Waking, Dreaming, Being

New light on the self and consciousness from neuroscience, meditation, and philosophy



Just with Paypal

Book Details
 497 p
 File Size 
 8,066 KB
 File Type
 PDF format
 978-0-231-53831-2 (electronic) 
 2015 Evan Thompson 

Someone who dreams of drinking wine at a cheerful banquet
may wake up crying the next morning. Someone who dreams
of crying may go off the next morning to enjoy the sport of the
hunt. When we are in the midst of a dream, we do not know it’s
a dream. Sometimes we may even try to interpret our dreams
while we are dreaming, but then we awake and realize it was a
dream. Only after one is greatly awakened does one realize that
it was all a great dream, while the fool thinks that he is awake
and presumptuously aware.
—Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zi), trans. Victor H. Mair,
Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu

The central idea of this book is that the self is a process,
not a thing or an entity. The self isn’t something outside
experience, hidden either in the brain or in some immaterial
realm. It is an experiential process that is subject to
constant change. We enact a self in the process of awareness,
and this self comes and goes depending on how we are aware.
When we’re awake and occupied with some manual task,
we enact a bodily self geared to our immediate environment.
Yet this bodily self recedes from our experience if our task
becomes an absorbing mental one. If our mind wanders, the
mentally imagined self of the past or future overtakes the self
of the present moment.
As we start to fall asleep, the sense of self slackens. Images
float by, and our awareness becomes progressively absorbed
in them. The impression of being a bounded individual distinct
from the world dissolves. In this so-called hypnagogic
state, the borders between self and not-self seem to fall away.
The feeling of being a distinct self immersed in the world
comes back in the dream state. We experience the dream
from the perspective of the self within it, or the dream ego.
Although the entire dream world exists only as a content of
our awareness, we identify our self with only a portion of it—
the dream ego that centers our experience of the dream world
and presents itself as the locus of our awareness.

At times, however, something else happens. We realize we’re
dreaming, but instead of waking up, we keep right on dreaming with
the knowledge that we’re dreaming. We enter what’s called a lucid
dream. Here we experience a different kind of awareness, one that
witnesses the dream state. No matter what dream contents come and
go, including the forms the dream ego takes, we can tell they’re not
the same as our awareness of being in the dream state. We no longer
identify only with our dream ego—the “I” as dreamed—for our sense
of self now includes our dreaming self—the “I” as dreamer.
Similarly, while meditating in the waking state, we can simply witness
being conscious and watch whatever sensory or mental events
occur within the field of our awareness. We can also watch how we
may identify with some of them as “Me” or appropriate some of them as “Mine.”
We usually lose touch with this ability to be mindful when we fall
asleep. We regain it in a vivid way when we have a lucid dream. Some
Indian and Tibetan traditions of philosophy and meditation claim we
can recover this mindfulness or witnessing awareness even during
deep and dreamless sleep. If this is true, then there must be more
to consciousness than just the contents of our waking and dreaming minds.

According to the Indian yogic traditions, which broadly construed
include Buddhism, we can distinguish three aspects of consciousness.
1 The first aspect is awareness, which is often likened to a light
that reveals whatever it shines upon. The second aspect is whatever
the light illuminates, that is, whatever we happen to be aware of
from moment to moment. The third aspect is how we experience
some of these contents of awareness as “I” or “Me” or “Mine.” To
understand how we enact a self, therefore, we need to understand
three things—the nature of awareness as distinct from its sensory
and mental contents, the mind-body processes that produce these
contents, and how some of these contents come to be experienced as the self.

In the following chapters, I take this threefold framework of
awareness, contents of awareness, and self-experience—or what the
Indian tradition calls “I-making”—and put it to work in cognitive
science. Whereas the Indian thinkers mapped consciousness and
I-making in philosophical and phenomenological terms, I show how
their insights can also help to advance the neuroscience of consciousness,
by weaving together neuroscience and Indian philosophy in an
exploration of wakefulness, falling asleep, dreaming, lucid dreaming,
out-of-body experiences, deep and dreamless sleep, forms of meditative
awareness, and the process of dying.

