Michael Puett #93

Harvard's Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History

C0-Author, The Path


In a revolutionary historical shift, The Bronze Age aristocratic societies that had dominated Eurasia for two thousand years, passing power and wealth down exclusively through hereditary bloodlines, began to crumble. As these states collapsed, new forms of political and experimentation arose – from radical democracy in Greece to centralized bureaucracies and legal systems in China.” 

By Heidi Legg

On the Friday before the election, I sat down with the Walter C. Klein Harvard Professor of Chinese History and Committee Chair on the Study of Religion Michael Puett to discuss his book, The Path, which he co-wrote with local historian and journalist Christine Gross-Loh. The book was released this past spring and centers around the ideas taught in Puett’s Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory, the third most enrolled undergraduate course at Harvard.

As I walked across the Yard, I knew I was going turn the interview into a therapy session for my own election anxiety. History has a way of grounding us. I was anxious, confused and at a loss at what was going to happen in what had been a very ugly election year. Little did we know, the results a few days later would further raise the anxiety and divisiveness with a vote for President-elect Trump with protests filling the streets of many cities.

Puett offers context on similar transitions 2000 years ago when these astonishing teachings emerged. Confucius, Laozi, and Mencius all wrote at the same time that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle scripted their ideas. In his book, The Path, Puett and his co-author Gross-Loh explain why this philosophical revolution came into play.

I sat down with Professor Puett to discuss how we can use these ancient Chinese teachings today and the danger of human patterns.

What do you see right now in the American psyche that we should draw upon from these Chinese philosophers?

One of the things that philosophers will talk a great deal about is our danger as human beings in that we tend to fall into these patterns or ruts in our responses to the world, our ways of thinking, and our behavior. I suspect, if they could look at this election, they would say that is exactly what is going on.

We have a moment in American history when you have extraordinary sets of problems. They are actually global problems but occurring in America as well: horrific levels of economic inequality, deep levels of resentment against a sense that the government has been taken over by a very wealthy elite. The result is these incredibly deeply charged emotions that become patterns and a level of resentment that oftentimes gets channeled into very – I would even argue, dangerously – predictable modes of horrible racism and ethnocentrism.

The counter pattern tends to fall into a view that, ‘People who are thinking badly are just horrible,’ not realizing what's underlying that resentment. Then there is a view that everything really is fine and after the election everything will calm down and we can return to normal.

What do you think?

I fear that probably is not going to be the case. If the polls are right (spoiler alert), it looks very likely that Hillary Clinton will finally win but I think the danger is, again thinking of these patterns, that for those who support the Clinton presidency that there is a danger to sense, ‘Okay, now things are fine again and we can get back to the basic work of running government.’ This leads to not dealing with perhaps the larger economic problems that are seething and fueling this deep resentment.

From the other side, I fear that those who do have this deep resentment, if anything, will get worse. I do not think the election is going to bring an end to this, and I think both sides have fallen into these very dangerous patterns and they're not seeing the underlying issues. Neither side, I'm worried, will actually start really addressing these problems and I fear things could actually get worse after the election.

Confucius believed in transformation with small, repeated moments versus dramatic events. How do you see our national self-image in these Confucian terms?

I would say there are very clear things we would need to do. If our problem is these sets of patterns that are dominating our way of thinking and preventing us from really seeing a lot of the complexity around us, that's what we need to start breaking. The different sides would have to begin to get a sense of what's really going on with the other side – not the sort of ugly sides that we're focusing on but what's really driving these levels of resentments and to understand what is going on. They would emphasize it's through these daily practices where you actively begin reading things you would not otherwise read to understand cognitively what is really going on.

What are those rituals?

