I am not very convinced of ancient Chinese philosophy. There is certainly an insightful metaphysical depth in the Yijing (易經) and its elaborations on change, harmony, conditionality and emergence. This was aptly substantiated by Laozi’s (老子) philosophy, but I always feel like something is missing in the Daodejing (道德經). His wu-wei (無為) idea is often not feasible in daily life and, therefore, appears a bit too easy and naïve. His follower Zhuangzi (莊子) is closer to my taste with his skepticism and pragmatism. Kongzi (孔子), Mengzi (孟子) and Xunzi (荀子) have been much too idealistic in their vision of “moral cultivation”, and much too optimistic concerning the intellectual and mental capacity of the “ordinary people”. At the same time, Mozi (墨子) and Hanfeizi (韓非子) have been too extreme, each in their way. Mozi was what we would now call a “Hippie”, convinced that human nature is unconditional love for everyone and everything, while Hanfeizi on the contrary depicted the human nature as evil and selfish, only tamed by strict law and punishment. Chinese Buddhist philosophy (Wei-shi, Hua-yan, Tian-tai and Chan) is much more inherently consistent and plausible from my point of view. However, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to learn from ancient Chinese scholars!
There is an allegory told by Mengzi that I find very meaningful: The Ox Mountain (Niu Shan, 牛山, written in Mencius 6A:8). Imagine a mountain slope with a forest of tall firm trees. Lumberjacks come with saws and axes and cut down the trees. New sprouts appear, but the new open space is immediately occupied by oxen that eat the fresh sprouts or trample them down so that no new trees can grow. Therefore, once the lumberjacks did their work, the mountain slope will forever be bold, threatened by erosion and home to rampaging oxen.
He used this image in the context of explaining why despite the inherent goodness of people there is, apparently, so much evil in the world. He regards morality as “firmly grown” in the human mind, but cut and corrupted by “human affairs” and the inevitable negative experiences that every human being makes throughout his or her course of life. Once the perforated morality gave way to “the dark side”, the void is filled with instances that support the evil ways, destroying all chances for the healing of morality. The trees are our morality, the lumberjacks are the negative experiences, the oxen are the powerful agents of evil that keep us on the immoral track.
I think this story can also illustrate approaches of psychotherapy and how we deal with “bad people” in general. To me, it appears reasonable to regard character traits as subject of constant change. This change can be actively influenced. Thoughts and “mindsets” lead to particular actions, and repeated actions form habits and customs, and these habits constitute a person’s personality and, therefore, his or her “fate”. It is of lesser significance whether the “nature” of human is good or bad. I regard it as more significant that human character depends strongly on experience and how meaning is constructed from it. That also means that nobody is like this or that eternally and unshakeably. The criminal is a criminal because his way of life made him that. The idiot is an idiot because his or her experiences formed certain character traits that make him or her appear as an idiot to me. The bad-tempered freak has a good chance to develop a calm and easy mindset if only the conditions for it were set right. There is always a chance for transformation and change. The question is: Do we spend efforts on directing and guiding this development in a desirable way, or do we fatalistically believe in destiny, get desperate over is-states and remain inactive? Let’s try to give everyone a chance. Everyone’s mountain slope (mind) has the potential to be covered by a vivid forest of tall firm trees of emotional, intellectual and moral integrity.
When dealing with a “weird” person, someone with a low integrity or with distorted character traits, the first question we have to ask is: What cut down the trees? What in this person’s life acted like the lumberjacks with saws and axes? Very often it has been incidents or continuous experiences in the person’s past, for example education, family situations, mistreatments, unfavourable outer conditions, stress, existential fears, etc. Of course, the past can’t be changed, but understanding the past and its role for the present state is the first important step to initiate the future course in this moment. Empathic skills and a good will certainly help to see a person in a more understanding light rather than from an accusing and reproaching stand. The second question, then, is: What are the oxen that prevent the new sprouts from growing healthily? Therapeutically, this is the most pressing issue. Most psychoses, neuroses, obsessions, addictions, emotional and other disorders, habits and character manifestations can be understood as compensations of a lack of something existential (for example love, attention, self-fulfilment (freedom), respect and acceptance) or as an outlet for suppressed desires and needs. This must not necessarily be grown into a psychological disorder or disease, but may be expressed through imbalanced emotions and their eruptions, in self-isolation and diminished self-esteem or self-confidence. These “oxen” kill every chance of “recovery” since they occupy the person’s mind, decision-making capacity, actions and statements, and thus dominate both inner balance and social interactions. When encountering people that we label as “weird”, “bad” or “sick”, we often don’t care about their lumberjacks and oxen. We just see them as “this” or “that”. Admittedly, we also don’t have the time and capacity to show everyone our empathic and caring side. However, in case of friends and family members, we should always be aware of the fact that every person has an individual narrative of his or her life, with a history full of lumberjacks and oxen, and at the same time a mountain slope full of sprouts that desperately try to grow into tall trees. Chasing away the oxen and inviting the lumberjacks for a tea so that they are distracted from doing their ruinous work, that would be true help and support from a friend or a family member! I am firmly convinced that not only studious psychotherapists have the competence to do that, but everyone who has the capacity to love a close person, who is willing to lend an ear or a shoulder, and who understands that NOW is the time to let the past be past and pave the way for a desirable change towards a brighter future.