The paradigms, world views and ideas which we inhabit shape how we perceive and interact with the world. They impact our ideals, relationships, and values. That is, who we are and who we aspire to be.
It is the task of philosophy to step back and critically examine the dominant frames and driving forces that influence culture. Exploring other value systems can open ourselves up to different ways of being in the world.
It is not my intention to argue that a certain worldview is superior to another. Rather, this analysis aims to make us aware of the benefits as well drawbacks of a particular mode of thought. In this article I want to compare the dominant ideas in the West with those prevalent in Eastern philosophy. This requires me to make broad generalizations, but the objective nonetheless is to provide a broad overview of the different traditions on a macro level.
Our Place in the Cosmos
The Western tradition places a high degree of significance on the importance of the individual. The ‘good life’ is one in which strengthens one’s self-determination and control over the external environment. It is concerned with realizing one’s potential and talents as a human being.
Further Western thought emphasizes the separateness and superiority of human beings from the natural world. It grants us the jurisdiction to manipulate and control the environment. This way of thinking is embodied in the Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes who claimed that science and technological advancements could make us “masters and possessors of nature.” In Tao: The Watercourse Way, Alan Watts reflects on the negative consequences that result from the excesses of individualism,
Western science has stressed the attitude of objectivity—a cold, calculating, and detached attitude through which it appears that natural phenomena, including the human
organism, are nothing but mechanisms…… We feel justified in exploiting it ruthlessly, but now we are belatedly realizing that the ill-treatment of the environment is damage to ourselves
In contrast, Eastern cultures emphasize the need to live in balance with the natural world. According to this view, we should strive to live in accordance with the rhythms and flows of the environment. Human beings, like all other living beings, are a part of nature. We are deeply connected to the world around us. Our wellbeing is contingent on that of the welfare of other species and their respective ecosystems. Despite our tendency of boasting our self-importance, the East views the human being as just one component in the natural order of things. The goal is therefore to live in harmony with nature.
In addition, Eastern thought claims that the ‘self’ is an illusion. Who we are both on a biological level as well our temperament, beliefs and character is in constant flux throughout life. Spiritual practices in the East seek to transcend the self. As life is characterized by constant change, clinging onto our egos is bound to leave us dissatisfied. Freedom and peace can be found through rising above the self-centeredness of our personal identity.
In the West, our ideas of happiness are based on satisfying the desires of the individual. Happiness is associated with the attainment of external things – status, trendy purchases and luxury products etc. Subjective wellbeing, pleasure and personal fulfillment are the main priorities for the individual.
Eastern philosophy encourages us to engage in spiritual practice to attain a sense tranquility and freedom. The goal is not to satisfy desires or obtain more things, but rather to attain inner peace. This is achieved through attaining a degree of detachment from the impact that external pleasures have on our wellbeing. As the Zen scholar D.T Suzuki writes,
The basic idea of Zen is to come in touch with the inner workings of our being, and to do so in the most direct way possible, without resorting to anything external
In this view, pleasure is temporary and the constant craving for more is the source of our unhappiness.
Balancing the Two Worldviews
Comparing and contrasting these two different worldviews, we can identify the benefits and shortcomings of each. While the ideas of the West have encouraged rapid technological advancement, the excesses of individualism have alienated us from our connection with others and from the natural world.
On the contrary, Eastern ways of thinking help us find peace and freedom within, but neglect to make any progress on advancing our material wellbeing.
It therefore may not be a matter of choosing one way of thinking over the other, but rather finding balance and avoiding the excesses of each worldview. The philosophies of both the West as well as the East can help us make improvements in different aspects of human existence – namely our external and inner life.
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