Waking, Dreaming, Being
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Waking, Dreaming, Being

Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy

Evan Thompson

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eBook - ePub

Waking, Dreaming, Being

Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy

Evan Thompson

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About This Book

A renowned philosopher of the mind, also known for his groundbreaking work on Buddhism and cognitive science, Evan Thompson combines the latest neuroscience research on sleep, dreaming, and meditation with Indian and Western philosophy of mind, casting new light on the self and its relation to the brain.

Thompson shows how the self is a changing process, not a static thing. When we are awake we identify with our body, but if we let our mind wander or daydream, we project a mentally imagined self into the remembered past or anticipated future. As we fall asleep, the impression of being a bounded self distinct from the world dissolves, but the self reappears in the dream state. If we have a lucid dream, we no longer identify only with the self within the dream. Our sense of self now includes our dreaming self, the "I" as dreamer. Finally, as we meditate—either in the waking state or in a lucid dream—we can observe whatever images or thoughts arise and how we tend to identify with them as "me." We can also experience sheer awareness itself, distinct from the changing contents that make up our image of the self.

Contemplative traditions say that we can learn to let go of the self, so that when we die we can witness its dissolution with equanimity. Thompson weaves together neuroscience, philosophy, and personal narrative to depict these transformations, adding uncommon depth to life's profound questions. Contemplative experience comes to illuminate scientific findings, and scientific evidence enriches the vast knowledge acquired by contemplatives.

