Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Wonderful World of Pretense and Artifice: A Book Review of The Path

Book cover of the Path

In the modern Western world that stresses the importance of being yourself and of keeping it real at all possible times, anything that strays from the mantra of authenticity, such as pretense and artifice is frowned upon and discouraged. So the title of my review may sound rather critical and you may be awaiting a scathing and blistering attack on the book in question - The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh – but, in fact, it is quite the opposite.

Before I talk about the art of artifice, let us first take a closer look at a few concepts that we all claim to know and take for granted, such as being yourself. I have always wondered about this piece of advice given to people who feel distressed or confused in their lives and they are told just be themselves as if it would solve the issues at hand.

This panacean reply is just as confusing as anything else one could say to a suffering person. How can I be anyone but myself since I cannot be you? And more importantly, how do I know who I really am when I find myself acting and reacting differently in different kinds of social situations?  And which one of my potential selves is the right one and how can I be certain that this is indeed the right and most genuine version of myself?

The Path claims that most of what we see as ourselves is essentially and merely a series of patterned habits. I see myself responding in a certain way to a given situation over time and I assume that this is the most authentic response. It seems that being myself would be to act as naturally as I can; in other words, to act out what seems to me the most honest response at that moment.

But is that really the best method? If I feel angry, should I vent it and perhaps throw a book (maybe even this one) in the direction of the person causing my fit of anger?  Should I be blatantly and unabashedly honest with my friends and with my colleagues and superiors at work and give them all a piece of my authentic mind? Would that be the golden rule to follow?

The answer according to main Chinese philosophers, including Confucius and Laozi would be a simple no. Your fluctuating emotions and your patterned but limited perception of yourself is neither good for you nor for your surrounding and may not after all, be who you truly are. Yet one thing is for sure, that living on a steady whim and acting out your moment-to-moment desires cannot be constituting who you are. Or else we ought to be judging a toddler child not by their merits but by their tantrums.

So the first solution here before being yourself is to “get a grip on yourself.” We need to be aware of our seething and random emotions (qing) and also learn to control them (yi). Now this does not need to be undertaken in a dictatorial way in which we kill off any potential vitality with the cold iron-blade of reason and logic. This simply means to be the proverbial captain of the ship and not be thrown hither and thither by the winds of emotion but to steer them in the desired and most beneficial direction.

While doing so, a little bit of artifice (wei) may not be detrimental. Since you are refining yourself and your responses and interactions with the world, it would not be the worst to tame those wild feelings and passions of yours. Say, you literally feel passionate about an unknown person you have just had the pleasure to meet, and if you jump on them and cover them with wild kisses, most likely you will be seen as demented and may even be taken away in a straight-jacket to be forcefully re(de)fined.

In that situation, artifice would definitely come in handy. You can learn about how to flirt, read and memorize inside out the helpful and useful lines of Ovid’s Art of Love and use them to your own benefit. By restraining your passion for the moment, once the right occasion appears you can then unleash that part of your self for the benefit of you AND your chosen partner.

Both Laozi and Confucius would agree with those situations. The first one says that we need to be in the zone when it comes to acting out and hence living out the DAO, that is, we need to train the mind to become spontaneous. Now this may seem an oxymoron, but a spontaneous response ought not to be random but should be the one coming from the heart-mind (xin).

In fact, in this way you can calmly and carefully select the most appropriate and most genuine response among all the ones that pop up in your mind instead of wholeheartedly giving in to the first erratic impulses that arise. Of course, this involves a certain amount of training and discipline and cannot happen overnight. By learning to calm the waves, you gain the power to be as authentic as you wish.

The book gives the example of cultivating a hobby or sport. At first, you may be overwhelmed with all the new concepts or movements, but once you get the hang of it, you will be better at the given activity. That is when you can hone and refine your skills and will experience that wonderful moment of being in the zone, in which you instinctively know and respond to the situation. That is the natural state or the Way (Dao) and it takes practice and artifice to get to it.

The other undoubted benefit of being in the zone is related to the enjoyment of the given activity and by expansion the joy for life in general. The Path makes an interesting observation of how we use an activity, be it yoga or soccer to escape the mundane and the dreary aspects of day to day life. But that is only temporary bliss, as we will find ourselves again in the midst of stress and boredom. The trick is to manage to be in the zone or have “flow” constantly, just as the samurai has awareness of his surroundings at all times.

