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Edward Berge has been studying all things integral since 1998. He graduated summa cum laude with a BA in English Literature from Arizona State University and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa National Honor Society. By profession he has been a massage therapist and is a retired professional liability insurance underwriter. By avocation he is dancer, researcher, writer, and art and literary lover and critic. He is an active participant in the Integral Postmetaphysical Spirituality forum and blogs at Progressive Participatory Enaction.

Review of Evan Thompson's "Waking, Dreaming, Being"

Edward Berge

The following is edited from the Integral Postmetaphysical Spirituality (IPS) forum thread on the topic.

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 counter-cultural 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 third person scientific studies. Each perspective can learn from and modify the other through second-person philosophical dialogue and collaboration.


Evan Thompson
Evan Thompson

During a conference the Dalai Lama (DL) 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.[1] Thompson will address this in Chapter 3.


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 compare 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. Chapter One investigates the nature of consciousness as light or luminosity, and how it manifests in the waking, dreaming, deep sleep and pure awareness states. Chapter Two focuses on the waking state, how the stream of consciousness is made 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. Chapter Three 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 (OOO), 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.

Chapter Four, Five and Six are on falling asleep, dreaming and lucid dreaming, and how the sense of self changes within them. Each of these states has distinct brain activity. Chapter Seven 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 one's biological body” (xxxvii). Chapter Eight explores whether some type of consciousness persists in deep, dreamless sleep, with some preliminary sleep science in support. Chapter Nine is on what happens to consciousness when we die. He presents studies of experienced meditators who can subjectively monitor their consciousness as they die, which can affect how quickly the physical 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, then one can also do so as they die, thereby slowing, but not stopping, the degenerative process. Chapter Ten 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, which assumes the illusion.

Chapter One, Seeing: What is Consciousness

He sets the stage with an ancient dialogue in the Upanishads. Our consciousness is the light of knowledge of both the outer (gross, waking) and inner (subtle, dreaming) worlds. There is also a third state, that of dreamless sleep. Consciousness remains, yet without any objects, inner or outer. It is a restful and peaceful state. And yet there is a fourth, not technically a state, just pure (causal) awareness that sees through and underlies all the other states.

The sacred syllable OM (AUM) represents and enacts the three states above via its intonation. The silence before and after the intonation, and/or the integration of all the syllables, is the fourth, “the nondual source of the phenomenal universe that's also identical to the transcendent self” (11). This is consciousness per se in Ken Wilber's (2006, p. 66) terminology, the Self as pure awareness and cause of all phenomenon. In the continuing Upanishads tale mentioned above, this consciousness goes on after physical death and is reborn anew, until such time as we give up all desire and rebirth to dwell as one “with the infinite ground of all being” (13).

With the stage set in this mythic tale, apparently the first known map of consciousness, Thompson now proceeds to dive deeper. He starts by defining consciousness as “that which is luminous and has the capacity of knowing” (13). That is, its luminosity reveals or makes manifest that which appears to perception, while its knowing means the ability to apprehend what appears. These qualities of consciousness express through all the states mentioned above, as well as meditative states. To explain how this is so he distinguishes three aspects of consciousness: awareness, its contents and how this relates to a self.

But wait, there is another quality to consciousness: reflexiveness. In the process of lighting and apprehending objects it reflexively lights itself. And yet it is pre-reflective, before reflection or introspection. Which reminds me of this statement from the IPS Thompson thread:

"But whereas the Advaitin takes this minimal selfhood to be a transcendental witness consciousness, I think it's open to us to maintain that it is my embodied self or bodily subjectivity, or what phenomenologists would call my pre-personal lived body. In this way, I think we can remove the Advaita conception of dreamless sleep from its native metaphysical framework and graft it onto a naturalist conception of the embodied mind."

It remains to be seen how he'll recontextualize this state as a more naturalistic conception from a transcendent and metaphysical consciousness that is source for all phenomenon. Especially so in light of the comment in the prologue on taking phenomenal experience of said consciousness by adepts steeped in such metaphysical traditions as evidence in itself.[1]

Chapter Two, Waking: How Do We Perceive?

