ONE DAY a student came to Confucius and made a confession. ‘Master,’ he said with downcast eyes, ‘It is not that I don’t delight in your Way, it is only that my strength is insufficient.’
Instead of being moved by his pupil’s honest humility, Confucius replied ‘Someone whose strength is genuinely insufficient collapses somewhere along the way. As for you, you deliberately draw the line.’
To him, the pursuit of the way (that is, the right way to live life) was something to be prioritized above everything else. It was something you willfully cultivated inside yourself, even if you were to discover you didn’t have what it takes.
To do anything less was unacceptable. It wasn’t an honest failing, it was a willful failure at life.
Confucius is arguably the most famous of the ancient Chinese philosophers. Rivaled only by Laozi’s Tao Te Ching, Confucius’s teaching had widespread influence over Chinese history, one that survived repeated attacks and dismissal by opposing schools of thought (read: Communism).
Describing himself as a “transmitter who invented nothing” Confucius saw himself as simply reaffirming the ancient wisdom that had come before him, going so far as to have supposedly shaped the famous Five Classics himself. Confucianism, the school of thought born from his teachings, stresses the importance of this ancient wisdom, namely in the form of emulating moral exemplars, study, and skilled judgment; all stemming from a foundation in the cultivation of the self. That is the virtues, behaviors, and habits that brought them to life.
THE ANCIENT CHINESE WISDOM OF SELF-CULTIVATION
Self-cultivation was extremely important for ancient Chinese thinkers. Similar to Aristotle, they believed it lay at the root of everything that was important. ‘There are many charges’ wrote the Confucian thinker Mencius, ‘but the charge of one’s self is the root of all others.’
Personal responsibility wasn’t just recommended, it lay at the heart of everything. Aristotle wrote similarly, referring to courage (perhaps the ultimate sign of responsibility) as the virtue that made all others possible. This idea carried on in Western thought and is can be seen throughout works of art. In Milton’s Paradise Regained, when tempted by Satan with dominion over the earth, Christ responds:
Yet he who reigns within himself, and rules
Passions, Desires, and Fears, is more a King
The idea of taking responsibility for your life is one that has reverberated around the world. But not always with the same implications in behavior, and not always taken as far as the ancient Chinese thinkers instruct.
Through proverbs and wisdom, they reveal a different approach to some of the problems of our lives: being a good person, making plans and setting goals, becoming more present and less aimless, and learning to understand ourselves.
In other words, it’s time to dust off some ancient scrolls and see just how they can help us live a little better today.
1) YOU’RE NOT AS GOOD AS YOU THINK YOU ARE
Everyone has an idea of how moral they are. This idea is often unconnected to reality, but rather a justification of whatever actions we’ve taken. Actions that are motivated by thoughts and feelings we rarely admit.
It pays then, to figure out just how moral we actually are.
Confucius never made his stance on whether people were innately good or evil clear. Mencius and Xunzi, however, thought otherwise.
‘Human nature is evil,’ Xunxi wrote. ‘And goodness is caused by intentional activity.’ Similar to Christian ideas of original sin, Xunzi saw you, me, himself, and everyone else as predisposed to being at best, dicks, and at worst, monsters – people who were more often than not going to make the wrong decision.
Far from being a pessimistic douchebag though, he viewed goodness as a possible outcome of accepting this innate evil character and taking actions towards goodness instead. Where Aristotle stressed the importance of exercising the habits of virtue in the pursuit of excellence, Xunzi saw it as the one thing keeping our negative qualities at bay.
In contrast, Mencius wrote ‘The tendency of man’s nature to do good is like to tendency of water to flow downward.’ In other words, goodness to us was as natural as gravity. We are inclined by nature to do it, and it takes deliberate effort to do otherwise.
The reality probably lies closer to Confucius’ own ambiguous stance. That being, you don’t know. But you can actively move in either direction. Whilst the idea of practicing good virtues is nothing new, the concept of actively practicing immortality doesn’t get as much attention. At least, not outside of fiction.
Books like Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, and Paradise Lost demonstrate how being grossly immoral isn’t so much a product of our nature as it is our deliberate encouragement of what is already there. Raskolnikov entertains the idea of killing, Anna convinces herself her marriage is boring to justify her adultery, and Lucifer egotistically clings to his pride, even though he knows it only brings him to ruin.