The benefit of such focus would be to feel vitality and not be dragged down by depressing or destructive and harmful thoughts about ourselves or life in general. We would enjoy whatever activity we undertake and not see a significant difference between doing the dishes and playing soccer. The activity will then turn (ideally speaking of course) from a chore to one of joy and, in the meantime, time will pass quickly.

Those kinds of activities may become rare with adulthood, but we see them often in children. They are at times so absorbed in what they are doing that they cannot hear us or seem to exist on a different plane of existence altogether. This is the purest form of DAO one can imagine and it is indeed something that comes naturally to us at first especially during childhood, but we seem to lose contact and connection with it over the years.

The second philosopher I want to discuss here is Confucius. The authors start off with the warning that we often misunderstand and misrepresent this great philosopher in our Western mind. We often rely on stereotypical thinking that is mainly transmitted to us from the idealistic and romantic 19th century. Confucius is often represented as striving for social harmony at the expense of individuality, that one ought to sacrifice one’s own ambitions and reign one’s desires for the common good. Now this is partially true, but there are deeper aspects and facets of his philosophy that many do not know about.

Enter the art of pretense. Even as an infant, we enjoy games of pretense. That is the basic premise of the joy behind peekaboo. The infant is presented with the possibility of disappearance of the adult only to face the immediate appearance. There may be an element of surprise here, but the infant does not take the whole situation at face value. I believe that the infant already knows this to be a game and hence does not feel threat or anxiety at the so-called albeit momentary disappearance of the parent. The movie The Witch demonstrates how such an innocent game could go horribly wrong, but that is another matter indeed.

The same can be applied to the popular game of hide-and-seek. This is where we simulate our disappearance, but do not stretch this far enough to become troubling. If we cannot find the child (again see The Witch) or if the child has trouble locating us, this game could easily turn into one of anguish and suffering. Hence, as a parent, more often than not, we let the child win and give away clues of our whereabouts, a foot sticking out or an intentional cough.

This game occurs on the level of pretense. We pretend to be lost and are then subsequently found. Both we and the child know this not to be a fact and it helps us to not only connect with each other in terms of an age-appropriate active game, but it also puts us on the same level or social standing. The parent temporarily suspends his role of the educator / enforcer and becomes a rather foolish counterpart to the child who assumes to be more competent and adept at this game. The child may or may not know that the reason they win this game is because the parent lets them. Yet either way, we are then reacting to our children less as a parental figure but more as a playmate.

The book refers to such moments as as-if worlds. It is commonly used in therapy sessions to shed light onto relationship issues. The roles are then reversed. The child is said to play the role of the parent and tell her what he thinks of her, while the parent does the same with the child. In such a way, we may unearth some conflicts and resentments and perhaps even misunderstandings between the two parties. Yet its strongest effect is the fact that we momentarily take on another person’s point of view and understand not only them but perhaps also ourselves a little better in the process.

This practice of pretending to be the other person can be expanded and applied to many different areas of one’s life. We can better understand the grumpy co-worker or the angry boss if we imagine and visualize the underlying dynamics of the situation. In fact, visualization, another type of pretense, helps us to improve our own skills. When we imagine ourselves in an activity or a situation, the brain goes through the motions, so-to-speak, and we can perform better in the real-life scenario, be it a presentation, a job interview or an athletic event.

In fact, athletes from soccer to hockey players tend to do such visualizations in the comfort of their home and often find themselves more successful on game day. I even give this type of advice to my own students: If you happen not to be a good student, then pretend to be one. What happens is that through rituals, you will gradually become more adept and competent in that endeavor and often, before you know it, you can master it! 

Rituals are highly encouraged in Confucianism, but in modern life, they are often frowned upon and dismissed as empty or pointless. The reason is that we see most of them as either a form of brainwashing or as a void gesture as they may not correspond with reality, beliefs that can themselves be traced to our Calvinist and Protestant legacies. But in itself, it is not a bad idea to follow certain rituals and practices whether one truly believes in them or not, simply because of all the beneficial effects it has on a personal as well as social level.

