Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying
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Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying

An Exploration of Consciousness

Dalai Lama, Francisco J Varela, B. Alan Wallace, Thupten Jinpa

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eBook - ePub

Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying

An Exploration of Consciousness

Dalai Lama, Francisco J Varela, B. Alan Wallace, Thupten Jinpa

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This is an absorbing account of a dialogue between leading Western scientists and the foremost representative of Buddhism today, the Dalai Lama of Tibet.For modern science, the transitional states of consciousness lie at the forefront of research in many fields. For a Buddhist practitioner these same states present crucial opportunities to explore and transform consciousness itself. This book is the account of a historic dialogue between leading Western scientists and the Dalai Lama of Tibet. Revolving around three key moments of consciousness--sleep, dreams, and death--the conversations recorded here are both engrossing and highly readable. Whether the topic is lucid dreaming, near-death experiences, or the very structure of consciousness itself, the reader is continually surprised and delighted.Narrated by Francisco Varela, an internationally recognized neuroscientist, the book begins with insightful remarks on the notion of personal identity by noted philosopher Charles Taylor, author of the acclaimed Sources of Self. This sets the stage for Dr. Jerome Engel, Dr. Joyce MacDougal, and others to engage in extraordinary exchanges with the Dalai Lama on topics ranging from the neurology of sleep to the yoga of dreams.Remarkable convergences between the Western scientific tradition and the Buddhist contemplative sciences are revealed. Dr. Jayne Gackenbach's discussion of lucid dreaming, for example, prompts a detailed and fascinating response from the Dalai Lama on the manipulation of dreams by Buddhist meditators. The conversations also reveal provocative divergences of opinion, as when the Dalai Lama expresses skepticism about "Near-Death Experiences" as presented by Joan Halifax. The conversations are engrossing and highly readable. Any reader interested in psychology, neuroscience, Buddhism, or the alternative worlds of dreams will surely enjoy Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying.

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What’s in a Self?

A History of the Concept of Self

PAST CONFERENCES WITH HIS HOLINESS in the Mind and Life series had taught us that having a professional philosopher conversant with the scientific topic at hand was very useful. One of the main reasons is that in the Tibetan tradition philosophical reflection and discipline are highly valued and cultivated. A Western philosopher among scientists often provided valuable bridges and alternative formulations that were clearer and closer to the Tibetan tradition. For the topic of this conference, Charles Taylor, a well-known philosopher and writer, was an ideal choice. In his recent book Sources of the Self, he had drawn a vivid and insightful picture of how we in the West have come to think about the thing we call the self.3 He launched into the subject with speed and precision.
“I’d like to talk about some of the most important aspects of the Western understanding of the self. To do that I’d like to paint a very broad picture of the concept’s historical development. I think a good place to start would be with the very expression the self. In our history it’s something quite new in the last couple of centuries to say ‘I am a self.’ Before this, we never used the reflexive pronoun self with a definite or indefinite article (such as the or a). The ancient Greeks, the Romans, and people of the Middle Ages never treated it as a descriptive expression. We could say today that there are thirty selves in the room, but our ancestors wouldn’t have said that. They would have perhaps said there are thirty souls in the room or employed some other description, but they wouldn’t have used the word self. I think this reflects something fundamental in our understanding of the human agent, something very deeply embedded in Western culture.
“In the past one would have used the words myself or I indistinctly, but the word self is now used to describe what a human being is. I would never describe myself as ‘I.’ I just use that word to refer to myself. I would say: What am I? I’m a human being; I’m from Canada. I describe myself in that way, but in the twentieth century I might say ‘I am a self.’ The reason I think that’s important is because we choose the descriptive expressions that reflect what we think is spiritually or morally important about human beings. That’s why our ancestors spoke of us as souls; that’s what was spiritually and morally important to them.
“Why did people become uncomfortable with that usage and why did they shift over to using the self ? Part of the story is that they found something spiritually significant in describing us as selves. Certain capacities that we possess to reflect on ourselves and operate on ourselves became morally and spiritually central to Western human life in a crucial way. Historically, we sometimes called ourselves ‘souls’ or ‘intelligences,’ because those concepts were very important. Now we speak of ourselves as ‘selves’ because there are two forms of concentration and reflection on the self which have become absolutely central to our culture, and which are also in tension with each other in modern Western life: self-control and self-exploration.
“Let’s first look at self-control. Plato, the great philosopher of the fourth century B.C.E., spoke of self-mastery. What Plato meant was that one’s reason was in control of one’s desires. If one’s desires were in control, one would not be master of oneself.”
“Very wise!” the Dalai Lama interjected.
“But interestingly, self-control had a very different meaning for Plato than it has in the modern world. For Plato, reason was the capacity in human beings to grasp the order of the universe, the order of the ‘ideas,’ as he called them, that gave shape to the universe. To have reason commanding one’s soul was the same as having the order of the universe commanding one’s soul. If I look at the order of things, my soul comes into order from love of that order. So it was really not control by myself as an agent alone; it was control by the order of the universe. Human beings were not encouraged to reflect inward on the contents of their own souls, but rather to turn outward to the order of things.
“Christianity changed that very profoundly with Saint Augustine in the fourth century C.E. He was influenced by Plato, but he had a very different view. His idea was that we can get close to God by turning inward and coming to examine what we have within ourselves. We discover that at the very heart of things we depend upon the power of God, so we discover the power of God by examining our selves.
“So we had these two spiritual directions: one, Plato, turning outward and the other, Augustine, turning inward, but still with the intention of reaching something beyond ourselves, which is God. A third change comes in the modern West. Take the seventeenth-century philosopher Descartes as an example. Descartes believed in God and he thought of himself as following Augustine, but he understood something quite different by the idea of self-control: the instrumental control that I as an agent can exercise over my own thinking and over my own feeling. I stand in relation to myself as I stand to some instrument that I can use for whatever purpose I want. Descartes reinterpreted human life as the way we concentrate on our selves as instruments. We came to see our bodily existence as a mechanism we can use, and this happened in the great age when a mechanistic construct of the universe arose.
“The modern idea of self-control is very different from Plato, because the order of the universe is no longer important or relevant. It’s not in control. I am no longer even turning inward to get beyond myself to God; instead I have a self-enclosed capacity to order my own thoughts and my own life, to use reason as an instrument to control and order my own life. It becomes very important for me to order my own thinking, to keep it operating in the right way by the right steps, to relate to it as an object domain that I can somehow dominate. This has become absolutely central to Western life. It’s one way we begin to think of ourselves as ‘selves,’ because what’s really important is not the particular content of our feelings or thinking but the power to control it reflexively.”
As was customary in our Mind and Life meetings, presentations were peppered with clarifying questions from the Dalai Lama. In fact, by following the type of questions asked, the reader can gain accurate insight into the gaps between the Tibetan and Western traditions. In this case, he politely interrupted Charles: “Would you say that this self as a controller has the same nature as the body and mind that are being controlled? Or is its nature distinct from those of body and mind?”
“For Descartes, it was the same thing,” came the reply. “But the self came to be seen as something distinct because it doesn’t have any particular content itself. It is just the power to control whatever thought content or bodily content occurs.”

