Modern day Relevance of Ancient Chinese Philosophies
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Alerted by a recent article in The Australian Newspaper I immediately purchased an iBook copy of "The Path : A New Way to Think about Everything", by Prof. Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Low. Published only recently (May 2016) it is also available as a normal Penguin book.
It presents the (often mis-interpreted) ideas of Confucius, his student Mencius and other ancient Chinese philosophers in their correct meaning and in the context and perspective of our present way of life.
Mencius, a pupil of Confucius It is obvious that our present attitude to life is much deplorable : selfish, greedy, with monetary gain (the "bottom line") usually our main objective in life, and with little consideration of others.
The media, TV, most Newspapers, movies, books are aimed at the lowest common denominator of humanity dealing with mindless fun, sex and violence.
There is much to be learned from these ancient philosophers, living 2,500 years ago.

Unlike most philosophers (who focus on overarching ethical aspects of life and society), Confucius starts from the opposite end, at the ordinary basic interactions between human beings in their normal day to day encounters.
By tiny incremental steps forward in our attitude and actions we can (he claims) over time improve the happiness and meaning of others, as well as of our own life.

Confucius, 551-479 BC

I will focus here on three fundament aspects of this ancient approach to life. They are :
  1. Bring out positive emotions in others.
    Behave as if you were the other person.

  2. Unlock your potential for personal growth by not considering yourself as a finite personality.
    ("This is typical of me." "I can't help it, this is who I am !")

  3. Make decisions from a combined Heart&Mind approach. Not based on your mind or your emotion alone.

As soon as I started reading this book, I immediately felt a great affinity to those ancient philosophic ideas. For I instantly realised that throughout my life I have (at least at times) instinctively acted according to their teachings.
I include a few of these personal examples in the following text, to illustrate typical Confucius' ideas in our contemporary day to day life.

1. Emotions
We all posses a vast array of different emotions : happy, sad, fearful, confidant, angry, understanding, etc.
However all these feelings are locked inside us and it needs something or someone from the outside to bring them out into the open.

I wake up in the morning and the sun is shining outside. Immediately it puts me in an agreeable and happy disposition.

I walk in the street and a stranger smiles at me. Immediately I smile back and as a result both of us have received a small impulse towards a happy disposition for the immediate future of that day. Our positive demeanor may well infect others around us in a snowball type effect.
If on the other hand I would have ignored his smile or even have sneered back at him, both of our feelings would have dropped into the negative for some time thereafter, with possible flow-on effect to others as well.

This is what Confucius' teaching is all about.
Goodness from his philosophy's perspective is the act of bringing out a positive emotion in someone else.
To be able to do this consistently we need to think and feel as if we are the other person. This has three positive effects :

  1. When successful we draw out a positive emotion from the other person, with possible snowball effects to others.

  2. It makes us happy or satisfied our self (with possible snowball effects to other).

  3. By just for a moment mentally placing our self in the others person's position, we expand and grow (by a tiny amount) our own personality.

Here is a typical example from my own experience.
I am in Europe on a short flight from Frankfurt to Basel. While we are taxying to the runway the stewardesses go through the usual safety instructions : opening and closing seat belt buckles, putting on the oxygen masks, etc.
Safety instruction in a plane While the stewardess in front of me is doing all this I keep observing her, while listening to the taped instructions in German and French.
After the instruction is over, the stewardess stores away the items used, then walks straight up to my seat and says : "Thank you very much for paying attention and watching me. You know, it can be so embarrassing for us to go through this simple routine while nobody is taking any notice at all."

All of us fly regularly and are thoroughly familiar with the safety instructions on board. So most travelers don't watch and listen, but keep reading their book or magazine, look out of the window, or simply close their eyes. So next time you are on a plane look at the stewardess. They won't feel so utterly and depressingly ignored, and Confucius will smile on you !!

Bringing out positive emotions in others at the Bridge Table

2. Grow as a person
According to Confucius the world is not ordered, but chaotic in nature and anything can happen at any time.
People too are predominantly chaotic entities who can grow into a variety of directions over time, provided they allow themselves to do so.

It therefore makes no sense at all to have a fixed plan for the course and ambitions of your life.
It is also very restrictive to stereotype yourself as having a certain defined personality, or live a fixed, well defined, settled life which can no longer be altered.
You simply lock yourself within a box, from which you can not escape to grow further.   You exist, but without growth you no longer truly live !

The Russian composer Igor Stravinsky expresses it seductively simple :
      "To conitnue in one direction is to go backwards!"

So what should you do to overcome this ?
Make broad plans and decisions which provide opportunities to grow, but that won't pin you down into a static existence.

With Antien and Babette shortly after arriving in Australia This resonates very strongly with me, for it is something that I have done for virtually my entire life !
I had never met an Australian before in my life, but reading the books by novelist Nevil Shute (In the Wet, A Town Like Alice, On the Beach) I felt strongly attracted to that far away continent.
Despite having been offered a great job while maintaining my base in Holland, and re-enforced by a like-minded wife (Antien), we emigrated to Australia in 1965 and have never regretted it.

