A Review of Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy

By Butler, Jesse | Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Annual 2019 | Go to article overview

A Review of Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy


Butler, Jesse, Journal of Buddhist Ethics


Evan Thompson's Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy offers a compelling synthesis of ideas brought forth through one of the great cross-cultural confluences of our time, i.e. the comparative and collaborative interaction between the experiential insights of contemplative traditions in Eastern philosophy and the empirical investigations of the mind through contemporary science, thus paving the way for what Thompson describes as "a new and unprecedented kind of self-knowledge--a way of knowing ourselves that unites cognitive science and the contemplative view of the mind from within" (xix). Thompson is a philosopher who is exceptionally well-situated to facilitate such a unification through his own life history and professional background. A major contributor to contemporary philosophy of mind through his influential work on embodiment, perception, consciousness, and other related topics, Thompson has been at the forefront of cross-cultural and interdisciplinary study of the mind for decades. He was a research partner with the late Chilean neuroscientist Francisco Varela, noted for his pioneering work in neurophenomenogy, and, relatedly, has contributed to the Mind and Life Institute's efforts to develop the field of contemplative neuroscience through interactive dialogue between Buddhists (especially Tibetan Buddhists, via the Dalai Lama) and scientists. In this latest synthesis of his work, Thompson develops a comprehensive perspective on the nature of consciousness and selfhood that unifies a rich array of investigation and experience across waking life, meditation, various states of dreaming, and the inevitable human confrontation with death.

The book is written such that each chapter can be read independently, with the penultimate chapter on death having been previously published as a stand-alone short e-book. While this results in some repetition of ideas across different chapters, the book flows quite well overall. Thompson's prose is remarkably clear and engaging throughout, conjoining accessible exposition and nuanced comparative analysis with careful philosophical theory-building that culminates in an insightful framework for understanding the self in terms of the enactive processes of embodied conscious experience. In this review I will outline the main topics Thompson covers in his book and further analyze the place of embodiment in his enactive account of selfhood.

Thompson begins his exploration of consciousness with the Upanishads, which he describes as "humanity's first truly philosophical work" and "oldest recorded map of consciousness" (18-19). In contrast to the common contemporary view of consciousness as an essentially waking phenomenon that is lost in states of dreamless sleep, Thompson draws upon the Upanishads to develop a multi-tiered framework for understanding consciousness across waking life, dream states, dreamless sleep, and an underlying non-dual state of blissful awareness that, according to the Upanishads, comprises the ultimate fabric of reality. Rather than embracing the Upanishadic conception of consciousness as the primary foundation of reality, however, Thompson follows the shift in Buddhism toward conceiving of consciousness as dependently arising through the changing conditions of "name" (nama) and "form" (rupa). He then proceeds to engage various insights and observations across multiple domains of Buddhist philosophy and meditation (e.g., the Abhidharma, Theravada Vipassana mediation, the Yogacara school, and Tibetan Buddhism), in conjunction with the neurophenomenological search for the neural correlates of consciousness through both first-person (e.g. meditation) and third-person (e.g., brain-scanning technology) methods, weaving together an understanding of our existence as conscious beings that neither reduces consciousness to the physical nor decouples consciousness from our embodied presence in the world. Instead, Thompson conceives of consciousness and embodiment as mutually inter-dependent elements that prop each other up, ontologically speaking, while granting epistemological primacy to phenomenological experience and the contributions it can make to ongoing contemporary investigation into the conscious mind. …

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