about this, but you can’t see any way out. The way out is to recognize that you have fallen into a rut, but you can change it. Remember that your mother is not static or unchanging. She is a complex, multifaceted person. Think through what you can do or say to elicit other sides of your mother, and then behave as if you are speaking to those sides of her. Just as she has a tendency to nag and pressure you, she also has a desire to nurture her child or, at the very least, feel that she is nurturing her child. How could you alter the things you say or the tone of your voice to appeal to her nurturing side? By doing so, you are helping her to inhabit another role: that of a caring mother who wants to be there for her child. Your gut reaction might be to protest, “But that isn’t being real. It isn’t how I really feel.” Why should you change your own behavior purely to elicit another side of your mother and be generous when you’re feeling resentful? But this comes from the mistaken idea that we should answer to some “core” self. We are always changing. Will we act according to where we are stuck in the moment, or will we act in a way that opens up a constellation of possibilities?

Our patterned behaviors and rote habits—not rituals—are what really dictate our lives and get in the way of our caring for other people. But through a life spent doing as-if rituals that break these patterns, we gain the ability to sense how to be good to those around us. This is what matters. This is ren, or a sensibility of goodness.

The Importance of Goodness

Everything we do either expresses goodness or detracts from it.

To understand how much we affect others, try tweaking some of your typical behaviors. See what happens when you glare at your best friend, say hello exuberantly to your company’s taciturn CEO in the elevator, or put your backpack on the just-vacated seat next to you on the subway at rush hour. And then try acting differently: open a door for a stranger, text a friend who is having relationship problems, gently help your grandmother cross a patch of ice. Take note of how all these changes affect you and those with you. Confucius would not define goodness; he wanted his disciples to know that we must feel it in all these different, shifting situations to understand what it means to express it. We have all felt it, and once we recognize it, we can develop it further.

Trying to formulate abstract, universal laws to guide us is not only irrelevant but also dangerous. It prevents us from learning how to wrestle with the complexities of situations. It obstructs our understanding how to express goodness.

Cultivating Ourselves to Cultivate a Better World

We tend to believe that to change the world, we have to think big. Confucius wouldn’t dispute this, but he would likely also say, Don’t ignore the small. Don’t forget the “pleases” and “thank yous.” Change doesn’t happen until people alter their behavior, and they don’t alter their behavior unless they start with the small. Confucius taught that we can cultivate goodness only through rituals. Yet it is only once we conduct our lives with goodness that we gain a sense of when to employ rituals and how to alter them. This may sound circular, and it is. This very circularity is part of the profundity of his thought. There is no ethical or moral framework that transcends context and the complexity of human life. All we have is the messy world within which to work and better ourselves. These ordinary as-if rituals are the means by which we imagine new realities and over time construct new worlds. Our lives begin in the everyday and stay in the everyday. Only in the everyday can we begin to create truly great worlds.

On Decisions: Mencius and the Capricious World

This philosophical difference between Mozi and Mencius represents the difference between those who see the world as coherent and those who see it as capricious. On the one hand, you have a world in which your actions are shaped by a belief in universally applicable rules; on the other is a world that you can never count on, one that you build anew constantly by cultivating yourself and your relationships through small actions.

Even today, though we hardly realize it, our decisions are shaped by whether we see the world as coherent or capricious. Most of us, like Mozi, see the world as coherent. We know full well that things don’t always go according to plan, but we also tend to assume there is a general way the world works: if you work hard, you’ll do well in school; if you get a good education, you’ll find a job you enjoy; if you marry the love of your life, you’ll live happily ever after. Typically, we rely on two folk models to make decisions, both of which are rooted in this idea that there is some stability in the world. There’s the “rational choice” model: we are rational creatures capable of making decisions logically. We do voluminous research, make lists of pros and cons, and weigh risks and benefits to achieve the best outcomes we can.

Or else we favor the “gut instinct” model, in which we make decisions based on an intuitive feeling about what feels “right.” We decide where to go out for dinner, where to travel on our next vacation, or which couch to buy for the living room. Ultimately, most of us employ some sort of combination of the two. We do the research, but then go with what feels right.

There’s a third approach. We can constantly hone our emotional sense so that it works in sync with our mind, in order to make decisions that open up the future rather than close it down. We do not live in an unchanging world, and that is why the last thing we should do is remove emotions—which allow us to grasp all the nuances of a situation and navigate through it from any starting point.

