René Decartes (1596-1650; French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist) helped to pave the way for the “Age of Reason” (aka the “Age of Enlightenment”). While the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries) focused on ideas such as individual liberty and religious tolerance, it was also marked by the development of the scientific method, reductionism, and “rationalism,” all subjects of Decartes’ intellectual curiosity and creativity. Even his writings on the nature of emotions such as happiness, passions, and ethics reflected his emphasis on rationalism (The Passions of the Soul, 1649).
One of Decartes’ most famous quotes, “I think, therefore I am” (Discourse on the Method, 1637), illustrates his rigid adherence to the rationalism that remains so prevalent in modern science and Western culture in general ever since the Age of Reason began. From my “History of Western Civilization” class as a college sophomore, I have had philosophical issues with this quote as it is demonstrably false. I believe that Decartes confused the concepts of consciousness and thinking, related but quite different phenomena. But that was over two and a half centuries ago, and the collective consciousness of humankind has evolved quite a bit since then.
To me, Decartes’ quote also seems to be a very narrow-minded and lop-sided perspective on the question of who we are as human beings. There is, after all, a long and honored tradition (both East and West) of philosophical thought and personal experience regarding non-rational sources of information on this and many other questions regarding human experience. These sources include such “irrational” (at least to many people) sources such as meditation and intuition. Even the “left-brained” scientist Albert Einstein (1879-1955; German-born American physicist) extolled the importance of such non-rational sources in his own work, including the origin of his two theories of relativity (1921 Physics Nobel Prize). In short, I am more inclined to include such sources as valid evidence along with the potential advantages of the scientific method.
Thirteen years ago, I had a very profound experience that was nothing short of a personal revelation, bringing together many years of metaphysical and religions studies as well as my own training and practice of the science of human behavior. By Decartes’ standards this experience was surely “irrational,” but I have to say that, in the years since it occurred, nothing has made more sense to me that what I began to learn from it. It started with A Conversation that I recorded at the time:
As I sat in meditation, I became acutely aware of a “Presence.”
That’s “Presence” with a capital “P.”
“Who’s there?” I asked somewhat timidly.
“I AM,” the distinctively masculine Presence responded softly. “Who are you?”
Somewhat surprised I answered, “You know, Dennis.”
“Hmmm,” I heard him murmur softly. “Let’s try this again. I AM. And you?”
“This is crazy,” I thought — and then sheepishly stammered, “D-D-Dennis?”
I heard a soft chuckle followed by, “You think you are Dennis. I AM. You?”
An interminably long silence followed as I struggled in vain to discern what this Presence wanted. But I could feel His encouragement enveloping me like a soft mist. Finally, I queried, “I — I am?”
Immediately, I heard a hearty laugh, and He shot back, “I AM! You?”
In my meditative silence, I mentally shouted, “I AM!”
Another warm and hearty laugh, and then, through my own tears of joy, I felt His smile sweep over and through me in wave after wave of Unconditional Love.
That’s “Love” with a capital “L.”
That’s it, just a simple conversation that made a very profound impression and lasting influence on my life. My understanding of the implications and “truth” behind this conversation has only matured and expanded in the succeeding years. My current perspective now goes much deeper than just “I Am” (hint: Yogananda’s organization and Exodus 3:14). But I believe that we have to grow into that deeper understanding at our own, individual pace. It can’t be rushed; and it can’t be “taught” until the student is “ready.” And who is the teacher to do that “teaching?” All of my most important teachers (as recorded over the last five millennia) offer the same answer: The “teacher” is YOU. And you will know and understand what that statement means as you realize it through your own experience. There is nothing as real as your own experience.
All the great teachers in human history teach the same basic principles but in different ways and with different details. But only some of those teachers resonate with any given student. It’s not the teachers’ fault; they were trying to communicate with people in different cultures at different points in time and with vastly different levels of education and capacity to learn. Regardless of geography, culture, or era, the difference is the student’s “readiness” to progress in soul evolution. That is why the best teacher at any given point in time is YOU. Yes, you may learn a great deal from one or more teachers (human or otherwise), often including the teacher’s own limitations in understanding. They too, after all, are souls on a path of raising their own vibration and they too learned from other imperfect human beings. This is why Maitreya (channeled by Margaret McElroy) says “There is no [single] truth” — at least until we all reach that common level of understanding.
If you happen to be one of those souls for whom Decartes’ philosophy is the only one that “works” for you, that’s OK. I honestly appreciate his many important contributions to human culture and science. It’s just that what “works better” for me is to Balance (a major component of Conscious Living) the best of many philosophies and perspectives as taught by those World Teachers down through the ages. But that’s just me.
In the best sense of Decartes’ “rationalism,” I encourage you to think about that simple conversation and come to your own conclusions. Then take whatever “works” for you and leave the rest until such time as you are ready to take the next step in your soul evolution. Only YOU hold the answer to that question.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have a great month!