Michael Puett: “The Path” | Talks at Google

Michael Puett: “The Path” | Talks at Google

Thank you so much. And thank you all of you. It’s wonderful to
be here at Google Cambridge, a tremendous honor. And thank you all
so much for coming. So what I’m going to
be talking about today is something that may at first
glance seem a little odd. I’m going to be talking
about, yes, ideas from about 2,000
years ago, from China, and arguing that they are not
only incredibly important, but actually offer a
fundamental challenge to a lot of things
we take for granted, and a fundamental challenge
that we should even take very seriously. Now before I begin,
let’s lay out why this may seem like
such an odd thing to do. First of all and most
obviously, we kind of think we know how we
should live our lives. So it’s not entirely
clear why we would need to be reading text
from 2,000 years ago anyway. I mean, we know. The way to do it is to look
within and to find yourself. And we often tell
ourselves this. I need to find myself. I need to find who I really am. And I need to live
my life according to what’s best for me. And when I do find myself, find
my true self we’ll often say, I need to love myself
and embrace myself for who I am, accepting
my weak side– we all have weak sides– but accepting
of course my good sides too, and then trying to develop
a life in which I can be me according to what
is my good sides and minimizing my bad sides, and
what will allow me to be happy and a good human being. And we all think that’s clear. And the problem is just
doing it, looking within and finding oneself. And we have all sorts of
techniques for doing that. But basically that’s
what we should do. And putting this in a
larger historical context, if one tends to think
about these ideas of being true to oneself, we would
tend to think something along the following
lines, that these are prototypical modern ideas. And luckily for us we live in
a modern age so we can do this. We can look within. We can live our lives according
to what’s best for us. And sadly, most humans,
we tend to assume, weren’t able to do this. And if you look at why, we
would often tend to say well, you know, they live in
these traditional societies. And in those
traditional societies, people were told what to do. They just were born
into a society. They were told what to do. And they had to live
their lives accordingly. So they couldn’t live within and
they couldn’t find themselves and they couldn’t be
true to themselves. And, let’s also
be honest, if you think of perhaps the culture
that most exemplifies, in our stereotypes, what such
a traditional world would be like, yeah, it’s
kind of China, right? And if you think of
traditional China, it kind of fits all
of our stereotypes of what a traditional
world would have been. In China, we often think that
you’re born into a society, and that these ideas that
we label Confucianism that tell you, you have to
follow a bunch of rituals, and those rituals
will socialize you into playing your
proper social position. And if you do them well, you’ll
live in a harmonious world because everyone will be
doing what they’re told to do. And it’s sort of the
antithesis of what we would tend to think of
as being a good way to live. And following our
stereotypes a bit further, we do tend to have
a more positive view of another side of
Chinese culture, which we tend to label Daoism. And that’s the side
where we think, OK, you’re socialized into
playing your social role by doing a bunch of rituals. But then luckily they had
something called Daoism too that enabled them to sort of go
off, leave their social roles for a bit, and commune with
the larger natural world. But even there we often
tend to think, yeah, but still in Daoism,
they’re still saying it’s a harmonious
world out there. And we’re training
ourselves to accord with it. And so even if it’s not as
confining as our social roles, we’re still just learning
to accept the world as it is, which means we’re
not doing things on our own. We certainly aren’t
finding ourselves. We’re certainly not
living our own lives. So China kind of
exemplifies our stereotypes of a traditional world,
both in the Confucian focus on social roles and even
in the more positive way we tend to think of it, Daoist
notion of sort of harmonizing with the larger natural world. So if all of that
is the case, it seems like I have kind
of a tough job in front of me arguing that actually
some of these ideas from China should be taken very seriously. And I am indeed
going to argue that. In fact, I’m going to argue
something much more than that. I’m going to argue that when
we take these ideas seriously, they really force us to
question a lot of what we take for granted about human beings,
about how to live a good life, and even about our
grand visions of history going from a traditional
world to a modern society. A grand set of claims,
and let me jump right in. Now to make my argument,
let me begin with that thing I began with, the self,
this thing that we’re supposed to look within
and find and live our lives according to. So that’s one view of the
self, a view of the self that all of us are born with one
true self that we should find. Let’s talk about early
Chinese notions of the self. What do they think the self is? So let me jump in. Now I’ll forewarn you, the
first few steps of this are going to seem very
bleak, but bear with me. You’ll get to the
exciting part soon. But here’s the bleak part. Are we, as human beings,
a true essential self that we should be
trying to find? No. What we are, are big
bunches of messy stuff. Messy bunches of energies,
dispositions, emotions, desires, faculties. And all of us are
equally messy bunches. That’s what we’re like. And that’s what we’re
like when we’re born, a big bunch of messy stuff. And because we’re these
messy stuffs, what we are as human beings,
minus all the things we’re going to be talking
about momentarily– our danger is we’re completely
passive in the world. Because as these
messy stuffs, we interact with other messy
stuffs, other people. And when we do so, we are
constantly dragging out responses from each other. So I, a messy self, am standing
here and someone yells at me. I get angry. Well in this way of
thinking, what happens is that loud voice, that angry
voice, draws out from me, pulls out from me
an energy of anger. When someone smiles at me,
and that pulls out from me an energy of happiness. And all I am throughout the
day is being passively pulled by things that happen
immediately around me– people I encounter, things they