Mencius believed that the only way to cultivate a full awareness of the complexity of situations is by cultivating our ability to understand how our actions can lead to positive trajectories. And he believed we are all born with the potential to do so: a potential for goodness.

Mencius wanted people to understand viscerally the sensation of goodness in order to understand how to become good. What does it physically feel like to be good? What do you do on a daily basis to gain that feeling? To answer these questions, Mencius taught that we should think of our incipient goodness as being like small sprouts. All sprouts have the potential to grow into something greater. But they must be cultivated properly in a nurturing environment to achieve that potential. Similarly, each of us has incipient goodness within us, and so each of us, Mencius concluded, begins life endowed equally with the potential to become like a sage: capable of creating an environment in which everyone will flourish.

If we pay attention whenever we perform an act of kindness, no matter how small—speaking to someone warmly, holding open a door for strangers, helping neighbors shovel out their cars after a snowstorm—we might experience a physical sensation such as warmth or a tiny glow. That concrete sensation is Mencius’s sprout of goodness growing within, nurtured by our act of generosity and connection to another. As you pay attention to that physical feeling, nurture the better sides of yourself, and notice the impact on yourself and on others, you become motivated to continue. In this way, you are not growing your goodness in the abstract: you are learning through every step of this process how to sow the conditions in which it can thrive.

The Heart-Mind as One

Although some thinkers like Mozi believed in making a clear distinction between the rational and emotional faculties and separating the mind and the heart as much as possible, in Chinese, the word for mind and heart is actually one and the same: xin. The heart-mind is the seat of our emotions as well as the center of our rationality. It can deliberate, ponder, contemplate, and feel love, joy, and hatred. What separates those who become great human beings from those who do not, Mencius taught, is the capacity to follow their heart-mind rather than to go along blindly with either the senses or the intellect. Cultivating the heart-mind is what fosters our ability to decide well.

A Mencian approach to integrating your cognitive and emotional sides would be to take note of your emotional responses and then strive to change them for the better. Use your mind to cultivate your emotions. Become aware of what triggers your emotions and reactions on a daily basis. What are the patterned habits, the entrenched narratives, through which you perceive the world?

As you become aware of all the triggers and old patterns that shape your emotions throughout the day, you can work on refining your responses. Note that paying attention to your emotional responses is not the same as “mindfulness,” the popular notion that is based loosely on the Buddhist idea of detachment and nonjudgment. It is not about observing your feelings, accepting them, and then letting them go so that you can achieve a sort of personal peace. Because even if you did achieve a peaceful feeling, it would disappear soon after you started to engage with the world again. Nor is it about feeling compassion for all beings in an abstract way. Cultivating the heart-mind is an outwardly directed act intended not to remove us from the world but to engage us more deeply in it so we can better ourselves and those around us through every interaction. It’s about paying attention not in a mindful sense but in a Confucian one.

This is what it means to cultivate the heart-mind. It allows you to become more responsive to the world, your better sides to remain intact, and your vision to remain unimpaired. What Mencius referred to as “flexible judgment” is the ability to make good moral decisions instinctively while carefully weighing each situation in all its complexity. Training our heart-mind means honing our judgment: seeing the bigger picture, understanding what really lies behind a person’s behavior, and remembering that different emotions such as anxiety, fear, and joy will draw out different sides of people we tend to think of as rigid. A sense for the right thing to do becomes a more complex, developed form of the instinct that would compel you to save a child in a well.

Laying the Ground So Things Can Grow

When we rationally make big life decisions based on the idea that the world is coherent, we assume a clear-cut situation, clear-cut possibilities, a stable self, unchanging emotions, and an unchanging world. But these things aren’t givens at all. By making concrete, defined plans, you are actually being abstract, because you are making these plans for a self that is abstract: a future self that you imagine based on who you think you are now, even though you, the world, and your circumstances will change. You cut yourself off from the real, messy complexities that are the basis from which you can develop as a human being. 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.

If, instead, you maintain a constant consciousness of the world as unstable, you can start to think of all your decisions and responses as based on an awareness of the complex, ever-changing world and your complex, ever-shifting self. You can train your mind to stay open and take into account all the complex stuff that is you. We achieve the best outcomes when we think of things in terms of long-term trajectories. The most expansive decisions come from laying the ground so things can grow.