I'll give you a very concrete example. Larissa MacFarquhar had a wonderful piece in The New Yorker and she went to a very impoverished town in the mountains in Virginia where Trump's supporters are very, very strong. She wanted to talk to people and get a sense of what was going on and she noticed our immediate focus is to think, ‘Let's hear the horrible racist things that are being said to show how horrible these people are’ and instead she was saying, ‘No, let's really get underneath and see what the level of resentment is.’ It was a very nuanced portrait of a range of very different people, many whom support Trump, and she really gets into their lives, their economic situation, and what would be driving both the support for Trump. But, equally importantly for the long term, she asks what would be driving this deep distrust of the economic policies that have been followed in Washington for a couple of decades. Neo-liberalism is sort of the general term for all of this and it was a beautiful portrait of what was going on. That's the sort of thing we need to do.

What are other rituals we should adopt?

Start reading newspapers, watching television, watching different things from these different sides to realize once you get past what we tend to focus on in the national debate, there actually are very complex issues going on.

While that seems very small, very minor, the reason you're doing that is because it helps to write these patterns where you're immediate thinking is, ‘Oh, these sorts of people are bad people because they're horrible racists.’ It takes practice to actually break from that and begin seeing, ‘Yes, there are some horrible racists in the world but there also are lots of problems that are really horribly affecting human lives.’ Ideally, meet people outside of the usual circles that we would be meeting will help.

Technology algorithms repeat pattern. How do we solve that?

This isn't saying technology itself is the problem, but the way we're using technology tends to encourage our worst patterns because it's so easy to simply focus on the things that you normally would focus on: you go to the exact same websites, you read the exact same things, you watch the exact same clips on YouTube and it helps to create in a very dangerous way this very enclosed set of patterns that you can repeat day after day.

At the beginning, even though it seems minor, I would say start breaking that: start by actively trying to meet people that you would otherwise not be meeting, and getting a sense of what is going on in their lives, and reading things you would not otherwise read. That seems very mundane but until we actually begin to break these patterns of who we're talking to and what we're thinking of and our own assumptions about the world, we're not ever really I think going to be able to break down these incredibly dangerous resentments.

Many argue that Americans and Europeans, today, are anxious, unhappy narcissists. What does Chinese philosophy offer at this time?

Yes. I think we have fallen into yet another dangerous set of patterns and the ones you mentioned have become very dominant. We very much believe, in the US and in Europe, that the way to be free and liberated is to look within, find our true selves, love ourselves for who we really are, embrace ourselves for who we really are, and be sincere and authentic to who we are and, if we do so, then we can live life on our terms.

We should recognize that deciding our life plan according to what is best for us then includes some wonderful things and some horrible things. This sounds great and liberated that as a set of nations – the US and Europe – allow individuals to be who they truly are. If it sounds very wonderful, that's always a good hint that maybe there's a dangerous pattern lurking underneath.

In this specific case, I think the dangerous pattern is very clear. We have created a few generations of people who have become incredibly narcissistic. What you're doing, according to a lot of Chinese philosophers, is seeing a set of patterns that can often be very destructive to ourselves and to those around us when you're looking within and saying, ‘But this is just me and I should love myself for who I am.’

And yet, the economy encourages it given that many industries reward and identify their leaders based on social media reach. If you have a large social media following, you get a book/movie/media deal, a teaching position at a distinguished school, hired for a top industry position, or with this election, Trump went direct to the people with Twitter. What would the Chinese philosophers say to that?

Before I even answer the question, let me just underline your point, which is absolutely right – we're created an entire society that functions this way and strongly encourages it and it begins at a very young age.

Let me begin with college admission. I often deal with students who are asked beginning in high school to present themselves as some unique individual for college admissions and they’ll spend four years trying to choose clubs and activities that kind of define who they are in some unique way that they can write on a college admissions essay. What we're really training people to do from this young age is define their unique self and organize all of their activities around that and then, as you said, the next stage of life success is driven by your ability to be that unique self who can get, as you said, lots of 'likes' on your website or social media. Having that will propel you toward being this very successful unique self.