do, little actions they take, tones of voice. And I’m simply passive in this,
being dragged out constantly. And if that sounds
bleak, it gets worse. Because the further argument
is that’s what we’re like. But we don’t simply get
pulled in different directions all the time. Because even worse,
it turns out, is that we tend to fall
into patterns of responses from a very young age. So that person yells at me
and it draws out my anger. Someone else simply doing
something that for whatever reason emotionally
reminds me of that moment will equally draw
out that anger. And we will tend to fall into
these patterns and ruts such that we’re not even
really responding to things that are actually
happening around us. We’re responding by
patterned responses. Things happen to draw out,
for whatever reason based in these patterns I fall into,
anger and happiness and joy and sadness, constantly. And these patterns can
become so rigid, so reified, that they can become
determinant of who we are. So we begin experiencing
the world on a moment by moment basis according
to these ruts and patterns. And if this isn’t bleak enough,
it gets worse yet still. Because once these
patterns and ruts set in, they not only can continue
for months, years, decades, they not only can
continue and determine us for our entire lives,
they can be passed on. Because things that I do
in my parents and ruts, I will pass on to
the next generation because I will be playing
out these same patterns and ruts that I was falling
into from a young child. Many of those came
from the interactions I had with my parents. I will play them out
when I have children. And my poor children
will grow up playing out these same things. And they can go on
generation after generation after generation. That’s what we’re
like as human beings. Now if they’re right– and
I might add parenthetically, there are now tons of
psychological experiments saying this is exactly right. We like to think we’re
these individuals with free will making
decisions throughout the day. It turns out tons
of experiments are showing that, no, this portrait
you see from early China is basically right. We’re these passive creatures
playing out these patterns and ruts all the time. So if they’re right, and if
these psychological experiments saying they’re right
are onto something– and I clearly think they
are– note immediately, when we tell
ourselves, oh my goal then should be to look
within, find my true self, and embrace myself and
love myself for who I am, and simply be true
to myself, being sincere and authentic to what is
truly right for me, all of that sounds great. But no, if they’re
right, what we’re loving, what we’re embracing,
what we’re trying to be true and sincere
and authentic to is just a bunch of ruts and
patterns, the last thing, from this point of view, that
you would want to be embracing. Because if they’re
right, if we are these patterned,
rutted creatures, your goal isn’t to love that, to
embrace that, to simply say oh, I’m just the sort of person who
gets angry at little things, but I’m the sort of person
who likes to think big. So I should just find a place
where I, given who I am, can fit well in this world. From this point of view what
you’re really saying is, I have fallen into
patterns and ruts where these little
things get me angry. And I’m going to just love
that and embrace that. In other words, I’m not
going to make any attempt to change that whatsoever. And ironically then,
our grand vision of how to live a liberated life,
how to be true to ourselves and sincere, from
this point of view, is just chaining ourselves. We’re chaining ourselves to
this set of ruts and patterns we’ve fallen into. So, following up the
full argument then, if they are right and if
our vision of ourselves therefore is potentially
restraining, constraining, dangerous even, what do
they recommend doing? Well, now we get to another
one of those surprising ideas– rituals. Remember the
beginning of the talk I mentioned that we tend to
think of rituals as being part and parcel of these
traditional societies, part and parcel of a
world where we’ll be born into a society that
would tell us what to do. And rituals we tend to
think are the things that socialize us into
doing those sorts of things. So rituals kind of perfectly
exemplify why we don’t like traditional worlds. They perfectly
exemplify what we don’t like about a traditional
society because we don’t like being told what to do. We should decide
for ourselves as opposed to rituals
that socializes into certain ways of being. So, as I’ve noted,
their vision of the self is rather different. So let’s now talk about
their vision of ritual. Yes, they talk
about rituals a lot, and they think
they’re important. But here’s what they
say about rituals. Rituals are not there
to socialize you into a certain way of being. The reason you do
rituals is to break you from your patterns and ruts and
to open up other possibilities. That’s why we do rituals. Let me give you a
very clear example from their time, before we
follow up the implications for what it would mean for us. But here’s one of
their rituals just to give you a sense of
what they’re talking about. So we fall into patterns
and ruts, right? Here’s a very common one
we tend to fall into, father-son relationships,
father-son relationships in which patterns and ruts
can play out for generations in which the father
will be hopefully both trying to be a
good father, but perhaps being in the dominant position
of the relationship, perhaps a little arrogant and
aggressive, the son both trying to live up to the
father, but feeling himself always failing, and vis a
vis this authority figure. And these relationships can play
out for generations, oftentimes very tension filled. So what do they
recommend to deal with these sorts of patterns? Do they recommend sitting
down and chatting it through and having a good, nice talk
through about all the problems? Well no, because they would
say if we’re patterned, rutted creatures, you can
talk and talk and talk. But you’ll simply return to
the same patterns and ruts because they’re so much a part
of our whole way of being, our whole way of emotionally
experiencing those around us. So here’s what you do instead. You do a ritual. And in the ritual
what will happen is the father and the son go to
the edge of the ritual space, and they stop. And then they walk
in without blushing. Now that may seem like
a really odd thing to have as part of a
ritual, but here’s why. Because when they
walk in the ritual, they’re no longer
who they were before. The son is now his