One example would be Christmas. Many people do not see it as the celebration of the birth of Christ, but rather as a time for festivities. We pretend that Santa exists, not because we enjoy lying to our children, but because it fosters feelings of excitement and joy within them and as a result, within us as well. We also see those times as a perfect opportunity for forgiveness and for healing. So we might pretend for the moment that bygones are indeed bygones.

It often works, temporarily. But what if we imagined, and I know this sounds corny and ask for your forgiveness, that every day was indeed Christmas. We might reduce our own conflicts and create more harmony among friends and relatives. We will more easily forgive the grumpy cashier or bus-driver. Or if we can’t actually forgive them, we pretend to do so.

What happens is that the pretense becomes real, especially with continued practice. A shy person may pretend to be confident and gradually, he may believe it to be true. Since he is pretending to be confident, he will be able to elicit the responses he is looking for and as a result, people around him may warm up to him. By immersing himself in this practice, he will, lo and behold, become confident, and that shy person may have been who he used to be in the past but does not refer to who he is at this particular moment.

And that leads us to the final point I want to embark upon, namely the belief that the world is stable. The Path claims this is not so, and that the perceived stability is merely an illusion. But this illusion can cost us and lead to faulty thinking and behavior, or at least, it may limit our options and possibilities.

Let us look at an example. A couple decides that they will get married on a certain day in the future. Now let us hope that this will be so, for their sake. But this assumption is based on a stable and predictable world. I am not saying that it won’t happen, but there are also many influences that could hinder the wedding from occurring ranging from the benign to the grave.

It could happen that somehow, for one reason or another, that particular circled day on the calendar may not be possible nor the best option. The assigned marriage commissioner might call in sick last minute leaving little option to get somebody else to replace her. Close relatives may face complications in their travel arrangements and may not make it on that day. Or simply, it may rain, or worse, there may be a hurricane passing through forcing you to postpone the wedding.

All of these impediments come from the outside. They might also occur from the inside. You may have major fights and decide to cancel the wedding. You or your partner may get cold feet or may meet somebody else in the meantime. Even worse, one of you may have an accident and die (sorry for the bleak image).

My point is that no matter how well-intentioned and structured our plan may be, it can always backfire. And the reason for this lies in the fact that life is indeed not always predictable. Our problem is that we think it is and feel frustration when it ruins our plans.

This may not always be for the worst. It might be that not getting married with that person would be a better option for you. Again, somebody else might come along who is more suitable and more compatible with you. By not limiting your options and not stubbornly and blindly adhering to the Plan but rather by going with the flow, we might save ourselves headaches and even find a better path to tread on.

In our life, we may feel stuck with one option. We may cling to a particular job because we feel that is the right one for us or that it is the best for our needs. Yet life - or fate / destiny (ming) - may present us with another opportunity that is better suited for our talents. If we do not give the other opportunities a thought and rigidly stick to what we have, we may be missing out. Likewise, what might be initially seen as a personal disaster (job loss or divorce) could lead towards brighter horizons in the future.

So I heartily recommend this book. Part of the reason is because I have previously thought about and struggled with those issues myself and that our conclusions are rather similar. Again, I do not fully agree with all the premises and tenets of The Path. I had my reservations at the start, but as I read along, I begin to appreciate it much more and consider it a healthy mix between philosophy and self-help.

I do not, however, agree with the view that the world lacks stability or structure, that it is random and chaotic. I think that there is a hidden moral center at work that does punish the evil and reward the good, and that this is not limited to the life we have now, but can be applied to future states of being. 

The authors seem to contend that the world and our life are unstable, but that we need to cultivate ourselves to respond to this fluctuating world. It seems that any kind of morality would boil down to pretense, imagination or social convention and it is not necessarily seen as a universal law or rather law of the universe. Put differently, the divine comes up a little short, although the utilitarian Mohists with the moral deity Heaven (Tian) align a little closer with my view.


Yet, for all intents and purposes, I think this book offers a refreshing look, explanation and most importantly, application of Chinese philosophy to our lives and it may offer relevant and necessary change in our way of thinking and especially living the good life. It also puts some of our given ideas and thoughts about ourselves and the world on its head, and I can only applaud the authors for such an outstanding hand-standing feat.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Human Side of Technology

End and power buttons of laptop
In my previous post, I looked at how humans have become mechanical in their thinking and behavior, partly initiating and jump-starting technology while at the same time being influenced and shaped by technology itself in the process. A day after my post, I tried to turn on my computer of six years and to my surprise, nothing happened. Nothing whatsoever.

