Chinese philosophy today is one of the most popular classes among Harvard students. Ideas of Confucius and Laozi turn out to be more effective than teachings of positive psychology. Here are some tips from ancient thinkers on how to live better.
Stop searching for yourself
Today we always hear it’s important to find yourself and understand who you are. Eastern thinkers were skeptical about this idea. Multifaced, erratic constructs that we call identities come from outside, not inside. They are made of everything we do – our interactions, reactions, activities.
We are all different. We behave differently depending on who we are talking to in the moment – our mother, close friend or a colleague. Every person is like a filled trunk that bumps into other trunks. Every collision changes our configuration. What we are is the result of constant changes and influence of new experiences on our life.
Don’t be authentic – be ready to change
The next step that is imposed on us by popular psychology is to be true to ourselves. The greatest ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius born in the 6th century before A.D. would have disagreed with this approach. The problem is, he would’ve said, that authenticity doesn’t lead to freedom. We are how we behave in the present moment. It means that ‘the real I’ doesn’t exist – we can’t always act, think and feel the same.
‘The real I’ is just a momentous shot that captures our identity in the present and very short period of time. When we allow this image to become our guide, we become its prisoners. We don’t allow new experiences and close our road to growth.
Don’t let the feelings guide you – choose direction and the feelings will adapt
Another consequence of authenticity is that we absolutize feelings, our intuitive ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’, ‘wants’ and ‘don’t wants’. As a result, you can turn down what seems far or unclear. For example, shutting down the idea to start your own business, because business is not your thing.
Confucius taught that our deeds evoke changes inside us. Our emotional reactions are sporadic, but we can turn them to the right direction if prepared beforehand. For example, by training in front of the mirror to express emotions we can develop an ability to change emotions fast. Changing emotions allows to be free and not get stuck on unpleasant feelings and worries.
By doing it, we become who we want to be. Some are proud of their difficult personality saying, ‘I can tell others in their face what I think of them’. Meanwhile, rudeness and impulsiveness are not synonyms of honesty. High emotional intelligence involves not only expressing one’s emotions openly but also having a rich emotional vocabulary. By allowing our actions to lead feelings (rather than vice versa), we can change and become better with time.
Don’t make big decisions – take small steps
What is wrong with life that is planned 5, 10, 15 years ahead? When we make decisions about our future, we mean that our identity will stay the same during this time. But we are constantly changing – our likes, values, views are never the same. The more active we are, the more intense is our inner development. The paradox is that modern understanding of success demands fitting a square peg into a round hole – constant development and vivid perception of one’s future.
Instead of giving huge promises, the method of Mencius, a philosopher from ancient China, says to walk to the great through small and doable. When you want to change your career radically and take up something new, start small – do an internship or volunteer. This way you will be able to determine whether this path is right for you and whether it will bring you joy. Notice your reactions to new experiences – let them guide you.
Don’t be strong – be open
Another popular idea goes – the strongest wins. We are told that to be successful we need to be persistent and reach our goals. In his book Tao Te Ching (written in approximately 4th century before A.D.), philosopher Laozi defends the advantage of weakness over brutal force. Often weakness is associated with passiveness, but this is not what Laozi is talking about. He insists that we must see all the events in the world as connected rather than separated. If we can dive deep into the nature of this connection, we will learn to understand what is going on and listen to others.
Such inner openness gives new opportunities for power that we can’t get by using force. Refusing to fight makes us wiser – we no longer see a situation as a road to victory or defeat and others as allies or enemies. Such approach not only saves our mental resources but opens the world for original decisions beneficial for all.
Don’t be fixed on your strengths, try different things
We are told to find our strengths and work on them from childhood. If you have an aptitude for sport, join a football club; if you love to read, do a major in English. We develop our natural inclinations until they become a part of us. But being too enthusiastic on this idea we risk getting fixed on it and stopping doing everything else.
Philosophers from ancient China would encourage to concentrate on what we can’t do. If you think you are awkward, start dancing. If you think you don’t have a talent for languages, start learning Chinese. The point is not to become better in all these fields but to perceive your life as a constant flow – this is what makes it full.
Don’t practice mindfulness, act
We always hear about mindfulness. It is supposed to help us reach peace and calmness in this fast-paced life. Learning the practice of mindfulness is one of the standard instruments on boosting performance and effectiveness in business schools, trainings on personal growth and self-development seminars.
Buddhism is a doctrine that supposes shifting away from ‘I’. Confucian idea of self-development is different. It’s about interaction with the world and developing through this interaction, through every new meeting, every experience. Confucianism supports the idea of active action to become better.
Modern speculation is that we are free from repressive, traditional world and live the way we want. But if we see the traditional world as such where people passively accept things and try to fit in the stable, already existing order, then we are those living traditionally.
Don’t choose your path, make it
We see today’s world as the space of freedom where we can choose how to live. However, we often limit our possibilities by following the same ways and relying on the rules and order made before we came. If we want to become successful, we need to be ready to turn away from the well-worn path. Perhaps even get lost.
The book Tao Te Ching says: The path that can be travelled (in a particular way) is not a reliable path. If you believe that can live a life by the same plan all the time, you can encounter disappointment. We are complex creatures and our desires always call us into different directions. If we accept that and notice what a particular experience gives us, we learn to understand ourselves better and react to the outer changes in a more sensitive way. By constantly tuning yourself like a sensitive instrument, we can become more open and at the same time resistant to stress.