own grandfather. And the father is now
the son of his own son. And the son, but
now the grandfather, sits in the richly proper
position facing south. And his own father, who’s
now his son in the ritual, faces him looking north. And the father
pays proper senses of developing a proper
relationship to his own son, except it’s his
father in the ritual. And the idea is all
of these tensions that he has had with his own
father that can’t be worked out now because the
father is passed away, he now works out again,
in a ritual context, but with his own son. And his own son, from
a very young age, also has to play the role of
being the father, learning from a young age
what it’s like to be in a position of authority, the
incredible responsibility that comes from that, but equally
the dangers of falling into a sort of arrogance
that comes from being in a position of power. And from a young age, he
has to experience that, but looking at his own
father as if he were the son. And by doing this, by
forcing this role reversal, but more importantly by forcing
this role reversal where each actually has to relate to
the other in precisely the most difficult position
of the relationship, the idea is what you
are doing is breaking the kind of patterns that are
playing out outside that ritual space. Then you stand up in the
ritual and you walk out, and you’re back to
being father and son and the same old patterns
begin to recur again. Of course, the father
starts yelling at the son, the son starts getting
rebellious, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But then you go back. And the idea is by doing this
ritual over and over again, being forced to play the
opposite role vis a vis that very person, what you
doing is breaking those patterns over time. And by doing so– and this
is really the key point– you’re opening up
the possibility for a different
form of relationship outside the ritual. And let me emphasize
that latter point. Note immediately,
this ritual is not socializing you into playing
the role in the ritual. The son is not being socialized
into playing the role of being the father to his own father. The father is
certainly not being socialized into the role of
playing a son to his own son. The point of the
ritual is the break. The point of the ritual is to
say you, for that brief period, act as if you’re a
different person, relating to another one in
a different way. And that break forces
a shift, forces a rupture in the usual
patterns that dominate us. And that opens the possibility
for something else. And what is that something else? What that something
else is means if we’re these patterned,
rutted creatures, if you begin to break them, what
you begin to realize over time is that on the contrary, we are
also very messy creatures who have fallen into patterns,
also meaning therefore that you begin to
realize that these are all alterable and changeable. And slowly what
begins to happen is all of these patterns and
ruts that dominate oneself outside the ritual space become
shiftable and malleable and workable. And note, this one ritual
example I gave you is only one of a ton you’re
doing all the time, which are constantly forcing
these breaks, constantly forcing one– and I’ll
use one of their terms– not to find oneself but
to overcome the self. Now immediately
you might say, OK, even if we grant
that this is kind of intriguing and kind of
perhaps on to something about the self, and even a
kind of intriguing definition of ritual, it’s not
really something we can take seriously beyond
that because, well, we don’t do rituals. I mean, we don’t have rituals
where we do role reversals. And so even if it worked
for them, well, that’s good. But still, what are we
supposed to do with this? Well, here’s the next
stage of their argument. I suspect if you took
a lot of these figures and plucked them into
contemporary society and said do an ethnographic
analysis of what humans are like nowadays,
these radically modern liberated selves, and
tell us what you would think. I suspect what
they would say is, they’re human beings like
all human beings as we’re describing them. They’re these patterned,
rutted creatures who are just following out these
patterns and ruts all the time. And part of these
patterns and ruts include things
that become reified as customs or conventions. But they’re still just different
forms of patterns and ruts because we all do them
without thinking about them. And that’s what we’re like. Or putting it in their
eyes, they would say yeah, they’re just like
we’re describing them, patterned, rutted
creatures, perhaps even worse because
they’re so convinced they are being true to
themselves and living their own lives
that they don’t even realize the degree to which
they’re patterned and rutted. And therefore what would
they say to break them? Well, they’d began with the very
things they were looking at, customs and conventions. Because you see the ritual
I just described actually comes from an earlier one, an
earlier one that was actually just a custom that they made
into a ritual in the sense they’re talking about. And what this would mean
for us is the following. We like to think we’re liberated
living our lives on our own. If we’re patterned and rutted,
note also among these patterns and ruts are these
endless conventions that we just play out all the
time without thinking about. Let me give you a standard
example from America. You see someone you know
walking down the street. They say hey, how’s it going it. And you say oh, pretty
good, how are you doing? And the other person goes
oh, pretty good, yeah. And then you walk along. Now if you think about
that– and I’ve actually asked lots of people
to think about it– you’ll often say
things like, yeah, that’s kind of a weird thing we
do because in fact I’m usually not feeling pretty
good right then. I’m usually when I’m
walking down the street, I’m anxious and angry
and fearful of this and worried I’m
not getting enough done and angry with what’s
going on with my partner and blah blah, blah, blah,
blah– in other words, a typical day. And then I see someone I say,
oh, things are pretty good. And if you think about
it, it seems kind of odd. We’re being inauthentic. Or maybe I should just say, if
someone says how’s it going, I should just stop
and say oh my god, I’m anxious and
fearful and angry and lay the whole thing out. Well, if you take these
ideas from China seriously, they would say the
precise opposite. No, we shouldn’t be
authentic at that moment. We shouldn’t try to
spill out who we truly are at that moment. Actually on the contrary, we
