Descartes’ Great Mistake, The #1 Quality in Organizations, and a Modern, Western Understanding of Why the Cow is Sacred in Indian Traditions

(7 MIN READ + Videos)


I suppose the body to be just a statue or a machine made of earth.            ~Rene Descartes

Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it. ~Rene Descartes

I am indeed amazed when I consider how weak my mind is and how prone to error. ~Rene Descartes

Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else. ~Leonardo Da Vinci


I. Introduction

A group of friends and I decided to do an intense workout challenge together. We’re all enjoying it, for the most part. We live in different parts of the world. We use a WhatsApp group to encourage, groan, tease, joke, and share the experience.  Other friends who get wind of it seem to be joining daily. There are any number of observations I could share about it. 

One of the women in the program, Tanya, shows great endurance and determination. The fitness professional leading the program has dubbed her, “The machine”.  It's intended and received as a compliment.

When a team or organization functions well, we often call it a well-oiled machine.

From where do these mechanistic conceptions arise? What are the implications?

It paints an outdated relationship to ourselves, life, animals, and the planet. The wide-ranging implications include our ongoing survival and well-being.


II. Descartes’ Great Mistake

Prominent historical ideas gain traction and can exert influence even centuries later. Descartes' underlying principle was that the world and living organisms are machine-like, mechanistic. The essence of this belief lies potent and largely unexamined in our culture. Our mechanistic analogies hint at the lingering power of these historical artefacts.

An important corollary of mechanistic thinking is breaking things down to analyze them.  Yet, Life itself emerges as something wondrous, beyond an assembly of natural, periodic elements. We disregard our own wisdom that the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. As a Cartesian habit, we miss the possibilities of systemic, holistic thinking.

Of course, his methods and accomplishments have also benefited society. Certain problems are indeed best solved by analysis and breaking them down. There are shades of grey.  Context always remains vital.

Our mindsets express through our speech and action. As one commentator put it:

Descartes and his followers performed experiments in which they nailed animals by their paws onto boards and cut them open to reveal their beating hearts. They burned, scalded, and mutilated animals in every conceivable manner. When the animals reacted as though they were suffering pain, Descartes dismissed the reaction as no different from the sound of a machine that was functioning improperly. A crying dog, Descartes maintained, is no different from a whining gear that needs oil.


Today, most agree this is inhumane. Yet, mechanistic analogies also go further, limiting our potential in other destructive ways. The underlying thought process ignores higher potential perspectives. I touch next in the context of organizational life because many can relate. I then go onto a bigger, deeper challenge facing us.

I like to focus on the learning always inherent in the current moment. I am not a fan of regret and critique for the sake of being a critic.


III. The Virtue of Learning in Organizations

Most societal forward movement comes from organizations. Organizations are groups of people banding together to achieve a common purpose. In some cases, the purpose is survival, status, and material well-being. In other cases, it is something more than that. (There’s low hanging fruit there but we’ll ignore it for today.)  For now, our primary org references remain mechanistic. This comes at great cost to our effectiveness and fulfillment.

In the early 1900’s, Frederick Taylor, measured people with a stop-watch. He timed them doing repetitive, simple, mind-numbing tasks, minute after minute, hour after hour. He encouraged managers to get their staff to reduce “wasteful” movements. This came to be known as“scientific management”.

This organizational approach limits adaptability at the very least.  (Change is constant. And it seems to only get faster and faster. Machines breakdown when used for unintended purposes.)

From the Harvard Business Review:

“Since the early 1900s, this [mechanistic] model has been the prevailing paradigm for how organizations are designed and run.

The problem is that while this approach enables large-scale production, it doesn’t seem to work for innovation. Over the past several years, we have compared... teams in a dozen global organizations. One of our key findings was that teams functioning more like machines – blindly following highly defined processes and execution plans — were the least effective at achieving their goals and coming up with innovations. The most successful teams, on the other hand, operated less like highly efficient machines and more like ant colonies. These teams were able to quickly adapt to changes in their environment, because they had a set of simple [principles] and a clear goal, allowing them more flexibility and ability to learn along the way.”


And the digitalist has this to add:

"In the knowledge economy, the business was typically considered “a machine.”…

Machines remain static; however, companies must grow… An organism’s purpose comes from within. An organism strives over time to realize its goals in the world. As conditions in the environment change, an organism responds…it learns. [emphasis added]

For many years, the “machine” mindset has prevailed. As a result, many companies are designed as information-processing and production machines…But information processing is not learning. Production is not learning. Learning is a creative process, not a mechanical one.

Inherent in the mechanical viewpoint, all knowledge is explicit and can be represented in manuals, documentation, and quantitative metrics….This harkens back to Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management. His theory is based on measuring and analyzing work with the making it more efficient. Scientific management is focused on defining and measuring work in the form of words, charts, and numbers. In other words, what can be seen and recorded is the only thing that matters.”


Yet, many of us have learned the mechanical viewpoint doesn’t feel very good. ~70-80% of people are disengaged at work. Projections say 50% of the work force will be freelance or entrepreneur by 2020. People are exiting work environments that are mechanistic and unnatural. The feeling of unfulfillment is strong.

