In Search of the True Self...

Recently I stumbled on the fact that the third most popular course at Harvard University is Classical Chinese Ethical and Political History. Who would have guessed? The course explores the teachings of Chinese Philosophers from 2,000 years ago. Michael Puett, who teaches the course, has now written a book with a co-author, The Path, explaining many of these Eastern ideas.

Since the 1800’s we in the West have seen ourselves as free will Individuals who through rational thinking can uncover our true Self. Every airport book store is full of titles which will help us in this self-discovery which in turn will make us, hopefully, happier and more at peace. 

The ancient Chinese Philosophers, Puett argues, would find this all bunk. Confucius, who lived in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, taught that we are not unified beings who, if we just dig deeply enough, can discover ourselves. No, we are a bundle of emotions responding to events and situations using patterns of behavior developed in us over many years. Some are very good and some very bad. Here is a modern day example. Many of us get angry standing in lines at supermarkets, airports, etc. (Okay, I fess up, this is me). We get short tempered and frustrated and this pattern happens over and over every time we find ourselves in these situations. Now what would happen, Confucius asks, if we turned the situation around and took the perspective of the waiter or the airline agent. If we could do this our response might be very different and we might turn negative feelings and negative patterns of behavior into positives.

Change our patterns of behavior and we change our ‘Self’. Life is how we act walking around.

Chinese philosophy is full of very practical advice. Zhuangzi, a Philosopher who lived in the late 4th century BC taught students to see the world in new and varied ways. He emphasized spontaneity but not the spontaneity we think of in the West. It is not about doing whatever you want whenever you want. It is “trained” spontaneity. Think of learning to play the piano. At first all the practice is extremely tedious but in time we gain mastery, and playing becomes effortless and creativity is often allowed to take hold. 

Zhuangzi also extolled the richness of experiencing all new things. How many Nobel Prize winners do you read about who were also musicians, artists or writers who used these experiences to see the world in unique ways? Steve Jobs’ study of calligraphy strongly influenced his design of computers. Many people today question the value of the Liberal Arts but the very richness and variety of these courses leads to creative ‘spontaneous’ thinking.

The Path is not an easy book. The concepts are simple but are so ‘un-western’, so different from how we are taught to view the world. The wisdom, however is evident. Our Inner Self we discover is how we deal with our emotions and our ingrained patterns of behavior in everyday life. The key to harmony is in all of us. We simply need to understand how to discover it. It is easy to see how the Chinese Philosophers of 2,000 years ago are still relevant and how their wisdom is still popular on college campuses.