Sunday, August 11, 2013

Korea # 24 China on the Mind

853 words, reading time four minutes

Does the “East” think in fundamentally different ways from the “West?”  If habits of mind, attitudes and mental culture are different in the Orient and the Occident, what do they have in common and what can they learn from one another?  Might the answers to these questions help save the world from ecological ruin?

In 2010, Charles Bollas, a Los Angeles-based psychoanalyst, gave a series of lectures in Korea.  He then studied Eastern thought and spirituality, history and poetry, in the belief that there was “an Eastern mind” which could be brought into Western psychoanalysis. The result is “China on the Mind,” a 2013 book lent to me for this trip by my friend Stan Zuckerman.  It seems to me an important book for everyone from therapists to diplomats.

Bollas lines out East/West distinctions:  Eastern think is “maternal,” more about relationships and the intimate aspects of life while the West is “paternal,” meaning more about achievements and outward relationships.  The East is communal and considers the group, the village, the environment, living within and revering nature, while the West is individual and concerned about how each person goes out into the world.  While the East has a sense of Self and the West a sense of the common good, the broader truth is that they are quite different and this difference can explain much that has gone on since one met the other.  Bollas believes that “mind” was once unitary and only divided as humans spread out from Africa.  Eastern and Western are not two minds but two aspects of one mind which can benefit each other.  This is a poor man’s nutshell of a challenging book.

Eastern thinking goes back to five great books written around 2500 BCE and to thinkers who popularized them many years later:  Lao Tze, Confucius, Mo Tzu and post-Confucians.   The West goes back to Homer’s individual heroes and tto he Epic of Gilgamesh from Iran in 2500 BCE which is about individual struggle against nature:  “The natural world is to be conquered and man is to make his mark in life through memorable heroism.”

  Eastern seminal thinking and answers to the great questions began in India and spread out over Asia, after the Indo-European invasion of India 4500 years ago.  Western thinking goes back to Iran, Greece, Judeo-Christian times, then into Europe and the Americas. 

Korea has looked to the West and copied and emulated it at times for well over a century.  Seoul may seem to have more in common with New York than with rural Korea.  Yet we should hope that neither Seoul nor the rest of the East copies the West and, in fact, deepens its own roots which may offer more hope for collective action on climate change, for example, and other issues than the individualistic West.  Indeed Bollas asks whether, in their conflicts and trade competition, Japan, Korea and China might be losing their collective mind, which comes from a common source and draws from Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.  He asks if the Eastern spiritual goal of “losing one’s mind” might even cause the East to forget itself.

This is not a political book but it reaches political conclusions:

“In this Western age, vast environmental destruction has grown out of peoples assumptions that they are spirits residing only temporarily here in a mere physical world, that the physical world was created expressly for their use and benefit.  This makes the Taost/Ch’an worldview increasingly urgent as an alternative universe in which humankind belongs wholly to the physical realm of natural processes,” Bollas writes, quoting David Hinton, and continues:  

“Hinton is asking the Western mind to turn to the East but also that the modern East return to its poets who unconsciously envisioned a danger to the world, one now threatened by human greed and contempt of nature.”

He is a psychoanalyst who deals with individuals but individual minds are the product not only of individual histories and families but the collective mind of cultures and its consequence on the world.  Hitler was a father-figure gone wrong but Vietnam was a “collective decision” by Americans.  Mao Zedong killed millions but he had a vision of bringing East and West together.  Iraq could have been avoided if America and Great Britain had waited for a consensus to develop about whether WMD’s existed in the country, deferring to a larger, communal wisdom.  If South Korea has an escapist best, who could blame them with North Korea threatening destruction daily?  And so on.  This is more than a book about psychology.

In a jacket blurb a psychiatrist from Bejing wrote, “It is astonishing not only how much the author knows about the Chinese Mind but how he shows a new perspective on the difference between China’s mind and the Western mind."
It will soon be one year since I arrived in India and began experiencing that most perplexing of religions for me, Hinduism.  Bollas writes that “Hinduism is religious surrealism.”  Its early stories remind him of Bollywood and it makes sense to connect the two.  “Set against the austerities of Buddhism and Christianity, [Hinduism] is refreshingly excessive,” he writes.   Hinduism provides a sort of buffer between East and West.  I found that helpful.  Now I have a small window of experience in the next chapters of spiritual evolution in the East, Buddhism and Confucianism. 

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