Eastern vs. Western Thought

Updated: May 4, 2020

From the time we are born and all throughout our schooling process, we are taught to separate all the “stuff” in the world. We are taught this first through the mechanism of language. We differentiate a tree from the sky, the print from the paper, and the stars from the night sky. Generally speaking, we learn that objects are just that, and that the space they occupy is an unrelated entity.

Conversely, the Eastern tradition puts great emphasis on interdependency. This means that a tree cannot exist at all without the sky as a backdrop. The black ink would be indistinguishable without the paper it’s written on. The stars are only visible against a dark night sky. Generally speaking, Eastern philosophy holds that objects can’t exist without space and vice versa. So, when we refer to abstract concepts like “oneness” in the disciplines of Yoga, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Taoism, we’re really saying that everything in the universe is interdependent on the presence of something else.

If the entire universe were nothing but empty space, how would we know that it was empty? There would be no reference point for us to draw such a conclusion. The only reason we can talk about the vast emptiness of space is by contrasting it with the objects that occupy it.

This is a massive and somewhat counterintuitive perspective shift for people who are used to the Western tradition, but the idea extends beyond idle pontification.

With many Eastern languages, we often see that the “whole” is more important than the sum of its parts. Take for example a sentence like “I took the dog for a walk”. In English, we get very specific with our sentence structure and verbs, leaving little room for misunderstanding. “took” implies a past tense verb, and it’s clear that the “I” is the one who acted upon the “dog”. Overall, there’s little ambiguity about what’s happening in this sentence.

In Mandarin Chinese, we would write the same sentence as “Wǒ dài gǒu qù sàn bù”. “Wǒ” can mean “me, my, or I” depending on the context. “Dài”, among other things, can mean “to bring, to lead, to carry, to take along, to look after, to raise”. “Sán bù” means “to go for a walk” but could also mean “to take a walk”.

This is one of the reasons it’s so difficult to learn Mandarin. It requires a fundamental shift in how we process language. We have to go from a mindset of specificity to one of holistic comprehension and “big picture” thinking.

In the discipline of medicine, we see a similar concept played out. Western medicine has traditionally focused on isolating the specific cause of disease in the human body. When you go to the doctor’s office complaining of illness, the doctor will look at your symptoms, diagnose a specific illness, and prescribe medication to treat that isolated incident. This can be incredibly useful, especially for acute and potentially life-threatening ailments, and it’s one of the reasons life expectancy in the U.S. is significantly higher than in the 19th century. Despite this, we find ourselves in the midst of an epidemic. Instances of mental illness, cancer and chronic disease are on the rise, with no explicit cause.

Still, pharmaceutical companies spend a lot of time and money isolating various pathogens and how they react to specific molecules in controlled environments, but how realistic of an environment are we creating? When the drug is used, why does it come with a slew of unanticipated side effects?

Instead of looking at the entire human body as one interrelated system, we’ve separated it into disciplines like cardiology, neurology, endocrinology, and psychology. We allow experts to emerge in each of these fields. By differentiating, we allow breakthroughs to emerge, enabling us to treat acute illness with a high degree of effectiveness. But differentiation also silos information into separate fields so that we only work on problems in isolation. This can lead us to oversimplify the real causes of disease and develop a sort of medical myopia when it comes to treating them.

“Wellness” centered approaches to health offer a great counterexample about what happens when we remove this myopic viewpoint. Holistic healers, when treating clients, will look at everything from nutrition to lifestyle practices and personal relationships. Their work has empowered countless people who are disenchanted with the pharmaceutical approach to medicine. Eastern medicine in general is about taking control and being proactive with one’s health. Other Eastern wellness practices include Yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and Chinese medicine. These disciplines share the understanding that mental health, physical health, interpersonal relationships, and the natural environment are all interconnected.

Finally, we'll look at one more example in science. Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics dealing with irregular patterns of disorder caused by sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Don’t worry if this went right over your head, just know that it’s the reason for the “butterfly” effect, which allows small details to create a big impact over time.

In traditional physics, we isolate elements of the real world, analyze them, and draw conclusions about how they behave. But Chaos proves that this method of scientific inquiry is inadequate when trying to explain more complex phenomena like the stock market, the human mind, or fluid dynamics. This is why we still can’t predict weather patterns and economic downturns months from now with a high degree of accuracy.

Chaos and Eastern philosophy both operate under the assumption that context matters. Everything from the breath you’re taking right now, to the falling of a tree many miles away has an effect on the behavior of the entire universe.

The Western way of viewing the world has its merits, especially in regard to practical applications of science and advancements in technology. But as we move forward as a society, our understanding of how things go together will be most important. In today’s world, it’s easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of detail without considering the macro trends. More and more, people feel disconnected from the natural environment and from each other, and it’s impacting our mental and physical well-being. We search for answers, but perhaps in the wrong places.

We study the brain, believing that our mental diseases must originate from our heads. We look at the neurotransmitters, the gray matter, the neurons. We dig into our memories, and how they’ve taught us to cope with reality. But how is that influenced by our lifestyle choices? And what about how thoughts influence physical health? The mind-body connection is no longer medical taboo but a scientific fact, and we don't know the limits of that connection. As much as we would love to break things down and make them easy to understand, the world doesn't work that way. But there's also a special kind of wisdom in integration.

Consider the mechanisms of breathing. An infant is born knowing how to breathe through its diaphragm. It doesn’t know how it breathes, or why breathing is important. It just does it. Somehow we've over complicated this in adulthood, and people have to be taught how to breathe naturally again. Why is that?

Do we falsely believe that the only things worth knowing are stored in our heads? We know so much about the behavior of the natural world, but how much do we know about our role in it?

It's clear to me that an ideal society should take a pragmatic approach to both Western and Eastern philosophy to maximize health, happiness, longevity, and ultimately well-being. It should make use of science, but with an understanding that there will always be an element of mystery lurking in the background. That mystery is consciousness itself, manifested in everything from the blossoming of a cherry tree, to the expanding nature of the universe.

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