Self-Exploration and Modernity

The discussion turned to self-exploration. “At the same time as Descartes was developing these ideas, another important human capacity appeared in the West: self-exploration. This grew out of the flourishing of Christian spirituality that was inspired by Augustine, which led people to turn to self-examination, examining their souls and examining their lives. Self-examination, too, developed beyond the original Christian form, and in just the last two hundred years it has become an extraordinarily powerful idea, which is now fundamental in the West, that each human being has their own particular, original way of being human.
“There were ancient practices of self-exploration, but they always started from the assumption that we already know what human nature is, and our task is to discover within ourselves what we already know to be true. In the last two hundred years, the assumption is that we know in general what human nature is, but because every human being has their own particular, original way of being human, we therefore have to draw that nature out of ourselves by self-exploration. This has opened a whole range of human capacities which are thought to be very important. How do you explore yourself ? You find what is not yet said, what is not yet expressed, and then find a way of bringing it to expression. Self-expression becomes very significant.
“How do you find the languages of self-expression? In the West in the last two hundred years it’s been thought that people can find the best languages of self-expression in art, whether poetry, visual art, or music. It is a feature of modern Western culture that art has an almost religious significance. In particular, people who have no traditional religious consciousness often have this deep reverence for art. Some of the great performers in the West have an aura around them—famous, beloved, and admired—that is unprecedented in human history.
“So we have these two practices of self-relation: self-control and self-exploration. Because they are both crucially important, we have come to think of ourselves as ‘selves’ and to refer to ourselves that way without reflecting. Both practices belong to the same culture but they are also profoundly at odds, and our civilization is constantly battling itself over this. You see it everywhere you look.
“You see it in the conflict today in the West between people with a very strict, narrow, technological orientation to the world and themselves, and those who oppose them in the name of ecological health and openness to oneself because the technological stance of self-control also closes off self-exploration.
“You get it in attitudes to language. On one side, language is conceived as a pure instrument controlled by the mind, and on the other side are conceptions of language that have led to some of the richest discoveries about human understanding—language as the house of being, language as what opens up the very mystery of the human being.
“What draws self-control and self-exploration together is that they have a common source: a conception of the human being that focuses on the human being in a self-enclosed way. Plato could not grasp the human being outside of the relationship to the cosmos, and Augustine couldn’t grasp the human being outside the relationship to God. But now we have a picture of the human being in which you may also believe in God, you may also want to relate to the cosmos, but you can grasp the human being in a self-enclosed fashion with these two capacities of self-control and self-exploration. It also has meant that perhaps the most central value in the moral and political life of the West is freedom, the freedom to be in control or the freedom to understand who one is and to be one’s real self.”
Once more the Dalai Lama clarified a key issue: “Is there an underlying assumption that self-control necessarily implies a self-existent or autonomous self, whereas self-exploration implies that that’s doubtful?” Charles answered that that was not necessarily the case, that self-exploration also presupposes a self, but opens the possibility that the exploration can go beyond that. The stance of self-control assumes that there is a controlling agency and never calls that into doubt. For instance, Descartes’ philosophy famously starts with the certainty that I, myself, exist. The entire edifice of scientific understanding of the world is built on that certainty.

