Michael Puett is a Professor of Chinese History at Harvard University, where he teaches the third most popular class among undergraduates. He is the co-author of THE PATH, a New York Times and International Bestselling book that explores the counter-intuitive brilliance of Chinese philosophy, and its relevance to our lives today. Michael offered IVY members his insights at IVY’s Philosophy Night, which explored how we can all lead more fulfilled lives.
Walking down the street and you see someone you know, and the person says, “Hey how’s it going, it’s all pretty good. Are you doing pretty good?” And you walk on. Now, if you think about, it’s kind of silly thing to do.
And if you ask someone — and I’ve done this experiment — and ask people you know, “Why did you do that”? They’ll say, “You know, I should really kind of start doing that, because it is kind of silly”. I mean, here I am: I’m probably stressed, angry, infuriated at my co-worker for doing this, angry at my family for doing that — and suddenly I see this friend and say, “Oh yeah, things are pretty good”. And in fact I should just stop if the person says how’s it going and just lay it all out. “You know I’m miserable, stressed angry and life is terrible,” and just lay the whole thing out.
Actually if you take these ideas kind of seriously, they would say the opposite. The reason we think it’s kind of silly to do that is because we think we should be authentic to ourselves. If I’m feeling stressed and angry, I should just tell people I’m feeling stressed and angry. That’s me right now. If you take their ideas seriously, they would say, “No, make it into a ritual”.
In other words, really play that role. Really play the role where when you see that friend you, you actually use that moment to break out of your ruts. You actually take that moment you’re going for the day, you’re angry, you’re stressed, things are going terribly and you see a friend and he says, “How’s it going”? And you say, “Oh, pretty good, how are you”? And you’re actually breaking that rut, for that slight moment. For that slight moment, you’re connected with another human being. And that connection is really working and things are going well.
They’re not of course: that’s not the point. Or rather, it is the point because for that moment, it’s not the case. And then, you go back. But of course if you really make it into a ritual, you go back slightly changed. And you’ll also notice, once you start making these into rituals and their sense, how malleable all of that suddenly becomes. You’ll suddenly begin to notice you can alter that. A slightly different tone of voice in that greeting brings out a slightly different response. And you begin working on that. And what you’re doing is you’re training yourself. You’re training yourself not to respond to the world in the normal ways, but to shift how you respond. To actually begin to sense those around you. And slowly you begin to realize these emotions that are otherwise dominating us: jealousies, angers, resentments. They’re not us. Or rather, they’ve become us. But it’s stunning how alterable and changeable they are.