I’m reading, and loving, Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh’s ‘The Path‘, a book about how ancient Chinese philosophy can help us understand ourselves and live our lives more fully. It’s concise, clear, and beautifully written. And, at the heart of it, is an important and wonderful idea from Confucius (echoed in the contemporary world by Martin Heidegger among others): that we largely become who we are through our everyday actions.
This apparently simple claim has some extraordinary consequences.
The first is that there is not so much of a fixed way that each of us is. When I say ‘you know me, I hate being around company, I don’t know what to do in a crowd’ and then repeatedly take myself off to be on my own, I’m actively building myself into someone who is more skilful being with myself than being with others. I’m also becoming someone who knows myself in a particularly narrow way. I get to be the kind of person I am through the accretion of thousands upon thousands of actions, both internal and external, and the stories I tell about those actions, bringing some parts of me into view and pushing other parts towards the margins.
For Confucius this is an important ethical issue. My story about myself – that I am a particular way – is much too small, leaving out as it does all those aspects of me (less known, and perhaps less tolerated by me) that can be quite skilful at social relating and which, with purposeful cultivation, could help me live a life which has more connection with people and a greater possibility of moment-to-moment care for others around me.
The second consequence is that there is a profound and quite pragmatic developmental path to follow, one which can open up wide possibility, and that is the path of practice. Repeated, well-chosen practice – in my example above, the practice of being with and being attuned to others – not only builds skilfulness but allows me to rehearse a different kind of relationship to myself and to life than the one I’m used to. By choosing practice carefully I can gradually find out what it is like to be a social person as well as a solitary person, and cultivate those parts of me which (simply by being human) are quite able to be present with and take care of others.
The point made so beautifully by ‘The Path’ is that in a culture dominated by the detached world-view of Cartesianism, which privileges thinking and theorising about things over the day-to-day doing of things, we’ve largely forgotten the value of simple, everyday practices and rituals as a support for living well. And we’ve forgotten how they can widen our horizons, build our capacity to respond more fully to life’s inevitable unpredictability, and help us take care more skilfully of life’s needs.