Michael Puett is Harvard’s most appreciated professor. His core theme: our identity, whether being that of an individual, a company or a country is a bunch of patterns, that need to be made transparent in order to create healthy growth. And that is exactly what we do in our Your Lab programs. Puett advises us to break patterns by making rituals, which will slowly start changing our behaviour. In Your Lab we work with the nerves system to heal the cause of our patterns so that a different kind of behaviour will emerge from the inside out. An interview with Puett, about making patterns transparant, and why we need leaders that are willing to investigate their patterns in order to create common growth.
Interview: Robin van den Maagdenberg
What does identity mean?
We tend to say, ‘I am the sort of person who is fearful. That’s just me.’ And at the same time we say we should love ourselves, and embrace ourselves for what we are. But the Chinese philosophers would say the exact opposite. They would say that, when I look within and decide, oh, this is just me, what I am probably seeing is just the patterns I have fallen into over time. They would say that the key is not to love and embrace those patterns, but to alter them through practice; to do things that break up the old patterns that hold us back.
Once we start to see our patterns, it is amazing to see how much of them are based on fear, anger, jealousy, resentment. These are the emotions that often drive our patterns. The irony is that for example mindfulness techniques, originally designed to break these patterns and overcome the self, have become domesticated and all about learning to love yourself and embrace yourself. Within a few months, if you apply these techniques, you’ll be happier about yourself. But it’s the wrong self. The last thing we want is be happier about a self that is a set of patterns dominated by fear.
Arrogance is a huge danger for growth. We often think that our failures are the most difficult things to deal with, but if we see we have failed, then we can grow from it.
Isn’t there a danger of falling into a new pattern, by altering an old one?
Always we fall into patterns. Even if we accomplish the very thing we wish to accomplish, there’s an extreme likelihood that a new pattern has developed, and that will again restrict us as we grow. So we must think of our lives as the constant breaking of patterns, constantly trying to overcome a limited sense of self. We’ll never get there. It’s a lifelong work of ever-growing as a human being.
Arrogance is a huge danger for growth. We often think that our failures are the most difficult things to deal with, but if we see we have failed, then we can grow from it. Success is more dangerous because, if we’re successful, it feels like you can’t fail. Then we could become arrogant. Arrogance is one of the most dangerous patterns we can fall in to, and one of the most common. Often times we don’t see it, because we think we’re being successful. I would say, when you’re successful be very wary.
How do you see the role of the body in breaking patterns?
Huge. We often make a distinction between the body and the mind. The body is just the body and the mind is where I try to become a better person. But that’s a false distinction. In fact, our patterns become part of our bodies. It’s just a way of being in the world. Once you begin altering patterns, you start feeling physically differently, more connected, more open, more whole and healthy. Your energies become more resonant and responsive to the world.
In Your Lab we use new technics to release the nerves systems from the cause of patterns, creating change from the inside out. Did you investigate the role of the nervous system in breaking patterns?
In recent psychological experiments you can physically see in the brain, very rigid patterns being formed because of our patterns. So yes, patterns our being nestled in the nerves system and are influencing the way we think and act. Does this imply that we have no free will? The Chinese philosophers would say that we have no free will in that sense, but this is a limited vision of what we’re trying to do. We can be absolutely active in the world, but not by having a mind that will make radical decisions outside everyday situations. You actually become active in the world by working with your patterns, developing new connections, building relationships that are open, learning to respond better and learning to affect others for the better.
If you look at the bigger picture, the clash between radical groups and certain countries in the West. There are patterns in play in these situations. How can we make them transparent?
These patterns are also based on fear and resentment. You have these groups thinking that all of their problems are caused by another group of people. The way to break these patterns is to do exactly the opposite. Actively begin working across cultural areas, talking to people, creating communities and educational programs that break down the old definitions of other groups and other people. Because they are not really like that. It’s just a pattern.
Why do you think a lot of Americans vote for someone like Trump?
I think the Americans are dealing with an intense level of frustration because of economic inequality. There’s a sense that the political processes are becoming dysfunctional because so much of the political parties are controlled by moneyed interests. There’s a lot of anger about political processes, but even more about life in general. There’s a sense that we’ve got stuck, that there is no real social mobility anymore. People are born in a certain class, and stuck there forever. This breeds a lot of anger, fear and resentment, which can be channelled in very negative ways. Many demagogues, like Trump, are successful in taking the resentment and playing into our worst patterns. Trump says: ‘follow me and we will win and dominate the world.’ He says: ‘they are the problem.’ And of course this is how all demagogues have been successful historically, playing off periods of intense resentment. To counter people like Trump, it’s not enough to simply say ‘don’t do this’ and blaming racism. The best response is to address the problems in positive ways.
When we realise that economic inequality, and all the other problems, are the direct result of the ways we are living our lives, and that this is alterable, we can then move in very powerful ways. But, of course, in moments of great fear it can also be channelled in very dangerous ways. Sadly at the moment the global phenomenon is a very dangerous one.
We need leaders who, instead of playing off our worst fears and resentments, are actively trying to create worlds in which people can flourish. And such people do exist.
How can we guide this global process in a positive way?
The Chinese philosophers would suggest that we can create a world in which humans can flourish, and for the exact same reasons as the world can seem to go wrong. It is possible to do this on an individual and global level. We can create new situations with our family, friends and relationships. And we need leaders who, instead of playing off our worst fears and resentments, are actively trying to create worlds in which people can flourish. And such people do exist. You know it when you meet such a person. People like this are contagious. If you see someone really connecting you think ‘I want that too.’ We are capable as human beings of doing great things, even though, sometimes, we don’t.
But these processes are always fleeting and fragile; we always tend to fall back into patterns, but nonetheless, remember those fleeting moments. They prove it’s possible. In the same way, we can deal with all the problems we’ve just mentioned by shifting things to create a different world both in our personal sense and in the global sense, and actively dealing with the issues. Historically, we’ve proved we can do it. And there’s nothing preventing us from doing it, except ourselves.