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Sarah Churchland


Another common, but easily misunderstood “expression” found in babies is that of Bliss. Like the bliss described in the Upanishads, infant Bliss is the manifestation of babies’ deep connection to the “Oneness,” the “All” or the “Universal Whole” as it is cognized theoretically.

There are times when adults experience this sense of vital participation in the larger universe – a sense of connectedness to the Oneness of all things. We often describe this as a feeling of the infinite, an “intimation of immortality” as Wordsworth called it, a sense that we are somehow part of the eternal, ever-living force that animates everything in nature. It is an “oceanic” feeling of being dissolved into the “all” of reality.

If you have ever “lost yourself” in something, whether a book, a movie, a painting, or a landscape, you may have, upon reflection, felt something bordering on bliss. Many of us may have also experienced this sense of oceanic “loss of self” in the presence of a lover. While this is sadly far more rare than it should be, when lovers are deeply involved in their sense of each other as physical beings there is very often felt between them a new sense of unity, a sense of being taken almost entirely out of the temporal dimension of life as if the psychic shell of the enclosing self has fallen away.

These moments of bliss are but a pale reflection of the bliss common to the lived experience of wisdom embodied by babies.

When we look at photographs of babies caught in the temporary visible manifestations of the ever present state of wisdom they embody, it may look as if the baby is simply presenting us with the same “loss of self” or “in the moment” gaze that we might see in an adult who has “lost himself” in the immediacy of existence.

But babies do not yet have a “self” as such to lose, or at least not a self in the sense that we have already defined it. Their absorption into the all, their relation to “eternity” or “timelessness” is a direct and continuous relation unbroken by the activities, cares, and anxieties that bring us out of our own fleeting contacts with the eternal.

In the language of the French philosopher Henri Bergson, we might say that babies live in the ever-unfolding timelessness of pure duration. If we the think of the universe as like a wave of energy and life, growing and extending existence or Being into ever new regions, we can regard the foremost edge of that wave as the reality of the timeless moment babies are innately attuned to. By looking back at the wave, we might break it up into a number of measurable parts, introduce time into the universe and come to cognize the wave’s history, but we would then lose touch with the most vital aspect of the wave which in its fluid motion is eternally changing.

Duration, for Bergson, is something like the leading edge of the wave we are describing if we could understand the entire wave as no different from its edge. It is the human being’s direct, unconceptualized experience of Nature, of the élan vital, the vital force or energy which is the universe itself. In many places, Bergson also refers to this force as God.

Babies are attuned to the heterogeneous unfolding of the ever-present moment. They live in a time that is no time in the sense of our concept of time. They do not break up their day into hours, minutes, and seconds as we will soon teach them to do, but rather are alive to present and are directly in it. This is bliss.

Another, more colloquial way of saying this is that babies are “in the groove” or “in the zone” all of the time. Even when they are upset, as we will later detail, they remain in the zone. And it is remarkable to what lengths the adult world will go in order to return to this feeling of being in the groove or zone.

In addition to the momentary adult experiences of bliss we mentioned above, dancing and music making are also very common ways by which we seek to get ourselves into a “groove” or “zone” that approximates to a state of bliss. Historically, dance has played an integral part in religious ritual and often serves a sort of hypnotic function that attempts to bring the ritual dancer into a state of unity with the cosmos. We see this most famously in the Muslim Maulawiyah or “whirling dervishes,” whose spinning dance brings them to a trancelike state in which they lose their sense of individuality in the experience of the dance. Music functions in this way too as we see in religions in which practitioners use chanting and song in order to transcend their sense of the self in time and thereby regain their feeling for the unity of all things. These are two of man’s many attempts to regain that lost experience of childhood’s wisdom.

Contemporary psychologists, following the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, also refer to this experience as “flow.”

Imagine if you could move through the world like an athlete playing her sport in a state of optimal performance. If you could live every moment with the grace and immediacy of the greatest golfer’s most perfect golf swing. If you could live your life at the most intense pitch of controlled energy, when the right action at the right time comes of its own accord and guides your body towards its goal without any thought, without mediation. Flow denotes these times of unthinking grace and perfection. And while many of us seek to experience flow by taking up sports as youths or into adulthood, or by seeking to incorporate this popular idea of flow into our everyday lives, babies are in the flow naturally. We need only see them embody Bliss to know this.

Ecstatic Joy

What can bring a smile to the face more quickly than the smile of a newborn child? Over the course of my study of the wisdom of babies, perhaps the most continuously remarkable phenomenon has been the spontaneous displays of joy exhibited by even the youngest of infants, often seemingly for no reason. This form of infant wisdom can be called “Ecstatic Joy.”

I say “seemingly for no reason,” in jest. As you will recognize by this point, there can be no reason for the joy babies display, and again this is due to their lack of the subject/object paradigm of experience. Just as we would like to think that we are the cause of our young children’s love, so too do we flatter ourselves that we “give” them joy.

It is more accurate to say that we often merely provide infants with an occasion to display the innate joy that along with the other appearances we are detailing constitutes the very essence of embodied wisdom.