In life we want to constantly be ever-responsive to new circumstances as they arise, just as a farmer is vigilant about situations that affect his field. Being active consists of creating optimal conditions and responding to whatever various situations arise. It means laying the ground in which change can grow. Think of yourself as a farmer, rather than thinking about who you are and arranging your goals around that. Your goal then becomes laying the ground for various interests and sides of yourself to grow organically.

Laying the ground means something as simple as scheduling time to take part in activities that speak to the different sides of yourself that you are interested in developing: joining a wine tasting class, learning how to paint in watercolor, or brushing up on your high school French once a week in a language swap. By proactively building room in your life for all sorts of possibilities, and then remaining open and responsive, you are akin to a farmer preparing his field so that his crops can flourish. As you make room for interests, opportunities open up to you.

Rather than going into all of this thinking, I can be anything I want to be, the approach you’re taking is I don’t know yet what I can become. You don’t know where any of this might take you; it’s not possible to know that now. But what you learn about yourself and what excites you won’t be abstract; it will be very concrete knowledge born of practical experience. Over time, you open up paths that you could not have imagined, out of which emerge options that you never would have seen before. Over time, you actually become a different person. 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. By doing all this, you are not just being a farmer. You are also the results of the farmer’s work. You become the fruit of your labor.

Ming and the Unpredictability of Life

In Mencius’s world, ming prevails. Ming has been translated variously as Heaven’s commands, fate, or destiny. But for Mencius, it was a term for the contingency of life: the events, good and bad, that happen outside our control. Ming explains that windfalls (such as a job opening) and tragedies (such as a death) happen no matter what we have planned or intended.

When we assume that the world is stable, it leads us down one of two culturally sanctioned roads: belief in either fate or free will. A fatalist might think that whatever happened was meant to be, whether ordained by a deity or by fate; she’d work to accept the ways of the universe. Someone who believes in free will thinks that he controls his own destiny and might have trouble letting himself be touched by tragedy. In the face of, say, a career setback, divorce, or death, he might crumble under feelings of responsibility, or he might be steely and move on as quickly as possible. All of the above are passive reactions because they deny the unpredictability of life.

But Mencius said of ming: “It should never be anyone’s fate to die in shackles.” Dying in shackles means failing to respond properly to what befalls us. It means letting our reaction be controlled by the things that happen to us. Whether we let tragedies destroy us or we accept what happened, both of these responses are the equivalent of standing under a falling wall and then saying it was your fate to be killed by that wall.

There’s another way to respond, one that allows us to shape our own ming and forge our own future.

Living in a capricious world means accepting that we do not live within a stable moral cosmos that will always reward people for what they do. We should not deny that real tragedies do happen. But at the same time, we should always expect to be surprised and learn to work with whatever befalls us.

And this is where the promise of a capricious world lies: if our world is indeed constantly fragmented and unpredictable, then it is something we can constantly work on bettering. We can go into each situation resolved to be the best human being we can be, not because of what we’ll get out of it, but simply to affect others around us for the better, regardless of the outcome. We can cultivate our better sides and face this unpredictable world, transforming it as we go.

It’s a very different vision from asking grand questions such as “Who am I?” and “How should I plan out my life?” Instead, we work constantly to alter things at a small, daily level, and if we’re successful, we can build tremendous communities around us in which people can flourish. And even then, we continue to work. Our work—of bettering oneself and others to produce a better world—is never over.

In the face of fate, we should neither feel destroyed nor simply look on the bright side. The cult of positive thinking assures us that whatever difficult circumstances we find ourselves in, it will all work out. But the danger with that position is that it makes us passive. Things will happen that we can’t control, but we have a choice to act: to get out of the way of the falling wall, to respond to our ming and shape our future accordingly.

On Influence: Laozi and Generating Worlds

We often assume—because this is what we’ve been taught—that to be influential we have to be strong and powerful like the tall oak in the forest. We have to assert ourselves convincingly and even bend other people to our will. But there is another recipe for influence to be found in Chinese philosophical texts such as the Laozi, also known as the Dao de jing. It derives from appreciating the power of seeming weakness, understanding the pitfalls of differentiation, and seeing the world as interrelated. Rather than think that power comes from strength prevailing over strength, we can understand that true power comes from understanding the connections between disparate things, situations, and people. All of this comes from an understanding of what the Laozi calls the Dao, or “the Way.”

