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René Descartes: A Yogi?

Sujantra McKeever finds striking similarities between Cartesian and yogic thought.

One of history’s greatest philosophers was, by my estimation, also a great yogi. The Frenchman René Descartes (1596-1650) is often called ‘the father of modern philosophy’. He sat in his room and contemplated the mysteries of the mind. Yoga follows the same course to wisdom and understanding.

Descartes was a man shaped by his times. Louis XIII was King of France for most of Descartes’ life. The Inquisition also started in France, in the twelfth century. Its aim was to prevent doctrinal dissent within the Catholic Church, and it was still in full swing in Descartes’ lifetime. Espousing certain ideas could lead to banishment, imprisonment, or death. Believing in the Church’s vision of the world was important for one’s safety. As a prominent thinker, and a devout Catholic, Descartes was watched by the church powers, who feared any threat his teachings might pose to their authority. In 1663 the Catholic Church put Descartes’ works on its Index of Forbidden Books. Printing, reading, or even possessing his books was forbidden to Catholics. But as they say, the pen is mightier than the sword. Descartes’ teachings have flourished, and the narrow-mindedness that sought to banish his ideas is on the wane. Indeed, the Index itself was discontinued in 1966.

As a life-long practitioner of yoga, I am deeply inspired by Descartes’ insights and feel that his teachings vindicate the practice of yoga. I also feel that he has left a concise methodology for philosophizing that can lead to the deepest levels of understanding a human being can attain. To explore these teachings, especially in relation to yoga, I will draw from his classic texts Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) and The Principles of Philosophy (1644).

Descartes, Yogi?

Yoga is an ancient Indian philosophical tradition and set of spiritual practices, which remains popular today. The definitive teachings of yoga are found in The Yoga Sutras, compiled by the Indian sage Patanjali sometime around the time of Christ. Classic yoga has eight aspects:

1. Moral injunctions (such as non-harming)
2. Actions (such as living a pure life)
3. Physical exercises
4. Breath control
5. Turning the senses within
6. Concentration
7. Meditation
8. Contemplation

The ability to turn one’s senses within is called in Sanskrit pratyahara. We do it unconsciously each night when we fall asleep and dream; but to do it consciously, as a yogi does, is extremely challenging.

Note the opening words from the Third Meditation of Descartes’ Meditations: “I shall now close my eyes, I shall stop my ears, I shall call away all my senses…” This is exactly what I try to do each time I sit down to meditate in order to reach deeper levels of awareness. But Descartes does not stop with stopping the senses: “I shall efface even from my thoughts all the images of corporeal things, or at least (for that is hardly possible) I shall esteem them as vain and false; and thus holding converse only with myself and considering my own nature, I shall try little by little to reach a better knowledge of and a more familiar acquaintanceship with myself.”

To become familiar with ourselves, to know our deepest nature, is also the goal of yoga. Descartes mentions ‘conversing only with myself’. This can only happen when we’ve brought sufficient quietude to our minds. In yoga this is most often achieved through breath control and inquiry into the essence of mind. Descartes clearly has the ability of the yogi to turn his mind within in order to know the truth of self and God.

From Descartes’ writings I have put together seven numbered statements which offer the essence of yoga, and comments on them. (The propositions in the Principles were originally numbered, but I have deviated from that numbering system.) I have tried to do nothing that would take away from the spirit of his writing or skew his philosophy. By connecting yoga with Western philosophy – by uniting the transformative practice of yoga with the illumined writing of Descartes – I hope to offer you confidence in your yogic journey to wisdom and understanding. And if by some chance you don’t practice yoga, perhaps this may inspire you to try it or at least to more fully understand what it is about.

René Descartes
René Descartes by Stephen Lahey

The Yoga Sutras of René Descartes

1. “The seeker after truth must once in his lifetime doubt everything that he can doubt. We’re bound to have many preconceived opinions that keep us from knowledge of the truth, because in our infancy, before we had the full use of our reason, we made all sorts of judgments about things presented to our senses. The only way to free ourselves from these opinions, it seems, is just once in our lives to take the trouble to doubt everything in which we find even the tiniest suspicion of uncertainty.” (Principles, Part 1, No.1)

Here Descartes lays down the first step of the process: remove from your mind the things you only thought were true, and retain only things of which you can be absolutely sure.

