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Sarah Churchland


Books begin in many different ways. Some evolve out of long planning, others as the result of a chance remark. The idea for this book began as a small seed planted some years ago by a friend who made a comment about her friend’s newborn baby. She had visited the new parents and their three week old son at their apartment in lower Manhattan. What struck her was not the cuteness of her friend’s child, though he was exceptionally cute; it was, rather, the intensity of this newborn’s gaze – his open awareness to what for him was, and would continue to be for some time, a completely new reality, a completely new world. My friend had seen many babies over the years, but had never noticed what I’ve now come to recognize as a very characteristic feature of most newborns’ physiognomy. Just as many people hear without listening, she had seen but never noticed until then the almost uncanny maturity contained in his so very small eyes. “It seemed,” she said to me, in a voiced filled with something of the same wonder she had seen the little one bring to his encounter with her, “It seemed like he had all the answers.”

What my friend noticed in the eyes of that three-week old was what I have since come to call “the wisdom of babies.”

At first, I was more than a little doubtful as to the significance of my friend’s claim, as many readers may find themselves upon picking up this book. As a young woman in her early twenties who hadn’t had much interaction with children, let alone infants, my skepticism was to be expected. And as a student of philosophy, a “lover of wisdom,” to think that a three-week old child might have found “the answers” that the great minds of western civilization have been seeking for millennia seemed particularly absurd, not to say insulting. And yet her comment stuck with me over the years.

In fact, I would soon be hearing remarks like my friend’s more and more frequently as other close friends began to embark on the adventure of parenthood. I would also find myself asking new parents and old about their impressions of their very young children. Almost invariably they would report to me how struck they were and at times taken aback by the intense depths of their children’s eyes, their frequent moments of what seemed like calm contemplation, and the knowing intelligence their children evinced during the first few months of life. They also told me that this impression faded over time.

“She understood me, even when I wasn’t speaking.” “He could look at you like a little Buddha.” “There were times when I thought she was reading my mind.” “You could just tell that she ‘got it.’”

Such statements were made to me so regularly that I felt compelled to look more closely at the phenomenon parents would describe. I began my investigation by speaking with pediatricians, professionals in child development, and developmental psychologists, as well as actively seeking out and interviewing parents about the impressions they had of their very young children. Later on, I began consulting photographs of babies. Knowing that I was working on this project, friends and associates would send me snapshots of newborns. Parents whom I had interviewed put new parents of their acquaintance in touch with me. Datum followed upon datum to the point where I felt that it would be worthwhile to share my findings with others interested in not just child development, but anyone interested in the larger issues of life, aging and human happiness.

The argument of this book, based on this extensive empirical research, as well as years of reading in the subject, is that very young children, children from the point of birth through the age of about six months, and at times up to two-years, but very rarely older than that, possess a quality of appearing to be what we usually call wise, sagacious, or insightful. And not only do they appear to be so. I believe, and I believe the evidence shows, that they are so.

I will also argue, perhaps somewhat controversially, that we can learn, and more importantly unlearn, many things about ourselves and about life from the spiritual insights wise babies impart to us.

Why are babies, particularly very young babies, so wise? Why do children usually have such a sharpness and alertness at birth? Why do children lose the openness to life and the world we see in them as very young infants? How can we learn from babies, and can we regain the wisdom we have lost? These are only a few of the questions this book will explore.

And a final note. I’ve also come to the conclusion that it is in fact particularly absurd to claim, as my friend claimed so many years ago, that newborns in some way “have all the answers.” But unlike my earlier judgment as a young woman, I say this now having since learned that babies are no less wise for that. For wisdom in fact has nothing to do with question answering, as many of you already know, wiser in your own right than was I as an all too rational and intellectually hubristic young woman – a young woman who reductively misinterpreted, as a baby never would, the wise words of a good friend.

Admittedly, this book began as the consequence of a chance remark of which I was initially skeptical. It has subsequently developed and evolved into the present work. I would like to thank my friend for the insight that has resulted in The Wisdom of Babies. And I would ask the reader only to extend the same patience of inquiry when approaching this study that was required of the author to complete it.

Are Babies Wise?

Throughout history and across cultures, children have been venerated for their purity and closeness to spiritual and divine forces. This has not always been the case, especially during periods when logic and argumentation, what we might call the paradigm of “western rationality,” have dominated social discourse.

Our own epoch is one such period despite the general attention paid to children and babies. True, we see government initiatives to bolster the family, educational initiatives that focus on children’s programs. But such attention is based on a view of children that regards them merely as future adults rather than creatures who have an essential nature of their own.