The Laozi is not telling us that we should simply follow some harmonious pattern that is somewhere “out there” and that we could better reach by going on a pilgrimage or returning to the ways of primitive antiquity. It is not telling us that we should strive to be accepting and tranquil. It teaches a very different notion: that the Way is something we can actively generate ourselves, in the here and now. We each have the potential to become effective and influential in transforming the worlds in which we live. We can re-create the Way.

The more we see the world as differentiated, the more removed we become from the Way. The more we see the world as interconnected, the closer we come to the Way. We gain power by becoming closer to the Way because we can harness the power of suppleness and weakness.

At the most mundane level of our everyday lives, new situations emerge constantly, and each is like a miniature world emerging out of the Way. If we understand the process of things emerging from the Way, then instead of simply living within all these situations and worlds, we can gain the power to alter them. In our social worlds, we can successfully generate new interactions, circumstances, and understandings.

False Distinctions

To re-create the Way in all the situations in our lives, we must recognize the degree to which the distinctions that pervade our experience are actually false. By dividing up life and by believing that these aspects of our lives are unrelated to one another, we restrict what we are capable of doing and becoming. The Laozi would say that not only are mystical enlightenment and our everyday lives related, but that by separating them, we have fundamentally misunderstood both. Although we think that taking a rejuvenating weekend walk in the woods is how we reconnect with the world and with ourselves, this attitude leads us to greater disconnection from both. We need to think of our weekday life differently. The Way isn’t something we reach while walking in the woods on the weekend. It’s something we bring about actively through our daily interactions.

When your aim is to reconnect disparate things, emotions, and people instead of addressing the overt problem directly, you begin to sense how to change the environment and the relationship both at this moment and in the long term.

Certain factors govern how people act in a given situation. Understanding them gives you a certain degree of influence by helping you to grasp the whole situation, but even more power comes from being the one who starts generating new situations altogether. Other people then act within the scenario you have created, not realizing that you generated it.

Strength Lies in Weakness: The Laozian as Leader

Think of who is most effective in the workplace: the office bully who is always throwing around his weight, trying to dominate everyone else, or the one who is attuned to people’s emotions, to how they receive things, who uses humor and laughter to connect, and who stays ever aware of the atmosphere of the place.

True power does not rely on strength and domination. Strength and domination render us incapable of relating to others and the things around us. The instant we see the world as a set of overt power balances, the instant we have differentiated ourselves from others—whether through imposing our will, competitiveness, or estrangement—we have lost the Way.

The Laozi is actually quite specific about who will be most influential in any given situation: it is those who practice nonaction (wu-wei), which in the Laozi means appearing not to move or act but, in fact, being very, very powerful.

When you become a sage, you don’t merely sense people well. Through your softness and suppleness in every encounter, whether with your family, friends, or colleagues, you generate a world around you. You can alter the way other people think and feel by the miniworld you have created. True influence isn’t to be found in overt strength or will. It comes from creating a world that feels so natural that no one questions it. This is how a Laozian sage wields enormous influence.

When his achievements are completed and tasks finished, The people say that “We are like this naturally.” The enduring power of the Laozi lies in its potential to help one become infinitely more influential through softness, not hardness; through connecting, not dominating. But what makes a person so effective in a Laozian sense is the ability to generate a world that feels so natural that we can’t imagine it ever having been different, even though it is newly invented. Power and effectiveness, therefore, come not from direct action or overt tactics but from laying the groundwork so that a dramatically different reality comes to be. This is how one can shape things on a small scale, and it can also be how one effects changes that transform the entire world.

The argument of the Laozi is that you can always defeat strength through weakness. If you’re in a position of strength, play weakness, and if you’re in a position of weakness, play weakness. Play weakness regardless of your starting position, and that is how you will shift situations in better directions.

On Vitality: The Inward Training and Being like a Spirit

The Inward Training also called for humans to become more divine. It argued that humans could, and should, alter the world by cultivating themselves to take on divine qualities. But its authors wanted to avoid the emphasis on the will, and so they did not define spirits as figures exercising control over the world or asserting themselves over other people. Instead, they portrayed them as highly refined, charismatic, and attuned beings that transform the world through their sheer connectedness with everything. This is a different model for human action that can lead us to a different way of thinking about how we should live. When we reconceptualize action and agency as arising from connecting rather than from dominating, we become more divine in an essential way: we become more fully alive.