Dangerously, we've created an entire economic and social world that requires people from a young age to do this and from the point of view we're discussing, the danger is that you just create these patterns that are unchangeable because they truly do define your life.

What the Chinese philosophers would say is it begins at the daily level because that's where these patterns set in. Confucius, especially, would say you begin at the very mundane level altering this. This is where he'll talk about rituals. He'll say, ‘What rituals really do is they force us for brief moments to become a different person. We act as if we're a different person behaving with others in a different way,’ and what you're doing when you do these rituals, when understood in this form, is you're actively doing things that break your patterns.

If you had sets of relationships with certain type of people, let’s say parent and high school student, you begin altering those in very mundane ways. Not dramatic. With little alterations, you'll begin to notice very quickly the degree to which you think you're a certain person and this person is based upon a relationship that you've developed with often very dangerous implications that we don't notice. In slight variations, in how you talk, in how you walk through a room, and in the topics you'll bring up, you'll begin to see it brings out different responses in others.

For those looking for rebelling, is this revolutionary?

I truly think it is and it's not easy to do because we're so programmed at this level to think about who we really are and who these people really are around us. We think of ourselves as stable and those around us as stable. It’s exciting work but it takes work to start breaking down these very stable visions. Although this sounds mundane, over time it leads to other things. One becomes better at negotiating the world around you, sensing different sides of yourself, and breaking these patterns. It opens up other possibilities that you would not have imagined.

Going back to that college essay of 'Who I really am,’ you very quickly realize that you're a constantly changing person and instead of simply passively repeating patterns, you can start actively constructing how you're living your life, and the world that you're in.

We're back to the lines that divide Democrats and Republicans.

Indeed. Absolutely. Truly.

Confucius and the Greek philosophers were working on major philosophical movements about 500 BC? Why the parallels and what was going on back then that is similar to today?

Fascinatingly, there is a parallel with what's been going on more recently, meaning the past couple of centuries, and it's why I think many ideas from both Greece and China speak to us in very powerful ways today. In the 1st Millennium BCE, and for literally 2,000 years before, strong, aristocratic clans dominated all of the agricultural areas of Eurasia. Everything was defined by birth. You'd be born an aristocrat and the level of aristocrat would define how much power you would have and if you were born a peasant, where of course, you would have no power and either way that station in life is where you would be for your entire life. There was no social mobility. These societies continued for about 2,000 years. Then in the 1st Millennium BCE, for a whole host of various reasons across Eurasia, all of these societies begin to crumble and you get this incredible wave of new political experimentation as people began creating new types of states. This is when you get radical democracy being formed in Athens, the Republic being formed in Rome, and very, very strong bureaucratic states in China.

What elicited this response in 500 BCE?

A whole host of things, the spread of new technologies being one. For example, iron technology, which opens up all sorts of possibilities for working with the land much better, which leads to tremendous new possibilities in terms of physically how much grain you're able to grow. There was a huge population growth; also, with iron technology you can start creating mass infantry armies. Once you're doing that, you need some sort of a state to organize these and that tends to create more social mobility because if you have mass infantry armies, people will be promoted if they're good on the battlefield. If you can help organize these you're therefore a good bureaucrat, and you'll be promoted.

If you look at what we think of as the traditional world, say 18th century France, again we are in a world where everything was defined by birth and what we think of as the modern period is a breakdown of that world. Again, for all sorts of very complex economic and technological reasons, those old societies all began to fall apart and you get this period of tremendous political and philosophical experimentation.

This is why that first time when it happened in the 1st Millennium BCE, you get these ideas that seem so eerily familiar to us because they were dealing with very comparable problems to the ones we're dealing with today. If you're not living in a society where everything is defined by birth, how then do we organize society? How do people live their lives?

Didn’t we disrupt that in the USA in 1776, and in Canada in 1867? We organized and tried to get rid of the hierarchies. Is the time frame from a liberation era to a traditional one moving faster today?