Children in the developmental phase of early childhood and even during their neonatal period are also often regarded in this way. We need only look at the number of parents who annually buy “turn your baby into a genius” style CDs and DVDs. Before they’re even born, we’re training our children to be well functioning members of a world dominated by a certain form of rationality. This is not to say that such endeavors are wrong or a waste of time. In fact, if we wish to give our children an edge on our neighbors’ children, such investments can only be seen as prudent. But are we sacrificing something, forgetting to cultivate something that our children already possess in our attempt to make them simply smart?

The answer is yes. We are sacrificing the innate wisdom found in babies at birth.

But before we can describe this innate wisdom, we must first clarify what it means to be wise.

Note that the question we’re asking is not what it means to “have” wisdom. We can be wise, but we cannot “have” wisdom because wisdom is a state of existence not an object that can be possessed.

This may seem counterintuitive at first. Over the course of our education as children and on through adulthood, we are taught that wisdom, like happiness, is something to be pursued and possessed. Something that can be hunted down and held, whether through the acquisition of certain physical, material, or interpersonal situations in the case of happiness, or through the acquisition of knowledge and the constant pursuit and securing of a never ending sequence of “facts” and “truths” in the case of wisdom. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

In the United States and in cultures across the world under the sway of those values that brought it into existence, children are taught the rudiments of a political tradition that bases itself on this illusory pursuit, one that equates life with the freedom to act in certain ways (liberty) in the pursuit of personal happiness. But even in cultures defined by religious practices that identify the individual with a larger social group or sect that sets for individuals a common and impersonal goal, both wisdom and happiness are regarded in the same way. For example, in terms of getting into heaven or being recognized by one’s god or gods as having achieved a certain moral stature.

In many ways, “wisdom” as a philosophical concept in the west and as a religious concept across the world has itself come to be based on, and in many ways equated with a concept of power. The same can be said about “happiness.” In other words, the concepts of wisdom and happiness that seem to dominate the lives of the majority of men and women across the globe can be understood in terms of the power to pursue and ultimately possess those things which are generally accepted as constituting wisdom, namely knowledge, and happiness, typically things.

Babies know nothing of such pursuits.

Consider the following. Babies have no possessions. They own no things. And yet they are happy. Babies have no desires. And yet they have all they need. And what has less power in the world than a human infant? Almost every animal in the world is more equipped at birth to cope with the perils of mortal existence than a newborn child. And yet what would an infant do with power if he could attain it?

To be sure, infants, like all human beings, have needs: the need for shelter, the need for the nourishment necessary to thrive, the need for human contact and care. These are not desires, but the basic requirements for life. And such requirements have been met over mankind’s history.

It may sound strange to state it so simply, but it’s good sometimes to remind ourselves that we’re alive. The fact that we’re alive may seem obvious, but how many times do we actually slow down and recollect this simple truth about ourselves? And if we do think about it, how many of us ask ourselves what this means?

The fact that we’re alive implies an entire history of satisfied human need that reaches back millennia, to the very origins of humanity as a species.

In an age of wireless communication and the Internet, it’s hard enough to imagine a time without telephones, let alone an age without electricity. It’s hard to think ourselves into a world without the day to day commodities we take for granted: our cars, our clothes, our forms of entertainment. All the things we use to navigate our way through the day. How many times a day do we say, “I need,” only to follow it by naming one commodity or another. But do we really need such things?

Babies don’t.

And remarkably, or perhaps not so remarkably when we really think about it, neither did adults for most of human history.

Babies live, like our primitive ancestors of past millennia lived, in a world without commodities. And it is to those commodity-less ancestors that we really owe our presence here and now. For it is their wisdom, a wisdom that they embodied and that carried them through life, that fundamentally sustains us to this today. This wisdom is the wisdom of babies.

Like our ancestors, babies are in tune with needs and not wrapped up in unnecessary wants. Like our ancestors, babies do not seek out forms of entertainment to hold their attention and distract themselves from themselves or from their own boredom. It is true that they will soon learn to become bored and distract themselves from it, perhaps all too well. But not at first.

As anyone who has ever observed a newborn knows, very young babies are never bored. Boredom is something that only develops in the personality of children later on, typically towards the end of the first year of life. One of the joys and miracles of observing babies is to watch them simply be in the world. Not watching them do anything in particular, but watching them simply be. Our ancestors lived lives attuned to the very aliveness of the world without a need for our music, television, or movies. Babies also live attuned to this aliveness and in a later chapter we will explore this attunement in greater detail. But who hasn’t seen and marveled at the wonder and openness with which babies greet and welcome the world?