Whether you’re doing something physical, mental, or social, that glowing excitement and oneness with the world are the very same physical feelings. The Inward Training says that everything we experience comes from energies called qi and that the most ethereal of these energies—the ones that give us that exhilarated, alive feeling—are the energies of divinity.

Today many people would be skeptical that feelings of vitality come from divine energies. But qi is a useful metaphor for what it would take to make us feel more alive, and we can learn from it even without believing it to be true. All we need to do is to think of these energies in an as-if way: What does it mean to act and to live as if we were cultivating qi? And if we do so, how do we live differently? What would our lives be like if we lived as though this framework really exists?

Lessening Our Dependence on External Things

Every time we find ourselves dominated by negative or extreme emotions, we are allowing external things to sap our energies, allowing these events to wield too much power over us. Every time we go through the daily grind, trudging through our everyday activities, we de-energize ourselves. Our spirit is being drained away, and we are filling ourselves with bad qi instead. This causes us to live so poorly and so out of balance that we get exhausted. We slowly lose our vitality and our sheer embrace of life. If we continue living like this, our spirit will ebb away long before our physical life has ended.

Of course, we all know that sad events trigger negative emotions and drain us. But even exciting and exhilarating events aren’t good for us if that’s what we depend on to feel a rush of energy. Triggering events of any sort—whether they make us giddy or jealous or furious—are external. Our emotions are being pulled to and fro by things that happen around us, and any feelings of aliveness we may experience are not steady ones. But these externalities don’t have to make us bounce from happiness to sadness and back again. What is within our control is the cultivation of balance and alignment, or an inner stability: to be grounded so that we aren’t vulnerable to the inevitable happenings of the day.

Cultivating Balance and Alignment

According to the Wuxing, each of us has five potential virtues that need to be cultivated: goodness, propriety, knowledge, ritual, and sagacity. Each one helps us to refine our better sides. But they become problematic if we try to develop one virtue at the expense of the others. There is such a thing as having too much goodness, craving too much propriety, being fixated on ritual, and depending too much on knowledge. If we always relate to other people by exuding goodness, we can easily seem inappropriately gushy in some situations. If we’re overly concerned with propriety, we can seem overly formal and distant. If we focus too much on gaining knowledge, we can be too clinical. And concentrating too much on ritual can make us too rule oriented and prevent us from seeing the greater picture.

Refining Our Response to the World

Anything that inspires awe refines qi by training the senses to respond more profoundly to the world around us. When we are more aware of the world in all its dimensions, we are more open to all that we can potentially feel about it and are better able to react well to it.

Poetry and literature work much the same way, allowing us to respond to the world in richer ways. With poetry, certain emotions emerge when we hear words spoken in a certain rhythm and in certain contexts. With literature, we are taken through huge swaths of time or experience from a variety of perspectives that we could never possibly experience in real life. The knowledge we gain provides access to a different way of engaging with the world because it allows us to step outside of our own lives and better empathize with and relate to a vast stream of human experience.

There is a different way of being alive and of impacting the world: through your sheer clarity of vision and your connection with everything; with your charisma rather than through your domination.

This is a different notion of agency and of vitality. Divinities are active by resonating with the world, not by imposing their will on it. They don’t affect the world by doing the things that we tend to think of as active and powerful, but by seeing things with full clarity, behaving flawlessly without falling into patterned responses, and, through small shifts, resonating with everything around them. What these notions of energies give us is a way to think about moving from a world of endless conflicts among discrete things to a world in which things are ever more harmonious.

On Spontaneity: Zhuangzi and a World of Transformation

We all wear blinders that prevent us from fully experiencing and engaging with the world, and Zhuangzi argues that the greatest of these is our limited human perspective. What if you were not merely a human being but were actually a butterfly dreaming you are a human being? If we could transcend our humanity and know what it means to see the world from all perspectives, we could experience life more fully and spontaneously.

The Way meant different things for each philosopher. For Zhuangzi, it wasn’t about becoming calm and still, or about perceiving the world as absolutely undifferentiated. You could never become the Way, just as you could never become the ground from which things grow. Rather, for Zhuangzi, the Way was about embracing absolutely everything in its constant flux and transformation.

There is just one exception, Zhuangzi argued, to the teeming, transforming world; just one thing in the entire cosmos that does not spontaneously follow the Way. That thing is us: human beings. We alone do not spontaneously follow the Way. In fact, we actually spend our entire lives battling against flux and transformation: we declare our opinions to be right (and others indisputably wrong); we work ourselves up over the accomplishments of a rival; we remain stuck in a dead-end job because we’re fearful of change. In the process, we disrupt and block the interplay of yin and yang.

