5 Surprising Ways Ancient Chinese Philosophy Can Better Your Life (And The World)

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Things have been crazy lately. The world doesn’t make sense. Humans don’t seem all that great. How could we, after all of these years living in modern, sophisticated societies as rational creatures with infinite opportunities still be so miserable and emotionally susceptible to the world around us? A new book written by two Harvard professors called “The Path” places this entire issue under the wise gaze of ancient Chinese philosophers. Perhaps their insights will give us some sort of clue for living in such a fast-paced world.

Three Myths

Firstly, there are 3 myths that most of us are led to believe as fact that have created an “Age of Complacency”, a time of turmoil and inaction, where no answers seem useful and no issue appears solvable. What are these myths?

For one, we generally believe that this is the freest humanity has ever been. Certainly we have newfangled devices that can do amazing things like order Burger King on the toilet or find our soul mate on the toilet or basically do anything on the toilet. However, at the same time, the gap between the rich and poor has dramatically grown, environmental and humanitarian crises are on the upswing and the koalas are going extinct. Currently, we appear restricted, uncertain of any alternatives as almost every comprehensive ideology has failed us, from Communism to Neoliberalism to Anarcho-Monarchism. Will historians look back on us as the age of complacency? The Chinese philosophers do offer alternatives, but they are far from comprehensive and explanatory doctrines. That’s actually to their benefit.

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The second myth is the idea that we know how to determine the direction our lives take us. After all, we are rational. We invent hypothetical scenarios like the trolley problem to use reason and logic in order to figure out tough ethical situations. We’re so smart! And look at all of the pages committed to solving this very serious issue! Chinese thinkers didn’t think there was much use to this type of philosophy. They would argue that, even if you ended up in the trolley problem one day, you likely wouldn’t become the Kantian logic-machine we’d all hope to be. You’d probably be a teary-eyed mess, reverting to emotions and instincts. The Chinese philosophers strayed from these intellectual games and instead sought out methods to cultivate and train our emotions in order to react in better ways throughout day to day life.

Thirdly, most of us would like to believe that there is some sort of authentic self hidden beneath all that cheeto dust that, with the right motivational quote or self-help book, will emerge and guide us to the Good Life. Hence, we listen to our inner selves and invest heavily in finding who we are. To many Chinese thinkers, this is incredibly limiting. Instead we should recognize ourselves as ever-changing with a plethora of contradictory desires, responses and dispositions. Even more, they argue that these internal thing’s are actually developed by looking outward, by paying attention to the world rather than self-absorbed soul searching. Hence, they are formed in practice. And with practice we can always become better. And here are some ways we can start practicing…

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1. As-If Rituals

A simple game of hide-and-seek with your nephew doesn’t seem all that special. You stick your foot out so they can find you quickly, they find you and laugh, rinse and repeat. However, as Confucius would point out, the significance of this act emerges from the divergence in roles that each of you has undertaken. This is a ritual after all. And rituals are the best we have for constructing new realities. Confucius and many philosophers saw the world as fragmented. Our feelings sway back and forth, changing on a whim depending on if our bus was late or if we found a $5 bill on the ground. Things happen and we react and that pretty much repeats until we die. We are slaves to our emotions.

However Confucius believes we can refine our responses, through propriety. What is propriety? It basically means ‘better ways of responding’. Note that this does not mean we overcome or control our emotions. We have to feel emotion. It makes us human. Instead Confucius argues we should cultivate our emotions by internalizing, over time, better responses. How? Through rituals.

No, this does not mean you have to start lighting candles and summoning things in Latin. You already participate in rituals! When you greet your friend you say ‘Hey, How’s it going?’ and they respond “Great, How about You?”. This is weirdly necessary if you think about it. If you just started the conversation there would be something abrupt to it, something uncomfortable. In this moment you briefly connect with each other and then continue. However briefly, you create a new reality.

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Let’s think about the hide-and-seek game again. Well it shifts our roles as we’ve said. The child, usually vulnerable, gets to be the all-powerful seeker. You, the competent adult (in the eyes of the child at least) get to be the bumbling idiot with his foot showing. Each, in turn, gets to develop a more complex and nuanced side of themself.

Perhaps if we left our commitment to being authentic through these small rituals, we could live a far more empathetic, open and engaged life. Confucius tells us to let go of our true self. After all, that self is the one that keeps the running dialogue of “I’m neurotic so I’ll probably ruin this relationship” or “I’m shy so I won’t speak up”. Note your behavioural patterns, these little toxic thoughts and actively transcend them. Say hi to the grumpy cashier. Ask them out. Call the family member you always neglect. Don’t define yourself!