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What Is Consciousness?
What exactly is consciousness? The oldest answer to this question comes from India, almost three thousand years ago.
Long before Socrates interrogated his fellow Athenians and Plato wrote his Dialogues, a great debate is said to have taken place in the land of Videha in what is now northeastern India. Staged before the throne of the learned and mighty King Janaka, the debate pitted the great sage Yājñavalkya against the other renowned Brahmins of the kingdom. The king set the prize at a thousand cows with ten gold pieces attached to each one’s horns, and he declared that whoever was the most learned would win the animals. Apparently Yājñavalkya’s sagacity did not entail modesty, for while all the other priests kept silent, not daring to step forward, Yājñavalkya called out to his student to take possession of the cows. Challenged by eight great Brahmins, one by one, Yājñavalkya demonstrated his superior knowledge. As a favor to the king, he allowed him to ask any question he wanted. In the ensuing dialogue, told in the “Great Forest Teaching” (Bhadārayaka Upaniad)—a text dating from the seventh century B.C.E. and the oldest of the ancient Indian scriptures called the Upanishads—Yājñavalkya gave the first recorded account of the nature of consciousness and its main modes or states.1
The dialogue begins with the king, knowing exactly where he wants to lead the sage, asking a simple question: “What light does a person have?” Or, as it can also be translated: “What is the source of light for a person here?”
“The sun,” replies the sage. “By the light of the sun, a person sits, goes about, does his work, and returns.”
“And when the sun sets,” asks the king, “then what light does he have?”
“He has the moon as his light,” comes the reply.
“And when the sun has set and the moon has set, then what light does a person have?”
“Fire,” answers the sage.
Persisting, the king asks what light a person has when the fire goes out, and he gets in reply the clever answer, “Speech.” Yājñavalkya explains: “Even when one cannot see one’s own hand, when speech is uttered, one goes toward it.” In pitch-black darkness, a voice can light your way.
The king, however, still isn’t satisfied and demands to know what light there is when speech has fallen silent. In the absence of sun, moon, fire, and speech, what source of light does a person have?
“The self (ātman),” Yājñavalkya answers. “It is by the light of the self that he sits, goes about, does his work, and returns.”
This answer makes plain that the dialogue has been moving backward, from the distant, outer, and visible to the close, inner, and invisible. Nothing is brighter than the sun, or the moon at night, but they reside far away, at an unbridgeable distance. Fire lies closer to hand; it can be tended and cultivated. Speech, however, is produced by the mind. Darkness can’t negate the peculiar luminosity of language, the power of words to light up things and to close the distance between you and another. Yet speech is still external in its being as physical sound. The sun, moon, fire, and speech—we know each one by means of outer perception. The self, however, can’t be known through outer perception, because it resides at the source of perception. It isn’t the perceived, but that which lies behind the perceiving. The self dwells closest, at the maximum point of nearness. It’s never there, but always here. How could we possibly find our way around without it? How could outer sources of light reveal anything to us, if they weren’t themselves lit up by the self? And yet, precisely because the self is so intimate, it seems impossible to have any clear view of it and to know what it is.
Finally, the king is able to ask the question he has all along been aiming toward: “What is the self?
Yājñavalkya answers that the self (ātman) is the inner light that is the person (purua). This light, which consists of knowledge, resides within the heart, surrounded by the vital breath. In the waking state, the person travels this world; in sleep, the person goes beyond this world. The person is his own light and is self-luminous.
As this answer unfolds, it becomes clear that the “light” Yājñavalkya is talking about is what we would call “consciousness.” Consciousness is like a light; it illuminates or reveals things so they can be known. In the waking state, consciousness illuminates the outer world; in dreams, it illuminates the dream world.
It’s here, in Yājñavalkya’s answer to the king’s question about the self, that we find the first map of consciousness in written history.
Yājñavalkya explains to the king that a person has two dwellings—this world and the world beyond. Between them lies the borderland of dreams where the two worlds meet. When we rest in the intermediate state of dreams, we see both worlds. The dream state serves as an entryway to the other world, and as we move through it we see both bad things and joyful things.
In the waking state, we see the outer world lit up by the sun. Yet we also see things when we dream. Where do they come from, and what makes them visible? What is the source of the light illuminating things in the dream state?
Yājñavalkya explains that in the dream state we take materials from the entire world—this world and the other one—break them down, and put them back together again. Although the dream state lies between the two worlds, it’s a state of our own making. The person creates everything for himself in dreams and illuminates it all with his own radiance:
When he falls asleep, he takes with him the material of this all-containing world, himself breaks it up, himself re-makes it. He sleeps by his own radiance, his own light. Here the person becomes lit by his own light.
There are no chariots, nor chariot-horses, nor roads there, but he creates chariots, chariot-horses and roads. There are no pleasures, no enjoyments, nor delights there, but he creates pleasures, enjoyments and delights. There are no ponds, nor lotus-pools, nor rivers there, but he creates ponds, lotus-pools and rivers. For he is a maker.2
Like a great fish swimming back and forth between the banks of a wide river, the person alternates between waking and dreaming. Yet the self never attaches fully to either state, as the fish never touches the riverbanks when it swims between them.
There’s also a third state, the state of deep and dreamless sleep. Here the person rests quietly with no desires:
As a hawk or eagle, tired after flying around in the sky, folds its wings and is carried to its roosting-place, even so the person runs to the state where he desires no desire and dreams no dream. …
As a man closely embraced by a beloved wife knows nothing outside, nothing inside, so the person, closely embraced by the self of wisdom, knows nothing outside, nothing inside. That is the form of him in which his desires are fulfilled, with the self as his desire, free from desire, beyond sorrow.3
These images present deep and dreamless sleep as a sought-for state of peace and bliss. Conventional characteristics and burdens drop away: “Here a father is not a father, a mother is not a mother … a thief is not a thief, a murderer not a murderer … a monk not a monk, an ascetic not an ascetic.”4 Instead, we rest in the embrace and wisdom of the cosmic or universal self (ātman), which is free from desire and without fear.
If deep sleep is peaceful and blissful, does this mean we’re somehow conscious in deep sleep? Is awareness present, or is deep sleep the oblivion of awareness? Put another way, is deep sleep a state of consciousness, like waking and dreaming, or is it a state where consciousness is absent, as most neuroscientists think today?
Yājñavalkya’s description of deep and dreamless sleep—and many later Indian interpretations of what he meant—implies that consciousness pervades deep sleep. Consider the following rich but enigmatic passage: “Though then he does not see, yet seeing he does not see. There is no cutting off of the seeing of the seer, because it is imperishable. But there is no second, no other, separate from himself, that he might see.”5
This passage seems to be saying that although there are no longer any dream images to be seen (“he does not see”), there remains a kind of awareness in dreamless sleep (“yet seeing he does not see”). As the sun cannot stop shining, so the self cannot lose all consciousness; specifically, it cannot lose the basic luminosity of awareness (“there is no cutting off of the seeing of the seer”). In deep sleep, however, this awareness doesn’t witness any object separate from itself—no waking world of perceptible things and no dream world of images (“there is no second, no other, separate from himself, that he might see”). So the awareness here must be of a subtle and subliminal kind, devoid of images and desires, while peaceful and at ease.
In later texts of the Upanishads, as well as other Indian philosophical works, dreamless sleep is described as lacking the obvious or gross subject/object duality that’s present in the waking and dreaming states. In the waking state, the subject appears as the body and the object appears as what we perceive. In dreams, the subject appears as the dream ego or self-within-the-dream and the object as the dream world. In deep sleep, consciousness doesn’t differentiate this way between subject and object, knower and known. Instead, it rests as one quiescent “mass.” Consciousness withdraws into itself while its function of being directed toward external objects lies dormant. Yet this dormancy isn’t a total loss or oblivion of awareness; it’s a peaceful absorption that offers a foretaste of the lucid bliss belonging to the self-realized consciousness liberated from illusion.
Later philosophers belonging to the Yoga and Vedānta schools would also offer the following argument in support of the idea that consciousness continues in deep sleep: if there were no awareness at all in deep and dreamless sleep, then you couldn’t have the memory, “I slept well,” immediately upon waking up. Memory is the recollection of past experience; when you remember something, you recall an earlier experience and you recall it as your own. In remembering you slept peacefully, you recall something from deep sleep, so that state must have been a subtly conscious one. We’ll examine this argument in light of the neuroscience of consciousness in chapter 8.
Yājñavalkya’s progression from the waking state to the dreaming state to the deep-sleep state recapitulates his earlier progression from the sun, moon, fire, and speech to the self. Both narratives move increasingly away from what is outer and obvious to what is inner and subtle. Both trace the visibility of something in the waking and dreaming states back to its source in the basic luminosity of consciousness.
We’ve now uncovered an important difference between Western cognitive science and the Indian yogic philosophies. Cognitive science focuses on the contrast between the presence and the absence of consciousness—for example, between being awake and being under anesthesia, or between being able to report seeing a stimulus, such as the image of a face, and not being able to report seeing it, even though you show some other kind of behavioral or brain response to its presence. The Indian yogic traditions, however, focus on the contrast between coarse or gross consciousness and subtle consciousness—for example, between waking perception of outer material objects and subliminal awareness in deep sleep.
From a meditative perspective, consciousness comprises a continuum of levels of awareness, ranging from gross to subtle. Gross consciousness is waking sense perception, which tells you about things outside you, like the words you’re reading now, and gives you the feeling of your body from within. Dreaming is subtler because you withdraw from the outside world and create what you see and feel on the basis of memory and imagination. Deep sleep is subtler still because it’s consciousness without mental images. Subtle aspects of consciousness are also said to manifest in certain states of deep meditation where all overt thinking and perceiving cease, as well as at the time of death. These subtler or deeper aspects of consciousness aren’t apparent to the ordinary untrained mind; they take a high degree of meditative awareness to discern.
In Western philosophy of mind, it’s common to distinguish between two meanings of the word “conscious.” On the one hand, we can say you’re conscious of something when it appears to you some way in your experience. Feeling a pain or having a visual experience of the color red are two standard examples philosophers give of a conscious experience. As they say, there is “something it’s like” for you to see color or to feel pain. In this sense, a mental or bodily state is conscious when there is something it’s like for the subject to be in that state. Philosophers call this concept of consciousness “phenomenal consciousness” (“phenomenal” here means how things seem or appear in experience). On the other hand, we can also ...

