Forobtain navel-gazing – the authors of this bestselling self-assist book claim that ancient Chinese wisdom offers a straightforward way to the good life. But does it say anything new?


Laozi, that can reportedly assist you in ‘the conference room’ by permitting you to ‘check out everything as undifferentiated’. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex/Shutterstock
Laozi, that can supposedly aid you in ‘the conference room’ by allowing you to ‘check out everything as undifferentiated’. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex/Shutterstock

Tbelow isn’t an Advertising Standards Authority for book covers, but it does seem a bit cheeky to use the subtitle “A New Way to Think About Everything” as soon as the entirety point is that this way to think about everything is exceptionally old. Michael Puett, teacher of a well-known Harvard course in Chinese approach, has actually partnered through the writer Christine Gross-Loh to construct a large-print self-help book based upon their readings of ancient Chinese wisdom. The “path” of the title is the tao, or the Way. It continues to be to be watched whether it is likewise a garden route up which the trusting reader is led.

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Each chapter draws lessons for modern-day life from a particular Chinese thinker or text. So we hear about Confucius on the usefulness of social ritual; Mencius and also the imopportunity of making plans; Zhuangzi on “trained spontaneity”; Xunzi on preferring artifice to nature; Laozi on soft power, and so forth. One difficulty is that the ancient-but-totally-new wisdom the authors cherry-pick from their resources is, by and huge, totally unsurpincreasing. These notions, they promise initially, “flip on its head every little thing we understand around gaining to understand ourselves and getting in addition to various other people”. Except that they don’t, as the authors continue to confess. “Many of us know all this, to some degree,” they concede; “None of these concepts is brand-new to us,” they allow; “Of course, all this is prevalent sense,” they admit.

It is indeed not startling to be told that tright here are no strict rules around just how to consingle a frifinish, or that you have to try not to offer in to your prompt irritation through a co-worker, or that it is most likely a bad principle to “rerelocate emotions” from your decision-making; or that it could enaffluent your life to join a wine-tasting course or learn how to paint watercolours. The supposedly shed Chinese wisdom about training our behavior of action and also emotional responses in order to end up being more virtuous is present in Aristotle and also in modern philosophy and also cognitive therapy. Anyone interested in the sophisticated implications of the idea of wu-wei (non-action), meanwhile, have to more than likely consult the far more exciting therapy in Edward Slingerland’s book Trying Not to Try (2014).

An even more severe difficulty arises from the authors’ decision to provide just one interpretation, with clear and simple advice for 21st-century readers, of what are often deeply ambiguous messages. I am acquainted, for instance, with Taoist cosmology as it is embedded in the theory of Chinese martial arts, where supposedly mystical concepts such as qi or Yin and Yang have immediate physical definitions. The authors, yet, choose the hippier interpretations including ethereal energies and the prefer, while reassuring the reader that you don’t need to think in them to find the principles beneficial. They seem positively to disapprove of readers who see the Tao Te Ching of Laozi as a “martial arts manifesto”, even if that sounds favor the sort of point that would be dispersed by canvassers for a presidential campaign by Jackie Chan (the one martial art the authors actually mention by name is jucarry out, which is not Chinese but Japanese). The authors illustrate the martial approach they uncover in Laozi – the power of embracing softness – by describing the retreat of the Russian militaries in order to defeat Napoleon. Tbelow is, oddly, no mention of the reality that it took masses of bombs and tanks to defeat Hitler.

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One or two principles in this book carry out at least authentically contradict contemporary common feeling. The authors’ a lot of persuasive passeras point out that while we think we are even more free than human being in past eras, this counts on a distinct principle of liberty according to which self-understanding permits self-determination and also authenticity. But what if self-knowledge is limiting or even completely illusory? Noting the current fad for mindfulness, the authors suggest out that “mindfulness was intended to break down the self”, yet Buddhism in the west “has actually often been distorted as a means of looking within and also embracing the self”. Such navel-gazing, they and also the Chinese sages agree, might be a sort of imprisonment.

Unfortunately a lot of the rest of The Path simply sounds ludicrous, in component though not exclusively bereason the prose style of this terribly composed book is so fist-suckingly negative. This is a world in which you have the right to come to be “infinitely more influential” and in which, “as we learn just how to better our relationships, we will learn just how to change cases and thereby produce boundless numbers of new worlds”. We are reassured, also, that “as-if moments have the right to cause incredible movement”, though it is unclear whether they are promising the capability to shimmy favor the dancefloor loveson of John Travolta and also Beyoncé, or merely awesome relief from constipation.

Worse, we are told that Laozi deserve to assist you in “the conference room” by allowing you to “see everything as undifferentiated”. No doubt you will entirely own the meeting once you can’t tell the distinction in between profit and loss, or your company’s product and also a poisonous frog. Yet the authors happily characteincrease the Tao Te Ching as “committed to rejecting all distinctions”, a referral that, taken seriously, would certainly result in a state of full idiocy, if it did not aclimb from one in the first place. Then aacquire, the authors execute compose confidently at one point: “When you end up being a sage, you don’t just feeling people well.” I might conclude from this just that at least one of them is actually a sage and that I as a reader was, sadly, not yet all set to profit fully from their sell of enlightenment.