While the Upanishads are unequivocal that consciousness is the infinite ground of being, (some) Buddhists contest this with the notion that consciousness is contingent and dependent on conditions. And yet it also has its own causal influence on conditions in an interdependent relationship of experience. But this seems to only explore human consciousness as one side of this experience, not the non-conscious experience of non-human actants. According to object-oriented ontology, even a non-living object still has some response-mechanism/experience to/of other objects, though that could hardly be called consciousness in the sense herein described. I sense a correlationism that privileges human consciousness as a necessary prerequisite to experience.[2]

Binocular rivalry is where two different images are presented to each eye. Each eye will alternately see the whole image. Studies of this phenomenon have shown that different levels of brain processing are involved, from basic sensory apparatus to higher areas that distinguish object categories. However the entire process is distributed, so that “visual awareness cannot be thought of as a end product of such an hierarchical series of processing stages” (28). Which of course reminds me of some of Luhmann's research on the different interdependent aspects of a human being, that our bodies, emotions and mind have their own autonomy that indeed structurally couple with each other in our assemblage, yet there is no hierarchical transcend and subsume in this distributed network.

And yet Thompson asks if there isn't something that coordinates the different brain areas in visual perception. When one become conscious of one image or the other, there is brain oscillation gamma wave synchrony of the various areas. And yet simultaneously there are also slower brain waves that function to shape gamma wave synchrony within discrete, momentary and successive fluctuations. In short, the synchrony focuses on the content and the discretion on the context.

Thompson brings in Abhidharma to describe this phenomenon philosophically. Consciousness appears to be in a continuous stream, yet it is in fact broken into discontinuous, discrete moments, each of which is conditioned on a variety of contextual factors. Hence there is no unfettered bare awareness per se, since each momentary experience is so conditioned. That is, consciousness is always awareness of something. There is a primary awareness but it arises with the conditioned mental factors. The process proceeds in 5 phases: contact, feeling, perception, intention, attention. Some Buddhists call these phases the 'aggregates.'[3] Thompson wonders if we can measure the gaps between these discrete, phasic moments. He notes that Abhidharma did so observationally, but it was caught up in metaphysical considerations of timeless and dimensionless gaps that colored the results. So we move on to neuroscientific study of the phenomenon.

The referenced experiments showed that we tend to perceive a stimulus when there is a peak in a brain wave cycle, and not so when it hits a trough. That is, much like the longer waking and sleeping cycle, brain wave cycles that happen in milliseconds have a similar effect on perception. These experiments support the hypothesis of discrete, phasic moments. This holds true even for sustained attention of the meditative type. It's true that such meditative focus increases our ability to sustain attention, yet it is not continuous and alternates in millisecond intervals consistent with brain wave function.[4]

Further studies showed that adept meditators have better access and discernment to shorter millisecond stimuli. That is, their training allowed them to not only perceive stimulation of shorter duration, which non-meditators could do unconsciously, but to consciously report on and process it with the other aggregates. Thus our experience is what we attend to, and meditation increases to what we can attend. But it's a long stretch to say that we can attend to all of reality per se and know it directly and fully given heightened and developed attentional skill.

What happens during the gaps? How do we organize the gaps and the perceptions into a continuous whole? How does this affect changes in consciousness from waking, dreaming and deep sleep? Theravada posits that there were active and passive forms of consciousness, and that the latter type are present in deep sleep and the gaps between perception. It can also retain or store experience from its active complement. But like brain waves, this passive consciousness alternates with the active type and the two forms are not present simultaneously. Yogacara adds an afflicted ego-consciousness to the process. The I projects its own desires onto the storehouse consciousness giving the illusion of a permanent and static entity. It also creates the subject-object duality, as if both were enduring and independent of the other. The ego sees a continual process whereas there are only the fleeting and discrete moments noted earlier.