Where books like The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker have shed light on our own fixed, biological nature, it remains the case that alongside that nature is the way the world and everyone interacts with it. Whether we’re born innately good, bad, weak, strong, brave, or cowardly, we also always have our choices.
We can always strive to be better. One small habit at a time.
2) YOUR LIFE PLAN IS DOOMED TO FAIL
In all corners of western culture is echoed the same message. “Find your passion, become successful.” This idea permeates storytelling, advertising, and internet culture so much that it’s rapidly become taken as fact. Inside you, me, and everyone else, there is something that we can find that once found, will set the world into a simple, straight line to success.
Except, in reality, there’s one little problem. When it comes to your dreams of success, your passion, and your goals … The world isn’t a simple, straight line.
It’s the opposite.
This idea is central to many of the ideas in ancient Chinese wisdom. ‘The way that can be made into a clearly defined way is not the way’ writes Laozi in the Tao Te Ching. Which is a more eloquent way of saying ‘Your long term plans suck.’
The world isn’t as logical as we’d like it to be. We can order time from 365 days right down to the millisecond, but it doesn’t change the fact that the world, our lives, and ourselves are fundamentally ruled by randomness. Shit happens that we haven’t planned for, struggle to deal with, and want to run away from. Other stuff happens that is unexpected, good, and sometimes amazing.
And this randomness happens all the time.
When we make plans about how we want our lives to go, set ourselves long term goals, ambitious new years resolutions, or declarations of where our lives will be in 5 years time, what we’re actually doing is neglecting to take into account just how powerful the rule of randomness is in the world.
Because the world is random and misshapen. It doesn’t fit a plan, and no plan could ever fit it. There is only the right reaction that occurs at the right moment. And that changes day by day.
This understanding of Laozi’s, that the ‘way’ cannot be clearly defined, is similar to Tolstoy’s observation about life in Anna Karenina. In passages often overlooked as boring, Tolstoy has various characters attempting to improve the lot of their peasant’s work ethic. To do so, they employ popular English theories of labor, as well as English machines, and hope everything will go well. But it doesn’t. Neither the plans nor the machines fit with the experience, culture, habits, or land of the Russain people. It turns out what works in England doesn’t work in rural Russia.
Tolstoy, like Loazi, is attempting to illustrate the folly of plans that don’t first take into account the randomness of the world, and how that randomness takes on a unique character of its own. Similarly, just as our plans must be flexible to accommodate reality, our ideas of our own ability to build habits or motivation must be as well. We can’t just lay whatever we want down. We first have to see what’s already there.
3) MINDFULNESS DOESN’T MEAN YOU SIT ON YOUR ASS
Alongside clean eating and hitting the gym, mindfulness is the most commonly touted way of improving your life.
Want to be more successful? Meditate. What to have better social skills? Meditate. Want to achieve A, B, C and be X, Y, and Z? Meditate.
The idea is everywhere, but the most commonly accepted form of it might not be the one that serves you the best.
Mindfulness has come along way from Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi tree. There are books on how to use it to become more successful, more at peace, to achieve no-self; as well as at least two popular apps where grown men talk quietly into your ears as you sit in the lotus position.
(If you’re into that sort of thing…)
But outside of its modern popularity, mindfulness actually has other forms.
Confucian mindfulness takes a different approach than sitting on your ass trying to achieve no-self. In fact, Confucius was cynical about exactly that. He wrote ‘Living in retirement to study their aims, and practicing righteousness to carry out their principles – I have heard these words, but I have not seen such men.’
To him, mindfulness was active. It has you getting up and doing something. Interacting with others and engaging with the world. Because it is only through that action, interaction, and engagement that you can truly cultivate yourself and the correct way of living.
This way of thinking sees mindfulness is an active relationship with the world and other people. It’s not an act of sitting cross-legged and focusing on the breath but finding the true, moral way to live, as it exists in a moment by moment basis. And as you find that moral way to live, developing the strength, through practice, in order to live it.
Now whilst this might seem radically different to traditional ideas of meditation, the theme, at least metaphorically, is similar. The death of self is the ultimate result of taking action. It is not something that arrives through 15 minutes of practice, focusing on the breath, or staring at your navel.
It requires you going out into the world and doing what’s right.
4) YOU ARE WHAT YOU THINK YOU HATE
We all like to hate. You’ve probably, in the last five hours alone probably thought about things you hate multiple times. Many of those will be people. Donald Trump; the people who voted for him; the people who didn’t vote for him; your parents; your ex-girlfriend; your boss; maybe even me.