True spontaneity requires us to alter how we think and act in the world, to open ourselves up to endless flux and transformation all the time. It requires that we imagine something called trained spontaneity. An experienced cook can whip up elaborate meals without recipes just by using her experience, training, and senses to know exactly how much salt or pepper will bring a dish to life, or exactly how long to simmer a creamy risotto. This is trained spontaneity.

We know that learning any complex skill—be it a foreign language, a musical instrument, riding a bicycle, learning how to swim—requires an initial period of conscious, deliberate training. The effortless competence we develop in all spheres of our lives, from the mundane to the rarified, are examples of trained spontaneity. The important point is that if we take Zhuangzi’s teachings to heart, we are not just becoming skilled tennis players, or employees, or cooks. We are changing our whole approach to life. Our pianist has not trained herself merely to play the piano; she has trained her entire way of being in the world.

Imagination and Creativity

We usually think about training toward mastery as limited to the specific skills we are looking to hone. How could putting in all those hours to master the piano or become proficient at tennis help you to train your entire way of being in the world? It comes from recognizing the training as not just specific to the skill at hand but as training us to break the limited perspectives that we don’t even realize dominate our lives. When we do so, we gain something else too: entry into a state that fosters true imagination and creativity. Although we might not think of being in the zone as related to these things, for Zhuangzi, imagination and creativity stem directly from a state of continuous spontaneous flow.

Trained spontaneity means freeing ourselves of a conscious mind that is by definition restricted to a single self. Our mind gets in our way, causing us to battle against rather than flow with the Way. Yet in various parts of our lives, we do experience what it feels like to move with it. Think of a get-together with close friends, how the food and the conversation seem to flow effortlessly and joyfully as people become more and more in sync with one another over the course of the evening. You don’t have to think to yourself, Right now I should crack a joke, and in five minutes, I think I’ll tell everyone a story about what happened to me during vacation. The conversation just takes on a life of its own.

True imagination and creativity don’t come from thinking outside the box or letting ourselves go wild, just as true spontaneity does not come from dancing on a table on the weekend while you remain in your tedious job. They don’t come out of great disruptive moments that break forth from an otherwise ordinary, drab life. They are part and parcel of how we live our every day; all moments can be creative and spontaneous when we experience the entire world as an open and expansive place. We get there by constantly cultivating our ability to imagine transcending our own experience.

Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, the nineteenth-century French poet, made famous the concept of a flâneur: a person who would stroll the city streets observing and taking in, with great openness, all that he saw. If you take a walk with a toddler, or a dog, or your grandmother, you’ll notice that they experience the walk differently than you do. The child will stop and gaze raptly at every rock and bug; the dog is tuned into an entire vibrating world of scent; your grandmother might be an avid gardener who names every flower or tree that you see. A walk with someone who has a different perspective on the world can allow you to step outside your normal patterns and to see the world not just differently but also with incredible openness. Through his or her eyes, a casual walk becomes imbued with greater depth and freshness. You read your surroundings differently; new dimensions become visible to you.

We focus on things based on habitual patterns of attention. On our morning commute, we might pay attention to little more than the radio, the exit signs, and the entrance to our parking lot, missing out on other things, such as the majestic sight of a flock of geese heading south. On a walk to the gym a few blocks away, we might be preoccupied by what we want to accomplish during our hour there and not even notice the delicious scents wafting from a restaurant nearby. Our habits limit what we can see, access, sense, and know. But we all can become more conscious of our tendency to limit ourselves. Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes helps us break free and experience even the most seemingly mundane aspects of the world in richer ways.

That lens is one we can acquire and cultivate. Once we understand how we see the world more expansively when we are with someone who amplifies our own experience, we can develop a nuanced appreciation for the world even when we are alone. We can constantly ask ourselves how someone else would view this world and remain ever aware that our perspective on it is not the only one that exists. As Zhuangzi shows us, it’s the principle of seeing things differently, or shifting our perspective, that allows us to experience life with newness and intensity.