At this point Thompson distinguishes between transitive consciousness, which takes an object, and intransitive, which is an overall creature consciousness distinguished from unconsciousness and not dependent on an outside object. It's what's available to the whole range of one's experience. There is also self-consciousness, how it feels to be the owner of experience. As we've seen above, Yogacara sees this as an illusion. Thompson will explore this topic later, showing that while the ego-sense is not static or permanent it is not an illusion. However the Yogacara view does open the discussion to this passive, more global background consciousness that permeates the different transitive states, as well as how the sense of self arises and conditions our experience. Neuroscience is approaching the same distinctions from another angle.

Future chapters focuses more on the intransitive creature consciousness, and how it and the sense of self changes in waking, dreaming, deep sleep and meditation. The next chapter is on pure awareness, one of my favorite topics.

Chapter Three, Being: What Is Pure Awareness?

He discusses a study of long-term meditators doing compassion meditation, who generated highly synchonized gamma waves. These are associated with alert and clear conscious awareness. A key ingredient of this sort of meditation is that it combines a focus on an individual or group with a strong affect or feeling of helping said focus. This reminds me of Lakoff's “real reason,” where the body and emotions provide the basis for abstract thought, and keeping these 'in mind' tames the abstract mind from dissociating into a purely ideal or absolute realm.

Thompson then says that the above style of mediation is of the open monitoring variety, where one does not select an object of focus but one remains open and attentive to whatever arises. I don't see how compassion mediation is of this sort, given its focus on people as objects of compassion, generated compassion being another object of focus. But letting that go for now, this sort of meditation trains one to distinguish the awareness itself from the objects it takes by noticing how the objects arise and then dissolve.

Thompson returns to a theme at the beginning, the conference where the DL wonders if even pure awareness requires a physical basis. Years later at another conference, Thompson had another opportunity with the DL to inquire about this again. At this conference Thompson is presenting on the divergence between Tibetan Buddhism and western science on the physical basis of pure awareness, the former denying it while the latter reduces it. An interesting point is that of the experiential gap: how can experience arise from a physical substrate that has no experience? This of course assumes that the physical has no experience, something questioned earlier.

The Buddhists rationalize that consciousness must be limitless and free from a body because it can see itself without an object and can imagine things far beyond the limitations of space-time. Thompson goes into their thinking on how this is so but it's literally metaphysical to the core. The bottom line is that there is an absolute realm and a relative realm and they have two completely different natures. This is echoed by Wilber when he said in Excerpt G that these two realms are “of radically different orders.”

Since the DL confirms this view in a recent book, what about his earlier speculation that pure awareness requires a physical basis? Thompson quotes a DL book claiming that in Vajrayana “these two are different aspects of an indivisible reality” (83). So Thompson asks the DL about this again. The DL responds that three things must be considered: the investigation of reality, Buddhist concepts based on the former, and Buddhist practice. The conference dialogs concern the first, the others are “Buddhists' private business” (84). Which of course seems rather odd, since all three are Thompson's business in this investigation.

As to the first, the DL says that Buddhism is much more concerned with investigating the internal phenomena of the mind, since this is where peace and equanimity can be obtained. Knowledge of physical reality is useful but of secondary importance. I'd say this is why Buddhism has held on to metaphysical beliefs that could have easily been remedied by science of the outer kind, and hopefully it will with Thompson's investigations. The DL also said that there is dispute between the different schools on the nature of the mind so one much choose the best and most comprehensive, which is of course Vajrayana. I'm reminded of kela's IPS posts on Vajrayana's inclusivist model, much akin to Wilber. The DL qualifies that while consciousness might require a physical basis, the more refined states of consciousness have more refined and subtle energy bodies, again akin to Excerpt G.[5] But even all the above subtle states are still the “gross level of mind” (85). In the dying process all that dross fades away and one is left with a clear light state beyond any body and “free of defilement” (86), presumably all those other states contingent on a defiled body. And here we go off into the metaphysical two realms “of radically different orders.” This clear light state can be experienced without dying for advanced meditators, which of course begs the question that they're still having an alleged non-physical state in a non-alleged alive physical body.

