In the culminating vision of the Sage, Mencius, heart, the Heavenly Mandate, and flood-like ch’i are combined with the Tao, or the Way. One accomplishes an alignment with the Heavenly Mandate, or universal law, by manifesting the heart, the faculty of goodness, resulting in flood-like ch’i or fully embodied vitality and courage. The method for living in such alignment is called the Tao, or Way. To quote from “On the Practice of the Mean,” one of the four canonized books of Chinese wisdom, “by ‘the ‘Way’ we mean that path which is in conformance with the intrinsic nature of man and things.”  By following the Tao, or Way, we achieve the moral life by living in accordance with natural principles and we become the profound person. We achieve jen, or authentic human-ness.

It is in the natural order of the universe to have manifested a compassionate heart in humankind. We are also given the faculty of cultivating ourselves. What this means is that we can advance our own evolution. By developing ourselves, we participate in the perfecting of nature. The purpose, telos, or entelechy of the universe is love, where love is the ultimate realization of compassion and harmonic relationship. We are each given a capacity for goodness through our inherent compassion and it is our task to develop this capacity optimally in order to play our part in the realization of the universe. Cultivating the compassionate heart is fulfilling the mandate of heaven. This is what it means to live according to the Tao. As the furthest extension of universal development, humankind finds its optimal harmony with the purpose of the universe when we self-cultivate toward the realization of heart.

We come to an alignment with heart through living according to the Tao. The Tao is the heart in time. The heart is the Tao in us. The heart is the faculty that can comprehend and practice living according to the Way.

When we live according to universal principle, our inner conflict ends: what we should do finds harmony with what we want to do. As Mencius put it,

“The profound person steeps himself in the Way because he wishes to find it in himself. When he finds it in himself, he will be at ease in it; when he is at ease in it, he can draw deeply upon it; when he can draw deeply upon it, he finds its source wherever he turns. That is why a profound person wishes to find the Way in himself.”

In this sense, to develop morally is not to learn moral rules, though these provide a framework for the real learning. Instead, we want to cultivate our hearts, the capacity for knowing right from wrong within. In this way we do not obediently follow some rule imposed from without, but intrinsically do the right thing in any circumstance, as the circumstance dictates.  As Confucius put it, “The profound person, in the world, does not set his mind either for anything, or against anything; what is right he will follow.”

Self-cultivation, or the process of developing our human potentials, is accomplished by living according to the Tao. It is through the realization of our human potentials that we embody the Heavenly Mandate, or universal principle. This embodiment of universal principle is our purpose, what we are meant to be, or our entelechy. The full realization of our potentials is to fulfill our human nature and is the way we come to know the universal law. The full manifestation of our human nature, which is an embodiment of universal principle, is compassion. Compassion is the purpose of the universe. To realize loving compassion is to manifest the entelechy of the universe. When we manifest the potential of the universe, we are at one with the energy of the universe.

For the Confucians, we get “close enough” to the Tao by having optimal relationships in each domain of being. We cultivate these relationships by developing our empathy through practicing the virtues of benevolence, respect, and compassion and we do this by accessing the heart.

The Confucian conception of the personal heart and its interconnection to all other hearts, the heart of the universe and the transcendent spiritual heart, is best explicated in the monumental work, “The Highest Order of Cultivation.” Here is my interpretation of the core of this text.

•    Only once one has an embodied experience of the interconnectedness of all, can one integrate all aspects of the psyche, leading to integration and wholeness; where the parts of the self exist in cooperative relation.

•    Only when we are whole can the potentials of the heart be realized. Only when we are whole can we realize our potentials for perceiving, thinking, feeling, imagining, acting and connecting.

•    Only when we have realized our potentials do we manifest virtuous moral being. Only when we have manifested virtuous moral centeredness can we put our relationships right, having harmonious relationships, meeting the needs of our partners and growing optimally.

•    Only when we can put our relationships right can we have happy, good children and flourishing families.

•    Only when we have balanced families can society be at peace and harmony.

•    Only when society is in order are we living according to the Heavenly Mandate, or the laws of the universe.

•    By cultivating ourselves, we fulfill the purpose of the universe.

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chi imageIn order to accomplish our life goals we need self-confidence. What is self-confidence, where does it come from, and how do we cultivate it?

Mencius, my favorite Chinese Sage, believed that confidence comes from “ch’i,” the universal source of energy. This power that moves through us has many names — eros, elan vital, libido, kundalini.

The brilliant philosopher, Paul Tillich, called self-confidence “the courage to be.” Possessing this courage means being your authentic self in the face of any danger.

Tillich believed that if we lack such confidence it means we are distanced from our essential nature. Mencius believed this, too. His name for our essential nature was heart. This definition of heart as our essential nature has been found around the world throughout history. In one example, St. Augustine said, “The heart is where I am whatever I am.” Mencius said, “pity the man who has lost his heart and does not go out and recover it.” He, too, believed our lack of strength came from being distanced from what we actually are.