He presents us with the formidable task of taking a good look at what we believe or think we know and casting it aside in search of actual knowledge. He notes that many of our beliefs were formed in childhood before we could discriminate between truth and falsehood. Our parents tell us things about life and ourselves that may be incorrect, yet as children we tend to believe what we’re told. Now is the time to set those beliefs and judgments aside.

2. “What is doubtful should even be considered as false. It will be useful to go even further than that: when we doubt something we should think of it as outright false, because this will bring more thoroughly into the open truths that are certainly true and easy to know.“ (Principles, Part 1, No.2)

What we’re looking for is certainty. This is reminiscent of the attitude of the Buddha when he resolved to sit under the Bodhi tree until he achieved enlightenment and experienced Nirvana. Whether we term the goal ‘Nirvana’ or ‘certainty’, the refusal to settle for anything less.

3. “But this doubt shouldn’t be carried over into everyday life. While this doubt continues, it should be kept in check and used only in thinking about the truth. In ordinary practical affairs we often have to act on the basis of what is merely probable, not having time to hold off until we could free ourselves from our doubts. Sometimes we may – for practical reasons – even have to choose between two alternatives without finding either of them to be more probable than the other.” (Principles, Part 1, No.3)

Here Descartes clarifies that one must be practical when philosophizing.

We do not often hear the word ‘philosophizing’ in everyday speech in the twenty-first century, but I am very drawn to the term. Usually we think of one philosopher arguing with another. But for Descartes, philosophizing was an active search into his mind in search of truth and knowledge. In our own quest for truth it would be unwise to paralyze ourselves by taking a technique for finding ultimate truth and trying to apply it to our daily decisions.

One basic meditation technique that works great for decision-making is to meditate into a state of relaxed peacefulness, and then, by inwardly visualizing, bring the options to decide between into your mind one at a time, and see how each option resonates with your inner feeling of peace. This is an excellent technique to get in touch with your feelings when making decisions.

4. “When we’re focused on the search for truth, we’ll begin by doubting the existence of the objects of sense-perception and imagination. There are two reasons for this: (1) We have occasionally found our senses to be in error, and it’s not wise to place much trust in anyone or anything that has deceived us even once. (2) In our sleep we regularly seem to see or imagine things that don’t exist anywhere; and while we are doubting there seem to be no absolutely reliable criteria to distinguish being asleep from being awake.“ (Principles, Part 1, No.4)

The first part of this statement notes that if our senses and imagination have misled us once we can never again rely on them with absolute certainly. It’s just like when someone lies to you. Once you know they’re a liar, then you know there’s always the possibility that they will lie again. It is the same with the senses.

In the second case we are presented with a classic conundrum that has been explored by Eastern and Western philosophers for millennia: the inability to determine with absolute certainty whether we are really awake, or asleep and dreaming. The take-away point however is that whether waking or asleep, our everyday sense of reality is created by our mind, through our thoughts. There is therefore a strong possibility that our sense of reality is likely to be superimposed upon a deeper and more permanent substratum. It is that deeper stratum that the yogi seeks. It is for this reason that yogis seek to quiet their thought in order to perceive truth. If our minds manufacture our subjective reality, then by quieting our minds we can hope to perceive the reality underlying them.

What is this substratum underlying our thoughts and experiences? To answer this question is the very quest we are on. I’ll let Descartes describe the actual process that he uses to seek the answer, in a quote we met earlier:

5. “I shall now close my eyes, I shall stop my ears, I shall call away all my senses, I shall efface even from my thoughts all the images of corporeal things, or at least (for that is hardly possible) I shall esteem them as vain and false; and thus holding converse only with myself and considering my own nature, I shall try little by little to reach a better knowledge of and a more familiar acquaintanceship with myself.” (Meditations, No.3)

This passage was one of the first to draw me to see the connection between yogic techniques and Descartes’ philosophy. Pratyahara, the process of turning one’s awareness away from the external senses, is the fifth of eight steps in the yogic journey. Descartes’ quest to connect with himself at a deeper level is the very reason people practice yoga. We become so identified with our senses and our body that we forget that our deeper nature, the root of our sense of being, lies below the surface of our sense perceptions and thoughts. By consciously ‘calling away’ his senses, the journey begins in earnest.