We tend to think that in order to change the world we need to do big things. Confucius, although not against this argument, would nonetheless ask us to pay attention to the day-to-day above all else. There’s no system that can tell us exactly how to live. But we can, through small changes in our behaviour, learn to live in this messy world.

2. Cultivating the Heart-Mind

Unfortunately, this messy world can be pretty, well, messy. We save up for a new car only to have to shovel into our savings due to unforeseen medical expenses. We plan a romantic anniversary date with our beloved and get dumped. Certainly we consciously know that nothing is certain but, nonetheless, we always plan as if the future is predictable. We rely on certain stable factors. Our family. Our career. The absence of a nuclear war. Mencius, a Confucian scholar, might help us with dealing with such a mess.

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Mencius asks us to imagine the world as one that we can’t count on. How would we live in it? Certainly, we can’t use the rational choice model (a common method in todays age). This model suggests that we can use reason and logic to prepare for anything and everything in order to counter the chaos of such a world. For example, we could systematize the process by which we become a lawyer, mapping out the exact route, from high-school graduation to retirement, by sitting down and meticulously analyzing exactly how one goes about becoming a lawyer. However this model obviously misses out on the fact that we are emotional. What if we woke up twenty years from the day we set out to be a lawyer, with our lawyer job, our lawyer house, our lawyer wife and our lawyer student debt and stopped feeling like we wanted to be a lawyer?

Maybe it would be better to go with our gut instinct then. We could follow our unconscious desires like a child, always living in the moment. We could eat ice cream for days on end, pursue a million different hobbies that pique our interests at one time or another and never settle on anything in particular.

This isn’t all that satisfactory either. Mencius proposes a third path, in which you constantly hone your emotional sense so that it works in sync with your mind. In other words, you use each previously mentioned model to its advantage. We need reason to put plans into action and focus on whats important. Likewise, we live in a constantly changing world and we’ll need emotion to navigate us through it. Soon after adopting this approach, we see each of our decisions as spawning various trajectories that can go in multiple directions. We realize that neglecting to kiss our wife this one time in the doorway after work may open up a possible world in which such a possibility could vanish for eternity.

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This idea is what Mencius calls the heart-mind. We can cultivate our heart-mind by paying attention to our emotional responses and then setting goals that would strive to change them for the better. Note that this is not Buddhist mindfulness, in which we see our emotions go by and accept them in order to achieve some sort of inner peace. Instead, this is a striving towards a more active engagement with the world.

How does this relate to making plans in a world as chaotic as our own? How could the man dead-set on being a lawyer avoid his fate? Mencius asks us to imagine oneself as a farmer. Your goal is to lay the ground for various interests and sides of yourself to grow organically. We build possibilities with our mind and then remain open to them with our heart. In this sense, the heart-mind allows us to become who we are by permitting us to maintain a responsitivity towards our ever-changing interests. Instead of declaring “I can be anything I want to be” we say, with greater humility, “I don’t know yet what I can become”.

The world is not stable. But the silver lining in this is that it opens us up to a world of limitless possibilities.

3. Being Like A Spirit

While how are we supposed to have the energy to live in such a world? Certainly, after work or school you feel pretty bogged down. Life becomes this dull routine of sleep eat work and whatever debauchery you prefer ad infinitum. Even thinking about that is tiring. Wouldn’t it be great to be full of energy, or in other words, spirit?

One modern method of feeling spirited is by asserting yourself, by dominating our environment. This goes back to the Nietzchean ‘superman’ where power creates happiness. Being noticed or influential means being truly on top of your game.

However, what if we could become full of energy through connecting rather than dominating? Think about going for a morning run (or if you’ve already given up on your New Years Resolutions just imagine it). As you run you gather energy and sometimes enough gives you a runner’s high. Suddenly you see things more vividly and you feel more connected with the world.

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Similarly think about doing something artistic such as playing music. You almost lose yourself, energized merely by the self-determined act of plucking each chord. You feel alive.

This form of energy can be seen as energies of divinity, as if some sort of life force has hit you over the head and reminded you about just how cool it is to be alive. Think back to the idea of being full of spirit. Spirits, traditionally, are seen as being fully and vibrantly alive. They see the world around them so clearly that they can even transform it .

Think of the most charming person you know. They fill the room with positive energy, they have a zest for life, they make you excited and you focus on them. How do they do this? They pay attention to their surroundings.

