Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Waking, Dreaming, Being by Evan Thompson

Also check out the ongoing IPS discussion thread on this book.

Foreword by Stephen Batchelor

He begins by noting how the word meditation has changed in response to the influx of Asiatic religion into the West, and its countercultural appropriation thereof. It used to mean reflective thought but now it relates to a spiritual practice, usually sitting quietly still. Same for the word mindfulness. And yet the West had tended toward the secularization of this practice, divorcing it from its religious Buddhist underpinnings. Westerners are more interested in its practical results in terms of reduced stress, a more balanced personality, lower blood pressure and so on.

This has also led to Buddhists reconsidering some of their religious tenets, like reincarnation. Should it be considered a relic of its religious history? Should westerners include some of the ethical injunctions from its religious roots? And what of the scientific study of meditation? Thompson tries to bridge the gap between first-person accounts of spiritual experiences and how they manifest in 3rd person scientific studies. Each perspective can learn from and modify the other through 2nd person philosophical dialogue and collaboration.


During a conference the Dalai Lama wonders aloud if states of consciousness, including the most subtle pure awareness, require a physical basis. This appears to be a new speculation on his part, and particularly striking because Tibetan Buddhism typically asserts that reincarnation is a fact and these refined states transcend the physical. He unabashedly admits that he doesn't know if such states require a body, no doubt shocking some of his more traditional flock.

Many scientists dismiss both the notion of pure awareness and that any awareness could exist without a body. Whereas many contemplatives scoff at the idea that such states are biologically based. Thompson doesn't find either view attractive. We should take seriously Buddhism's ancient study of the mind and consciousness, as well as western psychology and neuroscience. Both fill in the gaps in the others' knowledge base.

Thompson strives to remain open to such cross-paradigm challenges, to examine the empirical data from all sides and see where it leads. This seems sort of naive though, as if the data itself is objective and all one need do is observe the obvious, that there is no subjective or contextual flavoring or bias. It's akin to the direct experience of pure awareness, as if such experience in itself settles the question of the nature of reality. To put it in other terms, it's as if empirical actuality is the final arbiter instead of the transcendental witness consciousness, two sides of the same epistemic fallacy. Communally validated experiential evidence of both kinds is taken as given and accurate, as if it can be separated from the speculative interpretations.

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