This is wisdom. It is also happiness. And as we will see, these two “concepts” that have been instilled in us over time as objects of pursuit are in fact one and the same thing: a state of being natural to us at birth.

Let me ask another simple question. Have you ever seen a newborn baby pick a fight? Have you ever seen a three-week old knock down another infant in order to take a toy from her? Admittedly, this is a ridiculous question given that infants don’t have the ability to walk, let alone the musculature and motor control to bully other babies! But there’s a truth here if we have the patience to find it. I would submit that it’s not simply for lack of ability that newborns aren’t violent and covetous in this way. Rather, it is simply not in their nature to be so.

The seventeenth century rationalist philosopher Thomas Hobbes would probably disagree with us here, but given his attachment to the forms of thinking so alien to true wisdom, we shouldn’t be surprised. He viewed man as innately desirous of power, hungry for it to the point of violence, and not born with the wisdom we plainly see in our ancestors, and in babies.

But it is easy to see why he made this mistake. The development of primitive implements, the controlled use of fire, and the later invention of far more sophisticated and powerful tools have certainly changed the way we dwell in the world. Many would argue, including myself, that a great number of these inventions have resulted in what we might call “progress.” But in many ways this quest for power and control over the world, a quest that has since resulted in a seemingly never ending search for wisdom and happiness, has separated us from that basic stance of open receptiveness we find human beings evincing at birth.

Over the centuries, we have ceased regarding this initial orientation towards life, our innate wisdom, as something good, and instead regard it as a fault and a weakness – a state of impotence and ignorance that is anything but happy and wise.

In fact, our essential innate wisdom has become hidden from us under a continually increasing mass of learned desires engendered by those very things we’ve invented as a species to satisfy them.

And rather than being a symptom of impotence and ignorance, the wisdom of babies is truly our greatest gift and greatest strength.

By recognizing the wisdom of babies we are able to cut through the concepts and desires that have obscured our own wisdom and reconnect with this wisdom that has always been with us. It has always been with us because we are it.

Apart from death and taxes, there is something else we all share as human beings. Despite our geographic, cultural, or religious differences, we were all at one time babies. It is very easy to lose sight of this fact. Many of us spend our lives ashamed of it, and would probably deny it outright if it in anyway could be disputed. But it is true, and we should be thankful for it.

Dawn of life, Dawn of Day

To many readers, talk of “cutting through desire” will immediately conjure up thoughts of eastern philosophies and religions. And this impulse, if not the conclusion most easily drawn from it, is correct. There is a deep connection between the traditions of wisdom found in many ancient eastern cultures and the wisdom of babies.

Western philosophy itself has its origins in the far reaches of the indo-european culture from which arose, centuries before western philosophy, the ancient roots of what would later become Hinduism, Buddhism, and the later Chinese and Japanese philosophies influenced by or grounded in those sources.

By looking to eastern systems thought, we can come closer towards “comprehending” the wisdoms of babies. And it will only be by listening to the echoes of this earlier wisdom that still reverberate in the eastern tradition that we will come closer to recognizing the ancient wisdom that babies naturally live in their earliest phase of life.

But let us continually keep in mind throughout this discussion that such talk of “comprehension” with respect to the lived wisdom we are exploring distorts this very wisdom into an “object” of possession – an unattainable object given that there is no such object to be found. In the same way, we can see not only western philosophy, but the eastern tradition as well, as a fall away from an earlier tradition of embodied wisdom into systematizing, desire-oriented philosophies, even when the desire is to end desire, as is the case in many eastern systems.

I’d like to begin with a passage from Lao Tzu’s famous Tao Te Ching or “Book of the Way.” While we will be looking at other texts that bear a more direct relation to the pre-theoretical, pre-systematic wisdom of ancient indo-european thought, the Tao Te Ching too has echoes of this tradition given Lao Tzu’s acquaintance with the ancient traditions of India. One of his poetic “passages” or ways into the Tao begins: “Can you coax your mind from its wandering.” It reads in full:

Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child’s?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from you own mind
and thus understand all things?

Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting with no expectations,
leading and not trying to control:
this is the supreme virtue.

I would like to ask the reader to re-read this passage omitting the second question posed by Lao Tzu.

Remarkably, even without the reference to the “newborn child,” one has the sense that Lao Tzu is describing what it is to be a newborn child. Keeping close to the “original oneness,” having a “clean” “inner vision,” seeing “nothing but light.” Loving and leading people without “imposing your will,” “having without possessing,” “acting with no expectations.”