Returning to Holland in 1970 for a brief holiday, I found my friends not at all interested in my experiences. They always kept well away from the subject and in some cases only wanted to know how much money I was making. When they found out they were doing the same as or better than me financially it confirmed their "decision" (they of course never seriously made anyway) to stay in Holland.
Of course they entirely missed the point : we went to Australia not for the money, but instead for the experience and great opportunity for personal growth in this new and wonderful environment.

Another major decision I made in my life occurred during my "mid life crisis" after having split up with my family.
I decided I might as well go all the way and quit my job as well (in 1981 as a Consultant with the mining company WMC). During a 14 year long search I had not found a job within my area of expertise that gave me any real satisfaction. Instead I had a wonderful experience in playing some Trad Jazz on Bougainville Island, so I started to study saxophone and piano.

My Saxophone Quartet in Mooloolaba I received many comments like :
"You are crazy to quit your job, throw away your carreer!" or
"What the hell are you going to achieve by doing this ??

Frankly I did not have a clue either.
I just knew I wanted to do this, no I had to do this. In time a solution would present itself !

I had enough money in the bank for about 6 months, after that something had to happen.   And of course did happen : my father suddenly died of a stroke and I had to rush back to Holland to run our family business Martinshof.
It was recession time in Europe and our company was rapidly heading for bankruptcy. However we managed to survive, sell the company, and late 1983 I found myself back in Adelaide pursuing my dream, studying music.

In due course I realised I did not want to waste my time teaching dud students at the Conservatory. So I left Adelaide, settled at the Sunshine Coast and started teaching music privately and playing occasional Jazz gigs.
In 1996 I started my music education web site Jazclass which routinely attracts over 1 million students every year, many of whom consider my music education the very best available in the world to day. My lessons are also translated into various other languages.
It all gives me enormous satisfaction.   But above all, it is a great example of where a broadly based Confucius like decision can lead to in terms of personal development and growth.

3. Making Heart&Mind decisions
Confucius teaches to make decisions based on a combined Heart&Mind approach. Decisions based on considerations by the mind alone or on emotions alone, can lead to poor if not incorrect outcomes.

If I understand his philosophy correctly Confucius advises us to modify our emotions from a sometimes volatile nature to a more subdued level.
In such condition we are able to use our emotions as a positive, constructive contribution and combine them with the considerations of the mind.
This is a important difference compared to the thinking of more recent Western philosophers like Emmanuel Kant, who deliberately left emotional considerations out of their deliberations.

I remember an interesting example from 1981 when I (for a short period) was running our family business Martinshof.
Immediately after my arrival in Holland our company's Bank Manager urged me to carry out a costing exercise for our expected expenses and income for the following year.
After completing this as he suggested, it became obvious that considerable cost cutting would be required in order to stay viable an avoid bankruptcy.
Our 10 employees had always been like family to my parents, and most of them had been with our company for 10 or more years. Nevertheless it was clear that I had no other option than to dismiss at least 2 of them.

As with all my decisions during that time I discussed this issue with my reliable confidant, the Senior Book keeper of our company, Mrs. de Jonge. She did have a complete grasp of all aspects of our company and also was thoroughly familiar with all employment related regulations current at the time.
Martinshof staff in 1981.
Mrs de Jonge is 5th from the right After having explained the situation to her, she too could see no way out.

But the following day she came to me again first thing in the morning.
"Mr. Furstner" she began, "I could not sleep a wink last night. The though of having to sack two of our people kept me thinking all night."
she continued "there might be a less painful option."

Naturally I was most interested to hear more. She suggested that rather than dismissing two of our employees, we put four of our employees working for half days instead.
Our company would pay them half their salary, and if we could convince the Dutch Government, the four might receive dole money for the other half day out of work.
This way the four employees on half time would receive 90% of their full salary, which under the circumstances would be a very good deal.

I thought this was a splendid idea and we immediately proceded with contacting the Government office dealing with unemployment and preparing a brief for them.
A few days later Mrs. de Jonge and I met the Government official dealing with our case. To this day I still clearly remember his face and the dark blue, white dotted bow tie he was wearing.
We discussed the matter in a most pleasant manner and were told the Government would accept our scheme, provided a convincing financial case could be presented by our Accounting firm.   The accountants obliged and our scheme went ahead as planned.

Besides keeping our employees happy under the circumstances the scheme had the great advantage that we could hold on to the four staff and re-employ them on a full time basis as soon as this would be viable. This happened in due course with several of them staying with our company for the following 30+ years.
It was a very successful Mind&Heart decision the two of us arrived at, which gave much satisfaction to both of us and to all others involved.

© 2016 Michael Furstner