should make the convention into a ritual. Which means you don’t simply
by rote say oh, pretty good. How are you? You actually, if you
think of it as a ritual, think of it as a rite. Where yes, at that moment,
you’re walking down the street. You’re anxious, fearful,
angry, all the things we just mentioned, the typical
roiling set of emotions that are often sadly dominating us. And then at that
moment what you do is you act as if you’re a
different person relating to this other messy person
who’s probably equally angry, resentful,
and blah, blah, blah in a perfect way
where, at that moment, yes, everything is good. I’m connecting with this person. This person is a
really close friend. Everything is wonderful. Not because it is. It’s not. Not because even that
person is a close friend. He or she probably is not. Rather, you’re acting
as if they are. And why do you do that? Because if you do that,
and keep doing this, all these little
conventions, you begin working on
and breaking them, acting as if you’re a
slightly different person. What you begin to
notice– and I mean begin to notice
within a few days. And it’s amazing how quickly
you begin to start sensing this. You start sensing the
degree to which yes, you are patterned and rutted,
because you will note the little things
that you’re doing that are in fact affecting
others all the time without you noticing it, because we’re just
playing out these patterns. It’s affecting them
because they’re playing out their patterns. And you begin to notice,
by these little breaks, that on the contrary,
if you shifting things slightly, saying oh pretty good
in a slightly different tone of voice, walking in a
slightly different way, you’ll notice it affects
people around you in a slightly different way
too– often times without them noticing it. They’re patterned. They’re just responding by ruts. But then you being
working on it. And you begin to notice the
degrees to which, for example, relationships that
we’re in– we have all these problematic
relationships. At home, you have a
partner where you just go through the same
fight every single night. In the office place– I’m sure
never here– but in the office place you have a
difficult coworker. And it just seems
to go on endlessly. Of course it goes on endlessly. It’s patterns. These are ruts. But how do you break
them– little alterations, little shifts. And you begin to notice,
smiling at a time when you wouldn’t
otherwise smile, doing something you
wouldn’t otherwise do begins to actually alter
your relationship– suddenly, slightly. But then you do it
a little bit more. And slowly these
relationships start shifting, exactly like doing a
ritual where you’re forced to do a role reversal. Now it’s slightly
different because you’re sort of creating these
alterations as you go. But it actually
accomplishes the same goal. You’re breaking these ruts. And then where
does this take one? Well as these ruts
begin shifting, you also notice
something else too. Your relationships, by
definition, begin to shift. But you also begin to notice
that who you thought you were, this true self that
was just you with all of the witnesses, the fact
that we get angry at things, et cetera, is incredibly
alterable too, because you begin physically
feeling differently. You begin physically
feeling differently as you begin interacting
with others differently. You begin experiencing
the world differently. And it becomes
ever more workable. And you begin altering that. And slowly what
you’re learning– not cognitively
but in practice– is that yes, we
are messy selves. We are messy selves that fall
into these patterns and ruts. But the flip side of
that– finally getting to the good part–
is if we are messy– and I think we are–
that’s changeable. That’s alterable. And you begin to
realize we’ve fallen into entire ways
of being passively. And you begin to realize by
altering those and changing those and shifting those, at the
very ludicrously mundane level of just ordinary things
we’re doing on a daily basis, out of that, slowly, you
begin changing yourself, changing your interactions,
changing your relationships. And then you start becoming
active in the process. Then you begin working on
how these relationships are affecting those
around you and you. And the more you work, you
begin forging a different self. And if everything
is malleable, you can start forging
different worlds. And I mean that
in a strong sense, forging entire worlds where
instead of interacting with others de facto in ways
that are often very harmful, you’re actually acting in
ways that are enabling them to flourish and you as well. Now that seems like
a strong statement, but let me give again
another of their examples before I bring it
to our own age. So I mentioned
this guy Confucius that we tend to associate
with Confucianism, this idea that we should just
follow a bunch of rituals to train us into being
certain types of beings. And as we’ve noticed, they
had a very different notion of ritual. So let me now say a few
more words about Confucius. If this notion of ritual
is what he’s advocating, where does it take us? And here’s where it took him. Let me describe the way he,
Confucius, is described. The way he is
described in a work c the “Analects,” which is a
work beautifully put together by his disciples
basically to describe him, what he was like as a person. And if we tend to think of him
as this kind of ritual fuddy duddy telling people, do
rituals, do rituals, do rituals and be socialized
into your position, it’s a very different portrait. Here’s the way he’s
actually portrayed. He is portrayed as someone
intensely joyous, incredibly joyous, incredibly charismatic,
the sort of person that people just want to be wound. And the reason they
want to be around him is because of what he’s
become so good at doing. And he’ll be
described as someone who can simply walk
into a situation and has become so good, because
he’s been training himself through a lifetime
of this ritual work, that he can immediately sense
all the patterns and ruts playing out in that situation. And he’ll do little
things to alter the situation, little
things like a tone of voice, the way he holds his body,
the way he’ll quote from lines of poetry, that will bring out
different responses from those around him, that will enable
all the sort of tensions and complexities of the
moment to be shifted. And in that moment, suddenly
you create this pocket where people begin to connect
well, sense each other well, begin to flourish. And the idea is by doing
that moment by moment, he’s become this