Babies are themselves the embodiment of what Lao Tzu calls here “the supreme virtue.” Only for them, it is no “virtue” at all in the sense that we normally give to that term. In contemporary ethics, we use the term “virtue” to describe a state of excellence achieved by someone who has disciplined himself to the point of possessing such excellence. Babies need no such training. And yet they are supremely “virtuous.”

Infants have a “clean inner vision” at birth. Their minds have not been polluted by the kinds of concepts and values that distort our view of things as adults. They have not been habituated to see things in a dogmatic, judgmental way but rather are open to the essences of things as they encounter them. All is illuminated for them in the pure light of their existence.

Infants have all “without possessing.” They have all because their world is completely rooted in fundamental wonder and simple, primal need. Their needs are so simple in their origin that everything else they encounter in life simply is and comes to them as a gift, a gift they immediately give to all others to share. Who has not seen a new born child encounter a puppy or kitten or another very young child for the first time and not recognized that those creatures are not regarded by babies as objects of possession but gifts within her own wonderfully non-possessive moments? Babies encounter the world. They do not seek to control it.

And what are such encounters but pathways into the center of love? As Lao Tzu makes clear, loving people is antithetical to imposing one’s will on them. One of the most amazing characteristics of babies in their earliest infancy is that they almost entirely lack what we know as will. Only later do we find children who “nag” or “whine” or manipulate to get their own way. But at this stage in life, children do not have a “way” of their own. Rather, in the sense of the way of the Tao, they are the very “way” itself. They don’t simply love. They are love, and they allow, in their loving encounter with others, those others to exist within themselves.

The first two questions asked by Lao Tzu equate a certain kind of mindset with the physical state of a newborn child. In this he seeks to show us that the wandering mind of adulthood, a mind on a constant merry-go-round of pursuits and achievements, losses and sorrows, distractions and ever evolving circumstances, is alien to the mind of a newborn child. This is the key point of the entire passage and this is why he begins with it. To become supremely virtuous, and again the emphasis here is on the word “become,” we must get back to a state that we ourselves have experienced in our earliest days of existence when we were in touch with what Lao Tzu calls “the original oneness.” What this oneness is will be explored further below. We will also return to Lao Tzu’s comment about “acting with no expectations” when we consider the infant’s relation to time.

But before we leave the Tao, let us consider two phrases in this passage: “Giving birth,” and “nourishing.” Rather than creating for us a deeper portrait of the newborn he has set up as our ideal, these two phrases sound as if the sage is here writing about something more characteristic of parents. This is odd, and even to a casual reader it would seem to clash with the rest of the poem. While I am not a scholar of the Chinese language, I have examined the text and would like to suggest that the characters that Mitchell has translated here as “giving birth” might more accurately be translated as “being born,” and that “nourishing” should here be translated as “being nourished,” or even “flourishing.” Given the well known ambiguities of translating Chinese participles, I believe we can safely make this suggestion. And while the original text is somewhat difficult to determine precisely, this reading reinforces what the rest of the poem asserts. Namely that babies, those who have been born, are themselves the embodiment of supreme virtue when they are nourished and in a state of flourishing, when their simplest needs have been met.

The Hindu Upanishads, compiled around the same time as the composition of the Tao Te Ching between the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, advance many of the same themes and ideas found in Lao Tzu. Again, this is accounted for by the influence of Hindu and Buddhist thought on classical Chinese philosophy. And yet we find a much more sophisticated and detailed exposition and instructions for attaining the kind of “oneness” Lao Tzu discusses. The earliest of the Upanishads were most likely composed around 1000 BCE. Just to keep that in perspective, the Odyssey and Iliad of Homer were composed around 700 BCE.

The Upanishads are the flowering of a very long tradition that ultimately led to the Vedic Hindu religion. As such, they are much more grounded in the ancient indo-european roots of the wisdom we are exploring. As Bloomfield wrote in his Religion of the Veda, “There is no important form of Hindu thought, heterodox Buddhism included, which is not rooted in the Upanishads.”

Radhakrishnan, one of the 20th century’s foremost historians of Indian thought, notes that “it is not easy to decide what the Upanishads teach.” This is indeed an understatement! The subtlety of thought we find in the Upanishads challenges our very notion of what it is to learn, understand, and teach. But what they do teach can tell us much about what it is babies experience in their early, pre-cognitive state.

The Upanishads advance a monistic theory in which two central “forces” find themselves in opposition: “Atman,” what we might translate as “self,” or “subjective reality,” though these terms can only be an approximation, and “Brahman,” “ultimate reality,” “objective reality,” or “the One.” Some western translators also use the word “God” to denote “Brahman.”