When our senses are silent and our thoughts quiet, our sense of the external world begins to fade, just as it does as you begin to fall asleep. In that state we become more acutely aware of ourselves, and ultimately, of our pure sense of being. This feeling of pure existence, which is certain and constant, brings a profound sense of peace and joy.

As the sense of a world separate from him begins to fade, Descartes becomes more conscious of the powers of the mind:

6. “I am a thing that thinks, that is to say, that doubts, affirms, denies, that knows a few things, that is ignorant of many, that wills, that desires, that also imagines and perceives; for as I remarked before, although the things which I perceive and imagine are perhaps nothing at all apart from me and in themselves, I am nevertheless assured that these modes of thought that I call perceptions and imaginations, inasmuch only as they are modes of thought, certainly reside [and are met with] in me.” (Meditations, No.3)

Descartes discovers that even as the external world dissolves, his ‘modes of thought’ continue. His sense of being continues. He now refines and hones his perception of himself as essentially mind:

7. “We can’t doubt that we exist while we are doubting; and this is the first thing we come to know when we philosophize in an orderly way. In rejecting everything that we can in any way doubt, even pretending to think it false, we can easily suppose that there’s no God and no heaven, that there are no bodies – so that we don’t have bodies, hands and feet and so on. But we can’t suppose that we, who are having such thoughts, are nothing! ‘At a time when I am thinking, I don’t exist’ – that’s self-contradictory. So this item of knowledge – I’m thinking, so I exist – is the first and most certain thing to occur to anyone who philosophizes in an orderly way.” (Principles, Part 1, No.7)

Note that in the last sentence of the quote, Descartes says that this awareness is the “most certain thing to occur to anyone who philosophizes…” This reflects a giant step in the yogic journey. The realization is that in the process of doubting everything there’s one thing that cannot be doubted: I exist!

Notice also that at this point Descartes lets go of even the ideas of God and heaven. In this way Descartes finds the ‘most certain thing’. In fact, in the journey within, we must eventually let go of all thoughts and conceptions, for they will only keep us attached to the idea of the external world. Letting one’s awareness sink deeper and deeper into the sense of pure being is the journey into the ‘kingdom of heaven within’ – into Nirvana or Samadhi (contemplation of the Absolute). In light of this we might see Christ’s statement “My kingdom is not of this world” in a new way, taking ‘this world’ to mean the world of sense perceptions, and ‘my kingdom’ to mean the joy of pure existence.

Descartes is most often quoted as saying: Cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” To the yogi, the crucial part of the statement is the realization that ‘I am’. This sense of self grows stronger and stronger the more we calm our minds and turn within.

Descartes’ Place in History

Interestingly, Descartes soon leaves this major realization, into which the Indian yogis plunge, and heads back outwards to thoughts of God and the world. He goes on to try – unsuccessfully according to most philosophers – to rationally prove the existence of God. It is here that I feel Descartes was most strongly influenced by his times and culture. His obsession to prove the existence of God was heavily influenced by his circumstances and a desire to live in peace. Remember, the Inquisition was still strongly active!

Descartes’ greatest contribution to philosophy, in my estimation, is that he shows that the inner journey is not bounded by geography or culture, but rather is a universal human journey. He took that inner journey, and his realizations have helped to shape the modern world. But whether we sit by the Ganges or the Seine, our sincere journey into the psyche eventually becomes grounded in the certainty of ‘I am’. In that awareness is timeless Heaven and Samadhi.

Descartes explores the most challenging questions which our minds can ask: What is reality? What we can know with certainty? How do our minds function? What is the relationship between thought and emotion? What is thinking? What is the sense of self? How can we know truth from falsehood? What are time and space? Is there a God?, Can logic and reason lead me to God? These are questions the yogis of India have been exploring since before the time of the Buddha.

© Sujantra McKeever 2021

Sujantra McKeever is the founder of Pilgrimage of the Heart Yoga in San Diego, which serves over 1,000 yogis a week, and also helped create Pilgrimage Yoga Online. He studied meditation with Sri Chinmoy, has lectured on meditation and yoga in over 30 countries, and is the author of five books on eastern philosophy and meditation.

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