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Sarah Churchland

Learning from Babies

Over the course of this book we have said that it is imperative that we learn from the wisdom of babies. It would be easy to mischaracterize this statement and say that we are advocating for a “return to childhood” or a “flight from adult reality” – a flight from the real work necessary to secure a life for and satisfy the basic needs of ourselves and those who depend upon us. Let me simply state that this is not the case.

Learning from the wisdom of babies does not mean that we should mimic the natural helplessness of babies and look to someone other than ourselves to meet our basic needs. Not at all.

Nor does it mean that we should abandon the wisdom of adulthood, for there is, potentially, such a wisdom.

As adults, we can’t undo the history that has led us into a worldview dominated by the subject/object dichotomy we have described, a worldview that is alien to the more organic way of being in the world we experience as babies. We find ourselves as adults necessarily involved in life as we find it and we must “master” it to some degree if we are to survive.

But are we ourselves to be “mastered” by this world that we find ourselves in, that we have in fact created? Are our needs, goals, and pursuits to be dictated to us by the very mechanisms we have invented to satisfy them? Are we to limit ourselves to lesser conception of what we are and we can be, a conception constrained and restricted by the rigid dualism of subject and object, personal desire and futile object of desire? These are the questions posed to us by the wisdom of babies.

Over the past several chapters we have seen that our wise infants are not prey to the kinds of false desires and futile pursuits that characterize much of adult life. They are not yet conditioned to seek the objects that we mistakenly believe characterize happy and wise lives. They are not on the “merry-go-round” cycle of satisfaction and dissatisfaction.

By embodying Contemplative Receptivity, our infants are accepting of the world as they find it. They welcome the world and “set free” whatever comes within their experience. They do not have the complex, almost baroque wants of the modern adult that lead him to seek to control over and dominate things to satisfy those needs. Rather, the infant’s needs are simple, pure, and limited to the elements needed to flourish. And once those needs are met, babies are attuned to respond to the rest of life with awe and wonder, allowing all things to flourish in their presence just as they flourish.

By embodying Bliss, babies maintain their vital place in the world, and do not set themselves at odds with it through the antagonistic subject/object relationship characteristic of adult consciousness. Babies are uniquely individual but are also at one with the universe, a part of the whole, never wholly apart. And yet it is not through some form of mystical experience or active pursuit that babies “regain” their connection to the All. It is simply part of their innate wisdom.

By embodying Ecstatic Joy, babies live “in joy,” rejoicing in all things. They illuminate the world by radiating joy and, in a way, their joy can be seen as a form of gratitude. Not gratitude for a particular “enjoyment,” for the fact that a particular thing gave them a particular pleasure. A baby’s gratitude is simply the kind of gratitude that is such a part of a happy life that it is almost indistinguishable from happiness itself. The Ecstatic Joy of our youngest infants is simply their rejoicing attitude to the amazing fact of life itself.

But life is not always kind. While we are one with the universe we are also individuals. And stumbling blocks inevitably arise in the lives of every individual. By embodying Wise Sorrow, by shedding Wise Tears, our children experience pain and suffering so fully, intensely and completely that they free themselves from it almost immediately. They do not dwell on pain, nor do they learn to fear such experiences in the future. The lives of babies are lived in the here and now and their experiences are not bound by a concept of time that distorts and distends sorrows into the crippling source of withdrawal and avoidance that too often characterizes adult life.

And by embodying love, our infants open themselves to the world and live what we later as adults spend so much of our lives seeking, not realizing that the love we so want to experience is actually within and all around us.

Can we learn from this wisdom of babies and still maintain our involvement in the practical affairs of everyday adult life?

The answer is yes – but only if we transform ourselves, and in that transformation become wise adults.

Wise Babies, Wise Adults

The wise adult brings the wisdom of babies into play within the context of everyday adult of life. Having learned from the innate wisdom of babies, the wise adult recognizes and reconnects with the primordial needs of life. She has learned to distinguish between the “wants” that set us on the unwise path of adulthood and has re-grounded herself in her basic needs. By looking to babies, the wise adult has set herself free from the artificial desires that take us away from Contemplative Receptivity, Bliss, and that subject us to the false “unhappiness” that we feel when we can’t “have” the things we think will give us “pleasure.”

