Note: The following are excerpts from The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life by Christine Gross-Loh and Michael J. Puett. Passages marked 'MV' are my comments for context, clarity, or readability.
Increasingly, we have been told to seek that higher truth within. The goal of a self-actualized person is now to find himself and to live his life “authentically,” according to an inner truth. The danger of this lies in believing that we will all know our “truth” when we see it, and then limiting our lives according to that truth. With all this investment in our self-definition, we risk building our future on a very narrow sense of who we are—what we see as our strengths and weaknesses, our likes and dislikes. Many Chinese thinkers might say that in doing this, we are looking at such a small part of who we are potentially. We’re taking a limited number of our emotional dispositions during a certain time and place and allowing those to define us forever. By thinking of human nature as monolithic, we instantly limit our potential.
But many of the Chinese thinkers would argue that you are not and should not think of yourself as a single, unified being. Let’s say that you think of yourself as someone with a temper; someone who gets angry easily. The thinkers we are about to encounter would argue that you should not say, “Well, that’s just the way I am,” and embrace yourself for who you are. As we will see, perhaps you aren’t inherently an angry person. Perhaps you simply slipped into ruts—patterns of behavior—that you allowed to define who you thought you were. The truth is that you have just as much potential to be, say, gentle or forgiving as you do to be angry.
These philosophers would urge us to recognize that we are all complex and changing constantly. Every person has many different and often contradictory emotional dispositions, desires, and ways of responding to the world. Our emotional dispositions develop by looking outward, not inward. They are not cultivated when you retreat from the world to meditate or go on a vacation. They are formed, in practice, through the things you do in your everyday life: the ways you interact with others and the activities you pursue. In other words, we aren’t just who we are: we can actively make ourselves into better people all the time.
But remember that who you think you are—and especially what you think is “you” when you are making decisions—is usually just a set of patterns you’ve fallen into.
We tend to fall into patterned, habitual responses. They may be social conventions and customs we follow unthinkingly, like our greetings or the way we hold a door open for someone. They may be routines that we don’t even notice, such as the whine we slip into when we’re talking to a sibling on the phone, or a tendency to become quiet when distressed instead of expressing our needs clearly. But we do these things all the time. Some patterns are good, and some are less so. If we were always “true” to ourselves and behaved accordingly, we would be stuck in old behaviors, never forgiving, and limiting our potential to transform. But we already know how to break these patterns. When we visit a friend’s family, for example, as outsiders we notice their routines and small actions: their Sunday morning pancake breakfast, the way they hug one another to say good morning. These rituals stand out to us because they are new to us. When we observe or even participate in them, we do so with a consciousness that we don’t bring to our own lives. When we travel, breaking from our everyday routine can allow us to develop new sides of ourselves. And when we return, we feel the lingering effects of those changes. Why, then, don’t we do this all the time? Perhaps it is because deliberately constructing ritual moments in our “real” lives feels contrived. But as-if moments can lead to tremendous movement.
MV: 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. Michael Puett explains 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.
Before we can be transformed through as-if rituals, 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.
Yet because we often think of ourselves as being a certain, stable way, we confine ourselves to certain past roles. If you think of yourself as the sympathetic type, for instance, you might be uncomfortable being more overtly interventionist—even if you can see that’s what your friend really needs at that moment—because it’s just not who you are. It falls outside the pattern of how you usually behave. You might think, Well, another friend can push her to see a doctor/call the lawyer/confront her coach. I’ll just listen. But defining yourself as “who you are” limits your sensitivity to the entire situation, the breadth of the response you can give, and the goodness you can show, In order to sense the whole context before making a decision in an endlessly shifting world, you need to train your emotions. You need to learn what it means to think of decisions in terms of a complex self and a complex world and complex trajectories that can go in multiple directions.
A Confucian approach would be to note your patterns and then work actively to shift them. Over time, breaking those patterns—say, suppressing your usual sigh when your father starts in on one of his political tirades (even though you are irritated); or making it a point to greet your wife at the door when she gets home from work (even though you’d rather stay glued to your computer)—will allow different sides of you to emerge. Over time, you internalize a more constructive way of acting in the world instead of being led by your undisciplined emotional reactions. Little by little you develop parts of yourself you never knew existed, and you start becoming a better person.