Stop Trying to Find Yourself: Freedom Through Confucian Ritual

Stop Trying to Find Yourself: Freedom Through Confucian Ritual July 23, 2018

Confucius would have been a phenomenal southern lady.


It’s said that he could walk into a room, sense where there was tension, and with a spritz of social joviality—a certain poem, a certain tone of voice, a well-timed question or a tasteful joke—could get the room flowing as smoothly as butter on a warm biscuit. He was an expert socialite. A regular Amanda Wingfield. Or at least that’s the impression one might get from hearing Michael Puett’s account.

Michael Puett, the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology at Harvard, is the university’s most popular professor. He gave a talk at the Harvard Humanist Hub last fall on the subject of Confucianism. His agenda was not to bolster Confucius’s social stock (though that he did), rather it was to impress on his audience why the quest to “find oneself” is at best misguided and at worst dangerous.

Puett paraphrases ancient Chinese philosophy as well as modern psychology when he says that we are primarily reactive creatures. As children we simply respond to the anger, joy, sourness, sadness, or anything around us. As we grow older, we begin to solidify patterns of action based on whoever we grew up around. If someone gets angry, we may meet them at their anger or rush around trying to appease them. If someone is happy, we may toss ourselves under the bus to keep them happy.

We are conditioned by the circumstances and people around us, not unlike animals trained with clicks and treats when they’ve done something good and sticks and yells when they’ve done something bad.

If we ever truly “find ourselves,” Puett claims, what we are actually doing is giving into all those conditioned impulses we blindly accumulated over a lifetime of external conditioning. In other words: we fully become the animals we were molded to be.

The prescription for this condition offered by Confucianism, according to Puett, is not to find ourselves but overcome ourselves. To do that, we shouldn’t try to be “free” individuals flying on impulse. On the contrary, we should intentionally submit ourselves to ritual.

It’s a counterintuitive and even off-putting notion to atheists, humanists, and other non-believers, many of whom value self-determination, individuality and freedom from outmoded traditions—ritual among them. But Puett says that ancient Chinese philosophers saw things the other way around: autonomy is to be trapped by our conditioned impulses, and ritual is to escape them.

Imagine what it would mean to “do what feels natural” for you. For many of us, doing what feels natural would often just be a continuation of what we already do. It feels “natural” to get mad at the same things that have always infuriated us. It feels “natural” to fall in love with the same kind of person we’ve fallen for in the past. But what feels natural is simply how we’ve been trained, with “clicks” of affirmation and “sticks” of negative feedback.

Consider that certain friend of yours who repeats the same relationship again and again with variations on the same partner. Or the same thanksgiving fiasco that happens year after year. Or the same shallow breakfast banter repeated week to week, morning after morning, giving you no deeper insight into the people sitting with you across the kitchen table: “How are you?” “Fine.” (I’m about to lose my job. I can’t sleep.) “And what about you?” “Oh, I’m doing well.” (I haven’t spoken to my sister in years. And now I may have cancer.)

The most important ritual Puett says we should cultivate is a kind of meta-ritual: we should strive to consistently break existing rituals and routines.

Rather than engage in the same old banter, ask the person sitting across from you how they are in a slightly different tone: watch what happens. Tilt your head, change your facial expression: watch what happens.

Continually and ritualistically tweak your routines and try to see if you can uncover the fear beneath the anger, the anxiety beneath the vanity, and in so doing come to see them as more fully human, and in turn cultivating one of Confucius’s highest qualities: “humaneness.”

Ritualistic breaking of routine such as this, practiced consistently over many years, may well make us into nimble socialites like Confucius. But more importantly, we may begin to find that the stories of those around us go deeper than we thought, that their inner lives are richer than we’d ever suspected, that—in short—they are more human in our eyes than they’d been before. And that we are equally more humane.


An earlier version of this article first appeared on the Humanist Hub website on Oct 3, 2017.

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