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BOOK REVIEWS and Discussion Questions
The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life
by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh
"The encounter with these ideas will change your life." Award-winning Harvard professor Michael Puett makes this promise to students in his popular class, "Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory." Realizing that teachings from the third most popular class at Harvard could speak to a broader audience, Puett and co-author Christine Gross-Loh wrote The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life to share the ancient Chinese teachings that have so profoundly changed the lives of Puett's students.

The central theme of the book is that ancient Chinese philosophers "offer radical new perspectives on how to live a good life." Puett contends that our current emphasis on focusing on finding happiness by searching for our true and authentic self could actually limit us. Chinese philosophy offers a different way of thinking about how individuals can improve themselves and society.

What are these ancient ideas that offer a new way of looking at life?
  1. Good relationships come not from being sincere and authentic but from the rituals we perform within them.
  2. Influence comes not from wielding power but from holding back.
  3. Excellence comes from what we choose to do, not our natural abilities.
  4. A good life emerges not from planning it out, but through training ourselves to respond well to small moments.
  5. Transformation comes not from looking within for a true self, but from creating conditions that produce new possibilities.
The power of Puett's message comes from his ability to apply these ancient teachings to modern life. In addition to providing a concise historical summary of these ancient Chinese philosophies, Puett gives specific examples of how to use these teachings to improve our lives.

One example of how these teachings can open new opportunities for us is the use of rituals. Countless research studies demonstrate that relationships powerfully affect our physical and mental health, longevity, and quality of life. The teachings about ritual and social convention offer a different perspective on developing and maintaining quality relationships.

Most social conventions are performed automatically-we don't think about their meaning or plan our behavior. Confucius taught that intentionally performing social conventions can profoundly change us and help us develop different sides of ourselves. Focusing on small repeated moments and being intentional about our actions accumulate to create positive change. How would our lives change if we made a conscious effort to change small interactions such as smiling at a person who looks grumpy or responding positively to someone we may find difficult? Chinese philosophy teaches that we can consciously work to change patterns of behavior, allowing us overtime to "internalize a more constructive way of acting in the world…and start becoming better person."

Perhaps the most unexpected lesson from The Path is - there is no path to follow. Instead, there is a journey that we create. "If the world is fragmented, then it gives us every opportunity to construct things anew. It begins with the smallest things in our daily lives, from which we change everything. If we begin there, then everything is up to us."

  1. In Chapter 1, "The Age of Complacency", the authors identify three myths about living well. What is your reaction to their argument?
  2. How might you use ritual and "as-if" situations to improve relationships?
  3. In Chapter 4, "On Decisions: Mencius and the Capricous World", the authors discuss the cumulative power of tiny decisions made over time and the importance of training your emotions. How could using this approach improve your life?
  4. Mencius taught that goodness was like a small sprout that could be cultivated to grow into something greater. Paying attention to how we feel whenever we perform an act of kindness might create a physical sensation that is the sprout of goodness growing within us. How could you nurture your sprouts of goodness?
  5. Mencius compares facilitating growth to being a farmer laying the ground in which change can flourish. Laying the ground involves making time for new possibilities and remaining open to what the experience teaches. What would you like to make time for?
  6. Chapter 6, "On Vitality: The Inward Training and Being like a Spirit" addresses ways to feel more alive. What ideas most resonated with you? How might you incorporate them?
  7. Chapter 7, "On Spontaneity: Zhuangzi and a World of Transformation" discusses the importance of different ways of seeing and ways to cultivate expansiveness. How would your life be different if you became more expansive? What ideas for being more expansive appealed to you?
If you found this review and discussion questions helpful, please share with others who might be interested.

The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh
Simon and Schuster
$24.99 (224 pages)
April, 2016
©2010 Ageinista L.L.C