This was the first time I was facing such a situation. Previously, my laptop had had its particular moods and needed a couple of attempts to initiate, but this time around, I got no response no matter how many times I tried. 

I ended up trying everything in the book or rather any somewhat reasonable remedy or solution I could get my fingertips on within cyber sphere (taking out the battery, removing the additional charge by pressing the power button for a determinate number of times etc.) and only stopped short of really wacky ideas of disassembling and then reassembling the computer or of putting the battery in the refrigerator or the even crazier and more dangerous option of putting the battery in the oven.

All my measures were to no avail. I felt saddened and disappointed by the whole situation. My theory was that my old computer was sore with me because of neglect. I have recently acquired a newer model because the old one had started failing me with its somewhat shoddy Internet connection, which had become more pronounced ever since I had upgraded to Windows 10. It was a reliable but aging machine with parts that were not best suited for the modern times. I believe that five years in technological time represent decades in human lives. Many changes occur in that time frame.

But I am not one to replace older models just like that. I am more loyal and sentimental in that respect. I tend to keep objects, anywhere from toys I used to play with as a child (I don’t play with them anymore) to photos of my female friends and of a couple of ex-girlfriends among them (objects to which my wife now and then objects). But everything to me has sentimental value, and especially something as fundamental and essential as laptops.

If we think of it, nowadays we spend so much time with our computers, in some cases even more time than with humans, i.e. friends and family. The first thing I turn on in the morning is my computer; it is what I use for work, for pleasure, for writing and even for listening to music and watching movies.

It is where I store my photos and ideas and it is my tool and gateway of knowledge. There is definitely a sense of gratitude I feel towards my computer for enabling me to do so much, and it has revolutionized and even shaped my process of writing, perhaps even inspiring it in many ways, not unlike the different models and styles of typewriters in Naked Lunch (the Cronenberg movie since I have not read the book yet).

It comes down to the assumption or rather my personal belief that objects, and even more so sophisticated devices of technology have a certain set of peculiarities or characteristics and fall only somewhat short of autonomy and personhood, at least for the time being.

It comes then as no surprise that we at times give our cars, phones or computers nicknames, that we occasionally talk to them or curse them. I am talking of personal experience again and in true Carlos Castaneda fashion have asked computers and printers for their support in critical situations and they have often (but not always) complied and pulled through.   

We humanize our technology, especially when we make statements like my computer does not seem to like me today alongside the assumption that they purposely sabotage our endeavors, or worse, that our computer has died (do they have an afterlife after all?). We imbue them with life that it may or may not have on its own.

We develop a relationship with them as we spend so much time in their company; we get to know their idiosyncrasies and personal touches and, as a result, they become endearing and, moreover, unique to us. Not to mention our constant and continuous dependence on them in pretty much any aspect of our daily lives.

To return to my computer, I think that it was a case of the blues and jealousy towards the newly acquired one. But I had felt thankful for all the support and help over the years. I had passed on my old laptop to my son and felt doubly bad that it had stopped working because I had let down my son as well in that regard. In fact, with a somewhat heavy heart, I even went to look for a new computer for him and would have bought him one if he had not asked for a rather expensive one with touchscreen. I had to postpone that particular purchase and enlist the future aid of Santa.

I returned home thinking about what to do with the old companion of mine. Taking it to the repair shop would cost me half a fortune and would not be worth it all things considered. Adding just a little bit of money on top of it I could buy a new computer that would last for a longer time.

Hence I was ready to shelve my old no more functioning laptop in a corner and keep it as a keepsake. Perhaps I was dreaming big that it would find itself in a museum exhibit one day as one of my cherished possessions and writing tool. As such it would achieve immortality and a bit of fame, assuming of course, I had made it big.

These thoughts of life, death and immortal fame circled through my head as I looked upon the remains of my old laptop. And then I thought, what the hell, let’s try to turn it on for one last time for old times’ sake; one last attempt before it is taken to the dark and damp storage room of souvenirs. And lo and behold – it turned on!