Or there's even a more chilling way to think of it. If you're looking at the larger span of Eurasian history, the more typical way that societies have been organized is with these incredibly hierarchical societies where power is defined almost entirely by birth. That's usually been the case throughout Eurasian history and then you have these periods when you have these breakdowns and this tremendous political and philosophical experimentation. It occurred in the 1st Millennium BCE, and one has absolutely been occurring in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

But here's where things get scary. If you look at levels of current economic inequality and social mobility…we're in danger of reverting to what has been the larger pattern of Eurasian history where, for the most part, you're defined by birth. If you're born into great wealth or if you're born into great poverty, you tend to stay there and it's clearly getting worse and worse. In other words, reverting back to what most of us would say, the scary larger pattern of Eurasian history.

I think it certainly is scary and hopefully people will agree, and if that's the case, then we need to fall out of this dangerous way of thinking that we are simply living in a modern world. We need to realize, ‘No, no, no…we're in danger of reverting back to this larger pattern and we need to actively begin altering that if we want to live in a society with great political and philosophical experimentation, and with great social mobility.’ We need to recreate that world because we're in danger of losing it.

Mencius believed all people were born ‘good’ and that there is a chain reaction of goodness. How is this idea applied best today?

Yes. It's a wonderful example. One of the things I find exciting about the current generation is that while they're the ones raised in the sensibility of looking within and always being true to yourself, and finding your unique self, more so than any other generation, I have found this to be the generation that is most willing to throw all that off and most willing to question. I've been teaching now for about 20 years and I think it's a generation that feels they're living in a world that isn't quite as free and liberated as they had been told and they see a world of growing dangers in terms of economic inequality, unrest with a climate crisis. They see a world that is very different from the one they were told they were being raised into and they seem incredibly willing to rethink basic assumptions and certainly rethink the notion of the self. They are open to rethink how we're organizing society and rethinking what we're generally calling 'neoliberalism.' It's a generation that's very open to this.

I've found in the classroom a great deal of excitement where people are really beginning to ask, ‘Okay, if we're creating a world that we think is free and libratory but it is not, how do we actively begin to alter that? And how do we actually begin to really create a world where people can flourish?’ And in a sense, everything's on the table again because they think they're living in a world that is not living up to its own ideals.

I'm going to play cynic for a second. Social leadership has become a movement as of late with the intent is to shift frozen social mobility. Yet those in power still have the control given they fund it through tax breaks. The power structure remains. How are you discussing this in the classroom?

I agree completely. I think that is exactly what has happened. We've had, as you said, 15 years of really promoting this notion of social leadership and nothing seems to be changing, and I think it's precisely for the reason you've mentioned and it's actually a larger structure that thrives on not changing, and then social leadership has become the way where you say, ‘Well, we won't change the world at all but we'll ameliorate it, or make it a little bit less bad by having a few people who could do a few nice things.’

I think what Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are doing is wonderful but how do we make everyone part of it? Even at the local level, it’s the wealthy few that choose the benefactors.

Precisely. That's the key. What you're getting is, as you say, wonderful things going on but not really changing the larger structure – one in which again people are becoming horribly impoverished and where we have world historical levels with almost no social mobility.

Getting back to the heart of your question – not that I haven't had students before thinking about these things – but what excites me now is just the sheer volume of it. Students are now posing that question: ‘Why is it that, yes, we'll get the Bill Gates who are wonderful but why is it that the general economic order, using the word 'neo-liberalism' to describe it, why has it become so entrenched and allowed to grow so badly in terms of objectively what seems to be happening to so many people in the world? Why is that not being changed and why does it seem unchangeable?’

Students are beginning to question this now. What they're beginning to say is ‘Why are governments simply allowing this to happen? Why, in fact, do governments seem to be ineffective except for continuing these policies? And concretely how do we actually begin changing this?’ And they correctly see this as a global problem. This isn't just in the US, needless to say. It is a global one.

