Our inner character is reflected in our outer expression, and to improve everything from how we carry ourselves to even the look in our eyes, classical literature says that a person must first refine his or her character.
Among the better self-help guides of the past is a Japanese book for samurai written by a 17th-century Confucian scholar named Yamaga Soko. In his book “Way of the Knight,” he explained that to make genuine improvements in outer appearance, a person must first look inward.
Calm the Mood, the Mind Will Follow
Soko gives a simple formula on how to refine yourself: Calm your mood, and your mind will follow.
“Because the mind depends on the mood, when your mood is calm, your mind is calm,” he writes. “When your mood is agitated, then your mind is agitated.
“Since the mind and the mood are not in two separate states, there is no disparity between them. As the mood exteriorizes the agitation of the mind within, cultivating your disposition should be considered the basis of personal refinement and soundness of mind.”
When people begin to get stressed, they often lose their ability to think clearly, and it’s not uncommon that the resulting thoughts can make them unpleasant to be around. Yet, according to Soko, that stressed and disturbed state was something the samurai—or any person, and especially a man of mettle—should avoid.
“A man of mettle faces life-or-death situations, treading on naked blades, making swords and spears fly, evincing firm discipline, facing serious matters, and making important decisions—all this without disturbance or upset in voice or appearance,” he wrote.
Yet, at the same time, having this tough and unflinching character doesn’t mean that a person should be stern, cold, or unpleasant. Instead, Soko wrote that people should have an air of mellowness—a “relaxed” appearance, and “dignified manners.”
“With a man of mettle being so bighearted and high-minded, he will naturally have a certain mellowness about him. Mellowness implies depth and tolerance,” he wrote. “It means keeping your virtues to yourself, covering your light, and not evincing anything extraordinary.”
“When mellowness spontaneously manifests in your face, and the appearance of a humane man, a noble man, emerges in your interactions and associations with other people, you will be like sunny springtime, a blessing to all beings. This is the mellowness of a manly man.”
Outer Appearances Reflect Inner Thoughts
Our facial expressions are often dead giveaways of what we’re really thinking and feeling inside. And just correcting these outer expressions without fixing the issue at its root will rarely fool anyone for long.
“Appearances are the substance of the vessel into which natural and mind are placed by the natural order,” Soko wrote. “When inner thoughts are improper, appearance is influenced by them, the manifestation being outwardly evident. If you want to rectify your appearance, you have to correct and clarify what you think inside.”
Soko said that in the past, noblemen often paid close attention to etiquette and outward appearance. He notes that in the ancient Chinese text “Classic on Manners,” it says, “A noble man appears relaxed.” Soko explained, “Relaxed means an unhurried, quietly deliberate manner.”
“Since the manifestations of outward appearance are each induced by inward thoughts, when you examine and clarify your inner thoughts to correct them according to what’s involved, your appearance will conform to this,” he wrote.
Of course, this relationship goes both ways. As Soko notes, correcting one’s outer appearance can help improve one’s moods—one’s thoughts and emotions—in the same way that improving mood can help correct one’s outer appearance.
“Mentality is all internal, while interaction of physical activity with people and things, including looking and listening, is external,” he writes. “The internal and external are basically one, not separate.
“When manners are correct externally, moods are correct internally. When there is any external disarray, there is invariably an internal response to it.”
Proper Manners for Every Occasion
At the same time, having the same outward expression isn’t always proper. Soko cites the “Classic of Manners” to note that every occasion calls for its respective mood and behavior, and that as a matter of etiquette and respect for others, a person should try to act properly at each occasion.
He writes that if a person reflects on each situation accordingly, the correct mood and appearance should be obvious. “If you clarify external manners thoroughly and keep them in accord with their natural laws, the keys to psychological technique should naturally become clear.”
Respect for Others
The idea of consideration and respect for others is also a key component in this. Soko refers to these as “dignified manners,” and cites the 13th-century Chinese Confucian scholar Xu Wenzheng who said, “When dignified manners are outwardly correct, this is getting the general outline of comporting yourself respectfully.”
When explaining how to apply these dignified manners in listening, looking, and speaking, Soko again cites the “Classic of Manners,” stating, “‘Don’t be disrespectful.’ It’s a matter of putting these words into practice.”
“Generally speaking, courtesy arises from the need of the individual’s heart, with natural measures in regard to things, and the dignity of its expression inviolable,” he said.
Achieving an unmoved state is of course easier said than done. This plays into similar principles in the stoic traditions of ancient Greece and Rome. It’s that cool and naturally tough demeanor—yet lighthearted, relaxed, and able to think clearly under stress.
Soko said that a good person needs to first get rid of the “mood of neediness” and to also foster a mood that is “magnanimous and firm, able to expand beyond myriad things, undaunted by anything.”