I know next to nothing about Chinese philosophy. Expect for this proverb, which my teacher at prep school used to drill into us: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” The great Confucius said that. Or did he?
Whoever said it, they were obviously on to something. These sage fellows loved asking the big questions that puzzle many of us today. Who am I? Why am I here? How can I be better? Consider that “heart” and “mind” are the same word in Chinese – “xin”. Human beings have been learning and searching since the dawn of civilisation. No wonder self-help books are big business, worth more than £6 million in the UK and $10 billion in the US at last count.
One or two many have found their way into my hands: Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Cargenie, for instance, as well as new age novels The Alchemist and The Celestine Prophecy. They didn’t change my life but they did encourage me to shift my perspective and ask different questions. Nevertheless, I remain quite skeptical when it comes to such books. Some are quite wooly and fail to appreciate the complexity of the modern world. Others make me vomit with their cloying optimism.
The other night I attended a talk by Harvard professor Michael Pruett at workspace Second Home. Pruett, another advocate of unconventional wisdom, has been making the headlines for the past few years because his Classical Chinese and Ethical Political Theory course has been one of the most popular on campus. Remember, this is an Ivy League school more famous for its STEM and finance options.
He aims to show students how Chinese philosophy can help them to be a better person and find their place in the world. The first step is to break free from what they think they know about themselves – no easy feat in the egocentric age of social media when so many millennials are striving for self-actualisation and desperate to project their chosen identity.
This is not guru guff masquerading as education. Pruett draws directly from five Chinese philosophers— Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi and Xunzi – who all lived more than 2,000 years ago. Relics of a bygone age, you might think. Hardly. In fact, these were “exciting and radical thinkers … expanding the scope of human possibility,” as Pruett explained to the Guardian.
Together with journalist Christine Gross-Loh, who met the professor while covering his story for the Atlantic in 2013, Pruett has written a book called The Path. The title is a play on the opening line of Taoism founder Laozi’s Tao Te Ching and boldly sets the course: “The way that can be clearly defined is not the enduring way.”
Students are given small tasks to do: try a new hobby, smile at a stranger and change their tone of voice, for example. Then they are asked to observe how others respond and pursue the things that arouse good feelings and new sensations. Their assignment is to discuss what it’s like to live by these philosophies. What a refreshing approach – the idea of education as a means of transformation. All too often, pupils are treated as nothing more than vessels to be filled with knowledge, assessed and fast-tracked. Similarly, The Path tries to harness our ability to sense situations so we can apply our learning for the benefit of others.
During the talk, Pruett covered a lot of ground in a matter of minutes but his main point was that we are all “just a bunch of messes”. Follow that thought through and you realise that there is no one self to find or be true to. There is no pre-defined destiny – whether career, relationship or any other accepted form of success or fulfilment. Instead, we are challenged to remain open-minded and experiment with new ways of living better. A nightmare for advertisers, data junkies and devotees of demographics but a major step forward for humanity.
I think back to the wall of expectation analogy in Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy. We are often told how important it is play to our strengths, to focus on a particular goal and follow a set path to achieve it. But the more rigidly we set about that task the more frustrated we can become. Pruett frames this phenomenon differently, in terms of damaging patterns of behaviour. We are all guilty of these. Getting angry with those that cut in line, raising our voice on the phone, holding ground in the workplace because you don't feel valued, staring at a screen for hours and expecting good ideas to appear… These traits become an unflattering take on our personality.
Pruett says the challenge is to start reacting differently to things, to sense the problems and patterns in everyday life and then break them. These are what Confucius called “as if” rituals, loosely translated. Transformative changes in behaviour – faking it, if you have to. Again, the simplest example is smiling and talking to strangers. It's that sense of being spontaneous, open to the world and, dare it say it, in harmony. Mencius, the late 4th-century BCE scholar said that these chance conversations, interactions and experiences help us to see new connections and opportunities everywhere. In turn, our influence grows and we begin to have a positive effect on the lives of those around us.
Zhuangzi encouraged people to embrace trained spontaneity, the idea that you apply yourself in a particular area – playing a sport or learning an instrument for instance – so your mind doesn’t get in the way in the moment. Perhaps the most counterintuitive idea is not playing to your strengths. Xunzi says that nothing is natural. So if you can’t dance, won't dance, sign up for that class. If you don't like getting wet, jump into the swimming pool. Not to get better, specifically, but to live life “as a series of ruptures” as Pruett puts it.
A fascinating aside: Pruett described himself as being part of the ’89 generation who felt there was no need to ask big questions because “we felt they’d already been solved”. (I wonder how big a factor the rise of the internet was in all of this?) Now people are enjoying being fundamentally challenged on how they should live from day to day and these questions are being debated furiously in the blogosphere of post-Communist, post-imperialist China, in particular.
I came away from the talk feeling quite liberated. It’s ok if you don't have all the answers, to feel like a work in progress, even in your thirties. I will definitely add The Path to my reading list and dip in to the original texts. As with any book that draws on so much source material, there will be those who find it too general or too quick to reach a consensus among the different philosophers. But as a break from the norm it sounds promising.
Mindfulness continues to be a hot trend, indicating that there’s an appetite for alternative ways of living, particularly in the pressure cooker environment of the city. Pruett won’t show you the path specifically but he’ll certainly help you make a few tweaks here and there. Add all those up and who knows…
Right, I’m off to talk to strangers in Pret and tango the night away.