The organizing principle for this book comes from the Indian tradition.
The ancient Indian texts called the Upanishads contain the
world’s first recorded map of consciousness.2 The earliest texts—
dating from the sixth or seventh century B.C.E.—delineate three
principal states of the self—the waking state, the dream state, and
the state of deep and dreamless sleep. Later texts add a fourth state—
the state of pure awareness. Waking consciousness relates to the
outer world and apprehends the physical body as the self. Dream
consciousness relates to mental images constructed from memories
and apprehends the dream body as the self. In deep and dreamless
sleep, consciousness rests in a dormant state not differentiated into
subject and object. Pure awareness witnesses these changing states
of waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep without identifying with
them or with the self that appears in them. I use this fourfold structure
to organize my exploration of consciousness and the sense of
self across the waking, dreaming, and deep-sleep states, as well as
meditative states of heightened awareness and concentration.
In the yogic traditions, meditation trains both the ability to sustain
attention on a single object and the ability to be openly aware of the
entire field of experience without selecting or suppressing anything
that arises. In both modes of meditation—focused attention (or onepointed
concentration) and open awareness—one learns to monitor
specific qualities of experience, such as moment-to-moment fluctuations
of attention and emotion, that are difficult for the restless
mind to see.3 One of the guiding ideas of this book is that individuals
who can move flexibly and reliably between these different modes of
awareness and attention, and who can describe in precise terms how
their experience feels from moment to moment, offer a new source
of information about the self and consciousness for neuroscience and
the philosophy of mind.4
Let me now give a brief overview of the book’s main ideas. In the
chapters themselves I present these ideas using neuroscience, philosophy,
literature, and stories from my own experience.
Chapter 1 explains the formative Indian image of light or luminosity
as the basic nature of consciousness. Indian philosophers often
define consciousness as that which is luminous and knowing. “Luminous”
means having the power to reveal; “knowing” means being able
to apprehend whatever appears. In the waking state, consciousness
reveals and apprehends the outer world through the senses; in the
dream state, consciousness reveals and apprehends the inner world
of mental images. This chapter also introduces the ancient Indian
map of consciousness, which comprises the four states of wakefulness,
dreaming, deep and dreamless sleep, and pure awareness.
Chapter 2 focuses on attention and perception in the waking state.
I compare theories and findings from cognitive neuroscience with
Indian Buddhist theories of attention and perception. According to
both perspectives, although the stream of consciousness may seem to
flow continuously, it’s really made up of discrete moments of awareness
that depend on how attention shifts from one thing to another.
I review evidence from neuroscience showing that focused attention
and open awareness forms of meditation have measurable effects on
how attention structures the stream of consciousness into discrete
moments of awareness. I conclude by using both Buddhist philosophy
and cognitive neuroscience to argue that in addition to these
discrete moments, we also need to recognize a more slowly changing
background awareness that includes the sense of self and that shifts
across waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep.
Chapter 3 takes up the question, raised in the prologue, of whether
the basic nature of consciousness as pure awareness is dependent on
the brain or transcends the brain. I describe a dialogue on this question
with the Dalai Lama at his refugee home in Dharamsala, India,
and explain the basis in Buddhist philosophy for the Dalai Lama’s
view that consciousness transcends the brain. I argue, however, that
there’s no scientific evidence to support this view. All the evidence
available to us indicates that consciousness, including pure awareness,
is contingent on the brain. Nevertheless, my viewpoint isn’t
a materialist one, for two reasons. First, consciousness has a cognitive
primacy that materialism fails to see. There’s no way to step
outside consciousness and measure it against something else. Science
always moves within the field of what consciousness reveals;
it can enlarge this field and open up new vistas, but it can never get
beyond the horizon set by consciousness. Second, since consciousness
has this kind of primacy, it makes no sense to try to reductively
explain consciousness in terms of something that’s conceived to be
essentially nonexperiential, like fundamental physical phenomena.
Rather, understanding how consciousness is a natural phenomenon
is going to require rethinking our scientific concepts of nature and
physical being.
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 concern falling asleep, dreaming, and lucid
dreaming. I begin with the state leading into sleep, the hypnagogic
state, in which strange images make their way before our eyes and we
hear sounds or what seem like conversations going on around us or
inside us. Whereas normal waking consciousness is ego-structured—
we experience ourselves as bounded beings distinct from the outside
world—this structure dissolves in the hypnagogic state. There’s no
ego in the sense of an “I” who acts as a participant in a larger world,
and there’s no larger world in which we feel immersed. Instead,
there’s a play of images and sounds that holds consciousness spellbound.
In short, two key features mark the hypnagogic state—a
dissolution of ego boundaries and an attention drawn to what consciousness
spontaneously imagines.
The ego structure of consciousness returns in the dream state. In
the hypnagogic state we look at images and they absorb us; in the
dream state we experience being in the dream world. Sometimes we
experience it from an inside or first-person perspective; sometimes
we see ourselves in it from an outside or third-person perspective.
These two perspectives also occur in memory, where they’re known
as “field memory” and “observer memory.” Yet even in the case of the
observer perspective in a dream, we experience ourselves as a subject
situated in relation to the dream world. At the same time, the spellbound
attention that arises in the hypnagogic state also characterizes
the dream state, so it too is a kind of captivated consciousness.
All this changes in a lucid dream. The defining feature of a lucid
dream is being able to direct attention to the dreamlike quality
of the state so that one can think about it as a dream. When this
happens, the sense of self shifts, for one becomes aware of the self
both as dreamer—“I’m dreaming”—and as dreamed—“I’m flying
in my dream.”

