SARAH CHURCHLAND – THE WISDOM OF BABIES, PT. 2


Embodying Wisdom

So far we have looked at the evidence for the case that babies are wise. That evidence as we have seen is quite strong. But at this point in our inquiry, let us outline in detail the specific ways we recognize this wisdom in our littlest ones.

Again, while it is impossible to conceptualize a way of being in the world that can never be per se “known” but only be experienced, we can attempt to analyze our observations of babies in order to clarify our thinking.

As I mentioned in my introduction, perhaps the greatest source of inspiration underlying the genesis of this book has been the empirical research that has gone into it. I have spent countless hours observing the demeanor of babies in their cribs and in their parents’ arms, as well as poring over the incredible number of photographs that have been shared with me. Throughout this book you will find some of those photographs as well as photographs taken by professional photographers that capture the many moments in which the elements that compose the innate wisdom of our babies’ existences have come most clearly to light. It is not that these pictures depict an “instant” of wise insight into life. Not at all. Again, we should be clear that the wisdom of infants is a lived wisdom that they embody at all times.

And yet there are moments when we recognize this wisdom most clearly, when it becomes most apparent to our adult (or should we more accurately say “adulterated”?) analytical mindset.

I must admit, however, that during the first years of my research, I encountered a great inner resistance to seeing the characteristic signs of wisdom in the faces of the babies I observed. And if you have difficulty initially, do not be surprised. We are used to interpreting facial expressions as just that: facial expressions that fit into the patterns we as adults have established in order to aid us in our day to day contact with other adults. We interpret facial expressions as we would interpret a language, namely by translating the expression into a fixed concept. We bring a host of pre-conceptions to experience in an attempt to decipher or uncode, so to say, the expressions of the people we meet, live with, or work with in order to negotiate the situations we constantly find ourselves in during the course of our lives.

When a co-worker has an expression of anger after a meeting, we can generally interpret that expression as meaning something quite specific within the context of our workplace. We “read” our co-worker’s expression with ease if we are at all sensitive to such things. We can guess the object of our co-worker’s anger based on the common environment we find ourselves in with her.

The facial expression of babies cannot be so read. Again, babies do not experience the world according to the “subject-object” relationship that characterizes adult experience, at least during the first few months of life and sometimes even longer. And yet when we see a baby “respond” to what psychologists call a “stimulus” we invariably attribute a causal quality to that stimulus in order to say that our baby’s response, his reactions and expressions, are somehow “due to” or “caused by” that stimulus.

To the outside adult observer, this does appear to be the case. We see a subject, namely our baby, change her expression in the presence of an object, say her mother, and we say that the mother elicited or caused the baby to so react.

This error is what philosophers, following William James, have called the “psychologist’s fallacy.” It occurs when a psychologist, or any observer, confuses his own intellectual standpoint and interpretive prejudices with the observational fact about which he is reporting.

Very young babies do not “express” themselves through facial gestures in the way that we as adults often do, for example when we make a particular face of disgust to express the fact that we have sipped from a carton of sour milk. Such facial expressions are acquired over time and function like our linguistic concepts within a framework of social meaning that shapes our learning over time. The fact that facial expressions are acquired for social communication has been proven by countless researchers over the years, the most common example sited for it being the different ways smiling can be interpreted and given meaning within different cultures across the world.

Babies have not yet been habituated to a particular linguistic or expressionistic “code” in their earliest days, and as a result their “expressions” cannot be interpreted in the way we are used to determining the meaning of expressions we see in those around us.

To state it simply, babies do not express. They manifest and embody.

When we see what we might call “joy” on the face of a very young infant it would be a mistake to understand this “joy” according to our adult concept of that emotion. We say that our child is happy to see us, or that she is enjoying the toys hanging above her crib. But again, this is a fallacy since the very concept of emotion itself depends upon a causal framework based in a subject-object relation alien to world of infants.

Rather, what we are seeing when we say we see “joy” in the face of an infant is pure, nonconceptual joy: “Ecstatic Joy,” as I’ve come to call it. It is the manifest objectification of the very state of wisdom embodied by our babies, and cannot be understood as, or reduced to an “emotion” caused by an external object or stimulus.