But unlike the Buddhist monk or devout Hindu, unlike the pleasure-denying Puritan or saintly ascetic who tries to free himself from false desires by turning away from life altogether, the wise adult remains in the world. Only he approaches it now with a far different attitude than the attitude he had before he learned from the wisdom of babies.

Let’s look more closely at these two contrasting attitudes.

The unwise adult seeks to have and possess; the wise adult seeks only to find and cultivate. She has learned to take only what she truly needs and she has the wisdom to let everything else be. Rather than engaging in a fundamentally futile attempt to bend the world to her will and personal ends and wring from it selfish “pleasures” that vanish almost as soon as they’re experienced, she has everything she wants as long as her basic needs are met. Having come to recognize the importance of Contemplative Receptivity she has regained the liberated perspective needed to let all things flourish in their own right and for their own ends. The unwise adult finds the world interesting only insofar as she can exploit it in some way; the wise adult is filled with the awe and wonder at the fact that the world simply is. She lives to be a part of this wondrous world and to foster its beautiful continuance.

Another remarkable contrast: the unwise adult seeks to regain his forgotten direct experience of being at one with the universe by engaging in all manner of unwise behavior. He pursues a false sense of bliss by turning to “new age thinkers” or “eastern philosophy” for guidance, or else engages in pursuits meant to get him back “in the zone.”

The wise adult turns not to gurus or the dance floor, but to those among us who live in the zone we’re actively seeking, namely babies.

By recognizing the manifestations of infant bliss in wise babies we can see that our own bliss is not something we have to find, but is rather something we need only re-experience.

The problem is that everyday adult life is anything but attuned the oneness of which we are truly a part. Our hectic, harried schedules and the constant demands made on our time and energy put us into an almost mechanical relation to things. The unwise adult has lost himself and his relation to the universe in the business, the busyness, of everyday adult life. He has completely forgotten that life is much larger than we are, that we are vitally connected to the universe in a way that has little to do with our petty or even our important personal pursuits.

And yet the wise adult does not abandon his responsibilities and the demands made on him as a responsible adult as a result of learning from the wisdom of infant bliss. He simply recontextualizes those responsibilities, re-prioritizes his life in relation to the larger Oneness of our world. He stays in the groove, he lives in the flow while making the necessary changes that will allow him to remain aware of the Oneness of all things and of his innate bliss while also remaining actively engaged in a new way with the many demands of everyday life.

With respect to ecstatic joy, the unwise adult simply has no contact with it. She has lost touch with the natural joy we see embodied by babies in all their wisdom. Having forgotten that true joy can only be experienced by standing outside of the selfish pursuit of subjective “pleasures” and in joy itself, the unwise adult keeps looking for something outside of herself, some object that will give her that feeling of joy she once experienced but doesn’t even remember experiencing as an infant.

Illuminated by the insight into ecstatic joy revealed to us by our babies, the wise adult no longer needs to look to individual objects or personal relationships to find joy. Because she lives in joy on a daily basis, the very existence of things is for her a constant occasion for rejoicing.

You might have heard somebody suggest to you or to someone else, or perhaps you have even said this to someone else, that you should be grateful for the good things in your life and not focus on the negative things – that it’s best to live a life of gratitude and to give thanks.

Giving thanks is one of the most important ways the wise adult embodies Ecstatic Joy. The unwise adult only takes joy in what he “gets” and is only thankful for what is his – what he can dominate, possess, or own.

The joy of babies is an encompassing joy, a joy that embraces all things and that is based in the fact that we are here to live in this joy.

The wise adult who has learned from the wisdom of infant ecstatic joy does not cease taking pleasure in things, nor does she stop altogether being a part of the usual world of adult commerce and ownership; ecstatic joy simply liberates her from dependency on possession and personal, isolated self-satisfaction as the source of “joy.” When the wise adult enjoys a good meal, she enjoys it fully and no less than someone less wise. But when she has a meal that may be simple compared to the lavish meal of her neighbor, she enjoys her own meal no less because her joy could be no greater regardless of what is on her plate.

