René Descartes, sometimes referred to as the father of modern philosophy, summed up his famous views on how mind and body are separate in his book Discourse on the Method, published in 1637. In it, he explained the reasoning behind his seminal dictum ‘I think therefore I am’:
“From this I knew I was a substance whose whole essence or nature is solely to think, and which does not require any place, or depend on any material thing, in order to exist. Accordingly this ‘I’—that is, the soul by which I am what I am—is entirely distinct from the body, and indeed is easier to know than the body, and would not fail to be whatever it is, even if the body did not exist.”
If Descartes had the benefit of attending a weekly yoga class, it’s highly unlikely he would ever have come up with a line such as ‘I think therefore I am.’ As practitioners of mindfulness, yoga students come to understand asmita, the mechanism that gives rise to the feeling of an ‘I’.
When we reflect on our inner monologue, it turns out that the vast majority of our thoughts are about ourselves. ‘Me’, ‘myself’ and ‘I’ are the focus of our ongoing narrative each day. So automatic is this process that, without even realising what we’re doing, we weave ‘self’ into whatever is happening at the time.
As Michael Stone explains in The Inner Tradition of Yoga, let’s say we adopt a yoga pose and experience pain in the knee. In our inner narrative, we don’t say, ‘There’s pain in the knee.’ Instead we say, ‘There’s a pain in my knee’:
“In this instinctual moment, an ‘I’ is born that has inserted itself into the phenomenon of pain, but was not initially built into the sensation. In other words, the feeling of pain in ‘my’ knee is an addition to what is unfolding. This is the beginning of duality, because through aversion, a sense of self is created that separates the experience from the one who is experiencing.”
Descartes need not even have put himself through the ordeal of performing sun salutations. Had he simply allowed his mind to settle into its natural state, he would have observed that thoughts arise quite naturally. They just happen. They require no active agent—no me, myself or I. In fact, they arise despite the wishes of the I. Some meditation teachers like to tease their students by asking how a session was for them. If a student says their meditation was disrupted by thoughts, the teacher asks: ‘Did you not choose to have those thoughts?’ When the student shakes their head, the teacher says: ‘If you didn’t cause the thoughts to arise, then who did?’
‘Thoughts arise’ admittedly doesn’t pack quite the same punch as ‘I think therefore I am’, but one can but contemplate the alternative course western philosophy might have taken had Descartes opted for the former rather than the latter.
The paragraphs above are a (lightly) edited extract from my book Why Mindfulness is better than Chocolate. I’ll be sharing more in the months ahead. By the way, if you are a yoga enthusiast, I highly recommend Michael Stone’s book ‘The Inner Tradition of Yoga.’
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