Thompson thinks that the reported experiences of such a state is authentic from a phenomenological standpoint, but that it is filtered through the cultural tradition of Buddhism. While he leaves open the extent to which the actual experience can be influenced by the traditional context, he acknowledges that it indeed can be. He also wonders to what extent such states can indeed tap into universal aspects of consciousness, as do I. Hence his work and the likes of Lakoff and many others. But even these universal aspects are due to our embodiment, not some absolute and metaphysical realm beyond. Thompson though does acknowledge, like kela, that mystical empiricism cannot in itself be the final arbiter: “I see no way that direct experience on its own could show or establish that pure awareness is independent of the brain” (90).

So what does neuroscience have to say about this pure awareness? Does contentless pure awareness have some content after all?

In discussing the inadequacy of claiming consciousness doesn't require a physical body, Thompson makes an interesting distinction. He notes that forces and fields are physical but not material (95). This harkens back to the DL admitting that most states of consciousness have a physical basis, though some of those states may be very subtle, energetic, physical bodies. Nonetheless, the DL as well as Tibetan Buddhism generally still maintain that pure awareness can exist without a material and physical energetic basis.

The DL tries to get out of the phenomenological trap Thompson describes by noting that while one is in pure awareness they don't know they are, since that knowing requires conceptualization, which is absent in this pure state. After one has this experience they can look back and reflect that they were in it, so in that sense it is a third-person perspective. Thompson however does not buy this circular logic, finding them self-fulfilling prophesies based on one's traditional interpretations. And to date there is no physical evidence that can detect a pure awareness devoid of a physical body.

And yet Thompson does accept the primacy of direct experience. Science cannot detect consciousness like it can detect temperature. That is, the scientific observer cannot step outside his own consciousness to measure it. Science can measure the neural correlates of consciousness but not consciousness per se. Science can measure such correlates via verbal reports and/or actions performed by those being measured, showing that they have conscious access to such experiences. The best we can do is infer based on those experiments.

But we can also infer consciousness based on empathy. We instinctively know what it feels like another to be sad or happy because we have those experiences ourselves. We feel though our embodied emotions, and have come to rely on their veracity though generations of interaction with environments that challenged our very survival. This kind of direct experience is prerequisite to the scientific method itself, though often unconsciously and therefore not given sufficient weight. But this reinforces the claim that consciousness is embodied, not metaphysically beyond it. Thompson sums up: “We can never step outside consciousness to see how it measures up to something else, and consciousness never appears or shows up apart from some context of embodiment” (100).

Given the above we cannot realistically infer that consciousness is the primary reality out of which everything is composed. Thompson sees consciousness as embodied, embedded and enactive within an environment. While consciousness might belong to us specifically it belongs to, or is enacted with, this overall physical and material matrix. Consciousness and embodiment occur together in mutual entailment.

He asserts that he subscribes to philosophical emergentism, in that consciousness is a natural phenomenon, its complexity arising in concert with the complexity of its physical basis. Consciousness can also then affect its physical basis in a two-way exchange. However we can come to know how it is a natural process, so its not mysterious. He parts ways with emergentism in its scientific claim that physical being of lower orders is not experiential, hence no consciousness. He therefore thinks we need “a radical revision of of our scientific concepts of nature of physical being” (104). This is similar to my earlier comments about how OOO and dynamic systems theory sees any physical object as having some form of 'experience.'

In this endeavor he rejects both dualism and pan-psychism. He says the latter assumes experience down to protons, which he just can't see. I think he needs to expand his notion of experience to mean, like OOO, how an object responds to others. Protons most certainly do that, yet we can't compare that with human experience. Still, it is a form of experience under this expanded definition. This fits nicely with his attempt to expand the nondual notion of consciousness and the physical to include this expanded notion of experience. This after all is in line with his project of neurophenomenology, to use both inner reports with neuroscientific experiment to discover where the twain shall meet.

