Beyond the Res Cogitans
Huike said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is anxious. Please pacify it.”
Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.”
Huike said, “Although I’ve sought it, I cannot find it.”
“There,” Bodhidharma replied, “I have pacified it for you.”
It is often very difficult for Westerners, especially, to understand the meaning of this parable. Generations of conditioning has inculcated the belief that the res cogitans is fundamental to who and what we are — that is “the thinking thing”. “I think, therefore I am”, pronounced Descartes, and divided being into incommensurate domains of the res cogitans and the res extensa — the subject which thinks and the objective realm that it thinks about, the realm of extension, of space and motion. Cogito ergo sum — I am because I think.
This formula (called “metaphysical dualism”) has generated all sorts of problems for the modern mind, which are not really problems at all — problems of the incommensurability of mind and matter, of the dichotomisation or bifurcation of subjective and objective reality, succinctly expresed in Kipling’s “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”. Reality divided between mysticism and logic, the spiritual and the material, idealism of Hegel and the materialism of Marx until it has become all a muddle — what Buddhism refers to as “vexations”.
The Cartesian formula is a falsehood. But like most falsehoods, it also expresses a half-truth. “Only a hair separates the false from the true”, as Omar Khayyam (ostensibly) put it, and this is the truth that the inimitable Stephen Colbert recollected when he used the term “truthiness” to describe much of contemporary journalism.
Cogito ergo sum represents something of a paradox. Even before Descartes, the Greek philosopher Parmenides stated that “thinking and being are the same” (and was criticised by Heraclitus for thinking so) and so arose a fundamental controversy in Western philosophy between “Being” on the one hand and “Becoming” on the other, represented in Parmenides and Heraclitus respectively, or stasis and dynamis. Yet Blake (among others) stated that “As a man thinks, so is he”, and the recalls Heraclitus’s own remark — ethos anthropos daimon: ethos is fate, which is usually translated as “character is fate”. Rosenstock-Huessy called Heraclitus “the Greek Buddha”, largely because of his own doctrine of impermanence and flux, expressed in the formula panta rhei — “all flows”.
Considering this original controversy at the root of the Western intellectual tradition in relation to McGilchrist’s study of the two modes of attention of “the divided brain” (The Master and His Emissary), it is tempting to see that this controversy between Parmenides and Heraclitus arose from the emphasis on either the left-hemisphere mode of attention (represented Parmenides) and the right-hemisphere mode (represented by Heraclitus), and in terms of fixity and flux. So, Descartes was firmly in the Parmenidean camp.
(In Nietzsche’s terms, we might describe this as the Apollonian consciousness (Parmenides) and the Dionysian consciousness (Heraclitus), that he otherwise characterises as the “rational” and the “intuitive”).
It is, as stated, very difficult for the Western mind to conceive of something “beyond” (or beneath, behind, or within) the res cogitans, otherwise called “the mental-rational structure of consciousness” (Jean Gebser). Everyone is encouraged to have an opinion about everything and to think incessantly until they become a bundle of nerves by thinking, or what Buddhism calls “the vexations”. But if we were really masters of the intellect and thinking, we would be able to turn it on and off. Turning it off is the achievement that Buddhism calls “silent mind”, which is a precursor to enlightenment, which is to see ourselves and reality as we really are and as it really is.
This “something” that lies “behind”, “beneath”, “beyond” or implicit within what we call “mind” or the res cogitans is what Gebser calls “the Itself”. It’s the meaning of the old Christian saying that “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves”, (whatever you may understand by the term “God”). You may sense it, at times, even in the midst of your daily vexations, worries, annoyances, anxieties that there is something within you still that is not the least bit affected by your vexations, and remains calm and non-attached despite this activity of “the Monkey Mind” — the chatter box which tells us from dawn to dusk who we are and what our world is like. The mental merry-go-round and “windmills of your mind” that Blake calls “Urizen” or “the dark Satanic Mill”.
