The most mundane actions can have a ripple effect – holding open the door for someone, smiling at the grocery clerk—change the course of the day by affecting how we feel.
That rush of good feeling that comes after a daily run, the inspiring conversation with a good friend, or the momentary flash of anger that arises when someone cuts in front of us in line—what could they have to do with big life matters? Everything, actually.
These small daily experiences provide us endless opportunities to understand ourselves. When we notice and understand what makes us tick, react, feel joyful or angry, we develop a better sense of who we are that helps us when approaching new situations.
Mencius, a late Confucian thinker (4th century B.C.E.), taught that if you cultivate your better nature in these small ways, you can become an extraordinary person with an incredible influence, altering your own life as well as that of those around you, until finally “you can turn the whole world in the palm of your hand.”
We should train ourselves to become “spontaneous” through daily living, rather than closing ourselves off through what we think of as rational decision-making. In the same way that one deliberately practices the piano in order to eventually play it effortlessly, through our everyday activities we train ourselves to become more open to experiences and phenomena so that eventually the right responses and decisions come spontaneously, without angst, from the heart-mind.
If we see a happy face for just a fraction of a second , that’s long enough to elicit a mini emotional high. People who were flashed a smile—even though it was shown too quickly for them to even realize they had seen it—perceived the things around them more positively.
If the body leads, the mind will follow : Behaving kindly (even when you are not feeling kindly), or smiling at someone (even if you aren’t feeling particularly friendly at the moment) can cause actual differences in how you end up feeling and behaving, even ultimately changing the outcome of a situation.
Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do,” a view shared by thinkers such as Confucius, who taught that the importance of rituals lies in how they inculcate a certain sensibility in a person.
When we take a power stance (stand with our legs apart, arms thrust out, taking up space), the pose does not only cause other people to view us as more confident and powerful; it actually causes a hormonal surge that makes us become more confident.
The way to really change lives for the better is from a very mundane level, the assignments are small ones: to first observe how they feel when they smile at a stranger, hold open a door for someone, engage in a hobby. Take note of what happens next: how every action, gesture, or word dramatically affects how others respond to them. Pursue more of the activities that they notice arouse positive, excited feelings. Once they’ve understood themselves better and discovered what they love to do they can then work to become adept at those activities through ample practice and self-cultivation.
Self-cultivation is related to another classical Chinese concept: that effort is what counts the most, more than talent or aptitude. We aren’t limited to our innate talents; we all have enormous potential to expand our abilities if we cultivate them. You don’t have to be stuck doing what you happen to be good at; merely pay attention to what you love and proceed from there.
Paying attention to small clues “can literally change everything that we can become as human beings,” says Puett.
Focus on mundane, everyday practices, and understand that great things begin with the very smallest of acts – are radical ideas for young people living in a society that pressures them to think big and achieve individual excellence.
-Sourced from Michael Puett who teaches Chinese Philosophy.