Because of the important place Wise Sorrow and Wise Love can have in adult life, we have already talked at great length about both.

Sadness is an unavoidable reality of life. But we can either remain unwise and react to the sorrowful moments of life in the ways most adults react. Or we can learn from the wisdom of babies.

The two paths we spoke of earlier, withdrawal from life and brooding fixation on our defeats, take many forms. We did not mention there one of the most common, and most tragic manifestations of unwise sorrow.

Do you know anyone who has not had to deal with addiction? Either in their own lives or the in the lives of someone they love? We’ve all seen people turn to alcohol, drugs, or other substances as a way of dealing with the stresses that an unwise approach to life necessarily entails.

People become addicted to all sorts of things: food, sex, money. Anything they think will end the sorrows that come wrapped up with a fully engaged life.

Babies don’t take this route. Simply remember, or look back over, what we said earlier about the Wise Tears of babies.

Babies aren’t born with addictions for the most part. This might sound obvious, but it’s important. While there are those sad cases of children born with a chemical dependency as a result of parents who abused drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, most of us probably arrived at an addiction at a later point in life, or we have seen the point at which those close to us have turned to something addictive as a way to escape his real or imagined pains.

Whatever the addiction, drugs or alcohol, food or sex, an addiction numbs us or takes us away from the painful realities of our everyday lives. At least for a little bit. At least until the effect of our drug of choice wears off and we find ourselves again confronted by those realities and in need of another fix.

And not only does alcohol and drug use obscure the reality of our sorrows, they also provide the user with a false sense of other aspects of infant wisdom.

Unwise adults look for “the high” in an attempt to re-experience their lost sense of unity with the world, the joy they no longer experience, their connection to life and the people in their lives. When their addiction has been satisfied, the addict feels a sense of perspective on life that is a pale shadow of insight into life afforded by Contemplative Receptivity. Drugs or alcohol also become paths of last resort to an experience of intimacy that the overly self-conscious adult mind has made so difficult.

And it is this very hypertrophic self-consciousness, this superabundance of isolated subjectivity and selfishness that makes it so difficult for adults to love wisely. This is also why Love is seen as a sort of panacea by so many people.

The unwise adult, the adult who has not yet learned from the wisdom of babies is habituated to an antagonistic approach to life rooted in the subject/object dichotomy we have spoken of. They have not yet learned that there is a deeper, more connected life open to them, but they do not see the path to it. Even when it appears in their own babies.

For many unwise adults, a loving relationship with a partner of their choice seems like the solution to all of their problems. No longer will they feel isolated from life, separated from a oneness they do not even know they miss. No longer will they be thrown back upon the loneliness of their personal sorrows once they have someone with whom to share them. By finding unity in a relationship, sexual or otherwise, the unwise adult mistakenly believes that he will find the bliss that has eluded him over the course of his life.

Love can function like an addiction. And because it seems so easy to distract ourselves from ourselves and our isolation, from our loneliness or problems, in the company of another person, the unwise adult continually seeks this and is constantly disappointed when this “solution” fails.

The wise adult too seeks companionship, someone with whom she can bring to realization the deep pleasure of sexuality. But unlike the unwise the adult, the wise adult knows that love for an individual is not the solution to life’s problems. For she has seen that babies in their wisdom do not limit their loving to an individual. True love, wise love, knows no limits, as we said. It is not fixated on one object.

Rather, wise adults who love each other, who choose to rejoice in life together, who choose to help each other through life’s sorrows by allowing each other to feel sorrow fully when it comes and who help each other continue forward in life without fear, love each other in Love. The private, intimate love they share is but an instance, an intensification and localization, of the universal love that illuminates the wise life.

Imagine a world shaped by the actions of wise adults, adults who are in tune with their basic needs, who approach life with awe and wonder, who rejoice in life and do not hold on to suffering. Imagine a world shaped by the actions of wise adults who have learned from the wisdom of babies.