Saturday, February 28, 2015

Waking, Dreaming, Being, chapter ten concluding

Continuing from this post:

Thompson offers an interesting recontextualization of subtle energy via the bio-electrical charges produced by cells and their organization, including the neuro-network of the brain. This is an embodied version of prana or chi that provided a material substrate for consciousness. Our evolved neuro-structure transforms from being a self-specifying system into one that is self-designating. The latter can designate itself as a self that can conceive its own subjectivity. This capacity is limited to humans, apes, dolphins, Asian elephants and the Eurasian magpie. (Remember the magpie?) This capacity is paired with the ability to see oneself in the third-person perspective. However it is only developed in intersubjecetive relation to another and not inherent in itself. Which of course reminds me of Mark Edwards' work on the so-called exterior developmentalists like Vygotsky and Mead. (See his three-part series “The depth of the exteriors” that begins here.)

The above capacity of called self-projection which gives rise to a historical self that Damasio calls the narrative self and phenomenologists called the autobiographical self. We can conceive of ourselves as a unique identity that exists through time. Specific brain areas are activated when the narrative self is functioning, particularly the frontal and medial temporal-parietal that relate to planning and memory respectively. The default network is also involved, which happens when outward-related tasks are low. Hence when meditation commences one immediately becomes consciously focused on this stream of self-consciousness. It also teaches one to observe this stream of I-making from a background awareness, which I've long proposed is the witness of the third-person perspective unlinked from attachment to objects, including the narrative self sense.

Brain studies of advanced meditators showed that they tend to reduce the narrative self focus and increase a more experiential, present-centered, body-based self-awareness. They don't completely delete the self-projection of the narrative self but detach from identifying with it, given that one cycles through the different selves during the process. The longer and adept the training, the longer one can remain in a present meta-awareness. The latter might be more akin to a present-centered, first-person perspective of “bare sentience or phenomenal consciousness” (362). Also recall the previous discussion of the various forms of ipseity, like this post and following.

Thompson then brings in Candrakirti and a corrective to the Yogacara on defining the self. As notes above, the self is neither identical with nor separate from the aggregates. The self is constructed co-dependently on conditions, one such condition being self-designation. Recall above this is a capacity of the narrative self. The latter is not in itself an illusion or nonexistent; that only arises when it is takes as a totally abstract, permanent, independent and disembodied existence. The self-designating self can and does have the capacity to interrelate and integrate the other aggregated selves. Its a process that includes both achieving meditative phenomenal consciousness combined with “acute analytical insight” (365).

I'd like to close with Thompson's own closing paragraph:

“What I take from this perspective—and here I state my own view and make no claim that any other Indian yogic philosopher would agree—is that 'enlightenment' or 'liberation'—at least in any sense that I would want to affirm—doesn't consist in dismantling our constructed sense of self, as may happen in certain meditative states. Rather, in consists in wisdom that includes not being taken in by the appearance of the self as having independent existence while that appearance nonetheless is still there and performing its important I-making function. Nor does 'enlightenment' or 'liberation' consist in somehow abandoning all I-making or I-ing—all self-individuating and self-appropriating activity—though it does include knowing how to inhabit that activity without being taken in by the appearance of there being an independent self that's performing the activity and controlling what happens. We could say that the wisdom includes a kind of awakening—a waking up to the dream of independent existence without having to wake up from the dreaming” (366).

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