intensely joyous person that it’s joyous to be
around because he’s just so good at connecting with
people and working with people and shifting situations
for the better. And by doing this on a
moment by moment basis, the further argument
is this is what he’s able to do at
a larger level too. He’s able to with the
immediate people he encounters, but at a larger level, able to
do it with more social problems because he can sense the
patterns that are creating the dangers and
the difficulties, and can sense how to begin
shifting them and altering them and working on them. We have, again, a
very mundane level, because the argument
is it really comes down to basic ways of
experiencing the world and interacting with
those around us. That’s how he’s described. Or to put it in stronger
terms, the vision is he was every bit as patterned
and rutted as all of us. But he’s held up as
an example of someone that if you do these
rituals and are constantly trying to break these
patterns and ruts, and train yourself
accordingly, you can become that sort of a person. The term they use is sage. And the argument isn’t
that we’ll become sages. Their argument is, it’s
a lifelong process that will never succeed. But that is the
vision of a life. The vision of a
life in a nutshell is precisely not that we should
be looking within, finding ourselves, embracing
ourselves for who we are, being sincere and authentic
to this true self. The visions of the self
is, think of yourself as something you forge, either
passively, in which case you fall into these
rights and that’s it. And they’ll just dominate
your life until you die. And sadly, you’ll pass them
on to the next generations. Or you forge your life
actively and consciously through these constant
daily interactions that you’re
constantly working on. And the full argument
is, if you do that, if you’re committed to
that as a vision of the self, then what you’re really
committing yourself to is a constant– to
use again an odd term in our terminology– kind
of a training exercise. To give yet another example
that is from our own time, if you try to think of places
where we do the sorts of things they’re talking about, they’re
actually kind of easy to find. But we don’t really do
them in our daily life. Think for example
of learning a sport or learning a
musical instrument. It involves incredible
amounts of work and training. But what you’re
achieving is something beyond simply playing well. So here’s an example,
learning the piano. So if you’re learning
the piano, you don’t just sit down to the
piano and play spontaneously and play well. That’s just painful. What you do on the
contrary is you train yourself– incredibly,
incredibly hard work, hours a day training yourself
to do the basic chord progressions, to
learn to feel the key. And as the years go by, you
begin to sense the keys. You begin to sense how, if
you play slightly differently, you can bring out certain
moods in those around you. If you play a little softer
or a little more strongly, you can affect the
room in different ways. And as the years go by, you
get so good at doing this that you’re able to do it, in
their terms, spontaneously. You’ve trained yourself to
spontaneously sense the music, sense the room,
sense the situation, sense how to alter
the mood of the room. And through that
training, you’re spontaneously able to so
sense the world around you that you’re able to play
with this incredible degree of power, the power in
the sense of altering the world for the better. That is the vision
they’re talking about. And that sense that
you’ve gotten– and we’ve all done something
like this, if not a piano, then a sport or
something like this– there’s a sense of
incredible– yeah, I’ll use the term–
joyousness that comes when you’re
so in the moment, so sensing a
situation, and so able to alter that situation just
by sensing things so well. So if we kind of know what
they’re talking about by things we do like when we learn a piano
or learn a musical instrument, note the final point
that I want to emphasize. All of the examples
I suspect that we would tend to think of when
we kind of realize, oh yeah, I kind of understand that you
can train yourself to be the sort of person
they’re talking about, these are things we kind
of tend to do on weekends to feel better, right? Like on weekends, OK,
I’ll play the piano. Now I’ll play the sport. And then I’ll go back to
my normal, everyday life. What in a sense they’re
saying is the following. Suppose you take
that same vision of what it takes to train
yourself, but apply it to your everyday life such
that your everyday life becomes a training exercise,
training yourself to sense situations,
sense patterns, since these ruts that
we and those around us have fallen into, and train
yourself to sense this, begin to work on this,
alter this, shift this. And what you’re
training yourself to do is to [INAUDIBLE] the
ability, over time, to, yes, create these worlds
around you within which people can flourish. You do it by not finding the
self but overcoming the self. You do it by not trying to be
sincere and true to yourself, but, at the
beginnings, acting as if you are different
types of people, but slowly therefore over
time constructing the self. And the goal is to achieve
something like what they would call [INAUDIBLE]. Not again that we
achieve it, but something along those lines of
becoming the sort of person so attuned to
everyone around one that, at an immediate level
and a larger social level, that you’re able to sense
situations and create these worlds within which
people can flourish. In short, if we are
malleable creatures– and again, psychological
experiments are showing that we
are– in practice we tend to lose that because
we become patterned and rutted. But take it seriously,
and suddenly everything that we thought
was stable becomes changeable. Or to put it, again, in very
strong terms, when we go back and like to think, yes,
we are a liberated people because we can decide
for ourselves how to live our lives, as opposed
to those traditional people who couldn’t, the intriguing
thing is maybe in part it’s sort of the opposite, that
with our grand visions of how to live liberated lives by being
true and sincere to ourselves, we, ironically,
are creating very stable selves– in their
terminology, patterned and rutted selves. And assuming a very
stable world around us, whereas a lot of
these other ideas that have arisen
in world history were about recognizing the
degree to which the world isn’t really stable. We create stable worlds. But therefore, since we
