Tuesday, September 21, 2010

East Mind / West Mind

Today was a rare double-post day. My weekly 21st-Century Buddhism feature at the ID Project went up this morning with "The F-Word: Forgiveness." Check it out to learn why I think forgiveness is one of the most essential, and often overlooked, qualities on the spiritual path. In this article, I look at the 12-step model of spiritual practice, which places a strong emphasis on recognizing our crippling (and sometimes hidden) resentments and cultivating forgiveness. Have you had an experience of forgiveness that changed you? Post a comment to the article and share your insights.

Also, "East Mind/West Mind" appeared today at Buddhist Geeks. In this article, I look at the cognitive and psychological differences between "Asians" and "Westerners," and how these differences might shape our experience of Buddhism and spirituality.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

The very labels “Western” and “Asian” are fuzzy, finger-painting language—maddeningly imprecise in what and who they refer to—and they fall apart on closer inspection. How similar, really, are all the distinct cultural and linguistic groups that get lumped under those two umbrellas? Are we to assume that Swedes and Americans and Brazilians and Croatians all think the same way because they live in the same “Western” hemisphere? What about people from China, India, and Indonesia? Labels such as “Western” and “Asian” are generalities, and when speaking in generalities it’s probably inevitable that someone will feel excluded or misrepresented. So the conservative approach would be to avoid discussing these things at all.

Still, in spite of that, here we are, with what we all acknowledge is the more or less “Asian” spiritual tradition of Buddhism being transplanted into a more or less “Western” cultural matrix. While those labels raise a number of questions, they seem to retain some usefulness for describing the situation we are in today.

In the past decade a number of studies have demonstrated significant differences in how East Asians and Westerners perceive, cognize and think. One such study conducted by Richard Nisbett and colleagues at the University of Michigan used computerized eye-tracking technology to measure the ways European-American and Chinese subjects related to simple pictures of animals or other focal objects set against a complex background — such as a picture of a fish in an aquarium. Almost invariably, the Americans’ eyes zeroed in on the fish first, perceiving it as the most important object, and only then did their eyes take in the rest of the aquarium as the context in which the fish appears. The Chinese participants, on the other hand, generally perceived the context — the aquarium — first, and only then did they zero in on the fish and locate it within that context. Similar studies have suggested that such differences translate into unique ways of processing and committing information to memory, as well as different ways of making sense of what is perceived.


If something as seemingly innocuous as the way East Asians and Westerners receive and prioritize visual information in a picture is measurably different in the laboratory, could there be other significant differences in our ways of perceiving and knowing? If, as Nisbett suggests, East Asians have a more “holistic” way of looking at phenomena and interpreting their experience, and Westerners have a more linear, object-oriented, “analytic” mind, could this help to explain other more commonly observed cultural differences? Why, for example, has Western medicine excelled at treating specific, isolated problems with very direct remedies, whereas Chinese and Tibetan medicine take a more holistic view of mind and body and focus on treating imbalances within an interdependent network of systems?

And how do such different cognitive styles — which go largely unnoticed much of the time because they are so deeply embedded in our individual and collective psychology — impact the way we relate to something like spirituality or religion?

In looking at these differences, I reference not only Nisbett's studies in cognitive psychology but also some very interesting recent work in linguistics. Check out the full article at Buddhist Geeks and share your thoughts.

No comments: