August 11, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 29: The myth of authenticity, as-if rituals, and self-cultivation

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

I. The myth of authenticity

Western culture encourages us to look within, to seek our authentic selves. The promise is that by determining who we are, we can find the lifestyle that best fits our personality.

Taking this approach entails believing we can recognize our true self when it appears and then limiting our lives accordingly. Whatever we uncover during this discovery would only be a fraction of our totality at the moment we recognize it. As a result, we would be prisoners of our past, forever defined by a moment in time.

Western concepts of authenticity conflict with teachings from the East, particularly those of Confucianism, a philosophy based on the work of Chinese Philosopher, Confucius. Confucianism views the self as a complex array of emotions, dispositions, desires, and characteristics that often direct us in different directions.

In the book, The Path, writer Christine Gross-Loh, and Harvard professor Michael Puett further explore these contradicting teachings of the Western and Eastern views of the self:

"We have to let go of the mentality of the 'true self.' Be sincere. Be authentic. Be true to who you are. These slogans of the modern age encourage us to look within. We struggle to uncover who we are and then embrace what we see. The danger is that what we discover is only a snapshot of who we are at a particular time and place. We read self-help books, meditate, write in our journals, and then diagnose and label ourselves: I'm a free spirit. I'm a hothead. I'm a dreamer. I fear intimacy. I moved around too much as a child, and now I'm skittish when meeting new people. My history of destructive relationships is due to my cold relationship with my father. By embracing these patterns, we allow them to harden. Such labeling begins in childhood: this one is studious; that one is temperamental. These labels drive our behavior and our decisions, and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a result, too many of us wake up one day feeling stuck inside a narrow definition of ourselves.

"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."

Students of philosophy may recognize similarities between Puett's description of Chinese thinkers and Buddhism. Thinking of ourselves as a transitory phenomenon can delve into metaphysical realms, touching on concepts such as Buddhism's 'non-self' or anattā in Pali. Anattā teaches that there is no permanent self inhabiting our minds and uses meditation to train us to recognize this distinction. Confucianism shares the same teaching but offers a practice we already engage in to recognize this truth, rituals.

Read my three takeaways from The Path

II. Cultivating ourselves with as-if rituals

What Confucius called as-if rituals, we may refer to as social norms, conventions, routines, or habits. Each of these definitions is a packet of actions that form an instance of behavior. The 'as-if' wording emphasizes moments in which we deliberately change our behavior. These changes could be welcoming our partner home from work, not reacting to a triggering comment, or escaping a particular pattern of thought. The rituals we practice today are often unconscious and seldom seen as separate from the fabric of reality. Gross-Loh and Puett explain the origin of one such as-if ritual, the 'please' and 'thank you' nicety, a reflexive routine we each participate in:

“Why do we say 'please' and 'thank you'? Three centuries ago, European society and social relations were still defined entirely by hereditary hierarchy. If a peasant were speaking to a lord, he would use certain deferential terms, and if an aristocrat were speaking down to a peasant, he would employ completely different terms in turn. As markets began to develop in the cities, people from different classes began to interact in new ways. Rituals developed in which buyers and sellers could act as if they were equal, though they were anything but. The 'please' and 'thank-you' exchange was a brief moment in which participants could experience a semblance of equality.”

What was once an as-if ritual is now among a child's first lessons after developing speech. These lessons persist well into adulthood, whether they are taught directly, observed, or intuited. The rituals defining our identities are as ingrained as the 'please' and 'thank you' niceties. These routines could be external, such as waking up with a cup of coffee, stroking our cat before leaving for work, or conversing with our local shop owner. Or internal traits, like how we handle petty annoyances, respond to criticism, or treat ourselves.

The habitual patterns we fall into are largely by chance. Early childhood trauma, upbringing, and environmental conditions contribute to the formation of our character, providing us with an array of traits. In addition, our genes influence around 50% of our personality, but although genes may predispose, they do not predetermine. Our genes may have given us a predisposition toward shyness, meaning this is our default role in social situations, the one we feel most natural occupying. But these predispositions are not fixed.

We might currently succumb to shy behavior, but what's to say that we can't become more charismatic with deliberate practice? The choice to remain shy or learn the characteristics of charisma is ours if such traits are desirable. Only through practice have we mastered shyness and turned it into a habitual trait. As-if moments offer the chance to tame undesirable tendencies and enact lasting transformations in our behavior.

Quotes to Ponder

I. Sam Harris on making one small change to move your life forward:

“How are you stuck right now? In what way are you repeating a pattern that is making you less happy than you might otherwise be? You can ask this about your relationships, your work, or your personal habits. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you ask this question? What’s one thing you are doing, or not doing that is undermining your life? Let something come to mind, and then do something about it, however small, right now.”

II. Seneca on being risk averse and embracing the status quo:

“Some lack the fickleness to live as they wish and just live as they have begun.”

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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