I was taught history wrong.
Like most other American students, I learned history looked like this: the Greeks led to the Romans, which led to the British Empire, which led to the scientific revolution, and America, french fries, hamburgers, and diabetes.
As a result, my grasp of philosophy was predominantly Western.
After coming to Cornell, however, I realized something was off.
Many of my Eastern friends talked to me about philosophies entirely different from the ones I had learned from the West. It inspired me to research both Eastern and Western philosophy. I have now realized, Eastern philosophy has profound insights.
This article encapsulates what I wish I had been taught as a kid. A combination of both Western and Eastern philosophy is where true wisdom lies. Here's what we are going to explore:
- The Major Differences Between Western And Eastern Philosophy
- Overcoming fate versus accepting it
- Linear versus cyclical view of time
- The Personal Mix Of Western And Eastern Philosophies I'm Trying Out Now
The Major Differences Between Western And Eastern Philosophy
There are two major differences between Eastern and Western philosophy (remember this is a gross simplification for brevity purposes).
Overcoming Fate Versus Accepting It
Firstly, in the West, philosophy is focused on strengthening the individual so they can change the world to be better, whereas in the East, philosophy is focused on changing yourself to accept the world as it is.
In other words, Western philosophy rejects fate, encouraging you to overcome and create change. In contrast, Eastern philosophy promotes accepting your fate and the world as it is.
To see how, let's explore one of the most well-known Western philosophical quotes from Socrates, "The unexamined life is not worth living."
This idea can and indeed does make life richer. But it has diminishing returns. The time we spend analyzing the past and looking towards the future is time borrowed from the present.
Socrates quote implies that reality is a problem individuals must examine whereas Eastern philosophy emphasizes that the meaning of life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to experience.
Western philosophies see improving and strengthening yourself as THE path to worldly change and achievement. This is exemplified in what has become the secret yet dominant philosophy of the West, Science. A philosophy that, by its very essence, promotes change and progress without any inherent reflection on if that change is worth pursuing.
As a result emotions of excitement, happiness, and hunger are promoted in the West.
In contrast, Eastern philosophies believe if you can't be happy with just yourself, there is no point building vast esteem, riches, and deep relationships. You will simply have lots of money AND be sad. So Eastern philosophies focus more on training your body and mind to be happy with little BEFORE trying to pursue worldly things.
As a result emotions of calm, satiation, and contentment are promoted in the East.
Linear Vs. Cyclical
The second major difference between Western and Eastern philosophy is Western philosophy sees the world as linear whereas Eastern philosophy sees the world as cyclical.
Western philosophy believes that as time goes forward, the world should and will be made better through technological advancements and social change. This is exemplified through the main philosophy of the west mentioned earlier, science. It can be seen through religion as well. Christianity, one of the most popular religions in the West, believes that there is a heaven (which better have some peanut butter) and a hell, which after death, one eternally lives inside of.
All of these Western ideas promote a linear view of life, whether positive or negative.
In contrast, Eastern philosophies promote a cyclical view of life, in which life doesn't necessarily get better or worse as time passes but stays relatively the same.
This is exemplified by the cycle of rebirths present in both Buddhism and Hinduism. When you die, you reincarnate as something else, a cat, a frog, or if you're really lucky a blubberfish. Nothing like getting to be a blubberfish.
With this notion of time, the future isn't necessarily better than the past.
It's also encapsulated in Ancient Chinese philosophical concepts like the Yin and Yang.
This is the concept that there are interconnected and opposite forces for everything in life. Everything has its balance point that comes through the interaction of the Yin (female) and a Yang (male) with each other. This idea emphasizes how progress usually brings negatives and positives and therefore isn't always worth it, a very foreign idea in the West.
All of these Eastern ideas promote a cyclical view of life, seeing the future as not necessarily better or worse than the now..
How Are These Differences Expressed In The Spiritual Teachers And Media Culture Of The West And East?
These differences can be clearly seen in the spiritual teachers and media culture of the West and East. Here are a few prominent examples:
- Zeno, the founder of Western Stoicism, was shipwrecked and lost all his belongings. However, instead of accepting his situation, he focused only on what he could control, his actions and reactions to his thoughts. He went on to found the Ancient Greek Philosophy of Stoicism, which held this dichotomy of control as its core tenet. Many of the Stoics were prominent political influencers seeking to change the world, like the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the advisor to Emperor Nero, Seneca.
- John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century philosopher who promoted individualism as a central value in society. He believed that individuals should be free to pursue their interests and goals without interference from society or the government.
- In media culture, we can see this idea of changing through individual influence in superhero Movies by D.C., Marvel, and many many other cultural phenomena.
