Nurturing a Sprout
Live Like a Confucian
The feeling of alarm and commiseration is the sprout of benevolence. The feeling of disdain is the sprout of righteousness. The feeling of deference is the sprout of propriety. The feeling of approval and disapproval is the sprout of wisdom. People having these four sprouts is like their having four limbs.
– Mengzi 2A6
Confucians throughout the tradition agree that at any given stage of life, we respond to stimuli with a range of different kinds of affective (that is, related to feeling) reactions. They also agree that in principle, any of these reactions can be appropriate and good. Responding to hunger by desiring to eat can be apt or it can go awry; responding to a provocation with anger can be apt or it can go awry; and so on. Just to be clear: even sages can and should be angry or sad or pleased; it just has to be to the right degree and under the right circumstances.
While any of these reactions can be appropriate, Mengzi and many subsequent Confucians put particular attention on certain reactions which, they think, can serve as the “sprouts” of our most central virtues.
For this exercise, choose one of the following sprouts:
- Alarm and commiseration, or perhaps more simply just caring concern
- Deference (or, according to the slightly different account in Mengzi 6A6, respect)
Your first goal for today is to notice when you experience the feeling that you’ve chosen. In what contexts does it arise? You’ll want to regularly remind yourself to be on the lookout for such reactions and take some notes when they do. (It’s OK to start the day not yet sure which reaction to choose, and to let your choice be influenced by what you actually experience.)
Second, are there any moments when, after stopping and thinking about it, you realize that maybe you should have had the reaction but didn’t? Maybe you’ll think: “Aargh! A more attuned person would have felt ‘disdain’ at the sight of that piece of trash littering the ground, but I didn’t even react at all!”