Confucius says: Break the pattern. Mencius says: Do good. You refer to these as sprouts of new patterns in the book. Where can we apply them?

All sorts of different places: let me begin immediately with governance structures but then move directly to issues of everyday life, because they would say these are related. With governance issues, there are very concrete things we could do to actually begin to create a world where people are not only feeling themselves to be participating in government but are really truly allowed to participate. There are very concrete things that could be done immediately that would actually break the stranglehold that a very wealthy elite now have through lobbying efforts, etc. to really decide governmental policy. That could be changed very, very quickly. There are obviously strong powers against it, so it would be difficult to fight against, but it's actually very easily doable.


We tend to think that, ‘Oh, it's always been the case that strong corporations can basically write their own legislation.’ Actually, no it's not. This is all very recent. These were new legislative decisions that were made all within the past 20 years that can simply be reversed. No, they're not easy to reverse because of course once those are in place, it does mean a wealthy elite does indeed control the legislation, but given the fact that we now have such obvious levels of resentment in the US, could you imagine a politician standing up and saying, ‘I'm going to use this moment to actually begin to alter this’?

Would you peel this back for me?

In this case, return to something that existed relatively recently before of a far more participatory form of democracy in America, and the new president could do that clearly with a sense if we don't change things now, it's going to get much worse. This election and certainly in Europe, you're seeing the rise of these extreme right wing movements and Neo-Nazi movements and things can get much worse than they have already and the new president could therefore use this moment to begin changing things by saying, ‘Things are moving in an incredibly dangerous direction.’ It wouldn’t be easy but given all the dangerous patterns we’ve mentioned, there is the flip side.

Imagine how powerfully influential the President-elect could become out of sheer popularity were they to do this. I think the moment is ripe precisely because things seem to have gotten so incredibly bad. This is all changeable, right now.

In Chinese, the word 'heart' and 'mind' are one and the same. Mencius thought great humans use both. Mozi believed in separating rational intellect and emotional intellect. Where do you land between Mozi and Mencius?

I think Mencius is on to something very profound here and I think most of us tend to be much closer to Mozi, in the way we tend to assume proper decision-making occurs. If you look at the way we tend to commonly think about decision making in America, the terms we tend to use are, ‘You have to think it through’ with the cognitive side or you ‘go with your gut’ using the emotional side.

Often we’ll think of these temporally saying, ‘Okay, to make a decision, I think it through. I make a list of pros and cons. I do all of the thinking and then, after that, I go with my gut’ and the idea is that the gut will properly sense the right answer.’

You're using 'gut' as 'heart'?

Gut will be very equivalent to heart. Precisely. You divide these and first you do the intellect and then you go with the heart or the gut. And what Mencius would say to this that it's dangerous at all levels and that your goal actually is not to separate these. Your goal is to actually combine these and train both and Mencius would argue that if you're thinking 'rationally' outside of your sensibilities of the complexity of the world around you, it is very unlikely you will make a wise decision because the whole way we tend to think when we do that is using the pro and con columns as a good example. We use reductionist modes that then provide some kind of an easy decision making process. Mencius would say that's incredibly dangerous and that it’s a very messy world and any decision – be that with human relationships or the issues of governance – involves all sorts of incredibly complex interrelationships that you need to be able to sense effectively.

Mencius would also say, untrained hearts and guts are in danger of being our worst patterns playing out at an emotional level. Maybe your gut tells you to do that because you have this emotional pattern that 'You like X.’ That doesn't mean it's a good decision at all. Untrained patterns are almost always going to lead you astray. Mencius would say your goal is to bring these together and train yourself to sense the complexities of situations around you and sense how through little actions, you can begin to break these dangerous patterns in these relationships and build better worlds. That's true at a mundane level if you're making decisions about relationships. It's equally true for big decisions about, say, how the government should be organized.