Ecstatic Joy can be understood as the active state of “living joyously.” There is no object towards which Ecstatic Joy is directed. Rather it is a way of being in the world characterized by an enduring joyful embrace of the gift and pleasure of life itself. In their immediate relation to this gift, babies often objectively display for us this “joy in life,” the joy of simply being in the world, which we recognize by what we might call, in adult terms, an ecstatic state.

By “ecstatic” we mean the experience of standing outside of oneself as a conscious subject into a state of rejoicing that persists in a direct contact with the vital whole that is the world. To be perfectly correct, it is paradoxical to speak of an ecstatic experience with regard to babies given what we have already established about their lack of self-conscious subjectivity. We simply use the term here for the sake of translating the non-conceptual act of essential enduring joyfulness into something more easily comprehended by our concept-conditioned adult minds.

Perhaps it may also help us to understand Ecstatic Joy by contrasting it with what we as adults normally describe as joy or joyful experiences.

As adults, we speak of “giving joy to,” of “taking joy in” someone or something. For example, as a husband I give joy to my wife on our anniversary by recognizing the significance of our choice to spend our lives together. We take joy in our celebration, in our gifts, in the dinner we have either at home or at “our” restaurant. We take joy in the pleasure of each other’s company, and most importantly in our love for each other brought to consciousness more clearly on that day than on other days in the year.

But what about the day after the anniversary? And the day after that?

When we return to the normal, non-celebratory activities of our everyday lives, the joy we take in our marriage, our spouse, and perhaps even in ourselves seems to dissipate. Many of us may even forget as we experience the daily challenges of love the unique joy we feel, or once felt, in the presence of our spouse. It is sadly not uncommon to see couples who have forgotten the very grounds of their union and the joy they once took in each other. Such couples often grow resentful of the lack of that joy they feel their partners should be providing them. When this happens we can see that what couples have been pursuing is not joy at all, but pleasure, or more specifically pleasures – a constant cycle of pleasures that they can “enjoy.”

This is not difficult to recognize in what we might call our “restaurant culture.” You probably know what I mean by this phrase, but it is a point worth reiterating. A “restaurant culture” is a culture in which joy in life is equated with pleasures that can be consumed. We view the world as a giant restaurant that exists, when we are hungry, to serve us up a heaping plateful of pleasant experiences that can satisfy us for awhile until we get hungry again.

But we not only find ourselves on a cycle of pleasure; this cycle itself depends on a cycle of discontent and joylessness in everyday life such that we need to seek new pleasures to bring us out of our doldrums. To be hungry for pleasures is “sadness,” or “boredom,” or “joylessness.” To have just eaten from the plate of pleasure, “happiness.” We call this satiety, “enjoying life.” This is adult logic.

Despite the fact that some can afford expensive “restaurants” to satisfy the hunger or sadness they face, while others of us are more accustomed to the “fast food” variety, all of us find ourselves at one point in our lives or another dissatisfied with the things we “enjoy.” Our pleasures, those people or things we may have once regarded as a treat, as things we enjoyed above all others, can begin to look like day old leftovers.

This happens when we have fallen farthest from the wisdom to rejoice in life which we see in our babies – a joy that is an approach towards life rather than something sought from it.

There is all the difference in the world between enjoying some “thing,” or even another person and living joyfully. To see the ecstatic joy of babies first hand is to witness the pure human experience of being in the world. Babies, apart from their simple basic needs, feel no “lack” or “void” that they need to fill. Their hunger is the primal hunger we all feel that is necessary for our fundamental survival. They don’t need a “restaurant culture” from which to satiate their feelings of dissatisfaction and emptiness because they are “in” the fullness of reality.

Whereas adult joy is predicated on a separation of the individual from life that puts him or her into an antagonistic opposition to it, ecstatic joy is simply being “in” life and rejoicing in it. We as adults think we need to take joy from life in order to eliminate the pangs of joylessness. Babies do not. They do not “enjoy.” They simply embody and are “in” joy.

To further clarify the nature of ecstatic joy, we might even briefly mention in this context the joy we see in babies when they are tickled. While it may appear to the analytical mind that the joy manifested by a baby when tickled is caused by the tickling stimulus or the tickler, this joy is actually the simple manifestation of the intense awareness of bodily being brought about by being tickled. When a baby enters into this state, she embodies the fullness of being in the world in such a way that she is brought within the fullness of universal being and life. In truth, babies become less “self-aware” (especially older babies who are further along the course of developing full adult consciousness) when tickled and are more in tune with their enduring state of joyfulness, though this may at first seem counter-intuitive.

When a baby smiles and laughs, we cannot help but smile back, just as we cannot help feeling warm when we enter sunlight. During the day, sunlight is always present, but we have to be in it to feel it. So too is joy ever present in the world. Babies, as the wise embodiment of that joy, simply allow us to bask in a joy that is always present for adults, but which has become hidden from us behind the clouds of conceptualization and self-centered consciousness.

By opening ourselves up to the wisdom of babies we can enter the embracing warmth of and perhaps even re-experience for ourselves Ecstatic Joy.