We all need something to cling to. The big question is, “What?” What can be counted on to support us when everything else falls away? What will stay with us and never leave? What is the stable center around which the rest of our crazy spinning life can revolve?
This is a theme that I keep coming back to in these Church of the Churchless “sermons.” I do so because I’ve been searching for that reliable something my whole life, as have we all. I haven’t found it yet. I’ll willing to bet that you haven’t either.
For if we have a longing for something more, different, or better than what we possess now, we aren’t in touch with whatever it is that satisfies completely. That “whatever” goes by many names: God, the One, Buddha-nature, Ultimate Reality, Allah, to name a few.
Today I was looking over Descartes’ “Meditations” before, appropriately enough, my morning meditation. Now, before you stop reading this post, expecting that a mention of Descartes is bound to precede a really boring philosophical dissertation, let me assure you that Descartes is a cool dude.
He’s just misunderstood. Most people quote his famous “I think, therefore I am” and believe that this sums up Descartes. I’ve read quite a few spiritual books where Descartes is dismissed as an intellectual who was fixated on logical thought rather than intuitive understanding.
I beg to differ. I’ve read his “Meditations” several times. Descartes starts to lose me after Meditation III, but up until then I feel like I know where he’s coming from (to use some non-philosophical terminology). I’m no Descartes. However, I’ve been there myself—that psychological place where what you used to believe in so strongly doesn’t make sense anymore, where the center no longer holds and nothing has stepped in to replace it.
It’s the Void. Uncertainty. Doubt. Angst. Dark Night of the Soul. Most of us have been there. Few, if any, have been able to rationally analyze what that place is like as well as Descartes.
He begins by saying, “It is now some years since I detected how many were the false beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had since constructed on this basis; and from that time I was convinced that I must once for all seriously undertake to rid myself of all the opinions which I had formally accepted, and commence to build anew from the foundation.”
That’s beautiful. And courageous. It takes a lot of guts to question everything that you’ve been accepting as the gospel truth. Descartes isn’t out to pussyfoot around the periphery of religion and philosophy, tidying up a few logical loose ends. He wants to penetrate to the core of what is true beyond a shadow of a doubt, discarding everything that is uncertain:
I shall proceed by setting aside all that in which\the least doubt could be supposed to exist, just as if I had discovered that it was absolutely false. And I shall ever follow in this road until I have met with something that is certain, or at least, if I can do nothing else, until I have learned for certain that there is nothing in the world that is certain.
In the movies about the “Matrix,” our world turns out to be a computer simulation, a theory that some argue makes sense philosophically and scientifically. Descartes came up with a similar notion back in the seventeenth century. He says that instead of God, the cosmos could be ruled by an evil genius who “has employed his whole energies in deceiving me.”
So everything that we take to be real—the heavens, earth, colors, sounds, and all other external things—could be illusions and dreams fabricated by this Artificer. This sounds a lot like the Eastern philosophical idea of maya. Reality isn’t what it appears to be. What we consider to be solid and trustworthy really isn’t, like a dream that fades away upon waking.
Okay, now we get to Descartes’ really good stuff. This is where Descartes becomes a mystic, notwithstanding the rather pedantic and scholarly style with which he wrote. For he realizes that he can’t count on anything in the outside world, for it could be merely dream stuff. And that includes Descartes’ own body, which is made of the same material the world is.
Descartes frequently is criticized as a dualist who splits apart the unity of mind and body. I don’t understand why, from a spiritual standpoint, that is seen as a bad thing. Doesn’t almost every religion say that soul or consciousness exists apart from the body? If all that we are is extinguished when we die—end of story, finis, case closed—there is little basis for a genuine spirituality.
If physical matter/energy is the root of reality, then when my physical body disintegrates at death, so do I. For there is no “I” apart from the collection of cells now manifesting as a living being known as Brian.
Similarly, Descartes is searching for what is really real. He has decided that he can’t count on the outside world. So he denies his senses and body, then asks: “What follows from that? Am I so dependent on body and senses that I cannot exist without these?” He imagines that he’s been persuaded that “there was nothing in all the world, that there was no heaven, no earth, that there were no minds, nor any bodies: was I then likewise persuaded that I did not exist? Not at all; of a surety I myself did exist since I persuaded myself of something.”
Thus Descartes comes to the conclusion that there is one thing he can be certain about: “I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it.”
I am. I am. I am.
This direct awareness of one’s existence isn’t a thought, for I know that I am even when I’m not mentally thinking to myself, “I am.” Indeed, Descartes says that “it seems to me that I see light, that I hear noise and that I feel heat. That cannot be false; properly speaking it is what is in me called feeling; and used in this precise sense that is no other thing than thinking.”
Here’s Descartes’ bottom line as I understand it (in his first three Meditations at least; later on he skates back into some thin philosophical ice when he tries to prove the existence of a good God):
I can be fooled about everything outside and inside of me. With one exception. There’s an “I” being fooled. For absent the awareness of that “I,” there’s no being around to be fooled. In like fashion, I can have everything taken away outside and inside of me. With one exception. There’s an “I” being robbed. For absent the awareness of that “I,” there’s no being around to be robbed.
There is a center. There is something we can count on. There is a certainty in this uncertain world. It is that sensation of “I am.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee that I, or you, will continue to have that sensation after we die. If such is the case, there’s no problem, for there won’t be any “I” around to have a problem.
But so long as I’m aware of myself being aware, herein lies the only refuge that I can truly feel safe in: the awareness of my own existence. In Eastern philosophy there’s the notion of sat-chit-ananda, existence - consciousness - bliss.
Descartes echoes the first two aspects of this tripartite unity, existence and consciousness: the certainty of “I am.” The bliss aspect isn’t addressed by Descartes, so far as I can tell, which might well explain why he seems to have been compelled to leave that simple awareness of his own existence to bring the Christian God back into the picture in his later Meditations.
In Meditation III, though, he sounds like almost everyone who has attempted to still his or her mind and reach the unchanging center of consciousness. It is indeed strange that we pay so much attention to what is false and doesn’t last, while what is undeniably true and enduring—the “I” paying attention—almost entirely escapes our notice.
Although really it is very strange to say that I know and understand more distinctly these things whose existence seems to me dubious, which are unknown to me, and which do not belong to me, than others of the truth of which I am convinced, which are known to me and which pertain to my real nature, in a word, than myself. But I see clearly how my case stands: my mind loves to wander, and cannot yet suffer to be retained within the just limits of truth.