The French Meaning of Esprit

I’ve always been frustrated by the French word, l’esprit, and the fact that it is actually not a cognate for spirit. In fact, the French have no word that equates to the English meaning of spirit. Rather, the meaning of l’esprit actually equates to the English word mind. When I first learned this some years ago, but long before I ever moved to France, I was disappointed.

I grew up in the 80’s when the fashion label Esprit was quite popular. And whether it was being subjected to their advertising campaigns or just my own meaning-making at work, I honestly thought it meant free-spirited. There was something about having that label tucked in the collar of my shirt that made my teenage self feel in touch with a quality I valued. Little did I know it didn’t really mean the same thing to me as it meant in its language of origin.

The Flight of Garuda

The other day, I was listening to a contemplative reading from a Tibetan Dzogchen text known as The Flight of Garuda. As I meditated with this teaching, I discovered that the French might very well have known, perhaps accidentally, what they doing with the word! Because instead of seeing mind as that noisy, distracting, analyzing, slicing and dicing, confusing, judgmental voice that makes it impossible to meditate or even as the efficient, intellectual, concentrated, discerning life-assistant that helps us survive, my definition of mind suddenly became crystal clear. Like a flash of light, my attention shifted from common mind to one mind.

True Mind

Mind, true mind, is a vast and open landscape in which the entire play of life takes shape. We share that one field. Your mind is my mine and vice versa. It isn’t what happens within it to which The Flight of Garuda points. Rather, it points to the pure, open expanse of the One Mind. One of the objectives of meditation is to first see through the personal stuff of mind to the transpersonal nature of this field, and then to see beyond the endless stream of content directly into that ever-pure, every-open, brilliant expanse.  In that way, it resolves my conflict with the French word l’esprit meaning mind and it integrates it with the English meaning of the word spirit.

The nature of the sun~ disc is radiance
That a thousand aeons of darkness cannot obscure.
Similarly, luminosity is the nature of one~ mind
That aeons of confusion cannot darken.


This teaching also reminds us that Samara and Nirvana are the same. That’s because they are both concepts that exist with the field of mind. They are dualistic. To believe one is somehow better than the other is to ultimately believe in a fantasy, or just another side of Maya or illusion. Heaven and Hell. Right and wrong. Light and dark. You and me. Beyond such concepts lies freedom, in that field in which such concepts emerge and dance. We are far too fixated on the dance to see the space from which it all emerges.

So at the risk of simply playing with more concepts, which is all one can do when pointing to Truth, it seems to me a distinction can now be drawn between mind and Mind. Or perhaps it would be best to think of mind only as that primordially pure, insubstantial luminosity behind Life, and everything else, and I do mean everything, as the soup of selfhood.

We are reminded through The Flight of Garduda, again and again, to rest the little mind in the nature of Pure Mind:

All that appears is the magical display of the mind’,
And this whole magical show is empty and free of any ground.
When you realize everything to be your own mind.|
All that can be seen is empty, the dharmakaya.
One is not fettered by appearance, but by attachment.
So cut your deluded attachment, heart-children!