"You can open yourself to possibilities you never imagined were even possible”
Michael Puett is a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, where he teaches one of the most popular courses. Together with Christine Gross-Loh, author and journalist, they realized that these ideas can speak to all of us, and that’s how this book came into being. The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life gives life to the voices from the past and offers possibilities for fresh thinking about the future.
The book invites us to reconsider our ideas about some of our life’s most interesting themes: relationships, decisions, influence, vitality, spontaneity, humanity, and possibility. The ideas explored in the book help us to alter our own narratives, as well the assumptions which we hold about who we are and what kind of world we live in.
These Chinese thinkers’ training led them to be extremely practical and concrete. This is why, questioning their society, they tended not to focus on big abstract questions. Rather, they asked, How did our world of today become like this, and what can we do to change it?
Change starts in daily life
"It begins with the smallest things in our daily lives, from which we change everything."
We all want change. The potential for transformation lies not on the big dramatic events but on the small repeated moments. Change doesn’t happen until we alter our behavior, and we don’t alter our behavior unless we start with the small things in our daily life. Our business and life don’t suddenly change overnight, but those new situations sprout from initial small changes, cultivated and nourished over time.
Daily moments become the means through which we can become different and better human beings. Most philosophers start with the big questions such as: Do we have free will? What is morality? But here one of the greatest Chinese philosophers asks this deceptively fundamental question: How are you living your life on a daily basis?
How do you navigate your life?
"Just as the world itself fragmented, we are too."
We are creatures of habit. We tend to fall into patterned, habitual responses. Often we embrace these patterns and we allow them to harden.
Instead of embracing and encouraging our ingrained patterns, we could think of ourselves as an array of complex emotions, traits, and thoughts. When we do so, we become malleable, open for change. We should strive to move from a state where we just randomly respond emotionally, to a cultivated state where we have better ways of responding. This doesn’t mean controlling or overcoming emotions—we are still humans.
“As-if” rituals help us to break these patterns and to change our emotional response for the better. The purpose is to break our patterns and our idea of a rigid self, dancing along the same lines in everyday life.
These as-if rituals stem from early China, for example when people made sacrifices to their deceased ancestors. Whether the rituals affect the deceased is not the point (thought they were carried out “as if” they did), it’s about the change they can bring within ourselves. They work because for a moment we play a role other than the one we inhabit normally. That “break” with reality is the key for allowing change.
Implementing small, conscious “as-if” moments becomes a transformative practice, allowing us to become a different person for a moment. They create a short-lived alternate reality that returns us to our regular life slightly altered. Take for example how we employ different types of greetings. Would you have thought the significance of such an event? By alternating these events and our responses, again and again, we are able to create healthier connections, and improved relationships begin to manifest more in daily life.
Note your patterns and work actively to shift them. And maybe even more importantly, learn to recognize that other people are malleable too. Conflicting situations can change over time. There is no single norm that transcends the complexity of human life and which can tell us how to navigate all our interactions and situations. But we train our ability to be good to those around us, by alternating our behavior. We have to start with the small.
Cultivate your Heart-Mind
"Human goodness exists only in potential. Human nature is potentially good, but it can be lost, it can be warped, it can be changed by what it encounters."
Think of goodness as being a small sprout which has the potential to grow into something bigger. It must be cultivated by ourselves to achieve that potential. Goodness is something we can feel and nurture in our everyday lives with the very people we’re with right now. If we would all run to rescue a child in danger, then why do we hurt those around us so often instead of nurturing our potential for goodness? Making good decisions consists of creating optimal conditions and responding to whatever various situations arise, instead of relying on preconceived ideas. It is a never ending practice.
Use your mind to understand your emotions. Become aware of what triggers your emotions and reactions on a daily basis. In fact, a lot of what we tend to think of as conscious decision making is just us playing out old patterns. In Chinese, the word for mind and heart is actually one and the same: xin. The heart-mind is the seat of our emotions as well as the center of our rationality. Good decisions are made when the heart and mind are integrated.
In this way, following the heart-mind means integration instead of going blindly with either the senses or the intellect. We can constantly hone our emotional sense so that it works in sync with our mind, in order to make decisions that open up the future rather than close it down. It fosters our ability to decide well. When we can let go of the idea that there are clear guidelines and a stable world, then what we are left with is the heart-mind to guide us.
An important note here is that this training is not the same as the widely known approach of mindfulness. The solution is not to withdraw from society or seek higher transcendent dimensions, but to make changes in the very patterns of everyday life. It is not about observing your feelings, accepting them, and then letting them go in order to achieve some personal peace in isolation. Cultivating the heart-mind becomes concrete in our everyday interactions, where we can better ourselves and those around us through every interaction.
Our decisions don’t only affect ourselves, but the people and the world around us as well. We each have the potential to become effective and influential in changing the world in which we live. The key here is to sharpen your awareness and to understand how altering things that you do, will alter the direction of situations over time.
In fact, true influence isn’t to be found in overt strength or will. It comes from creating a world that feels so natural that no one questions it. You won’t need to ask yourself how to move through life’s daily encounters if you have nurtured and cultivated your heart-mind.
The challenge this book presents is: Think what your life and business would be like if you assumed none of your beliefs were true?
The world you once thought of as stable instead seems like a world of infinite possibilities. We are always changing. Will we act accordingly to where we are stuck at the moment, or will you act in a way that opens up a constellation of possibilities? At every single moment in time our daily life and our relationships, at home or at work, have limitless potential to be refined and transformed. The complexity and fragmentation of the world give us a million opportunities to construct things anew. Where could you create a new path?