This was a miracle! I know others will most likely disagree with me, but it felt like one for me. It felt like the resurrection of an old friend I had already given up on. And here it was! I must add that in my confidence or rather foolishness, I had not transferred all my files and pictures onto my new computer or storage device, and had fretted over losing them or not having access to them ever again.

So I shouted a silent hallelujah and was thrilled, but also perplexed about the behavior of my technological friend. I talked to a computer science instructor about this situation and he seemed to agree with me that there is so much we still do not know about technology and that yes, these devices appear to have a mind of their own. 

This should not come as a surprise. How many times do devices not work when you need them the most! I can count numerous times where DVD players would not play a perfectly fine DVD or when I was denied access to an otherwise healthy virus-free file in an important moment. Or my favorite case, when you have midterm exams and the printer jams in an openly defiant and irreversible manner and you have to call an expert for immediate help.

This is why I have come to mistrust technology, especially as an educator. I always have a Plan B for those days when I depend on the support of technology. I purposely expect things not to work out so that I am not caught off guard. I do my exam printing (and in fact all my necessary printing) days before. I even prepare a speech for my students of what to say when technology fails me once again in the heat of the moment.

So technology and me have some bones to pick. Although I must say that over time I have warmed up to technology and have seen its human side, the same way I have seen our own mechanical side. It seems that there is indeed a meeting point half-way. As an addendum, my laptop still refuses to start unless you push the power button when holding the screen at a 45 degree angle. That’s how my computer prefers it to be done, and so it shall be.

So yes, in moments of despair, when your car or computer won’t start or the printer won’t print, those moments of unexpected unpleasant surprise, touch the object in question in a gentle manner, and use some soothing words. Yes, talk to it. It cannot hurt. You have nothing to lose.


Others may chuckle at your behavior or they may take you for a fool. They may think that they are immune against such mishaps or viruses that may befall the best of them in a world where viruses do not only affect and devastate humans but their technological devices as well. Yes, let them chuckle because they do not know that technology has a human side as well. 

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Bored Robots in a Mundane World

Robotic version of a young man
It is common perception that we live in a world driven, shaped and molded by technology. It may seem that technology has made us become more automatic, that it is interfering and influencing not only the way we live, but also the way we think, feel and behave; in short, technology is changing our perception of and interaction with ourselves and the world.

All you need is to watch people in the modern industrialized world. They are constantly and consistently connected to the Internet with their various shapes of devices ranging from phones to tablets to pads. Books are becoming obsolete as new hordes and generations of e-readers are replacing them. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 needs to be rewritten and updated with the temperature at which chips burn (in a microwave perhaps?).

But I am going to claim that it is – as almost always in life – a two-way street. It is not only that technology is affecting us but that we ourselves have brought technology into the foreground. We can look at this development of modern technology historically by tracing it back to the first machines: steam engines, mechanical ways of farming and defiant chess-playing computers.

The brilliant mathematician Alan Turing saw the many possibilities of the computer and foresaw its next step / model (which we are currently in the process of refining), namely Artificial Intelligence. Whether a machine can think is the question he poses; in the meantime, we are trying to create rudimentary forms and versions of thought-machines bound and circumvented by our current standards of knowledge and know-how.

But interestingly, before we look at electronic and automatic versions of human beings in the near or distant future, let us consider how mechanical we ourselves have become over time. In fact, I claim that it is us who have become robots even before the advent and modern advances of technology.

Our lives have become more and more mechanical. Evidently, I do not have the experience and first-hand knowledge of how life used to be in the past and I am not here to glamourize the “good old days” (I am not old enough for that). But within my limited experience, I can see a growing trend in the direction of more mechanical ways of thinking and living and I find this both disheartening and frightening.

I am living through interesting time periods of transitions and changes. I have experienced life without computers where television used to rule our daily life. Even until less than a decade ago, I was still able to walk and commute without any access to the Internet through smartphones, but I finally succumbed to the pressure of technology.

I lived in a time period where we still used record players (although I never owned one) and cassette and video tapes, which I owned massively and in bulks. Then CDs appeared and I remember the excitement of putting in the first CD in a newly purchased CD player. Nobody had cellphones but some lucky and distinguished few brandished a beeper, a completely useless device by modern standards.

