Recently, Columbia University Press were kind enough to send me a copy of a new release called Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy by eminent cognitive scientist Evan Thompson. The book follows on from a number, in recent years, which have sprung out of the great wellspring of ideas resulting from the Dalai Lama’s interest in neuroscience as something which may offer an empirical proof to the benefits of meditative practice. In fact it was a meeting with Evan Thompson’s mentor, neuroscientist and philosopher Francisco J. Varela, which originated the first week of discussions between scientists and the Dalai Lama in the mid 1980’s. Since then, a number of fascinating books like Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama by Daniel Goleman, and The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation have been published, reaching a wide audience.
Thompson’s own work fits nicely into this new oeuvre of spiritual/scientific non-fiction: his credentials as an academic are exceptional, and his association with the groundbreaking Varela, who basically invented ‘consciousness studies’, well documented. In short, there’s no better candidate alive to undertake a project like this, which seems to be, essentially, cracking the whole nut wide open: what is consciousness, is consciousness dependent on the brain, is the ultimate nature of consciousness non physical, and how do the ancient Indian conceptions of mind tally with current scientific theory? This is a serious publication on all counts, augmented further by a stunning cover illustration from French symbolist painter Odilon Redon.
What follows is a weighty, cerebral book which, though not always easy reading, offers the best attempt so far to marry cutting edge neuroscientific insight with a deep understanding of Indian beliefs about the nature of reality. In the first section ‘Seeing’, Thompson does a wonderful job of unpacking the great Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad, considered to be the first recorded account of the nature of consciousness and its main modes or states. ‘The self dwells closest,’ Thompson writes, ‘at the maximum point of nearness. It’s never there, but always here. How could we possibly find our way around without it?’
Over the next four hundred pages, Thomspon explores ‘the waking state, dreaming, lucid dreaming, deep sleep, dying and death, pure awareness, and the nature of the self,’ as both a meditator and scientist. As with Daniel Goleman’s work, he leads us through brain imagery sessions, ‘attentional blink’ experiments by experimental psychologists, and some of the fundamentals of Varela’s own field of ‘neurophenomenology.’ In some parts the work delves deeply into Eastern philosophy, in others its scientific investigations are equally complex. The world, Thompson tries to explain to us, isn’t out there, as an independent entity beyond the human body. It is created by our moment to moment imaginative perception of it.
Looking at this book critically, there’s much to recommend it. The science is fascinating and Thompson does a skilled job of unpacked complex data in a way that makes sense to a laymen. Equally, the philosophical strands are eloquent, too: he really knows his stuff and his close association with the Dalai Lama gives rise to some crucial insights. Where the book struggles perhaps is something Thompson can hardly be faulted for: the science hasn’t really evolved enough to either prove or disprove some of the key questions of the book and it may be that it never will. Is consciousness wholly dependent on the brain or does it transcend the brain? Thompson asks. It seems quite plausible that no conclusive answer will likely be found.
In the final chapter of the book, Thompson hones in on a question which will be eminently familiar to readers of this blog and is, to my mind, the most striking part of the book. Is the Self an illusion? Traditional Indian teachings like Advaita Vedanta claim so, in fact it’s the basic starting point of non dual thought to claim Tat Tvam Asi, meaning ‘Thou art That.’ Another way of explaining this would be to say that there is no little ‘you’ inside your head, navigating a ‘world’ out there. There is only one thing, the fundamental ground of being, what Hindus refer to as Brahman. Understanding this, in fact, is considered to identical with enlightenment itself and the end of suffering. Evan Thompson, however, appears to give the self a conditional validity. ‘Although I agree… that our sense of self or I-Me-Mine is mentally constructed,’ the author writes, I don’t think it follows that there is no self or that the appearance of the self is nothing but an illusion. Although some illusions are constructions, not all constructions are illusions.’
Thompson has a term for this ancient and, in his view, misguided view of self: he calls it ‘neuro-nihilism. This view, he explains, ‘assumes that were the self to exist, it would have to be an independently real thing or indivisible entity. The problem is that there is no such thing or entity in the brain. So, if it seems to us that we have or are an independently real self, then our self of self must be an illusion created in the brain.’
What then does Thompson think the ‘self’ is and why is he so keen to pursue this point of philosophical difference? ‘The proper conclusion to draw from this state of affairs’, he writes, ‘is not the nihilist one that there is no self whatsoever but rather that the self – the everyday subject of experience and agent of action – is a dependently arisen series of events. More simply stated, the self isn’t a thing or an entity; it’s a process.’
It’s hard to disagree with Thompson’s logic. And yet, to my mind, it’s an argument which doesn’t lead anywhere of any real interest. It seems to me that the principle reason to question the existence of self is because it’s the very belief in a solid, separate self which is identical with psychological suffering. Thus, a wealth of philosophical schools and practices have evolved to deconstruct this mistaken view and bring about the state called nibbāna or mukti, liberation. In the Vedantic tradition, many of these indeed disavow the notion that there is a self of any kind but it seems abundantly clear that they do this as a philosophical tool by which to shift the seeker’s perspective, rather than to claim the self has no existence at all on the relative level.
In the 20th century, the great Indian sage Ramana Maharshi enjoyed using a metaphor about a rope and a snake which seems to aptly sum up the argument. Maharshi compared the belief in a ‘self’ to that of a man spotting a snake on the road in front of him and running away in fright. On the advice of a teacher, the man returns to the source of his fear and notices that what he supposed to be a snake was actually a coil of rope lying on the dirt.
The self appears to be there, Ramana is saying. But just as the snake will be found to be a rope if we look at it carefully, the world will be found to be brahman if we look at it carefully.
One can scarcely disagree with Thompson’s notion that the ‘self’ is a process, rather than a solid, independent entity.’ But the conclusion that ‘enlightenment… doesn’t consist in dismantling our constructed sense of self’ seems like something that anyone in the Advaita community, for example, would take as a given. Certainly, the rope can appear as a snake from a certain perspective: it’s shape is identical. But once the truth has been seen, the necessity to go back and argue whether the rope appearing as snake has conditional validity seems to me of lesser importance.
Excellent interview with Evan Thompson here.