Chapter Four, Dreaming: Who Am I?

He begins with differentiating the dream ego from the dream self. The former is embedded in the dream and the latter is aware that it is dreaming. Our imaginations take over in dreaming, the same imaginations we use during waking when we imagine things past or anticipate things future. When dreaming is lucid we have some degree of conscious control over the course of the dream. To see how it is different from waking consciousness he proceeds through the stages of sleep.

The hypnagogic state is the transition between waking and sleep. This state can also occur while awake or in meditation. This state if accompanied by seemingly random images and sensory stimuli, often from past experiences and sometimes from pure imaginary sources. Synesthesia is common. I know from experience this is the first phase of my sitting meditation, wild and random mind meanderings. And in watching myself go to sleep I know this is the sign I've entered this state on the verge of dreaming sleep. Further into this state the waking ego boundary loosens and we are immersed in the imagery. To manipulate this state as in meditation requires a delicate balance between being receptive enough to allow the image intensity and vividness, yet focused enough to consciously reflect on them. Otherwise we awaken or fall asleep. When I want to sleep I welcome the latter. When I meditate, I maintain the balance so that I can enter a deeper, slower and more content-free state. Thompson gives a few methods for consciously manipulating this state.

Relating the stages of sleep to brain waves, in stage one non-REM sleep the brain waves slow to alpha, then mix with theta. This is the hypnagogic state. In stage 2 sleep, spindles and K-complexes arise, rapid higher hertz bursts preceded by brief high-voltage waves. Stage 3 is a mixture of spindles and high-amplitude delta waves. Stage 4 settles into more than 50% delta waves. This process takes about a half hour when we ascend back up to stage 2, but instead of going on to stage 1 we enter REM sleep with wave readings akin to waking. More advanced technology, along with more advanced awareness practitioners, has further refined this broad schema.

Ordinary waking consciousness has a clear and separate sense of self, the I-me-mine of the ego. This dissolves in the hypnagogic state where we are fused and absorbed with whatever is arising, spellbound as he calls it. One thing this state shows is that the self-sense is not a fixed and permanent structure but more fluid and changeable. In this state we are open to “more creative thinking and intuitive problem solving” (125), especially if we learn to consciously maintain that delicate balance between waking and sleep. The latter, of course, isn't completely spellbound and absorbed.

Freud saw this state as a regression, going back before reflective awareness and the reality principle. Mavromatis follows this line with a transpersonal twist: it need not be regressive but progressive as the sort of double awareness described above between waking and dreaming. Meditation can also elicit this state on the way 'down' the brain wave ride as noted above, but Theravada advises against staying in it as it lacks clarity, while Zen thinks its illusion and should be ignored. It also can lead to being absorbed and spellbound by the random images and sensations, which is seen as ego attachment. But as we've seen, this need not be the case if one applies one's trained attention to keeping that balance between waking and dreaming. This is akin to the sort of philosophical dualism in these traditions that sees relative and ultimate reality as completely different orders. And any intermediary between them that connects/separates them in mutual embrace, like this state, must itself also be of the illusory realm.[6]

In dreaming the ego self in relation to another world reemerges, albeit a dream ego in a dream world. This can be from a first or third-person perspective, and/or alternative between them. Thompson thinks though that the third-person dream perspective is different from the hynagogic state in that in the dream there is an identification with a world, even if one can dispassionately observe the first-person self. There is no semi-coherent world in the hynagogic state. But again, there can be if one applies one's awareness and concentration training to it. But why bother if one sees it as an illusion and waste of time?

Memory also shifts between first and third-person perspectives. For one this shows that our memories are tied up with the present, thus there are no pure memories of how things exactly happened in the past. This explains how one can for example falsely remember being raped by a family member under the influence of a therapist with an agenda, or falsely remember past lives under the influence of a particular ideology. On the positive side third-person memories develop a self-othering perspective that allows up to see ourselves from another's point of view, thus enabling empathy and social cognition through an autobiographical or narrative sense of self. The latter self-reflective capacity therefore should not be so downplayed as some form illusory self, whereas the pre-reflective biological self awareness obtained in meditation should not be elevated as ultimate reality separated from where we actually get our empathy and compassion.

