Harvard Professor Explains How We Think About The 'True Self' All Wrong

We can be more than our habits, says professor Michael Puett.
According to Chinese philosophers like Confucius, Xunzi and Laozi, we shouldn't be trying to discover our "true self."
According to Chinese philosophers like Confucius, Xunzi and Laozi, we shouldn't be trying to discover our "true self."
Jack Hollingsworth via Getty Images

Harvard University professor Michael Puett teaches a class on classical Chinese philosophy that has gotten buzz for being one of the school's most popular courses.

This month he published a book called The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, co-written by journalist Christine Gross-Loh, that consolidates the lessons from his class for a wider audience.

"A lot of my students enter college thinking, 'I have four years to find myself and get really good at figuring out who I am and what my talents are,'" Puett told The Huffington Post. "What they find in practice is that it's a fruitless search."

Puett said that, according to Chinese philosophers like Confucius, Xunzi and Laozi, we should do away with the notion of a "true self" altogether. Our goal, instead, should be to recognize which habits, preferences and patterns shape our identities most and try to overcome these patterns to realize greater potential for our lives.

Practices like meditation and mindfulness, which grew out of Buddhist, Taoist and other philosophical and spiritual movements of Confucius's day, weren't just intended to help us practice self-love and acceptance, Puett said. "They were developed to help us overcome the 'self,'" he said.

Puett further explained these ideas in a recent video for Big Think:

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If we get angry at little things or find ourselves acting irritable, bored, or defensive, Puett said that's an opportunity to ask ourselves: "Is that just me, and I should love myself for being that? Or are those just patterns I’ve fallen into?"

"One of the goals of meditation is to break us out of those patterns and gain some distance from them,” he said.

Chinese philosophers believed in something called the "Tao," or "the way," which is the founding principle of Taoist religion but also played an overarching role in the philosophical thought of ancient China, Puett said. The Tao is essentially everything -- the universe in a constant state of flux and transformation.

The Tao can also be our model for breaking out of ruts, Puett said. The path to a good life, according to Chinese philosophers, is one in which we strive to mimic the flexibility modeled by the Tao and transcend our habits of personality.

“These philosophers would say, think of the good life as a world in which you are constantly striving to be a better human being,” Puett explained.

It can be as minor as the way you greet someone, your tone of voice, or the way you walk down the street, Puett suggested. Simple as it sounds, the more we learn to break out of our scripts, the better we get at shaping our reality to serve the highest good.

Every year Puett's students are tasked with putting this ancient philosophy into practice. They start doing things like taking classes or signing up for extracurriculars that break their own rules about who they are and what they're good at.

As one of Puett's students is quoted in the book: "You can adopt new habits and literally change the way you take in the world, react to it, and interact with other people."

So the next time you face a quandary and think -- "What does my 'true self' want? How would my true self respond?" -- consider the wisdom of Chinese philosophy.

Confucius and company would argue that our definition of the self "should be unbelievably open-ended," Puett told HuffPost.

"Train yourself to be open to the world," he said, "and who knows what you’ll become?"

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