do it passively, often very dangerous, destructive,
discriminatory ones in which people are
not able to flourish. And take it seriously, you
realize the world is really incredibly malleable. And we are, in part, creating
that world, often poorly, often passively. But if you change that and
begin living your life the way they’re describing
it, suddenly you realize that these
worlds can be created by the little tiny things
that we’re doing all the time. In short, if we take
this idea seriously, it forces us– at least
offers, I would say, a fundamental challenge to our
vision of the self, our vision of what it means to be
a liberated individual, our vision of what we think
of as the modern world, and perhaps makes us realize
that, on the contrary, our vision of the
self is a vision. It has certain implications. Some of them at
least are potentially restraining and dangerous even
to us and those around us. And some of these old ideas
from the traditional past– in this case China,
but I’ll expand this. A lot of ideas from
around the world can suddenly be taken seriously
again because they’re not confined to a so-called
traditional world, but we realize actually
they’re operating from a very different
vision of the self, but one that’s really on
to something fundamental. And if we take them
seriously, yes, it forces us to challenge
our assumptions, and perhaps opens us to
a very powerful vision of what it would
mean to live life well in the sense of
enabling those around us and ourselves to flourish
through the seemingly simple mundane stuff
that we do on a very basic, everyday level. In short, these
ideas are incredibly powerful because they
challenge our assumption and offer a very
practical vision of what, on a daily basis, we could
be doing that would allow us, over the course of a
lifetime, to become very different and hopefully
incomparably better types of human beings. Thank you so much. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Great, thank you. And I would love to hear
questions, comments, thoughts. Please– please, yes. AUDIENCE: I was thinking
about why we might concentrate a lot on paying attention to
the self, like what our wants and desires are. And the difference between now
and the past, one difference, is the economy, if
I might go there. MICHAEL PUETT: Yes, absolutely. AUDIENCE: The economy then,
everybody could basically follow one of a very, very small
number of patterns as a male or as a female. Now we’re in an
economy where there is such a diversity
of paths and everybody can’t do the same path. And so you teach
undergrads, right? MICHAEL PUETT: Yes. AUDIENCE: And all of them
are like, OK, where’s mine? I can’t follow what
everybody else is doing. So how do those play out? MICHAEL PUETT: I think
that’s beautifully put. And I think it’s a
perfect example of where we are in a sense,
because on the one hand, we have a world that should
be open for incredible possibilities, as you said,
a world in which seemingly endless number of paths
are available to us. And yet the chilling thing if
one takes these ideas seriously is how in practice, we can
so imprison and constrain ourselves in terms of that work. So getting back to the
key of your question, they would argue if it’s
true that the world seems to us incredibly open, why do
we not live our lives that way? And why on the contrary
are we not pursuing all these possibilities
that are really potentially available to us, but
on the contrary falling into these incredibly
dangerous ruts? And I would say that’s
true of us individually, but I would put it in a
larger social level too. We live in a world that
is becoming unbelievably stratified, where people’s
lives are unbelievably– not only routinized,
but actually held into certain
socioeconomic positions, and are surprisingly
unchangeable. So given what would seem
to be the reality of a very open world, and equally
the reality of a world that we seem to be creating
isn’t going on, why not? And going back to their
ideas, they would say, well, it comes down to the ways
that we live our lives, and at a larger level,
the kind of social worlds that we’ve accordingly
created, which we now think of as grand and
liberatory, but ironically are creating a
completely different type of world, which surprisingly
we don’t even seem to notice. So thank you,
wonderful question. Thank you. Yes please. AUDIENCE: First of all
I’d like to apologize on behalf of the site for
the construction noise. MICHAEL PUETT: That is fine. AUDIENCE: There is one
aspect of finding yourself that it strikes me
still has value, and that is we have
different values. And so finding your
values, not necessarily what makes you feel
good, but what you feel detracts from you if you
were to turn against it. For example, if you value
the helping of others and you only pursue wealth, for
reasons other than donation, then you are not being
true to your values. And that is, I think,
worthwhile to pay attention to. But I agree that the find
yourself seems to often mean the self in the sense of
wanting to escape from rather than the self
in the sense of what values are fundamental to me. MICHAEL PUETT: Yes,
perfectly put, and I actually agree completely. So were we to conceptualize the
self in the sense of the self that we are creating
through the little works that we’re doing
all the time, then I think the notion of
finding a self works great. In other words, finding
a self in that sense would be an active
constructive process of, as you said, developing
the values that we want to be guiding our lives. The danger, as you
said, is so often when we use the term finding
ourself, we are using it in that opposite sense. We’re using the sense of, I need
to find my true authentic self that I should just embrace
and love for who I am. And the problem is in
practice, even if we say, and part of that is
I’m the sort of person who values certain
things, danger is with that way of
thinking, actually the way we live in our
daily lives perhaps is not at all according
to the values that we like to think we hold,
that in fact the daily ways we’re living and the ways
we’re affecting others can often directly
contradict what we claim to be our own values. So getting back to the
heart of your question, yes, if we can think of the self
as something we are working on, constructing, and the values
of the self being something that we as human
beings are constructing through our daily life and
therefore hopefully embodying in the way we live, then it’s
a wonderful notion of the self. Sadly, it tends to be not
the vision of the self that we tend to think about when