Over the course of my observations, I have noticed that there are certain patterns in this manifest objectification that can be grouped together. By looking to these patterns we can be led closer to comprehending the natural wisdom, the primal experience of being in the world that is embodied by infants. I have grouped these objectively embodied states into a handful of categories:

  • Contemplative Receptivity
  • Bliss
  • Ecstatic Joy
  • Wise Sorrow (or Wise Tears)
  • and Love

Contemplative Receptivity

I mentioned at the beginning of this work that my inquiry into the wisdom of babies began after a friend spoke of a newborn as “having all the answers.” What she was observing in the infant she encountered was actually the embodiment of wisdom’s “Contemplative Receptivity.” Along with Bliss, Contemplative Receptivity is the most frequent, if not the most easily recognized states of wisdom seen in babies, particularly during the first few weeks of infancy.

If we look at photographs of babies taken during this earliest period of life, we can very often see a sort of “meditative” quality in their faces. After years of observation, I began to notice a similarity between the placid openness to life that babies seemed to possess and the calm acceptance of reality one often sees in the faces of meditating Buddhist monks. As anyone can see when comparing the image of a baby embodying the state of Contemplative Receptivity and someone initiated into the mysteries of wise meditation, the evidence for their similarity is incontrovertible. And yet in the case of babies, the look appears far more natural and entirely unforced.

While it is impossible to “know” what a baby is experiencing at any given moment, we do know, based on both biological and sociological patterns of development, that babies do not have the kind of goal oriented attitude characteristic of adults. Rather, their relation to what will later become cognized as objects is simply in this phase of life the pure experience of the reality of reality.

Contemplative Receptivity is the embodiment of a purely desireless “letting be” of beings within the wise experience of them. It is a being-at-one-with whatever comes within the open gaze of the baby’s sphere of pre-conscious awareness and a reciprocal exchange of energy between the baby and the pre-objective object of experience.

We can say that Receptive Contemplation shares something with what we conceptualize as adults as an act of “welcoming” or “accepting” the world on its own terms. And as we all know, many of our sorrows are caused by rebelling against unyielding circumstances and wanting to change the world according to our own desires, rather than welcoming and accepting the world as it comes to us. To be sure, there are things in life that it does us well not to accept, such as threats to our fundamental well-being, or to the well-being of others. Such circumstances rightly ought to motivate us to change things.

But what about envy? When we see someone wearing a new outfit that we know we could never (or should never due to our financial priorities or obligations) purchase, our inability to own that outfit makes us upset, discontent, envious of the other’s belongings and dissatisfied with our own. We see our own perfectly fine clothes as ugly and inferior in comparison.

An infant does not approach the world with the prejudices that lead to such sorrow, but rather welcomes and receives the presence of a human being, of clothes, of colors and materials, with the same equanimity she would show in the presence of a leaf or blade of grass. Contemplative Receptivity is the embodiment of the wisdom of acknowledgement and recognition.

Have you ever been accused of being judgmental or upbraided yourself for being silently or even vocally judgmental of others? If so, it is a sign that you have lost your innate capacity for Contemplative Receptivity.

This is no surprise. As I have mentioned, children fall away from their natural born wisdom as early as the sixth month of life. That we as adults are conditioned to think according to the rational frameworks of our culture is simply the result of a highly effective socialization process that leads us to compete, often successfully, on the world stage, but which just as often leads us to an unhappiness that begins with the initial loss of our original capacity for living wisely.

All philosophies and religions that teach a form of transcendental experience and that preach about the illusion and sorrow brought about by consciousness, philosophies like those mentioned in the previous chapter, seek to lead us as adults back to this original state of Contemplative Receptivity natural to us as infants.

But as we will later show, we cannot simply return to infancy to experience Contemplative Receptivity directly. Philosophies that preach this as an end are mistaken and advance an agenda of negating consciousness. They take the easy route by simply negating adult knowledge rather than seeking to learn from the wisdom of babies. Such philosophies share much with the ant-intellectualism of the Romantic epoch and we will address both in the conclusion to our study.