The world is a chaotic mess. After all these years living in modern, sophisticated societies, human relationships are increasingly challenging, textbook narcissists are elected into office, and – broadly speaking – humans don’t seem to be doing so great. Add to that lockdowns due to the novel coronavirus and a looming economic crisis and the picture gets even darker. Most people are not happy with their lives.
In a time where no answer seems useful and no issue solvable, ancient Chinese philosophers provide an alternative gaze. They don’t offer any kind of comprehensive or explanatory doctrine, but that’s actually to their benefit. What they do offer are several ways to change your perspective on life.
Stop looking for your “Authentic” Self
Most of us like to believe that there is some sort of an Authentic Self that we need to find. We think that the right self-motivational quote or maybe a self-help book will help our True Self emerge and guide us to the Good Life. To many Chinese philosophers, this approach is quite limiting. We are everchanging, full of contradictory desires and attitudes. Even more, they think that the best way to find our inner self is by looking outward. Rather than fully investing in a self-absorbed soul searching, pay attention to the way you act. You are what you practice. And with practice, we can always become better.
Cultivate Your Emotion
Our feelings swing back and forth, depending even on the most trivial events. Psychologists have shown that finding a five-dollar bill on the ground changes the way you act toward others. Things happen and we can’t help but react. In a sense, we are slaves to our emotions.
Confucius believes that we should refine our emotional responses. Note that according to Confucius we can’t overcome or control our emotions. After all, they make us who we are. But we can cultivate our emotions by internalizing ways to act upon them. Develop more complex and nuanced reactions by being authentic in the small rituals that make up your everyday life. Note your toxic behavioral patterns and actively transcend them.
Heart and Mind Go Together
We always plan as if the future is predictable and reliable. We rely on some stable facts. Our family, our career, the absence of a global pandemic killing thousands by the day. The problem is that the world is messy and we can’t really count on it.
According to Mencius, being overly calculating and relying too much on rational plans is the wrong way to deal with life. Nowadays we are pushed into a very specific path with very concrete goals early in our lives. But by relying on this kind of logic alone, we can become trapped. Maybe that lawyer life that we invested in doesn’t really suit us – we are emotional beings after all. Mencius asks us to imagine ourselves as a farmer. We can lay the ground for various interests and sides of ourselves, by planning with reason and by keeping our hearts open. We’ll do better when we integrate heart and mind and let our rational and emotional sides blend into one. Rather than getting stuck on a fixed plan, try to pay attention to the daily things that actually invigorate and inspire you, and try to make room for them in your life.
On a lighter note, ancient Chinese culture inspired us to create some amazing music as well. I’m sure it’ll be just as helpful as Chinese philosophy to change your life.