we’re actually living nowadays. AUDIENCE: It’s a
form of surrender to love the self you have rather
than the self you aspire to. MICHAEL PUETT: Yeah, that’s
perfectly put– perfectly put. I mean, this sounds so great
to love myself, embrace myself. But the danger exactly
as you said is, well no, you’re just embracing
the set of patterns and ruts I’ve fallen into. And the goal should
be aspirational. It’s to create a great
self, a great self that can work well in the world
and help those around one. And that’s the
vision of self I fear we’re losing, precisely with
our vision of always being true to yourself and
sincere to yourself and authentic to yourself. Ironically, we’re creating the
exact opposite type of a world. Great, thank you. Thank you. Please, yes. AUDIENCE: Hi. At the end you have
this beautiful vision that the sage’s path is
like creating spaces that cause joyousness in others. That was my understanding. But we also, at
the beginning, you point out that if we’re
just bundles of stuff, the other bundles
of stuff are what can cause us to get into
these patterns and ruts. So like other bundles of
stuff yell at me, and then I– And I have this stereotype–
I don’t know much about Chinese philosophy–
but I have a stereotype like Chinese philosophers
were hermits. And listening to
your talk, I sort of could understand
how, to some extent, I wonder, like, when
I was hearing this, well I can protect myself from
the other bundles of stuff by just not leaving my
house and creating patterns in my own house
that I can control, because you ultimately can’t
control the other bundles. I guess sort of how do you
take that jump from hermit to joyousness? MICHAEL PUETT: Yeah, no,
it’s a great question. And what they would say– and I
would agree with them on this– is that doing the approach
of sort of locking oneself in one’s room and not
interacting with others in the long run
is actually going to be completely
disruptive, that really the only way to work
on these patterns and ruts is through
interactions. And yes, the simple fact– and I
think you’re right about this– that so many of our
patterns and ruts are formed with what
other people are doing around us, who are
equally patterned and rutted. The key is what we’re
training ourselves to do is both act in ways that
hopefully will break patterns and ruts with those
around us, but we’re also training ourselves
not to be affected in the same dangerous
ways, they would put it, by those around us as well. So we turn to that example. If that person is
yelling at me, that will draw out even someone
who’s not yelling but using a tone of voice
that for whatever reason emotionally reminds me of
someone who used to yell at me. That would draw a
certain response. So part of the
training exercise is you’re training yourself
not to passively respond that way–
in other words, not to respond by those
same patterns and ruts. And when that person
does something, you’re training yourself
not to be so affected by it. And in the long run what you
really train yourself to do is the next step too, which
is to realize probably if that person is doing
something like either yelling or some kind of
strong kind of voice, it probably is coming
as well from something you’re doing too–
unconsciously. You’re just playing out your
usual patterns and ruts. But that’s creating
the situation where that person gets angry. You get angry in return. You’re doing something too. And so you’re training
yourself not to be affected by that person in that way. But you ultimately
want to train yourself to be able to act in
ways that will actually shift that person too. So that person’s
anger isn’t arising, it’s then generating your anger. And that sounds incredibly
difficult, and it is, but the key is it can
only be done in practice. So you don’t want to
sit out in your room and think that’s
the way to avoid all these difficult relationships. No, it’s only by working on
these difficult relationships all the time that you train
yourself both to respond well to others, but
again, respond well in this strong
sense of responding in ways that will bring out
better sides of them as well. So great. Thank you. Yes please. AUDIENCE: I guess we
often tend to assume that the notion of
the self is divorced from society as a concept that
arose in the Enlightenment in Western Europe. I just got back from a
couple of weeks in Iran where I learned a great deal
about the role of martyrdom in Shiite Islam and the
very live sense of martyrdom as something to be
of very high value. And obviously that’s a very
different view of the self, sacrificing the self
for the greater good. To bring this back
to China, I think we also tend to think of
this sort of blossoming of the self as something
recently that has evolved out of the Chinese
revolution, and that during the Chinese
revolution, again, we tend to think there was
a very different notion of the self and self-sacrifice. But again with the development
of capitalism in China, fairly clearly a more
Western like view of the self as something to be
enhanced, fought for, separated from society seems to have
developed very, very fully. Can you comment on sort of
more recent Chinese history and how you see these
ancient traditions, the role of the self, relating
to more modern trends in China? MICHAEL PUETT: Yes,
great question. And until recently, the
way I would have said is, sadly from my point of
view, a lot of these ideas were rejected. And what I mean by
that is the following. For much of the 20th
century, these ideas were very strongly rejected. So all the ideas I
mentioned at the beginning, that we are modern people–
and luckily for us, rejecting these traditional
ideas– these and such a vision of a modern world
destroying a traditional world became all pervasive. And during the imperial
period, these ideas became pervasive in the world,
absolutely in China too. And you had a succession of
governments explicitly devoted to the claim, we’re
going to modernize. And to modernize we’re going
to destroy traditional society altogether. So texts like these were burned. The old temples were destroyed. It was an explicitly modernist
paradigm, and particularly of course under Mao, under
the Cultural Revolution, literally these
texts were burned. The idea was to
destroy the past. Then as you said
more recently, there was a reaction against Maoism
and an incredible embrace of neoliberal capitalism, much
more actually than in America. And China became a world
where sort of everything was up for sale. Everything was about
money and power. And as you said, a