But I do not regret any of those previous experiences. I still think that technology has given us a lot of conveniences, don’t get me wrong, but I am glad that I also happened to live in a time where we were deprived of technology or where it at least did not rule all the aspects of our lives.

As a teenager I used to have a typewriter, which embodied a very cumbersome - not to say pain in the ass – writing process and it made it much more challenging to produce, store and distribute my own writing in the era before word processors and blogs.

Moreover, I remember once my bus broke down and I was not able to contact my date (it was a first date too!) and that the relationship never recovered from this unfortunate and unexpected mishap. Today I would have merely sent a text message with an emoji and be able to smoothen the whole situation (or so I think).

But we had technology coming and it was merely a matter of time and circumstance. Our life was already becoming mechanical and automatic. We started limiting our patterns of thought and our imagination and goals and achievements, as a result. As we have reached more comfortable living standards, we have also become laxer and lazier in our lives as well as our outlook on the future.

Instead of looking for new and fresh ways of doing things, we often fall back into the tried and tested, the safe and well-trodden path. Instead of coming up with our own answers and philosophies, we are being spoon-fed cookie-cutter answers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the growing self-help industry that gives us half-baked, half-chewed and undigested answers taking away our own capacity to come to the same and even better truths.

Our behavior is also mechanical and regulated. It seems that we have stifled that which makes us different in the fear of not fitting in with society and our peers; consequently, we lose our own individuality. We look the same. We eat and dress the same. We are machines that feed and talk; we do not seem to be in control of our own minds.

Our cities and living environments follow that same pattern. We have malls that are filled with identical stores. When in the past, we had a certain amount of choice, now we all go to the same coffee shop. We even talk and think alike in many cases and become easily replaceable in jobs and relationships. Put differently, we are robots or robotic versions of ourselves.

Since our relationships with ourselves are fragmented and lack direction and imagination, it is only natural that our interactions and relationships with others are not going to be genuine or fulfilling or even worth its salt. We have come to identify ourselves with the mechanical faces we have put on and are confused about our true selves.

It pretty much comes down to the fact that we are afraid of feelings. Many of us see them as a hindrance, a limitation, and even label it as a weakness. We control our emotions with the iron fists of logic. We try to look for the best out there in terms of jobs, living space, and mates.

Yet our standards of quality are often driven by convenience and materialistic considerations. The “best” job turns out to be the one with the greatest economic benefits. The “best” mate is the one with the strongest appeal in terms of looks and appearance or even again in terms of economic prosperity.

We prefer a physically attractive person so that we can supposedly enhance our own looks and overcome the shortcomings we see in ourselves. We might look for the educated partner not because of stimulating and deep and profound conversations but because we may believe that they represent entry to higher-level and better-paying jobs or to more prestige and acknowledgment in society.

And all of this leads to boredom. We become bored with our lives. We become bored with our jobs, which we did not want or desire in the first place; bored with our partners because we did not listen to our feelings and were led astray by practical considerations. We reach the glass-ceiling goals we have set ourselves and see no room for improvement or further success.

In other words, we are the bored robots. And the life we have created is one of fantasy. It is make-believe but in its negative delusional form; the world loses its vivacious colors and turns into a dull mundane black-and-white world. Nothing satisfies or makes us happy in any lasting and fundamental way. We look to fill the void and turn to sex, drugs, money, possessions, fame, and might even expect and hope religion to fill those gaps within ourselves.

But more often than not this is not the solution. In those cases, we are trying very hard to escape from ourselves without actually knowing who we are. So we see it as temporary relief from the accustomed world of boredom until we wake up to the same monotonous music of our dreaded every-day life or at least our thinking makes it seem so.

So what can we do then to reach a more fulfilled and fulfilling life? The first step would be to get in touch with oneself. The best manner to do so is to establish contact again with our feelings and to really listen to oneself. It is important to lose the fear of others and of failure, this impending gloom and doom that we carry around with us non-stop and that constantly pushes us down.

It is time we regain our humanity and we engage in those activities that define us, while we manage to put aside the technological devices, at least, once in a while. We need to be free, of technology, of the opinion of others, and of our limiting and often self-defeating views, and we need to truly look at ourselves and at the world we live in and realize that we are neither bored nor robots nor do we live in a dull and mundane world.