Spielberg helped canonize that scene in his film with Lincoln as a storyteller who mesmerized those around him and slowed down anxiety. You mention that Reagan and FDR were similar magnets. That's good for a benevolent leader but with an evil leader…are we merely sheep to be slaughtered?

‘When his tasks are completed, we are like this naturally.’

Yes, and the answer is it cuts both ways and I think they're profoundly right about this, and if they're right, it means we have great responsibility as human beings to recognize our dangers as humans and our potentials. What I mean is our danger is that we easily become sheep – we horribly easily become sheep. We easily fall into these patterns that we take to be us or the way the world operates and therefore we think they're unchangeable. This issue with our visions of the self and in thinking that's true of our larger economic order and our social order that we're living in, in our systems of political governance – the danger is that we can simply fall into these patterns and never think they need to be changed.

In fact, we might not even notice their patterns and if that is our danger as human beings, the flip side of that, they would argue, is our potential to alter these. All of these are alterable. If we are in danger of becoming these sheep who just repeat these patterns endlessly, we're equally capable of altering these patterns, breaking these patterns, creating better worlds and great worlds where humans can flourish because it cuts both ways. It really comes down to how we live our lives. It comes down to the worlds we create around us, both at a mundane level and a larger level, although it takes work, of actually creating great worlds.

We can have amazing Lincolns who can bring out our better sides and help to create an incomparably better world than the world he was born into – but we can also have Hitlers who can arise as well and we need to know that either is a possibility. If we don't want to be guided too much and give the horrible example of Hitler, we need to be training ourselves not to become the kind of sheep that would simply follow what someone else is so capable of doing…of creating a world that would define us.

I went into this book as a journalist with some reservations given China limits free speech. What would these ancient philosophers say about the modern Chinese lack of freedom of speech?

I think they would be horrified, and until recently, ironically, I think a lot of leaders in China would agree. Beginning in the 20th Century, China went through a period of actively trying to destroy its past. All of the old governance structures were actively destroyed – certainly these texts were absolutely rejected – and the idea was to completely throw off the past and become this radically new society.

At first, that radically new society was going to be communist under Mao. Literally these texts were burned. All the old temples were destroyed. The goal was to destroy that world completely. In a slightly more recent period of that, communism fell and China became a state of authoritarian form of neoliberalism. It became an incredibly strong state but very much a neoliberal economy. While it sounds like a contradiction in terms, intriguingly it's not as much of a contradiction as we tend to think, but still what was continuing was the sense that the past should be rejected altogether. When we ask, ‘What would philosophers think of the current system?’ or, I should say, either the system under Mao or the system that came right after it, not only would they disagree, they were in fact actively among the many things that were being rejected.

Now, however, there's something very intriguing going on in China. There's a very self-conscious debate going on where people are beginning to ask, ‘Have we lost our values? Have we become a society where everything is about wealth and power? And is this acceptable?’ and out of this debate are coming lots of other solutions and among the many solutions: a lot of these old texts are coming back.

How are your book sales over there?

It hasn't been translated yet but it will be and the intriguing this is that all the texts themselves are now being debated. If you go on the blogospheres in China, people are debating passages about the Analects and thinking through what this would mean for either their daily life and/or the nature of the government they're living in. It’s all coming back. How this will play out, no one knows, but it's a crucial moment I think in Chinese history when suddenly everything's up for grabs again…including that all of these seemingly old ideas are now suddenly coming alive again. It's a very exciting moment.

What public opinion would you like to change?

What I would love to change is the very dangerous narrative we tell about ourselves in that we are living in a modern world, radically different from a traditional world that came before.  

More specifically, that we in America are these radically free liberated people and that we're more fully breaking from tradition than anyone else who has ever lived.  Again, this sounds wonderful but it's a very dangerous way of thinking – because if it's the case that we are unaware of what's going on and have fallen into these dangerous patterns, and that maybe if some of our own terminology of being true to ourselves and free and liberated individuals is actually making us complacent in those patterns, one of the many dangerous things of this narrative is that it means by definition no other ideas that have ever arisen in human history are really worth taking seriously because they're all part of this old traditional world.

