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How the Early Chinese and Greeks Disagreed On What Makes Us Human
Xin: the mind in the heart
The abstracting inclination of the Greek mind caused them to seek the ultimate “truth” outside the material world. This paralleled their dualistic conception of the human being, with an immortal soul imprisoned temporarily in a polluted body. Plato assigned the soul to the head, clearly separated from, and above, the rest of the body.
In contrast, the Chinese sought reality within an organic view of the universe, looking for how each part harmonized within the entire system. As a result, when the Chinese contemplated the essence of human nature, they never considered the Platonic notion of a soul distinct from the body.
The Chinese recognized as clearly as the Greeks something quintessentially human beyond mere bodily functions, but they situated it firmly within their physical existence. Instead of placing it above the rest of the body, they placed it in the heart, the center of the body.
The word xin in Chinese, which literally means heart, is also translated as mind. It incorporates the physical organ of the heart, but also much more: the full panoply of conscious experience, including emotion, thought, intuition, and desire.
The integration of body and mind
If the mind is believed to exist in the head, it’s easy to conceive of a split between reason and emotion. However, if the mind exists in the heart, an organ that beats faster when strong feelings arise, there would be no reason to conceptualize this split. When the heart is the center of cognition, fully understanding something becomes an integrated experience of intellect, feeling, and intuition. “The heart-mind (xin) is nothing without the body,” wrote Chinese philosopher Wang Yang-ming, “and the body is nothing without the heart-mind.”
The Chinese conception of xin led them to reject the idea that reason, separate from emotion, had inherent value. Far from deifying reason, the Chinese identified it as a cause of human difficulties. Most people were seen as following their selfish and rationalistic desires, whereas the sage was understood to be in touch with his intuition, an integral part of the faculty of xin.
The Chinese thus viewed a healthy approach to the human condition as one that integrated reason with emotions and intuition, seeing the unlimited pursuit of knowledge as positively dangerous.
With their embodied conception of xin, the Chinese made no distinction between physical health and mental or spiritual health. While the ancient Greeks (and the yogis of India) viewed transcendence from bodily experience as their ultimate goal, the Chinese perceived harmonization with the Tao as something to be achieved through both mental and physiological methods.
The Chinese, like the Indians, developed sophisticated practices of concentration, breathing, and movement, but they never saw these practices in terms of the mind exercising discipline over the body. Rather, body and mind were inherently integrated.
Morality as the source of human uniqueness
The Greek belief in an immortal soul as a person’s true essence naturally led them to emphasize the importance of the soul’s continued existence after the body’s death. The ancient Chinese would have none of this. Given their sense that the embodied xin was a person’s essence, they gave little thought to the soul’s continued existence after death.
There was no Heaven and Hell, no punishment or reward meted out after death based on a person’s activities during their life. With no interest in an afterlife, the Chinese preoccupied themselves with making the most of their present life. “You do not yet know about life; why do you concern yourself about death?” answered Confucius to a question posed by one of his students.
With their belief that life’s meaning arose from its context, the defining characteristic of humanity for the Chinese was their existence within a social nexus. In contrast to the Greek view of reason as the faculty unique to human beings, the Chinese saw morality as what differentiated humans from other animals.
As Xunzi, a Confucian philosopher, expounds: “Fire and water have energy but lack life. Grass and trees have life but no intelligence. Birds and beasts have intelligence but no morality. Man has energy, life, intelligence, and in addition morality. Therefore he is regarded as the most noble under heaven.” The noblest human activity was therefore finding the ethical way to live in harmony with others.
Excerpted from The Patterning Instinct, Chapter 10 | The Cultural Shaping Of Our Minds