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
am You.

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.


19 responses to “Beyond the Res Cogitans”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    A few select quotations pertaining to this post (cribbed from the website “Silly Sutras” ( )

    “If you correct your mind,
    the rest of your life will fall into place.”
    ~ Lao Tzu

    “The mind is a bundle of thoughts.
    The thoughts arise because there is the thinker.
    The thinker is the ego.
    The ego and the mind are the same.
    The ego is the root-thought from which all other thoughts arise.”
    ~ Sri Ramana Maharshi

    “Ego is the biggest enemy of humans. ”
    ~ Rig Veda

    “When the mind is completely empty –
    only then is it capable of receiving the unknown.” ……
    “Only when the mind is wholly silent, completely inactive, not projecting, when it is not seeking and is utterly still –
    only then that which is eternal and timeless comes into being.”
    ~ J. Krishnamurti

    • Ayam Cemania says :

      “If you correct your mind,
      the rest of your life will fall into place.”
      ~ Not Lao Tzu

      Like many things on the internet, ^ this “quote” is fake.

  2. dadaharm says :


    I think you can also add the old-fashioned mystic Meister Eckhart to your list of examples. Though in some way he states things somewhat more extreme.

    In his sermon concerning “beati pauperes spiritu quia ipsoram est regnum caelorum” (Matthew 5:3), (Sermon 83 in this pdf.), he makes the following statement:

    So we say that a man should be so poor that he neither is nor has any place for God to work in.
    To preserve a place is to preserve distinction.
    Therefore I pray to God to make me free of God, for my essential being is above God, taking God as the origin of creatures.
    For in that essence of God in which God is above being and distinction, there I was myself and knew myself so as to make this man.
    Therefore I am my own cause according to my essence, which is eternal, and not according to my becoming, which is temporal.
    Therefore I am unborn, and according to my unborn mode I can never die.
    According to my unborn mode I have eternally been, am now, and shall eternally remain.
    That which I am by virtue of birth must die and perish, for it is mortal, and so must perish with time.
    In my birth all things were born, and I was the cause of myself and all things:
    and if I had so willed it, I would not have been, and all things would not have been.

    If I were not, God would not be either.
    I am the cause of God’s being God: if I were not, then God would not be God.

    Somehow his statements were not appreciated by the church. He only escaped from martyrdom by dying before his trial ended.

    • dadaharm says :

      The quote is from sermon 87, not 83.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      Meister Eckhart has been mentioned many times in these pages. Indeed, well worth a read.

      • dadaharm says :

        According to this blog the Sermon by Meister Eckhart was inspired by the ideas of Marguerite Porete, a beguine. She wrote things like:

        I am God, says Love, for Love is God and God is Love, and this Soul is God by the condition of Love.
        I am God by divine nature and this Soul is God by the condition of Love.
        Thus this precious beloved of mine is taught and guided by me, without herself, for she is transformed into me, and such a perfect one, says Love, takes my nourishment

        The church did not like her ideas and they burned her as a heretic.

        • InfiniteWarrior says :

          “The church” did (and does) that a lot. More figuratively than literally these days, but still. “The church” is as in need of transformation as every other human institution which is why I’m so excited to witness a resurgence of interest in the roots and so-called “mystical” strains of Christianity.

          Oddly enough, I’ll have to defer to an Einstein quote to express why:

          “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this ’emotion’ is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” ― Albert Einstein


  3. Steve says :

    The Great Way* is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for, or against, anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind. When the deep meaning of things is not understood, the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

  4. lyleaolson says :

    Vedanta’s classic statements are “I am not my body, I have a body.” I am not my personality; I have a personality.” I am not my mind, I have a mind.” Who (or what) is making the statements?
    In the “Men in Black” movie, the alien’s head splits open to reveal a tiny man at the controls. Isn’t that our day-to-day but unexamined assumption, that somehow who we really are is a little man behind our eyes taking it all in and pulling the levers? That is ego. We have reified a personal self out of a collection of sensations, thoughts and perspectives.
    ‘Whence does this “I” arise?’ Seek this within. This “I” then vanishes.
    What is the core of one’s personality? One discovers by strenuous striving that his ultimate essence is “being.” He cannot but be. At the same moment, he feels that he is awareness or aware that he “is”. —Ramana Maharshi, Upadesa Saram. As Rupert Spira puts it: being aware of being aware.

  5. Scott Preston says :

    David Bohm interviewed by David Suzuki on CBC, 1979. Some consider this Bohm’s best interview. I’ve posted this before, but it seems quite relevant to link to again in relation to this post on post-Cartesian science and philosophy.

    • lyleaolson says :

      Amazing that Bohm can get all the way “to the bottom of it” and not mention meditation. He says the ego “program” is nonsense and the solution is to “observe the program” inside and outside but then skips to recommending getting a few “high energy people” together to lead things in a good direction. How are they going to be any wiser without doing the work of cleaning up their program? Elephant in the room.

  6. barryh says :

    Thanks for a beautiful post. Are you OK if I reblog it?

  7. barryh says :

    Reblogged this on I can't believe it! and commented:
    I love this post from Scott Preston with a great title. It draws together ancient philosophical/ spiritual/ religious ideas and more modern thinking to suggest the direction that human consciousness is moving in, letting go of Monkey Mind and coming into presence.
    And there’s a great poem by Rumi.

    • Steve says :

      “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men — go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families — re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.”

      — Walt Whitman, preface to Leaves of Grass

  8. Scott Preston says :

    Pretty interesting article here on the “Brain WiFi”. Couple of things of note here: first, the welcome effort to introduce some quantum mechanical views into biology and neurobiology and secondly, the contemporary shift in approach to emphasising the primacy of the energetic field over the particle and the particulate — ie, the whole over the part.

    As Dickens put it in *The Tale of Two Cities* — “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. Despite the madness around us, there is some very welcome developments poking through.

  9. Steve says :

    But, you..yourself aren’t saying that you like the idea of uploading brains to silicon based machines are you. That part of the article I did not like at all. For someone who likes the Seth material and Carlos Castaneda that would be very strange. Hopefully you are saying that the studying of the electromagnetic field around the brain is on the right track for consciousness study.

    • Scott Preston says :

      No. Just to illustrate, though, the “paradigm shift” as it were that is occurring more generally. But instrumentalising these kinds of new insights in such a way is a bit aberrant. There still needs to be a thorough housecleaning of outmoded approaches derived from the past.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      It’s not just New Agers who refer to the “field” surrounding(?) human beings as an “aura.” I’d feel better about the more highly popular, scientific “consciousness studies” abounding today were so many of them not so overly focused on the human brain (and/or its electromagnetic field) as if it’s a given that “consciousness” is confined to or originates in the (especially) human brain.

      I realize we’re grossly interested in ourselves and our longevity as species, but that’s quite the assumption to proceed from isn’t it? It’s an assumption that “just computes” to many of us, but is it true? Intuition might be quietly saying otherwise, but we don’t listen to the still and quiet much these days, do we?

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