Head-Trapped – Descartes, Dawkins, Hobbes, Marx, Mill, Darwin, And The Myth Of Western Civilisation

Descartes famously declared: ‘Cogito ergo sum’, or, ‘I think therefore I am.’

But a thought has no awareness; it is a mere packet of information. ‘It’s hot in here’, is like a telegram, a note. The telegram does not itself have awareness, is not conscious. Instead, the thought passes into awareness. It starts to arise, is dimly felt, is clearly seen, and then disappears. It is ‘seen’ by awareness.

I know that ‘I am’ because I am aware of thoughts, emotions, external objects, not because I think. Meditators compare thoughts to clouds that pass across the sky of awareness – they are two separate phenomena. There is an observer and that which is observed, the thought. I am the observer, not the observed.

This is why the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins was so wrong when he wrote:

‘We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.’ (Richard Dawkins, ‘The Selfish Gene’, preface to 1976 edition, Oxford University Press, 1989, p.v)

We are not ‘blindly programmed’ at all. We are aware of the thoughts, passions and instinctual programming that drive us. Human-made robot vehicles do not have that background awareness. To be aware that we are driven by automatic programming changes everything. It means we have gone off the rails of automatic programming.

Thomas Hobbes made a related mistake when he wrote:

‘There is no such thing as perpetual tranquility of mind, while we live here; because life itself is but motion, and can never be without desire, nor without fear, no more than without sense.’ (Hobbes, ‘Leviathan’, Oxford University Press, 1998, p.41)

This is fundamentally wrong, but Hobbes had a point about the impossibility of attaining ‘tranquility of mind’. The mind is not an independent entity; it is simply the collection of thoughts, and every thought is indeed ‘motion’, a tension. Even the thought, ‘Such a beautiful sunset!’ is a tension. The idea is a tiny build-up of thought-steam that we are subtly relieved to release.

But like the rest of the Western culture around him (and us), Hobbes was unaware that the inherently untranquil mind can be transcended. Hobbes’ ‘desire’ and ‘fear’ do arise in dependence on thoughts – but that is the motion of mind, not the ‘motion’ of ‘life itself’. Thus, a thought may arise:

‘This guy is infuriating!’ 

If I identify with the anger, if I think it’s me – ‘I’m angry’ – I’m very likely to pursue, and act on, the angry thought and feeling. After all, I’m just me being me. But because I’m actually the observer of my thoughts and feelings – because I’m separate – I can think: ‘There’s anger in me.’ In this formulation, the anger and ‘me’ are two things, separate: I’m the watcher, not the anger. This disidentification creates a gap, a space, which interrupts the otherwise automatic spiral of angry thought fueling angry emotion and further thought. Simply observing the emotion is exactly like pressing the clutch pedal on a car. To reiterate, this is something a robot cannot do.

Watching thoughts and emotions can lead to complete disidentification. We can come to observe a fearful, jealous or angry thought as if it belonged to someone else. We can see it as an interesting, powerful energy phenomenon, that passes into awareness. Disconnected from the emotional energy transmitted through identification, it quickly fades away.

Ultimately, all thoughts thus depleted of energy disappear, leaving only the clear sky of awareness. And this is indeed a state of complete tranquility and stillness, without fear and without desire. Hobbes was wrong.

Marx On Estranged Being

The realisation that we can be liberated from identification with thought has deeper implications.

Karl Marx argued that modern men and women are trained to subordinate being to having by prioritising material wants over creative needs. Marx wrote:

‘The less you eat, drink and read books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc, the more you save – the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour – your capital.

‘The less you are, the more you have; the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life – the greater is the store of your estranged being. Everything which the political economist takes from you in life and in humanity, he replaces for you in money and in wealth…’

Marx understood that, to live as free, creative beings, we need to be self-directed. But, of course, as workers in capitalist society, most of us are directed by corporate managers. Workers generally do not decide what to produce, how, at what cost, and to whom it is sold. We pursue goals and ends dictated by the owners of the means of production.

Marx was right that it is deeply dehumanising to function without self-direction or self-expression. And yet, with Friedrich Engels, he wrote:

‘The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.’ (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto’, Monthly Review Press, 1964, p.116)

Marx, then, rejected the idea that being – thinking, loving, theorising, singing, painting – should be subordinated to material ‘treasure’, dead ‘capital’; just as he rejected the idea that self-directed work – love of creativity in the moment for the joy of creativity – should be subordinated to capitalist goals.

But Marx and Engels did argue that workers should subordinate present concerns to the ‘ends’ of ‘Communistic revolution’. Indeed, of course, the whole point of revolutionary movements is that citizens should be fiercely goal-oriented. As Marxist scholar Norman Finkelstein said recently:

‘The dream of the Marxist tradition was to try to create a homogenous population which would be committed to the same goal.’ (‘Norman Finkelstein on how the Left cancels itself’, interview with Aaron Maté, The Grayzone)

Marx, then, argued that the more we subordinate our creative needs to dead capital and its goals, the less we are. But this is also true when we subordinate our creative needs to revolutionary goals in the future. Why? Because the future is non-existential, it does not exist; it is as dead as capital.