In contrast, the East's spiritual teachers and media culture are the exact opposite. Here are a few examples:
- Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, famously promoted a way of living in tandem with nature. Legend has it he once stumbled upon a massive rock blocking his path, but instead of breaking through it, he turned into water and flowed effortlessly through the rock. This emphasized a key idea foreign to much Western thought: the solution to our obstacles isn't always to break through them but rather to adapt our strategy so they don't become obstacles in the first place.
- Siddartha Gautama, The Buddha, became spiritually enlightened by meditating under a tree for weeks. He didn't go out into the world and slay a dragon; he confronted his demons by sitting under a tree.
- Movies in the East have much less showcases of individual pursuit of change. Instead, authors like the famous Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro often have their characters accept their fate, submitting to their circumstances.
The Personal Mix Of Western And Eastern Philosophies I'm Trying Out Now
After learning about the significant differences between Western and Eastern philosophy, I realized they both bring incredible value to living in the world.
Living with both can make you holistically a better human being.
So I have created my own personal hodge podge of Western and Eastern philosophies. I have combined Stoicism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, into one. I call it, Studuciaosm.
I like it because it sounds like stud.
Which is how I feel when I integrate all four.
Let's briefly review what parts of each philosophy I find most valuable so that you can assess which ones you would like to dive more into.
Stoicism is an Ancient Greek Philosophy founded by Zeno which touts virtue, rationality, and the overcoming of fate as its most important ideas.
The core foundatinoal idea in Stoicism is that you shouldn't allow your wellbeing to be subject to fate. Instead, you should realize there is a The dichotomy of control, things that are within your control, and things that aren't.
There are only two things fully in our control:
- Our reactions to our thoughts
- Our actions
Everything else is outside of it.
By focusing mainly on what is in our control and not putting our wellbeing on things outside of it, we can overcome our fates without hurting our wellbeing.
In addition, Stoics believed things that improved the character higher than those that only affect the body.
They shunned desires like those for extravagant food, water, sex, money, etc. Instead of desire, the Stoics believed the acting out of virtues like kindness, temperance, courage, wisdom, etc., was more important.
The Stoic philosophy is especially valuable to me as a content creator.
It grounds me from letting external metrics like views and subscriber count bring me down. They aren't in my control. Instead, I focus on building my virtues while creating content that helps others.
However, the Stoic philosophy doesn't promote all of the insightful Eastern ideas discussed earlier. It takes a primarily individual approach to self-improvement, putting the ultimate goal of life at worldly change.
That's where the next three Eastern philosophies come into play.
Buddhism is an Ancient Indian philosophy founded by Siddhartha Gautama in the late 500s B.C.E.
After pursuing spiritual enlightenment for six years and meditating under a tree for weeks, Siddartha realized the cause of suffering.
That cause is the main thing I have taken from Buddhism, more specifically Tantrayana Buddhism, the idea that what causes suffering is our desires conflicting with reality. Humans are hardwired to have desires like food, sex, material reward, and more. Right now, I might want to feed my chickens in Stardew Valley. But instead, I'm writing.
That conflict of desire creates suffering.
However, Tantrayana Buddhism touts that even if we reach our desires, they won't necessarily make us happier in the long term.
This is because of hedonic adaptation, which is humans' tendency to return to a baseline level of happiness after positive or negative changes in their life.
The cure Tantrayana Buddhism gives is to understand your desires and when they are more likely to lead you astray.
My desire to find and develop deep, meaningful friendships, for instance, is likely to make me happier over the long term. On the other hand, my desire to get up right now and eat all of the peanut butter on the Cornell campus, is not. The first desire is better because it resonates with the Buddhist ideal of Bodhicchita.
Bodhicitta is the mindset of escaping from the inward nature of our Egos and spreading the benefits of our practice to others. Ultimately, the entire point of Buddhist practice is to make others lives better as well as our own.
Stoicism has given me valuable ideas on how to pursue change in the world, like the Western philosophies are good for. But Buddhism has given me a more honed idea of how to do so without letting my desire for progress and wordly change get ahead of me, like the Eastern philosophies are good for.
Confucianism is an Ancient Chinese philosophy founded by Confucius in the 500s B.C.E.
Confucianism emphasizes the importance of education and knowledge, as well as the cultivation of virtues such as benevolence, propriety, and filial piety. It also highlights the importance of ethical behavior, emphasizing self-cultivation, self-reflection, and self-discipline as key components of personal excellence. Ultimately, all of Confucianism emphasizes the importance of relationships, particularly those between rulers and subjects, parents and children, and friends.