Science and the Self

After painting this masterful picture of what it is to be a modern self, Charles brought the discussion back to the task at hand by relating these concepts of the self to the scientific tradition, and in particular to certain modes of scientific understanding that had already figured in earlier Mind and Life Conferences. “Take, for instance, the type of cognitive psychology that understands human thinking on the model of the digital computer. This is an extraordinary idea, a crazy idea for some of us, I have to admit, but with immense imaginative power.
“Going back to Descartes himself, the stance towards the self as a domain of instrumentality views the self as a kind of mechanism. The idea that we are, at bottom, just a mechanism is very congenial to this field. At the same time, Descartes put a tremendous emphasis on clear, calculative thinking. In other words, thinking would be clearest when it followed certain formal rules where you could be absolutely certain that each stage was a valid step from which to proceed to the next valid step. The wonderful thing about computers is that they combine this absolutely formal thinking with a mechanistic embodiment. People who are deeply moved by this side of Western culture are endlessly fascinated by computers and therefore are ready to make them the basis of their model of the human mind.
“On the other side are human sciences that grow out of the long tradition of self-exploration. One of the changes that has occurred in language in the West, along with using words like the self, is the development of a very rich language of inward exploration. Expressions like ‘inner depths’ are very much part of our culture— I would love to know if something similar exists in Tibetan. The idea is that each of us has to carry out a very long and deep exploration in ourselves; we think of that which we don’t fully understand as somewhere deep down and we think of these depths as inner. This emerges in another strand of Western scientific discourse, an example of which is psychoanalysis.
“Another direction of self-understanding that belongs to the line of self-exploration in the West today is identity. This is another word that is used today in a quite unprecedented sense. We often talk about discovering ‘my identity’ or we talk about our teenagers having a crisis of identity—of not knowing their identity, and the pain and drama of discovering it. My identity is who I am. In a sense, this is a way of describing myself as a spiritual being because when people talk about what they think their identity is, they’re really talking about the horizon from which they understand what is really important to them and what is vital in human life. In other words, the spiritual horizon of each person is understood as being bound by who that person is. Once again this reflects the search for what is particular to each human being. It is in this domain that explorations of new ways of understanding the human being are taking place in the West.
“This is a point that opens some very interesting and illuminating contact between the ...


  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Copyright
  4. Table of Contents
  5. Acknowledgments
  6. Foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
  7. A Prelude to the Journey
  8. Chapter 1: What’s in a Self?
  9. Chapter 2: Brain’s Sleep
  10. Chapter 3: Dreams and the Unconscious
  11. Chapter 4: Lucid Dreaming
  12. Chapter 5: Levels of Consciousness and Dream Yoga
  13. Chapter 6: Death and Christianity
  14. Chapter 7: What Is Bodily Death?
  15. Chapter 8: Near-Death Experiences
  16. Coda: Reflections on the Journey
  17. Appendix: About the Mind and Life Institute, Acknowledgments
  18. Notes
  19. Glossary
  20. Contributors
  21. Index
  22. About Wisdom Publications
  23. More Wisdom from His Holiness the Dalai Lama
  24. About His Holiness The Dalai Lama
Zitierstile für Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying

APA 6 Citation

Lama, D. (2002). Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying ([edition unavailable]). Wisdom Publications. Retrieved from (Original work published 2002)

Chicago Citation

Lama, Dalai. (2002) 2002. Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying. [Edition unavailable]. Wisdom Publications.

Harvard Citation

Lama, D. (2002) Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying. [edition unavailable]. Wisdom Publications. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Lama, Dalai. Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying. [edition unavailable]. Wisdom Publications, 2002. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.