Obviously, the past does not exist; it is a collection of mere memories, impressions in the mind. But the future also does not exist; it is a collection of ideas about what should or might happen. To subordinate the present moment to a goal in the future, to thought, is to root our being in the non-existential. It makes no difference whether the goal is capitalistic or revolutionary – in both cases, we are subordinating the alive to the unalive. This has profound, mostly unrecognised consequences, as we will see, below, in our discussion of the disasters that befell John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin.

It is ironic indeed that both the capitalist and the revolutionary perceive the present primarily as a resource, as a means to the end of profit or revolution. How, ‘when time is money’, can capitalists, or the people working for them, prioritise the present and ‘smell the roses’? As Canadian lawyer Joel Bakan has noted, it is actually illegal for corporate managers to subordinate profit-maximisation to anything, including charity and the task of saving the planet.

But equally, how can revolutionaries be involved in that four-letter word ‘fun’ when there is so much injustice, so many class wars to win? From the perspective of both Higher Causes, to relax and enjoy life in the moment, is despicable, absurd, actually a betrayal. The idea that the world is fundamentally inadequate as it is simply cannot be reconciled with relaxing deeply in the present moment.

But mystics have seen a deep problem with this. When we subordinate life now to the dead realm of goal-oriented ideas and ideals, we are burying our experience of real life in the present moment beneath thoughts about real life.

The Indian mystic Osho suggested a thought experiment to test the deadening impact of thought:

‘Just meditate on this: you are facing a rose flower, a beautiful rose flower. It is there – the fragrance is released into your nostrils, you are delighted with it. Now bring the past in. Think of something in the past: somebody insulted you yesterday or yesteryear, or think of a childhood incident, your mother was beating you. Bring it into memory and suddenly the mind is clouded. Now you will not feel the presence of the flower so much. It is still there, the same flower, but you are no more here; you are distracted, you have become foggy, clouded. A screen of memory has come between you and the rose flower.

‘Or think of the future – some plan, some fantasy, something that you want to do tomorrow – and the flower fades, bows out further and further. The more deep in thought you go, the farther the flower recedes…’ (My emphasis)

Reality fades, the flower recedes. In a very real sense, we become dead to the world around us. Even worse, we become dead to ourselves, to our own feelings. Descartes would have been closer to the truth, if he had said: I think therefore I am not.

John Stuart Mill And Charles Darwin – ‘A Grief… Void, Dark, And Drear

Consider John Stuart Mill, the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the 19th century.

From an early age, Mill devoted his life to the goal of making the world a better place. Alas, aged just 20, he fell into a deep depression so severe that he contemplated suicide. The problem was that he had become deeply goal-oriented:

‘I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object.’ (Mill, ‘Autobiography of John Stuart Mill’, Columbia University Press, 1960, p.93)

Inevitably, the dream collapsed:

‘But the time came when I awakened from this as from a dream.’ (p.94)

Mill asked himself:

‘Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?’

‘And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.’ (p.94)

With admirable candour, Mill described how four lines in Coleridge’s poem, ‘Dejection’, ‘exactly’ described ‘my case’:

‘A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,

‘A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,

‘Which finds no natural outlet or relief,

‘In word, or sigh, or tear.’ (p.94)

Even the prospect of a ‘just society’, an earthly paradise, could not make Mill happy because it was rooted in dead ideas, ideals, mere thought. He was head-trapped in a dream of the future to such an extent that he was fundamentally disconnected from the love and delight that are found in all of us in the alive present, the only time and place they can be felt.

A ‘moral’ ‘success’ delivers no more fulfilment to a heart blocked by overthinking than any other type of external ‘success’. The head, actually the ego, of course feels a kind of thin, short-lived pleasure at achieving its goals. But the pleasure lasts an instant and is followed by a fall into the emptiness predicted by Diogenes and experienced by Alexander the Great: so you conquer the whole world, so you create a just society, so you ‘conquer’ the highest mountain, so you sell a million books: So what?! What next? Nothing – we remain alienated, deadened, lost in thought.

Finally, Mill found a remedy for his torment:

‘I had now learnt by experience that the passive susceptibilities [feeling] needed to be cultivated as well as the active capacities [intellect], and required to be nourished and enriched as well as guided… The cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed.’ (Mill, my emphasis, p.101)

Mill found he was best able to cultivate feeling through poetry:

‘What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure…’ (Mill, my emphasis, p.104).