How do we harness this idea of being a spirit? For one we need to lessen our dependence on external events, both good and bad. As stated before, each day is a series of wins and losses, smiles and tears. Of course, all of these emotions are just mental reactions to external things, not necessarily something happening outside of your control.

Hence the Chinese text Inward Training invites us to cultivate emotional stability. Firstly we really need to pay attention to our bodies (posture and all). Secondly we should practice deep breathing. Thirdly we need to eat in moderation. This sounds boring but also recall those days when you slouched on the couch for hours, ate too many Oreos and mindlessly surfed the internet. Chances are, emotionally, things might have been a little chaotic.

However, when we experience flow, the state of absolute immersion in an activity through joy whether through reading a book or playing an instrument, we feel an emotional focus that draws us into a world of constant change and flux.

4. Spontaneity and Flow

The philosopher Zhuanghzi also saw the world as this constant flux and argued that reality was a ceaseless dance of shifts and changes. Accepting this fixed spontaneity was crucial in living an engaged and energetic existence.

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Zhuanghzi advocated for trained spontaneity. He illustrates this with the example of the Cook Ding. Whereas a good cook would change his knife annually since he uses it to cut and an okay cook would change it monthly since they use it to chop, Cook Ding has a knife just as sharp as the day he bought it 19 years ago. How? Cook Ding would slowly and surely cut the meat over and over every day, Each time he cut the meat he paid close attention to each gap, each point of thickness, flowing with the process until he could cut meat at the perfect spot every time. “By doing so, he found satisfaction and spontaneity in the simple activity that made up his everyday life”.

This of course mirrors positive psychology’s idea of flow: the perceived state that one enters when they are immersed in an activity that is meaningfully challenging and interesting. By embracing flow, the individual finds satisfaction in the uncertainties of existence, using their present awareness to actively engage in their world.

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Trained spontaneity is already something we know how to do. Remember how you first had to learn how to ride a bike? Every motion was processed consciously and you probably fell. However, after many summers of slurpee-driven bike rides you barely think about biking: the process has become spontaneous. At this point, you may have begun to experiment with biking. Maybe you learned tricks or tried to see how fast you could go. You became loose, pushing your limits.

When we are conscious, we limit ourselves with worries, predictions and mundane thoughts. Trained spontaneity is an attempt to reduce this by focusing on the present. Doing so energizes us and allows us to engage more fully with the world.

5. Putting Pattern on the World

Finally, on a larger scale, what does ancient Chinese philosophy have to offer? It’s nice to let go of defining ourselves so rigidly, finding emotional stability, accepting the idea of no-guarantees and pursuing spontaneity. And, surely, the world would be much better as a result of people pursuing these ideas. But what about the big issues in the age of complacency? What about ecological collapse, the commodification of private data, the failings of elected officials? One suggestion has been to simply tear it all down. Go back to nature! The other suggestion is to rely even more so on advances in technology. Progress is key! Xunzi saw through the pitfalls in each of these arguments way before the term ‘tree-hugger’ or technocrat entered common use.

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Regarding nature, Xunzi wrote “Human nature is bad. Goodness comes from artifice. It is in the nature of humans to be be born with a fondness for profit…They are born wit hates and dislikes…That is why people will inevitably fall into conflict and struggle if they simply follow along with their nature and their dispositions”. Equally, he asks us to recall what nature was really like for us. Plants wouldn’t grow so we’d die. Rains would come randomly. A giant prehistoric bird would come and take our son. However, over time we began to understand that these events weren’t random. Plants could be domesticated if we understood the seasonal changes. Rain would come and go at certain intervals so we could avoid monsoons. Our son would avoid death by bird if we kept him inside. Overtime, humans understood the world through patterns that they could predict. This is what Xunzi means by patterning the world.

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Equally, there is danger in losing our awareness that we have patterned the world around us. By ordering the world around us too much, we can lose the very capacities that have enabled us to progress in the first place: our creativity and imagination; abilities that are reliant on the previous ideas of living in the present, engaged and spontaneous.

If we spend all of our time glued to our phones, consuming content and withering away under office lighting, we begin to become complacent. The world will always be this way we tell ourselves. However, Xunzi asks of us to remember that we have shaped our surrounding and constructed the world that we live in, for better or worse. Knowing this, we can then realize that we can change it as we have before.


By paying attention to the little things and pulling ourselves out of this age of complacency towards an age of engagement and self-cultivation.

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