What Gebser calls “the Itself” or “the ever-present origin”, which pre-exists “mind” or the “res cogitans” or “the thinking thing”, is the meaning of the Zen koan, “Show me your face before you were born”, which is what Bodhidharma is pointing at with his response to the vexed monk. The “Itself” has otherwise been called “The One Without Another” or “the All-in-all” or the “All That Is”. It is what the physicist David Bohm calls the “undivided wholeness” or “the Infinite Potential”. It is what John Wren-Lewis experienced and described in his essay on “The Dazzling Dark“, in which he recalls the snippet of nursery rhyme that expresses it wonderfully,
Where did you come from, baby dear?
Out of Everywhere into here.
That is, of course, the correct answer to the riddle posed by the Zen koan: “show me your face before you were born”. This “Everywhere” is also an “Everywhen”, since the Itself is itself timelessness as omnipresence. It is the insight of the sages that who and what you are, implicitly, is indistinguishable from the “Itself”, and what you are is an individuated aspect of this Itself.
The Sufi master Rumi has a wonderful poem about this entitled “Say I Am You”,
I am dust particles in sunlight,
I am the round sun.
To the bits of dust I say, Stay.
To the sun, Keep moving.
I am morning mist,
and the breathing of evening.
I am wind in the top of a grove,
and surf on the cliff.
Mast, rudder, helmsman, and keel,
I am also the coral reef they founder on.
I am a tree with a trained parrot in its branches.
Silence, thought, and voice.
The musical air coming through a flute,
a spark of stone, a flickering
in metal. Both candle,
and the moth crazy around it.
Rose, and the nightingale
lost in the fragrance.
I am all orders of being, the circling galaxy,
the evolutionary intelligence, the lift,
and the falling away. What is,
and what isn’t. You who know
Jelaluddin, You the one
in all, say who
I am. Say I
Now, we are entering into a post-Cartesian, Heraclitean Era in which things like metaphysical dualism — or mental dualism — will not be particularly relevant. This will not be a particularly smooth transition, socio-historically, because so much of what we call our “identity” is bound up with this res cogitans or “thinking thing”, which has become equivalent with what we also call “the rational self-interest”. Today, this is in a constant state of “vexation” and also in the throes of dissolution, disintegration, fragmentation, and a process sometimes referred to as a “loss of self”. “Mind At the End of Its Tether” is how H.G. Wells described the situation of the res cogitans or mental-rational structure in his last work. It’s quite obviously the general case today.
But this breakdown of the mental-rational (or “perspectival”) consciousness structure is also the breakthrough of a new consciousness. This is certainly happening, quicker in some, slower in others, but the signature of the new consciousness is certainly evident today everywhere. But those who hold that their “identity” as such is bound up and contigent upon the “thinking thing” or “Monkey Mind” will certainly have a rough time of it, succumbing to what Gebser called “a maelstrom of blind anxiety” and “chaotic emotion”, all of which are evident today in abundance, and he did not discount the likelihood that this would culminate in a “global catastrophe”.
What we call “the Modern Era”, and the consciousness structure associated with this era (the “perspectival” in Gebser’s terms) is coming to a close, nonetheless. It’s expressed in terms like “post-modern”, “post-Enlightenment”, “post-industrial”, “post-ideological”, “post-Cartesian”, but also in terms like “post-truth”, “post-rational” and so on — a period of widespread disorientation and mental confusion, but also fanaticism and manias of all kinds quite typical of transitional ages.
There’s a Zen proverb I quite like: “let go or be dragged”. The more you can let go of the Monkey Mind and sense the presence of the Itself active within yourself, the more stable the transition can be. Sound simple, doesn’t it — just “let go”. (I believe that this is what Castaneda’s don Juan refers to as just “dropping personal history”). It’s all false self and excess baggage anyway. This is the positive aspect of what is called “deconstruction”. In Buddhism, this is a very disciplined process, not chaotic.