And yet the opposition between the two, between Atman and Brahman, it is argued, is but an illusion created by the various conditions of human subjectivity, specifically the senses and imagination, which set this subjectivity apart from the One through forms of thought exercised in the service of desire, or in the service of the dream of a self-created world independent of objective reality. As anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the Upanishads, or later yogic or buddhistic thought knows, desire and the resulting illusions invented by rationality are the source of all strife, sorrow, and conflict.

The Upanishads teach a method whereby understanding can be led to see that “the objective and the subjective, the Brahman and the Atman, the cosmic and the psychical principles, are… identical.”1 They argue that by recognizing this identity, we can free ourselves from enslavement to the illusions and dreams of our individual desire or dream oriented consciousness, and become one with what is really real, namely the all encompassing oneness or Brahman. To achieve this is to truly be Atman, or oneself.

As the Upansihads make clear, we human beings are the cause of our own discontent. Or rather our ways of approaching the world are the cause.

How many of our problems are the result of wanting things that just aren’t possible to find? And if we do find the thing we think will make us happy or wise, how long are we satisfied?

One of the most common ways we see this cycle of discontent perpetuated is in the area of relationships. Love easily becomes for us the Holy Grail of happiness and contentment and we pursue the objects of our desires or those we think might “complete” or “fulfill” us, as if we were a lone shoe without a mate or an empty cup waiting for tea. And yet is this desire any different from thinking that getting the new job, the next promotion, or the trip to Europe will satisfy our longing for happiness?

One of the core truths found in the Upanishads is that such longing is not love, but self-love: an attachment to oneself and one’s own desires. True love is found only in the embrace of the All. As the Isa Upanishad states:

“[Humane] life is a [Brahman]-centered life, a life of passionate love and enthusiasm for humanity, of seeking the infinite through the finite, and not a mere selfish adventure for small ends.”2

Perhaps the only period in the temporal development of the human being in which we are not engaged in mere selfish adventures for small ends is infancy. In their infinite wisdom, babies are in tune with the infinite. But rather than having to seek it, they are it. The unity of Atman and Brahman, “bliss” as it’s called in the Upanishads, is perhaps one of the most primary attitudes that characterizes the innate wisdom of babies.

Yet so is love. The love that children, especially very young children, have for their mother and father is profound. Many people make the decision to have a baby simply to experience the profundity of an infant’s immediate love. It is often called “unconditional” love, as is the love reciprocated by parents.

And yet to call it “unconditional” is to fall into that form of thinking so alien to the wisdom of our children. To speak of the “unconditional” requires a concept of conditionality that is not a part of the approach to life we embody as infants.

The “subject/object” dichotomy, within which the idea of conditionality arises, is completely absent from the relationship between parent and child. Rather, a baby’s love is a love that is immediate in its total embrace, not of an object, but simply of love. In their loving, babies are love – the un-self-conscious love that is present in, or, more accurately, which simply is the universe itself.

We would like to think that our babies could not love another like they love us. But that is not true. As those of us know who have learned from the painful experience after a woman’s death from childbirth, babies are deeply open in the most pure way to showing love for those close to them. In the absence of his biological mother, a baby will still love. He does not “learn” to love, but loves with all the wisdom of his heart.

The resiliency of babies to love is not to be confused with the “love” of adults who bestow their affections indiscriminately. Rather it is a testament to their infinite capacity to love all. And even the indiscriminate love of adults should be seen so as well. What we truly seek when we seek love is not reciprocated or passive love, but the opportunity to re-experience the immediate openness to loving that we experienced as babies, an active love, in the safe presence of another.

The late 20th century saw a remarkable increase in the attention given to Buddhist and Yogic practice. This is especially true in the most economically developed parts of the west, particularly on the east and west coasts of the United States which arguably constitute the core of global finance and technology. Because both traditions find their roots in the Upanishads and the tradition that gave rise to them, we will pass over them. Any exposition we might make of their ideas would in the end be almost reducible to what we have already said about the Upanishads.

But these systems, like the Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, and any number of other eastern philosophies, are just that: systems. They advance arguments that attempt to lead us towards what they consider to be the real: release from the pain and suffering of false pursuits and entry into bliss (Atman, the “Way,” Nirvana, Samadhi, etc.).

But are such systems really necessary? Is it perhaps not more accurate to say that we simply need to reconnect with what we once were as babies in order to achieve what these systems of eastern thought teach? These are questions that we can only address after we have a fuller picture of the infant wisdom we are exploring.