“The Path,” by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh, is not exactly a self-help book.
It’s an outgrowth of a Harvard course that Puett teaches, called “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory,” which is currently the third most popular at the university.
Still, the book is chock-full of ancient wisdom and insights that can help you rethink the choices you make every day so that they lead to greater happiness and fulfillment.
One idea in particular stood out to me as quietly revolutionary. It’s based on the teachings of Confucius, specifically the “Analects,” which is a series of dialogues between Confucius and his disciples.
As Confucius says in the “Analects”: “Overcoming the self and turning to ritual is how one becomes good.”
The authors use a real-life example to illustrate what that sentence means for contemporary readers. They write that people in intimate relationships are constantly constructing new realities by telling “white lies” — chief among them, “I love you.”
Surely, they say, couples who say “I love you” every day don’t feel fully loving all the time.
But there is a greater good in nurturing the relationship through such rituals that let them break from reality and enter a space where it’s as if they do love each other fully and at every moment. At the moment that they express their love in an as-if way, they are really doing it.
In other words, in a committed relationship, behaving in a way you don’t think you feel isn’t necessarily artifice.
Maybe you aren’t enamoured with the way your partner is scarfing down a bag of potato chips (and spilling them all over the couch) this second. But if, instead of rolling your eyes, you verbally express your affection, you change the dynamic of the relationship and perhaps even reignite those positive feelings in yourself.
As for the idea that you’re being disingenuous, the authors interpret Confucius’s teachings to mean that the notion of a “true self,” and accompanying true feelings, is itself misguided.
What we think of as our self is essentially the product of our behaviour patterns. According to Confucius, we are how we act — and since there are many ways to act, we have many possible selves.
Breaking free of our rote behaviours, and replacing them with new “as-if” rituals, is a way of recreating our self.
“A Confucian approach would be to note your patterns and then work to actively shift them,” the authors write. “Over time you internalize a more constructive way of acting in the world instead of being led by your undisciplined emotional reactions.”
This approach is considerably easier than trying to remember all the things you love about your partner or find something endearing about the chip crumbs on their T-shirt. Change your behaviour, Confucius might say, act as if, and your feelings and role in the relationship will likely shift accordingly.
“Little by little,” the authors write, “you develop parts of yourself you never knew existed, and you start becoming a better person.”
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