thoughts on ‘The Path’

“We find ourselves experiencing certain emotions more often than we do others, and our responses become patterned habits.”

During one of my last therapy sessions I got stuck on the idea of improvement and wanting to get better fast. This might just be me, and it might be one of the things that got me in my current position, but why is it that we yearn for success all the time, and do not allow failure to be a success as well? We, especially in our western culture, crave for success. Success is an achievement that we should all be ambitious enough for to succeed and get the praise that goes with it. Yet it is in times of sorrow, hardship, failure even that we really get to grow.

It did give me some food for thought. And of course I stumbled upon a book I got a few months ago. The Path by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh. The synopsis: “We tend to believe that to change our lives we have to think big. But the great Chinese thinkers would say: don’t forget the small. We only begin to really change when we start with small changes in how we live.”

“Right…” You might think, like I did earlier, “that sounds awfully airy-fairy. Let’s skip that!” But really, let’s not I finally thought to myself. So here we are now, with a little review/take-away of the book. Tl;dr: this book really states nothing new. Heck, they are reviving the thoughts of the great Chinese thinkers of centuries ago. But what is interesting in this book though, is the lesson to becoming more aware of the little things we in our society usually unconsciously but sometimes consciously fall back to.

“We tend to fall into patterned, habitual responses. They may be the 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 behave accordingly, we would be stuck in old behaviours, never forgiving, and limiting our potential to transform. But we already know how to break to break these patterns. […] 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.”

Each chapter draws lessons for modern life from a particular Chinese thinker or text. So we hear about Confucius on the usefulness of social ritual; Mencius and the impossibility of making plans; Zhuangzi on “trained spontaneity”; Xunzi on preferring artifice to nature; Laozi on soft power, and so forth. The writers pick interesting thoughts and notions from the great Chinese thinkers — a bit like “hey, here’s a little introduction on these great thinkers’ philosophy, oh and heyyy here’s a little connection to our thinking/enlightenment in the West”.

If you have some time or care to listen to Mr Puett rather than read my findings from the book, go watch this Ted Talk with Michael Puett where he talks about why it’s better to stop searching for your true self.

Through repetition, we slowly develop new ways of interacting and eventually construct a different and far better self.

Ok, something that came to my mind while reading this book is that failure can be, after all, a successful learning experience. Not that we should keep repeating our mistakes, our failures. But we should learn from them, be grateful for them, and get onto making probably far more interesting mistakes which might lead to far more interesting failures. Along the way we get the opportunity to grow, learn and create a better self and maybe even a better world around us. It should all be a conscious effort at first, but by creating and renewing good habits it could maybe, perhaps be doable.

I never told you I was going to tell you anything new, or that this book was. But this book does give us a newbie-friendly, interesting and inspiring introduction to Chinese philosophy. It was pretty interesting at had some good reminders. I’m not sure what I was hoping for in The Path, but the book slowly turned into a typical “how to be successful” kind of book with some references to Chinese philosophers. So as if this really was a review: I’d say this book gets 3 out of 5 stars. ★★★☆☆