Perhaps the Life or magic in work emerges from beyond what can be broken down and measured.  Whole > Sum.

(For those interested in the topic of learning organizations, the book The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge is the seminal work.)

Let’s continue to other terrible implications which unfold from the mechanistic model.


IV. On the Sanctity of Cows

There are tremendous positive developments connected with our environment. But there is tremendous distance to travel yet. The mechanistic view contrasts with seeing the interconnectedness of all things.

Our relationship to animals is the greatest source of environmental destruction. Most people don't know that and the systemic connections are missed.

I accept the sanctity of each one’s choices. I encourage people to inform themselves and make conscious decisions. Our guiding principles should be eminently practical--higher forms of well-being.

Here are some interesting facts (find the infographic below at the bottom of this post):

  • 51% of Global Greenhouse Gas emissions come from livestock and their byproducts, 13% due to transport
  • Livestock covers 45% of the Earth’s total land
  • Animal Agriculture and mostly cattle agriculture is responsible for 91% of the deforestation of the Amazon, sometimes called the lungs of the earth. Another 1-2 acres are cleared every second.
  • The waste from 2500 Dairy Cows = the Waste from a city of 411,000 people
  • 1 Hamburger takes 660 gallons of fresh water to make
  • Every minute, 7 million pounds of excitement are produced by animals raised for food in the US
  • 110 species go extinct everyday because of rainforest destruction


These figures are self-evident. The way we raise, slaughter, and eat cows, is one of the single biggest threats to our world. (Nuclear codes in the hands of kids is one of the others.)

We often look for huge ways to contribute to a better world. But the solutions are often not so complex as clear, simple, and straightforward. Small is beautiful.

Most people also shrug their shoulders at or ignore the rate of climate change. Cartesian thinking is part of the problem, because we tend to isolate our behavior from the impact on the whole. We don’t think systemically and see the interconnection of all things.  We don't see our connection to everything else. 

Here’s a video that can help us remember how nature relies on balance and interconnectedness.

In Indian traditions, cows are seen with Shiva, Krishna, Indra and other Indian deities. They are inherently associated with divinity and nature.

The ancient yogis in India had great insight and wisdom. They studied the nature of life.  They saw the interconnectedness of all things. They recognized that how we treat cows is deeply symbolic of how we treat the earth. They perhaps intuited we would imperil ourselves and our existence in how we relate to cows.

One view of man places him atop the animal kingdom. In this view, inhumane treatment is acceptable. Top of the food chain.  This puts forth man’s animalistic aspects. We see self-destruction in this perspective.

Another view of man places him as friend of the earth. This connects to wiser ways of being.

It's practical to see how our actions impact our surviving and thriving.

Here is an inspiring video which shows how man’s relationship with nature could be different:



Ignorance includes stepping away from the satisfaction of being in integrity with ourselves. Especially once we know better.  Who wants to be willfully ignorant?

Ahimsa, which we often translate as nonviolence, is the foundation of Yoga. By yoga here, I mean more than asana/postures. I mean the science, study, and practice of the highest forms of living. At its root, it is exactly the same word as religion—which is union. Nonviolence is nothing other than the Golden Rule actually. Its fundamentals include acknowledging the sentience of animals.

There is much further we could go with this that includes bulls raping cows, in the dairy industry. I also focus only on small elements of environmental and ethical considerations. There are many other dimensions we could explore. I’ll leave that aside for today.

I am not making a specific comment on whether you choose to eat meat or not. Yet, our impact on the whole is in some way felt by us. It may be of practical benefit to consider even one meatless day a week.  Be informed and do as you please.

Many dis-empower themselves, not seeing their choices matter and have real-world impact. Cheap clothes made in sweatshops and plastic entombed convenience items reflect the issue too.  Lisa once showed me how the shrimp industry creates slavery and cyclone destruction in Bangladesh.  A messy world accumulates from dis-empowered people believing their choices don’t matter.


V. Conclusion

The mechanistic view continues to wield destructive influence across broad swaths of life in this world. Seeing the deep interconnectedness of things helps us to make better choices.

For those who don't know Leonardo Da Vinci beyond his artwork, he might be considered one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived. He studied art and science with such intensity that they became each other. He saw the interconnectedness of all things.  As many commentators have noted, he also studied the nature of life.  He was in his own way a yogi.

I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men. ~Leonardo Da Vinci


PS- Here's the InfoGraphic I referred to above.

On Mindfulness: How this practice changes lives

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. ~ Victor Frankl


I. Introduction

It's moved far beyond the realm of esoteric and is now well within mainstream acceptance. By now, even military units tout the powerful, simple practice.  It's gaining steam for good reason. 

The benefits are well-documented.  Neuroscience, psychology, and a great number of social studies now confirm with confidence that introducing the practices of Mindfulness can measurably impact the life and results of an individual, team, or company within the first 8 weeks.  It brings positive impact in 3 main areas: 1) Personal Well-being; 2) Relationships; 3) Performance.   Major media (e.g. Time and CNN), corporations (e.g. it started with Google and has since spread to many others, especially in Silicon Valley), and pro sports teams (e.g. Seattle Seahawks) are among those affirming mindfulness.