Table of contents

  1. Cover 
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright
  4. Dedication
  5. Epigraph
  6. Contents 
  7. Foreword
  8. Prologue: The Dalai Lama’s Conjecture
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. Introduction
  11. 1. Seeing: What Is Consciousness?
  12. 2. Waking: How Do We Perceive?
  13. 3. Being: What Is Pure Awareness?
  14. 4. Dreaming: Who Am I?
  15. 5. Witnessing: Is This a Dream?
  16. 6. Imagining: Are We Real?
  17. 7. Floating: Where Am I?
  18. 8. Sleeping: Are We Conscious in Deep Sleep?
  19. 9. Dying: What Happens When We Die?
  20. 10. Knowing: Is the Self an Illusion?
  21. Notes
  22. Bibliography
  23. Index
Citation styles for Waking, Dreaming, Being

APA 6 Citation

Thompson, E. (2014). Waking, Dreaming, Being ([edition unavailable]). Columbia University Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/773905/waking-dreaming-being-self-and-consciousness-in-neuroscience-meditation-and-philosophy-pdf (Original work published 2014)

Chicago Citation

Thompson, Evan. (2014) 2014. Waking, Dreaming, Being. [Edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/773905/waking-dreaming-being-self-and-consciousness-in-neuroscience-meditation-and-philosophy-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Thompson, E. (2014) Waking, Dreaming, Being. [edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/773905/waking-dreaming-being-self-and-consciousness-in-neuroscience-meditation-and-philosophy-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Thompson, Evan. Waking, Dreaming, Being. [edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press, 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.