vision of the self very comparable to ones
that we hold– in fact, if anything, more extreme. Now the interesting
thing– and I mean now meaning
the past something like eight years– all of
this is beginning to change. And there’s now a very
self-conscious debate going on in China of,
have we lost our values. Have we simply become a world
where everything comes down to money and power? And all of a sudden,
all of these old rituals are coming back. The temples are being
rebuilt. These texts are being read again. There’s a huge
blogosphere in China. And now all these passages that
we’ve been alluding to today, they’re actively being
debated and discussed in the blogosphere. And all of it is coming back. Now how this will play
out, I have no idea. But I suspect at the minimum
what’s going on now– and I would put this
more globally as well– there’s increasingly a view
that this one restrictive notion of the self, which really
became a global vision of the past century,
is now being questioned in a lot of quarters. And in China itself,
a lot of these ideas are actively coming back. And it’s going to be, I
think, an exciting moment. Certainly in China,
but I suspect globally, when for the first time
really in a long time, the vision of the self
that’s been so dominant is coming under question. And a lot of these
ideas from the past are once again being
taken seriously. And at the minimum,
this will mean another generation
will grow out not be told this vision of
the self is the right one, but actually allowed to take
from very different traditions. And the fact that this is going
on yet again finally in China as well is something I think
it incredibly exciting. Yeah, it’s a great question. Thank you. Yes please. AUDIENCE: This seems
like an interesting prism perhaps through which to view
traditional Western religion as well, that one can be
cynical and look at it sort of, it looks like hypocrisy,
these New Testament lessons that seem very
idealistic, not really matching the way people normally
live their lives. But you know, once a
week you go to church. You listen to these things. It’s like a ritual where,
I think in your framework, where you practice being someone
else, being someone better. Does that seem– MICHAEL PUETT: I
agree completely. One of the things
that’s intriguing when you begin
looking at these ideas is you begin realizing that
not just Chinese ideas, actually if you look at
so-called traditional practices in general, a lot of the
rituals were doing exactly this. And so a lot of the
religious rituals that we today
would say oh, those are silly because it means
we’re being inauthentic. We’re being insincere. We’re being hypocritical
as you said because we’re being asked to act as something
that isn’t what we’re really feeling at that moment,
that’s precisely the point. The whole point of these rituals
is yes, you enter a space and you are no longer the
person that you were before. You are acting as if
you’re a different person in a different world. And the goal of that is
to change for the better. So yes, I think a lot of these
ideas work not only for China, I think they work in general. I think they’re really on to
something profound about why rituals work. They work not just
to socialize us into a way of being– in fact
you can put it more strongly, when rituals become
that is precisely the point at which you get
reactions against them. When rituals are alive and
powerful, what they’re doing is helping break us from
our patterns and ruts. And I think this applies equally
well to Western religions as well. So yes, thank you so much. Great. Well thank you so much. This has been a tremendous time
and a wonderful experience. Thank you so much. [APPLAUSE]

10 thoughts on “Michael Puett: “The Path” | Talks at Google

  1. Good lecture. But isn't idealizing Chinese philosophy over Western philosophy rather odd at Harvard, where the wealthy Chinese are now sending their children? China, like India, is an ecological nightmare of overpopulation and relentless self interest. Why do smart people in The West continue to bow in that direction? By comparison, The West has had a better quality of life for a greater percentage of population in a better managed natural environment.

  2. Chinese philosophy at its core simplifies that which is perceived as complicated, of all living things within its existence…exists in simplicity, except the human being, why then is it that we live in this state of complexity? The question then arises " Do we control our thoughts, or do our thoughts control us?" most people that hear this question only see and hear the question itself, the question is not as important as what is evident but missed by those that read this sentence, the missed concept here is …how many entities are in the sentence? there are "two" being "you" and being "your thoughts"…..in order for one to control the other they can not be anything but separate from each other, the "self" exists as it exists and bears no need to control "itself", thought however is generated from  not our core 'self' but from the consciousness that the self-exists in making life complicated in what is surely not the natural state of things, when someone yells in our face, we are not dragged into anger, after all …who is it that got us angry? it can only be "yourself "that does so, not the one doing the yelling, proverb: " I can defeat you physically with or without a reason, but mentally I can only defeat you with a reason" this very important proverb shows that it 'we' that decide and approve what situations we belong to, it is 'we' that choose the path and participation in our events, after all ….we cannot choose always what events come our way, but we always have a choice how to react to them….Chinese philosophy at its core exists to simplify our perception of life and its components, not comp[licate them more, Chinese philosophy was also never meant to be taken​ as a college cosarse, but rather as a way of life

  3. Is it just me or there seems to be a lack of gender diversity amongst the audience. The ones who asked questions at the end are all guys….

  4. Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is the furthest thing from Daoism. And ritual is pretty far from Daoism too. He should tell his audience that. Zhuangzi and Laozi were anti-Confucian in many ways. Actively, forcibly trying to change oneself through ritual might be Confucian, but it ain't Daoist. He's being quite disingenuous to his audience to call it all Chinese philosophy without further clarification.

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