For people like me who practice mindfulness, it’s great to see this rapid, extensive growth. Practitioners know that there are few habits which create greater impact on quality of life, and thereby collective high performance in a company and greater harmony and peace within a society.  It has this power because it is a meta-competence, a competence which supports the development of all other competencies.  I would like to share a simple anecdote that helps us understand why from a very human angle.

Before we go there, however, I would like to offer a bit of additional context. 


II.  Context

A flurry of studies on the brain and our behavior made during the last 20 years has shown us the possibly surprising fact that the physical brain is not static and unchangeable.  These studies reveal perhaps an even more shocking fact – that our thoughts, attitudes, words and habitual actions have a physical effect on the brain’s structure and shape.  Neuroscientists call this quality of being able to rewire our neural networks through thoughts, attitudes, words, and actions neuroplasticity

In practical terms, we have around 50,000 thoughts every day, and around 95-98% of those are the same as we had yesterday.  (Yawn.) And perhaps even more surprising, 80% of our daily thoughts are negatively-oriented, such as chewing over things that went wrong, or our habitual worries about having locked the door on the way out, having said the wrong thing, and so on.  Day-by-day we reinforce our brain's hard-wiring for worry.  We overgeneralize that worry is helping us but it's actually just based on habit and self-reinforcing negativity. 

It's a little scary that we strengthen negative thought patterns unless we learn to do something about it. We sometimes are tempted to think that if we just achieve enough outwardly, the negativity will go away or transform on its own and we will have a happier inner climate.  But we now clearly understand that that's false.  We need to work on the way we think directly.  

In neuroscience terms, our amygdala (often called the lizard brain, the most unevolved part of our brains) --the source of fearful, stressful, and worrisome thoughts-- actually gets smaller through mindfulness.  And the most evolved parts of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, gains strength (i.e. actually gets thicker) through mindfulness.  In everyday words, we gain power and freedom. 

It's exciting to know that mindfulness provides a path by which we can change negativity and habitual patterns.  Through mindfulness practice, we increase our capacity to relate to situations in ever more constructive ways.

Mindfulness has gained traction amongst individuals and companies for exactly this reason.  We are all interested in accessing the deeper potential that we know is there.  Sometimes we get in our own way.  Mindfulness helps us change that. 


III. Story

A client of mine began practicing mindfulness meditation 1 mere week ago. I was congratulatory and excited when he shared the following story with me at the end of our most recent session. It’s a simple story. His tiny tale of mindful triumph helps us immediately grasp what it is that mindfulness can do in our lives, at work and otherwise.   (I always like it when a client or anyone else for that matter cries tears of joy.)  It is a concrete example of creating a space of freedom in which to relate to events more constructively. 

He was out with his girlfriend on a pleasant Saturday afternoon. She made a comment that normally would challenge and irritate him. (His omission of details indicated irrelevance of details even though part of me wishes I had more specifics to share.)

Despite our love for our partners, we've all been there. We’re all familiar with those voices of our lesser selves.

He was struck in that moment by something he remembered from his nascent mindfulness practice. He realized the thought connected to irritability was simply a negative interpretation and fleeting.  He realized he could simply notice and observe the thought pass. He could thereby have the freedom to choose how he wanted to relate to his girlfriend in that moment. That’s what he did. He expressed his better self instead of putting a damper on the afternoon.


IV. Elaboration

It’s that simple. Often times when we are irritated or experiencing any other negative emotion, we completely identify our selves with the narrative which passes through our mind and the emotion which passes through our body. We take our story as though it IS REALITY.  In fact, it’s one of infinite ways to see and experience that situation.  Not everything we think or believe is true.  When we are somehow triggered, our thoughts are reactive and habitual. In Frankl's terms, sometimes the space between stimulus and response is miniscule indeed and the reaction is automatic.

Different negative emotions take different forms in each of us. But whatever the form, we are not in these cases bringing conscious attention to what passes through our mind.  We are prisoners of whatever old defenses and well-worn neural networks we have. Prisoners may be a strong word, but it indicates exactly where we lack freedom.  Mindfulness is a key out of the prison of old behaviors and habits of thought, words, and actions which no longer serve us.  When we are interested in change and inviting in something new in our lives, we might consider the importance of mindfulness practice. 


V. Change through Mindfulness

We may assume we’re an impatient type of person (for example), but it’s amazing to realize that that can be changed. Our qualities and ways of being are malleable! There are actually paths by which we become more established in who we know ourselves to be.

Mindfulness amplifies the space between stimulus and response to create greater freedom. We’re able to choose more constructive responses which express how we actually want to show up in the world. As the new neural networks form, and our ability for self-observation grows, we have greater freedom to become more and more anchored in our own deeper human values. We obviously enjoy life more when we are more responsive than reactive. Sometimes our annoyance with ourselves comes when our reactivity gets in our own way.

Mindfulness is a practice which opens up no less than the possibility of personal mastery. It helps us to become responsive to situations and show up at the height of our capability. Of course, this has untold value in our lives and professions.