Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Waking, Being, Dreaming, Introduction

Continuing from this post.

According to Indian yogic tradition, there are three aspects to consciousness: awareness, its sensory and mental contents, and how we identify as a self in relation to the foregoing. The self is a process, not a static entity. It changes depending on our awareness. It is different when awake, falling asleep, dreaming or meditating. Thompson uses the yogic tradition to frame how the above interact.

Meditation comes in two varieties: one-pointed focus and open allowing. Both train the mind to pay attention to momentary fluctuations on contents to get below them to what is called 'pure awareness,' which doesn't identify with any of them. By studying those highly trained in meditation Thompson's goal it to match precise differences in phenomenological descriptions of the different states of awareness and perceptions of self with neuroscientific study.

He then provides an overview of the upcoming chapters. Ch. 1 investigates the nature of consciousness as light or luminosity, and how it manifests in the waking, dreaming, deep sleep and pure awareness states. Ch. 2 focuses on the waking state, how the stream of consciousness is make up of discrete moments depending on shifts in attention, as well as a more slowly changing sense of self that shifts during waking, dreaming and deep sleep. Ch. 3 explores whether pure awareness requires or can transcend a brain. Thompson sees no scientific evidence of the latter, yet doesn't think said consciousness can be completely reduced to materialism, given the impossibility of stepping outside its primacy. Here however he reveals that “fundamental physical phenomenon” are “essentially nonexperiential” (xxxv), with which I strongly disagree given object-oriented ontology, dynamic systems theory and other paradigms. I guess it depends on how we define experience and awareness, to be pursued further when we get to that chapter.

Chs. 4, 5 and 6 are on falling asleep, dreaming and lucid dreaming, and how the sense of self changes withing them. Each of these states has distinct brain activity. Ch. 7 looks at out-of-body experiences. While one perceives their self locus outside the physical body, there is “no evidence that one can have an experience without without one's biological body” (xxxvii). Ch. 8 explores whether some type of consciousness persists in deep, dreamless sleep, with some preliminary sleep science in support. Ch. 9 is on what happens to consciousness when we die. He presents studies of experienced meditaters who can subjectively monitor their consciousness as they die, which has effects on how quickly the physically body deteriorates thereafter. This though is far different than the claim about the body turning into a rainbow body of pure light. It makes sense that if one can slow their breathing, heart rate, metabolism etc. during mediation while alive one can also do so as they die, thereby slowing, but not stopping, the degenerative process. Ch. 10 refutes the notion that the self is an illusion. While it isn't a permanent or static essence, and is dynamically constructed, it is not a mere illusion. I look forward to this chapter, especially in light of the often rancorous debate on free will, detractors assuming the illusion.

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