If we could actually convince people to realize that lots of human beings at various times in human history have actively been wrestling with these same questions of how to build a better world, how to become better people, how to build a better governance structure and with all the complexities of what that would mean and perhaps some of those from older times and other cultures were on to something we should be taking seriously, imagine the world we could build.

Where will this shift come from?

Again, referring to some of the ways these ancient Chinese philosophers would put it…it will come through the basic ways of how we live our own lives, what sorts of things we're willing to read, what sorts of ideas we're willing to take seriously and at the moment, the danger is that no one would read these texts or think these thoughts because it isn't part of the daily ways in which we think about the world.

Snapchat over philosophy and ancient history?

Exactly, and so it begins by breaking how we think about the world; how we think about ourselves; what we're willing to read; what we're willing to question and that's very much based upon the daily work it will take to break down these patterns.

I can’t leave this interview without talking about ‘The Way.’ One of my favorite interviews was with your colleague Sean Kelly who chairs the Philosophy Department at Harvard and he has a term called Whooshing in how we come together as a society. They felt similar to me. What is The Way and how we get in it?  

I will lead with an example. One of the philosophers, Zhuangzi, will say, ’Think of the world as constantly in flux, constantly in transformation, and constantly interrelating to everything else.’ [He believed humans were the only things in the cosmos that did not follow The Way.] Among our many dangers, we humans, when we fall into these patterns that can define our lives, what we're really doing is we're cutting ourselves off from this endless flux and transformation that he will call 'The Way.' We're not really responding to the world around us. We're not really responding to other humans around us or the larger world around us even beyond immediate humans. We're not really responding to things at all, which means we humans uniquely, as far as we can tell, don't work with The Way. We don’t travel with The Way. We're sort of battling against The Way by not responding to things around us.

Is this because we think that if we give into The Way, then we're not trying?

Precisely. But to end on a hopeful note, Zhuangzi will say that it's all about training. If, on the contrary, we begin to train ourselves to break from these patterns that define us and begin to train ourselves to really begin to sense people around us and sense the world around us, what you begin to feel is this incredible resonance with things. It’s incredibly powerful and exciting because you can sense the degrees to which this world of flux and transformation is something you're a part of and you can work with and alter and change. You're being changed and those around you are too and I think he's really onto something here. There's this incredible sense of the stunning excitement of the world that begins to occur as we get better and better through this training exercise of training ourselves to experience that world around us. I think he's absolutely right about that and the more we can train ourselves to really be a part of the world that we are in rather than battling against, we can really be a part of it and really begin to alter it and work with it and change it for the better for ourselves and those around us.

I think you and Sean Kelly should teach a class together on Whooshing and The Way.

I agree completely, both on the specific suggestion, as I would love to teach a class with Sean Kelly, and the larger point.

Where do you go in Harvard Square to think and take refuge?

It's Harvard Square itself. I love to stand on the square itself and either walk around the square and look at all the people as they move through because you get so many different types of people walking through the square. I love to just stand there and watch people and sometimes walk with them and get into their ways of walking and their conversations and things they're thinking about.

I intentionally try not to have a single place. What I love to do is go to different places and that's in part from reading figures like Dong Zhongshu who'll say, ‘Any place we go to that we feel very comfortable is great but there's always a danger that by going to that same place, you fall into the same way of thinking, the same emotional responses.’ One of the things I love to do is physically move around. I will go to one coffee shop and sit and read and I’ll go to another part of the library. I'll sit out on a lawn under a tree I've never sat under before and it is striking how that works. Over time by doing that, you really begin to experience more of the world. It's very exciting at every level, including intellectually exciting. It's very, very powerful as a very mundane way to begin to break down these patterns.