Confucianism's ultimate goal is to establish a peaceful and harmonious society where individuals can live up to their full potential.
This is my favorite aspect of Confuciasm, the concept of self-growth to foster better relationships.
Relationships in life are everything to me. The main reason I create content online is to ripple out positive influence to those who interact with it, those they interact with, and so on. Confucianism allows me to do this by taking the individualistic self-improvement nature of the Western philosophies and meshing it with the focus on relationships Eastern Philosophies promote.
Taoism is an Ancient Chinese philosophy founded by Lao Tzu in the 500s B.C.E.
In Taoism, the Tao generally defines the ultimate force underlying all of the Universe. One of the major concepts inside the Tao is that everything in life has a balance point that comes through the interaction of the Ancient Chinese concept mentioned earlier, the Yin (female) and the Yang (male). Chaos and order, black and white, water and fire. Inside each of these interactions, there is some balance point.
Fun fact, if you squint, the Yin and Yang image looks like a Moon Cookie. But a sugar rush at 9:37 a.m. is probably not a good idea. Maybe another day.
According to Lao Tzu, living a good life comes with following the balance point in all of your lives activities.
In other words, learning to respect the Yin and the Yang for everything. He calls this process finding your Way. Importantly, the balance point is not only different for different people but it changes throughout your life. In other words, the balancing point in the Tao is not static. As you grow and learn, you will inevitably change, causing the values, roles, and goals you want to follow to change as well. This, in turn, changes the balancing point for each activity in your life.
Taoism has taught me that my balancing point will change as I change, and I should follow alongside it. Sometimes, mainly when I'm inspired, I can do more work. However, other times, I feel like a sloth that forgot its morning coffee and can't work as hard.
Knowing where my balancing point at a given time is allows me to live without burning myself out.
Delving into Eastern and Western philosophy has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life.
I'm giving myself the education I never got. If you have read this far, you feel the same way.
I encourage you to dive into some of the philosophies mentioned above or explore other Western and Eastern philosophies.
May it change your life as much as it did mine.
Here's what I would like to share this week.
📸News From The Channel!
📺Latest On De YouTube - 3 Lessons From Stumbling Upon Happiness Which Have Made Me A Happier College Student: In this video, I discuss 3 lessons I took from Stumbling upon happiness that have made me a happier college student.
🎙️Latest On De Podcast - E16 Keli Fancher: How To Be Productive As A PKMer: Keli Fancher is a father of six who creates content about prioritizing relationships while working, volunteering, and pursuing creative desires and Personal Knowledge Management. He's a full-time software developer at RescueTime, and a Dean of Digital Campus at Signum University.
In this episode, you will learn:
- Some of Keli's best productivity tips as a PKMer
- Why you should consider connecting your PKM system with your task management system
- The affordances Tana gives for PKM
- The benefits and drawbacks of digital universities
💡My Best Insights:
📖Book - The Power of Now: This is the first book I read which got me back into reading and now I’m rereading it again after two years. The main theme of Eckhart Tolle’s book is that by living fully in the present and simply being, we can be less affected by all negative feelings like anxiety toward our lives. While I resonate with its idea of living in the present more often, I believe Eckhart Tolle takes the concept too far at times, making the present seem like some magical state where nothing wrong can happen. Nonetheless, it’s worth a read for most people interested in spirituality.
✍️Blog Post - How to Use Anki to Learn Anything: A Complete Tutorial: In this article Anthony Metivier promotes using only image-based instead of text-based flashcards. While I haven’t tried it out for myself, I found the idea of doing so very interesting.
🎙️Podcast - Freaked Out? We Really Can Prepare for A.I.: What are you going to do to prepare for the development of AI. Ezra Klein explains that the development of AI is inevitable, and the only question we must answer is what our relationship with it will be once it improves.
📺YouTube Video - Dan Koe & Dickie Bush On One-Person Businesses, Creative Workflows, and Lifestyle Design: Some of the most important things I learned in this video podcast are:
- Just-in-time knowledge is often more important than just-in-case. If you are learning something, make sure you have some way to apply it to solidify the learning.
- There is a tax for ignorance. If you are ignorant about something, you are being taxed for all the money you aren’t making because of that ignorance.
- There are seasons to your life. In some seasons you will be in creative mode, sometimes in delegation and management mode. Understanding which one you are in is key.
- A personal essay targeted towards college students in the realm of gamification, relationship psychology, or Obsidian Personal Knowledge Management
- A curated list of everything that has come out on my content channels
- A curated list of my coolest learnings over the past week
In addition, consider checking out my digital notetaking course Obsidian University to help students like you build a notetaking system that compounds your school learning across semesters.