Meditation: What is the relationship between Descartes and our contemporary practices?

(Cogito#ergo sum)

Illustration : Nelly Damas for Foliosophy

An occupation for idling hippies and the prosaic upper crust?

I feel it is important to really consider this statement, which Yuval Noah Harari himself qualifies as a confession, though well aware of the potential damage for his image on both autobiographical and scientific levels in affiliating himself with the intensive daily practice of an activity that evokes (perhaps especially to our western imaginations) either the glitter-clad vagrancy of some cheap nirvana sold by gurus amongst the biggest losers in the world’s economic developments, or the dusty reveries of semi-religious, semi-hallucinating aging blue blood philosophers cuddled up near their wood stoves. A being somewhere between an unhinged meditating hippie and a pain-in-the-neck philosopher. Harari’s courage is substantial.

The common denominator of all forms of meditation

From East to West and all around the planet, meditation refers to the mental practice that consists of focusing on a given object either in your thoughts, your emotions or your body. The aim is to think intensely, to be intensely conscious, and to create a void around the object of meditation. The objects and techniques, of which there are undoubtedly hundreds, have this core in common.

When the father of rationalism practices meditation

René Descartes was a meditator in no small way. You must admit it’s intriguing that the mathematician who invented the coordinate system (x and y) bearing his name, the father of analytical geometry and a rational thinker by definition also published a hugely famous works under the title Metaphysical Meditations whose adjective adds an extra layer of improbable mysticism.

“The academic world provided me with powerful tools to deconstruct all the myths humans ever created, but it didn’t offer satisfying answers to the big questions of life.” (YNH) (3)

Descartes, in a period of serious reassessment at the time, was convinced of the need to deconstruct the myths undermining the knowledge of his day, without waiting for Derrida:

Understanding who we are through methodic doubt

Descartes set the powerful machine of methodic doubt into motion, meaning “doubt as a work method.” Descartes was anything but a skeptic. How many times, in response to a peremptory “Descartes doubts everything” have I written into the margins of my student’s papers “Descartes does not doubt. He examines the modes in which the human mind knows by temporarily disqualifying any that are not absolutely and necessarily certain.”

  1. 2nd circle of certainty: the fact that I am “myself,” here where I am at present, “sitting by the fire, wearing a winter dressing-gown…” (It was cold in thatched cottages and heating sources were not in-floor or remote-controlled). A solid certainty, indeed: “How could it be denied that these hands or this whole body are mine?”. And yet… I’ve already felt the same certainty, in a dream, of being something I am not. Just like some who have lost their senses think they’re someone or something else even when they’re awake. Who can assert that I am any different? Given the doubt, I must exclude the feeling of being here as a certainty — is more of less how Descartes put it.
  2. 3rd circle of certainty: what about the objects that are in our minds, acting, if not as a perceptual framework already disqualified by our thought progression (physics, astronomy, medicine), rather as a framework for understanding such as the notion of magnitude, quantity and number in a mathematical sense: “(…) whether I am awake or asleep, two and three added together are five.” Descartes could have stuck to that strong conviction, had he not been so deeply methodical: among the ideas instilled in his mind was one that made him believe in an omnipotent transcendence, and seeing no evidence that it could not cause us to be mistaken every time we are certain of something, he reasoned that certainty was never complete. But, even methodologically-speaking, Descartes could not fathom a deceitful God. His mind conceived instead an evil demon who deceives us when we are filled with certainty, even in terms of mathematics.

Meditation as a window of observation into the mind

What remains beyond this downward vortex of growing doubt into which our certainties disappear, the certainties with which we’ve woven our inner self, our world and our understanding of its workings? Descartes, a true man of letters as we have seen, spoke of a “painful and laborious design.” Before we take a courageous plunge and attempt to decipher the cogito # ergo sum, let us take note of the similarity with what is at work in the experiences of Harari and most meditators of our times: a movement that consists of considering what makes our minds function, gaining consciousness of the objects within it, and observing, as if from the outside, the mind’s movements and the effervescence of rebellious thoughts that assail it without its consent:

“If you try to objectively observe your sensations, the first thing you’ll notice is how wild and impatient the mind is.” (YNH) (5)

Cogito ergo sum

The snag where methodic doubt comes to a halt, the ocean floor where brave philosophers commence the ascent from their deep-sea exploration, is the awareness that something incontestably occurs when we doubt: we are CONSCIOUS of doubting, I KNOW that I AM CONSCIOUS and I know that I AM, that my existence is real at least when I am conscious of doubting, conscious of feeling, conscious of wanting, affirming or denying. And no one, not even the malignant demon, can rob me of that certainty.

The links between body and mind: theme of the 21st century

It wouldn’t be forcing the comparison to push things further. An error commonly placed on Descartes is that he distinguished body and mind as two markedly different entities without bothering to explain how they work together, though he did sense he had been succinct on the question and foresaw that a huge amount of work remained to be done on the body/mind front:

“Nature also teaches me by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst, etc., that I am not only lodged in my body as a pilot in a vessel, but that I am very closely united to it, and so to speak so intermingled with it that I seem to compose with it one whole.”

(Meditation six)

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