Shifting Our Perspective

Our conscious minds tend to focus on what “should be”—on what appears to be right. We think we know what is beautiful, what is large, what is virtuous, what is useful. Yet do we really understand how arbitrary the words and values we depend on actually are? The problem comes when we assume that our perspectives are universal, and we close off our minds. We create rigid distinctions and overly stable categories and values.

Imagine what it would be like for little things and big things alike to cease to disturb us, instead becoming part of the excitement of life; things we find exciting and embrace. Imagine seeing things from all perspectives, and thus being able to understand that everything that happens is part of the process of flux and transformation.

On Humanity: Xunzi and Putting Pattern on the World

We often hear that self-acceptance is the key to personal growth: Love who you are. Be at peace with the person you are in this moment. This leads us to accept not just ourselves but also our lives; in doing so, we gain some measure of serenity. But one of our philosophers would have been concerned about this level of self-acceptance. Xunzi, a Confucian scholar born in 310 BC, didn’t believe we should accept ourselves as we are. Rather, he argued that we should never complacently accept what we think is natural to us.

Our very worst cravings and desires are also a part of what’s natural about us. Imagine what it would be like if we always allowed our worst, undomesticated sides to emerge constantly—if we accepted our “authentic” selves in every moment.

Xunzi believed that Confucius alone had understood the most important, most fundamental practice: that of ritual training to become a better person. But Xunzi would do something very different with ritual. For Confucius, ritual was a means to construct miniature as-if moments endlessly to create pockets of order in human relationships. Xunzi expanded this notion so that instead of constructing pockets of as-if moments, we could create vast as-if worlds. He believed that ritual works to transform our natures when, and only when, we recognize it as the artifice it is. It is that very consciousness of artifice that Xunzi exhorts us to apply to the world at large. This is how ritual not only helps us to become better people, but to construct a better world.

The Importance of Artifice

In his writings, Xunzi famously likened human nature to a crooked piece of wood, one that had to be straightened forcibly from the outside. But unlike other commentators on human nature (such as Kant, who centuries later would declare, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”), Xunzi believed that the crooked wood of human nature could be straightened. It just required wei, or “artifice,” from which ritual emerged. But that artifice had to be used well. We tend to distrust those who seem artificial or phony. However, as Xunzi would likely remind us, each of our personas is constructed. 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. For Xunzi, being artificial is a good thing—as long as we’re aware we are doing it so that we can do it well. Artifice helps us corral our spontaneous natures and unruly emotions.

Xunzi argued that we should consciously work on our natures to help us refine and order our emotions and impulses. Through artificial constructs such as rituals, we can impose patterns on our natures much as agriculture gave pattern to the world around us.

The Danger of Thinking the World Should Be Natural

If you use a chariot and horses, your feet have not improved one bit, but you can travel a thousand li. If you use a boat and paddle, you haven’t learned to swim, but you can still cross the rivers and seas. One who is cultivated is no different from others at birth; he is simply good at making use of things.

Many of us respond to the onslaught of technological advances by romanticizing the natural, wishing we could go back to a time before human actions seemed to make everything worse. And these are understandable concerns in this hyperconnected, hyperengineered era. But is natural always better? Not surprisingly, Xunzi didn’t think so. In his time too, there were longings for a more natural world. But Xunzi had much to say about the dangers of blindly revering nature. Xunzi saw our ability to create an artificial, constructed world as a good thing. After all, the world in its natural state is full of struggle.

We shouldn’t want to be like nature, endlessly spontaneous and endlessly struggling. We, uniquely among all these living creatures, can construct worlds within which we can transform ourselves and transcend this natural state. The mind’s tendency to distinguish us from the rest of the world is an asset, one that allowed us to create human morality, rituals, and innovations.

The danger of thinking the world should be natural is that it prevents us from recognizing what great things we are capable of creating, and it negates our responsibility for the world around us. Xunzi wanted us to harness the mind to improve upon our natural selves and our natural world and become the best human beings we can be.

In Xunzi’s tales of the invention of human civilization, he reminded us that human endeavors were about building on what is “natural” and making it incomparably better.

We’ve created the world we live in, and we can choose to move it in a different direction. Subjects such as the best way to preserve the Amazon, or whether or not to pursue cloning or genetically modified foods, are difficult to discuss wisely when they devolve into debates about what is natural versus artificial. These misguided debates prevent us from facing up to the real issues at hand. If we fetishize nature, we surrender our human power to transform the world, and fail to acknowledge that just as we have created problems in the world, just as often we have improved upon what exists in nature.