In similar vein, the naturalist Charles Darwin wrote in his autobiography:

‘My mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years… Now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry… I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music… I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did…

‘My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.’ (Charles Darwin, ‘The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882’, Norton, 1993, pp.138-139)

A machine, lost in thought, disconnected from the real world and human feeling. Like Mill, Darwin’s experience of life had been deeply deadened by overthinking – the rose of real life ‘fades, bows out further and further’. Like Mill, Darwin suffered from numerous breakdowns, anxieties and depressions, as well as psychosomatic and other illnesses. Biographer John Bowlby wrote:

‘Darwin had a strong tendency to respond to adversity with both acute and chronic anxiety and sometimes also with depression. Note, for example, the revealing phrase inserted into the detailed account of his somatic symptoms: “hysterical crying”.’ (John Bowlby, ‘Charles Darwin – a biography’, Hutchinson, 1990, p.11)

Darwin used intellectual work as a kind of anti-meditation to repress his tortured feelings. Bowlby commented:

‘work was constantly used by Darwin as a means of diverting his attention from his bodily discomforts and also, as he frequently insists, from thoughts about whatever was causing him anxiety or depression. Time and time again in his letters he refers to the anaesthetic effects of work. When not yet forty he writes to his wife: “I was speculating yesterday how fortunate it was I had plenty of employment… for being employed alone makes me forget myself.”’ (Bowlby, p.11)

This indicates the power of thought to block feeling, to ‘forget myself’ – but it was a temporary fix that only deepened Darwin’s despair.

Exactly echoing Mill, Darwin came to understand the terrible price he had paid for his head-trapped life:

‘If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week… The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.’ (Darwin, op.cit., pp.138-139)

Unbeknownst to them, Mill and Darwin were both pointing towards varieties of meditation as a cure. 

When we direct awareness away from dead thoughts of future and past to alive sense perceptions and emotions, thinking lessens and the present, the rose, starts to come alive for us. This is no trivial matter. With practice, for the first time since early childhood, we can detect the natural state of awareness unclouded by overthinking. This is experienced as a subtle bliss, love and peace in our hearts and lower belly. If this sounds exotic, or fanciful, it has been experienced as obviously the case by countless practitioners of Vipassana and Zazen meditation, Qigong, Taichi, and so on, who have slipped out of the head and into the body.

This loving bliss is the nature of awareness liberated from mental activity; it is not caused but unveiled by meditation. This is ‘the kingdom of heaven that lies within’, our ‘Buddha nature’, and it is blocked by storms of past- or future-oriented thought.

But this is the point: this loving bliss is the only actual source of love and happiness; it is the only real antidote to a society dehumanised and deadened by overthinking. Even when profoundly sincere and committed Western intellectuals are thinking about and preaching love, compassion and justice, they are actually dehumanised, head-trapped, because they are themselves disconnected by clouds of thought from the only real source of love and delight.

Especially, in the age of iPhones, tablets, of relentlessly badgering social media of all kinds, we are all paying the price of overthinking in the way of Mill and Darwin. Human society has probably never been so deadened, alienated and numb.


One of the great questions of the 20th century asked how a ‘civilised’ nation like Germany – a society that had produced giants of human culture like Beethoven, Goethe and Marx – could also produce the barbarism of Nazi tyranny. Gandhi indicated the answer. When asked what he thought of ‘Western civilisation’, he replied:

‘I think it would be a very good idea.’

‘Western civilisation’ is a possibility, not a reality. Western societies talk endlessly about love, but we have almost no idea how to access it. We are a society that has buried love, compassion, innocence, joy, bliss, and the simple delight of being alive, beneath goal-oriented clouds of thought about Higher Causes of profit and revolution that have disconnected us from our hearts.

How else to explain ‘developed’ societies that wage merciless resource wars on countries like Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria as a ‘normal’ state of affairs, with almost zero discussion about what is really happening? How else to explain societies that continue to respond to blindingly obvious indications of gathering climate collapse with near-complete indifference, thus sacrificing the lives of our own children – and even our own lives – to the next quarter’s sales target? Our head-trapped society, no matter how proudly ‘progressive’ and ‘tolerant’, is fundamentally loveless and joyless.

‘I think therefore I am’? No, I am aware therefore I am. I am deeply blissful, loving, at peace – something more than a blindly programmed, alienated robot – when I direct attention away from thoughts into feelings and sense perceptions. I don’t have to do anything to access this love and bliss; I have been doing too much! Just watching, thoughts subside, and an inner secret is revealed.

Does this mean we should simply tolerate and ignore the cruelties and injustices of the world? Hopefully my own thirty years of political activism make my own feelings clear. We need to do everything we can to avert these horrors, but our actions must be rooted in being; in an authentic experience of, rather than mere ideas about, love and bliss. We need to take time away from overthinking to root our activism in the sanity and aliveness of the present moment. Otherwise, we are as likely to be a part of the head-trapped problem as the solution.

David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org