In these three chapters I review findings from sleep science that
show that each state—the hypnagogic state, dreaming, and lucid
dreaming—is associated with its own distinct kind of brain activity.
Brain-imaging studies of lucid dreaming offer a fascinating way
to investigate what neuroscientists call the “neural correlates of consciousness.”
Lucid dreamers can use eye movements to signal when
they become lucid, and scientists can monitor what’s going on in the
brain at the same time. In Tibetan Buddhism, “dream yoga” includes
learning how to have lucid dreams in order to practice meditation in
the dream state. This kind of meditation is thought to be especially
powerful for learning to transform negative emotions into positive
emotions, such as anger into equanimity, and for learning to recognize
the basic nature of consciousness as pure awareness. By combining
these ancient yoga practices with modern methods from sleep
science, we can envision a new kind of dream science that integrates
dream psychology, neuroscience, and dream yoga.
I end my discussion of dreaming by criticizing the standard neuroscience
conception of the dream state as a form of delusional hallucination.
Instead, I argue that dreaming is a kind of spontaneous
imagination. I also argue that the dreaming mind isn’t a passive
epiphenomenon of the sleeping brain, for intentional mental activity
in dreaming, especially in lucid dreaming, actively affects the sleeping brain.
Chapter 7 examines out-of-body experiences. In an out-of-body
experience, you feel as if you’re located outside your body, often at
an elevated vantage point. Yet far from showing the separability of
the self from the body, out-of-body experiences reinforce the strong
connection between the body and the sense of self. These aren’t experiences
of disembodiment; they’re experiences of altered embodiment.
You see your body as an object at a place that doesn’t coincide
with the felt location of your visual and vestibular awareness. In this
way, there’s a dissociation between your body as an object of perception
and your body as a perceptual subject and attentional agent.
Out-of-body experiences reveal something crucial about the sense
of self: you locate yourself as an experiential subject wherever your
attentional perspective feels located, regardless of whether this happens
to be the place you see your body as occupying.
Out-of-body experiences provide no evidence that one can have
an experience without one’s biological body, for the body remains
present throughout. Furthermore, experiences with many of the
features of out-of-body experiences can be brought about by direct
electrical stimulation of certain brain regions and by virtual reality
devices. So it’s reasonable to assume that out-of-body experiences
depend on activity at specific regions of the brain and therefore as a
general rule are contingent on the living body.
Chapter 8 asks whether consciousness is present in deep and
dreamless sleep. Most neuroscientists and philosophers of mind
today think of dreamless sleep as a blackout state in which consciousness
fades or disappears completely. In contrast, the Indian philosophical
schools of Yoga and Vedānta, as well as Indian and Tibetan
Buddhism, maintain that a subtle form of consciousness continues. I
present the Indian philosophical case for deep sleep being a mode of
consciousness and show that none of the behavioral or physiological
evidence from sleep science suffices to rule out there being a mode of
consciousness in dreamless sleep. Hence the standard neuroscience
way of defining consciousness as that which disappears in dreamless
sleep needs to be revised. Yoga, Vedānta, and Buddhism assert that
the subliminal consciousness present in dreamless sleep can become
cognitively accessible through meditative mental training. I present
some preliminary evidence from sleep science in support of this idea.
I end the chapter by proposing that we need to enlarge sleep science
to include contemplative ways of training the mind in sleep. This
project will require sleep scientists, sleep yogis, and contemplative
scholars of the Indian and Tibetan traditions to work together to map
the sleeping mind. In short, we need a new, contemplative kind of
sleep science.
Chapter 9 investigates what happens to the self and consciousness
when we die. Neuroscience and biomedicine talk about death
as if it were essentially an objective and impersonal event instead of
a subjective and personal one. From a purely biomedical perspective,
death consists in the breakdown of the functions of the living
body along with the disappearance of all outer signs of consciousness.
Missing from this perspective is the subjective experience of
this breakdown and the existential significance of the inevitable fact
of one’s own death. In contrast, Tibetan Buddhism presents a vivid
account of the progressive breakdown of consciousness and the dissolution
of the sense of self during the dying process. It also describes
how to face this process in a meditative way. According to Tibetan
Buddhism—as well as Yoga and Vedānta—great contemplatives can
disengage from the sense of self as ego as they die. Resting in an
experience of pure awareness, they can watch the dissolution of their
everyday “I-Me-Mine” consciousness and witness their own dying
with equanimity.