Mencius said that when we are connected to our hearts, we have “free-flowing ch’i.” This means that when we are our true selves we have the ultimate connection to the endless and powerful supply of energy from the universe. It is when we are in touch with this source that we can do anything we set our minds to.

Having this power and confidence is another aspect of our entelechy, that which we are meant to be. We grow this power and self-confidence through being properly parented. When we get what we need from the world, our brain is pumped with chemicals like dopamine, which fills us with energy and confidence. When we are disappointed in life, our dopamine levels drop and we feel like the air has been taken out of our balloon. Getting sufficient positive reflection growing up is the real Popeye’s spinach. When we do not get enough positive support growing up, we chronically have low supplies of dopamine. This can lead us to feel enervated and insecure. We learn that being who we truly are is no good, and so we hide those essential aspects of ourselves. We come to believe that we are not the glorious beings that we are. We live in shame, which is the opposite of having “free-flowing ch’i,” or self-confidence.  Having problems with energy and confidence are sure signs that we have a lost heart.

With self-confidence, we believe in our value and capacities. We can face any obstacle. We can handle the risks of rejection, failure, and mistake. When we live in shame, we believe we are less than, and incapable.

How do we recover our hearts, develop the courage to be, reconnect with our essential being, and find access to our ch’i?

In the fairy tale, Maid Lena, nothing grows in the center of a farm. This is a symbol for a disconnection from heart and ch’i. When we are disconnected from this source of power, there is something in our center where nothing grows. The youngest son, Esben, lives a life mooning about. He is put down by his brothers. He lives in shame, and has no motivation or confidence. After his brothers fail at the task of figuring out why nothing will grow in the center of the farm, Esben determines that he will find out. When his father tries to dissuade him from going, he says, “I’m going, I’m going, I’m going!” When he gets there, he feels fear, but he keeps his feet on the ground, breathes, and determines to face whatever happens. A horrific storm begins. He sees three demons flying straight at him. He looks the demons right in the eye. As they get closer they turn into three swans. Then, just before they reach him, they transform into three beautiful princesses. One of the princesses promises to marry him if he spends the following year completing three impossible tasks. When he returns to the farm he looks completely different. He is filled with power and beauty. After fulfilling the princess’s wish, they marry and he becomes king.

What does this fairy tale have to tell us about recovering our hearts and finding our self-confidence? First, despite the lack of confidence shown in him by others and his own lack of energy,  he determines to find the source of his problems. No matter how frightened he is about facing his demons, he doesn’t run away. When he does, he discovers that what he had been avoiding actually becomes the source of his inspiration. By going to the empty place and staring down his fears, he becomes transformed. This doesn’t mean that his task is complete. In fact, it means that his work now begins. But he now has enough confidence and power to complete the impossible tasks he is given, and in the end he gets all that he desires.

To find our hearts and cultivate our self-confidence, we need to follow Esben’s path. We need to begin by devoting ourselves to a life-long process of growth. Just like Esben, we must say, “I’m going!” We need to go to the empty place within ourselves no matter how scary that seems. We need to learn how to go within, explore and come to understand ourselves. When we do, what we usually find is that we need to heal the wounds of our childhoods that have resulted in the formation of shame.

We must complete the impossible tasks. This means mastering our present. We need to commit ourselves to self-improvement, learning continuously, immersing ourselves in art, spending time in nature, caring for our bodies. We must practice the discipline to recognize and end our negative thinking.

Central to finding self-confidence is acting impeccably. As Mencius said, every time we do the right thing, we come into greater contact with our ch’i. We must take responsibility for our destructive behavior patterns and  surrender to getting help with our addictions and compulsions. We discover that when we do the right thing, we feel good about ourselves and this is the greatest fuel for the growth of our self-confidence.

In order to grow our confidence, we need to have reciprocal, authentic relationships. Like Esben, simply meeting the princess does not win her. He must work to gain her love. We must learn how to communicate and connect with others in true intimacy. This must include both giving and receiving positive validation. Start telling people you know and love that they are extraordinary and you’ll find your own confidence growing.

Another step in growing our confidence is envisioning a better future. By using the examples of the courageous who have gone before us, we call on them for inspiration and help. We must cultivate an image of ourselves as being that which we desire to be. We need to read stories of heroes like Esben, because when we do we realize that we are potentially kings. To fulfill our nature we simply have to follow the path of the heroes who have gone before.

This plan for self-cultivation which provides us access to the “free-flowing ch’i” which is the core of our self-confidence, is known in Asian philosophy as “the Way,” or the Dao. When we live in accordance with the way every day, we find our hearts. By living according to our core truths, we will grow in self-confidence until we can overcome any obstacle, face any fear, achieve any goal, and find true fulfillment and happiness. As Esben learned, that which we fear turns out to be the source of our power. When we follow the way, transformation is guaranteed.

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