(I hope not…)
But the implication of hatred is that we are somehow different to someone else. That they have done something or acted in a way that is entirely contrary to who we are, what we value, and what is important to us. So we despise them.
But what if their actions, rather than being contrary to who we are, were actually closer than we think? What if everyone else was just a window into ourselves.
‘When you observe goodness in others,’ wrote Xunzi, ‘then inspect yourself, desirous of studying it. When you observe badness in others, then examine yourself, fearful of discovering it. If you find goodness in yourself, then approve of yourself, desirous of holding firm to it. If you find badness in your person, then reproach yourself, regarding it as calamity.’
To him, other people weren’t just people to interact with, they were ways of learning more about ourselves.
Contrary to Western thinking, ancient Chinese wisdom thought of the self as not really a thing (like, for instance, a soul), but more a mess of energies, emotions, and habits being pulled in all sorts of directions. Some of these ‘messes’ form patterns, some of these are forever random. We’re constantly in an environment that we’re passively reacting to.
And far from being just you, it’s this way for everyone.
Everyone is a mess. And it’s this mess that you have to take responsibility for.
(Well, not you, because according to this idea there is no you – so wait a minute, your mess has to take care of your mess? What the fu—)
Practicality this means that your idea of ‘you’ isn’t as certain as you think. What you want isn’t what you think. And your idea of others is often just a window into yourself.
A lot of this has been backed up by research. Neuroscience seems to increasingly be suggesting the self is an illusion. Research on happiness suggests we have no idea. The entire idea that you know who you are, and that you know how different you are to other people is flimsy at best.
What’s more likely is that you’re a mess. But in taking a close look at the mess presented by others, you can take steps to sort out your own.
5) YOU SHOULD TAKE A STEP INTO SOMEONE ELSE’S SHOES
Because we are such a mess, ancient Chinese wisdom suggests that one of the best ways to deal with this mess would be to engage in rituals. And no, I don’t mean stuffy religious rituals, I mean practical, empathy-based ones. Rituals that help us break through the illusion of self, and see ourselves from another perspective.
One method was to deliberately put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re in conflict with. If a father was in conflict with his son, it was both an individual’s obligation to imagine the life and situation of the other.
The son must imagine the responsibilities, concerns, and intentions of the father, and the father must imagine the youthful energy, the growing desire for independence, and innocent foolishness of the son.
It isn’t hard to see how this practical application of empathy would be a good idea. As a ritual, it actively strives to lessen conflict and build a deeper understanding of each other’s position – something that is integral to compromise, and in turn, healthy human relationships.
In the West, the two ideas that parallel this come from Carl Jung and Christ himself. The former wrote at length how the flaws we see in others were merely projections of our unconscious shadow – the traits we wished to hide from ourselves because of shame. When we judged someone for their greed, egotism, or promiscuity, it was rather those traits we were judging, and repressing in ourselves. Rather than accepting and moderating.
The latter stressed the importance of looking at yourself before you judge others. When confronted with a woman who had committed adultery and was to be stoned to death by a crowd, he confronted the crowds own immoral behavior and their right to judge anyone. Later, he advised his followers to avoid judging anyone at all, lest they are judged in the same way. And that before you can understand the faults of anyone well enough to judge, you have to understand your own.
THE ANCIENT, EVERYDAY PRACTICE OF CHINESE WISDOM
You aren’t who you think you are. You aren’t as good as you think you are. Your plans are uncertain. And you are what you hate.
On the surface, this might seem like bad news, but on closer inspection, all it says is that you need to release your certainty and treat uncertainty with the respect it deserves.
Instead of believing you are something, you take steps to actually become it. Instead of assuming you are fixed, you look for the evidence that says you are not. Instead of assuming you can predict the outcome of the world, you remain flexible enough to handle whatever outcome it thrusts upon you. Instead of looking at everyone and seeing what you separates you, you instead look and see what brings you together.
This way of thinking might seem the opposite of a Western mind, but the ideas of ancient Chinese wisdom actually have a lot of crossovers with some of our oldest ideas, and many of our newest advances. And the heart of rings true, regardless of your background.
In order to live the right way, you have to take care of yourself. You have to take on the charge of cultivating who you are.
Because as Confucius understood, that lies at the heart of everything else.