The Tibetan Buddhist tradition also claims that sometimes the
bodies of great yogis don’t die in the usual way. After their hearts
stop beating and their breathing ceases, these individuals are said
not to decay for days or even weeks. I discuss a number of recent
reports of such phenomena and how they’re viewed from Western
scientific and medical perspectives. Scientific studies have only just
begun. One reason this kind of investigation has value is that it can
help science to see that a full understanding of death—even in biomedical
terms—requires understanding how the mind meets death
and may affect the dying process.
Near-death experiences during cardiac arrest provide another
important case for investigating how the mind meets death and the
relationship between consciousness and the body. Although these
experiences are often presented as challenging the view that consciousness
is contingent on the brain, I argue that none of the evidence
brought forward to support this position is convincing. Instead,
all the evidence to date, when examined carefully, supports the view
that these experiences are contingent on the brain.
At the same time, we should avoid the trap of thinking that the
reports of near-death experience after resuscitation from cardiac
arrest must be either literally true or literally false. This way of
thinking remains caught in the grip of a purely third-person view
of death. Dying and death must also be understood from the firstperson
perspective. We need to stop using accounts of these experiences
to justify either neuroreductionist or spiritualist agendas
and instead take them seriously for what they are—narratives of
first-person experience arising from circumstances that we will all
in some way face.
Chapter 10 targets the view widespread in neuroscience and
“neurophilosophy” that the self is nothing but an illusion created
by the brain. I call this view “neuro-nihilism.” I argue that although
the self is a construction—or rather a process that’s under constant
construction—it isn’t an illusion. A self is an ongoing process that
enacts an “I” and in which the “I” is no different from the process
itself, rather like the way dancing is a process that enacts a dance
and in which the dance is no different from the dancing. I call this
the “enactive” view of the self. This chapter presents a systematic
statement of the enactive view and shows how I-making happens at
multiple biological, psychological, and social levels. The discussion
combines elements from Buddhist philosophy (specifically from the
“Middle Way” or Madhyamaka school), biology, cognitive science,
and the neuroscience of meditation.
Although these chapters are meant to be read in sequence, I’ve
written them so they can be read on their own in any order. So, for
example, if you’re interested in the issue about pure awareness and
the brain, you can jump to chapter 3 and read it straightaway. Or
if you want to know how contemplative approaches are crucial for
thinking about death in our modern biomedical culture, you can go
to chapter 9 (which is also published separately by Columbia University
Press as a short e-book). Throughout, no specialized knowledge
of cognitive science or Western or Indian philosophy is presupposed;
everything is explained along the way.

Although cognitive science and the Indian yogic traditions of philosophy
and meditation form the core of this book, I also draw from
a wide range of other sources—poetry and fiction, Western philosophy,
Chinese Daoism, and personal experience. By weaving together
these diverse sources, I hope to demonstrate a new way to relate science
and what many people like to call spirituality. Instead of being
either opposed or indifferent to each other, cognitive science and the
world’s great contemplative traditions can work together on a common
project—understanding the mind and giving meaning to human
life. Two extreme and regressive tendencies mark our era—the resurgence
of religious extremism and outmoded belief systems, and the
entrenchment of scientific materialism and reductionism. Neither
mindset realizes the value of meditation and the contemplative way
of life as a source of wisdom and firsthand knowledge essential to
a mature cognitive science that can do justice to our entire way of
being—to our spirit, to use an older idiom.5 This book upholds a different
vision. By enriching science with contemplative knowledge
and contemplative knowledge with cognitive science, we can work
to create a new scientific and spiritual appreciation of human life,
one that no longer requires or needs to be contained within either a
religious or an antireligious framework.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Stephen Batchelor xi
Prologue: The Dalai Lama’s Conjecture xvii
Acknowledgments xxvii
Introduction xxxi
1 Seeing: What Is Consciousness? 1
2 Waking: How Do We Perceive? 21
3 Being: What Is Pure Awareness? 67
4 Dreaming: Who Am I? 107
5 Witnessing: Is This a Dream? 139
6 Imagining: Are We Real? 167
7 Floating: Where Am I? 203
8 Sleeping: Are We Conscious in Deep Sleep? 231
9 Dying: What Happens When We Die? 273
10 Knowing: Is the Self an Illusion? 319
Notes 367
Bibliography 409
Index 433

Waking, Dreaming, Being - New light on the self and consciousness from neuroscience, meditation, and philosophy
Columbia University Press
Publishers Since 1893
New York Chichester, West Sussex

Columbia University Press books are printed on permanent
and durable acid-free paper.
This book is printed on paper with recycled content.
Printed in the United States of America
c 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Cover design: Alex Camlin
Cover image: The Buddha, c.1905 (pastel on paper), Redon, Odilon
(1840–1916) / Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France / Giraudon / Bridgeman Images
Book design: Lisa Hamm
DMCA.com Protection Status