This can been seen in first-person memories, where we experience the entire field of our experiences from the inside. This is much more like the meditative experience of pure awareness, where we go below the reflective self and are absorbed in nondual interaction with either an object of focus or with pure awareness itself. Remember the DL saying in chapter three above that when one is in this state one doesn't have access to third-person reflective thought. It is only upon later reflecting on this state via field memory of what it felt like is when we attach some metaphysical interpretation to it. This is reinforced by brain studies showing field memories are located more in the older brain areas. I suggest the same is true of field experiences of pure awareness.[7]

In non-lucid dreams the dream subject, either in first or third-person, is captivated. This is because the brain areas associated with conscious control, metacognition and reflection are deactivated. More basic, intense emotions like fear or elation are activated along with more primal brain areas. However in lucid dreams we can reactivate metacognition and some degree of conscious control. So what's going on in this state? The next chapter explores this.

Chapter Five, Witnessing: Is This a Dream?

In a lucid dream one's attention is split: we know we are dreaming yet we still experience the dream ego in a dream world of fantastic, vivid and shifting events with some limited control. At least some of waking memory becomes accessible. Some methods are more likely to elicit lucid dreams: changes in the sleep cycle, melatonin and carefully observing hynagogic imagery as one dozes off. Another is using auto-suggestion before sleep each night that you will become lucid during dreaming.

To understand dreaming Thompson differentiates different aspects of awareness: witnessing, its changeable contents, and identifying contents as the self. In non-lucid dreams even though we're aware of a lot of changing contents we only identify with the dream ego at the center of the contents. In lucid dreaming we can stand back and witness not only the contents but the dream ego as well, thereby expanding our sense of self. So who or what is this witness?

To answer that question Thompson's waking-dream body again flits about to the difference between knowing one is dreaming versus dreaming one is dreaming. His first argument is that they feel different and seem different in waking memory. In the first there is a kind of attention lacking in the second. There are also different brain-imagery readings. By practicing witness awareness during the hypnagogic state one can then maintain it into a lucid dream state. He also describes a similar Tibetan Buddhist dream yoga technique. Without such witness awareness the imagery in the hynagogic and dream states become absorbing and one will be just dreaming that they're dreaming. The latter lacks clarity and the ability to direct your attention. Even so, the quality of ever-shifting content typical of dreaming is mostly beyond one's control, even with witnessing awareness.

Subjective reports though are not enough to differentiate dreaming lucidity. Tests of dreamers showed that their eye movements during that state matched their physical eye movements. A dream study instructed dreamers to move their eyes right and left a certain number of times when they because lucid. Upon awakening they reported on the dream eye movement which matched the physical eye movements. Their brain waves also confirmed that during the eye signals they were indeed in REM sleep.

EEG studies of verified lucid dreamers show increased gamma wave activity in certain frontal brain areas more typical of the waking state. Brain waves are also more synchronized across brain areas. This does not occur in non-lucid REM sleep. However this does not mean that lucid dreaming, or lucid waking for that matter, are limited to specific brain areas but rather the coordination of distributed whole brain networking.

However as noted earlier even in lucid dreaming control of content is extremely limited compared to the control of the waking state. So some wonder if lucid dreaming isn't more a dissociation than an integration. However it can also be said that ordinary waking consciousness also doesn't have much control over its content unless one is trained in some form of witnessing attention. In both states witness training allows one to disidentify with the dream ego and waking ego. True, but even without such training waking consciousness does not have the wild and disconnected scenarios of dreams unless one is schizophrenic. Perhaps then the dreaming witness state allows for a reintegration of at least some of the typically ignored or missed internal and external data during waking?

Chapter Six, Imagining: Are We Real?

The chapter begins with wondering if our waking life is a sort of dream, and what is real anyway? Tibetan dream yoga begins with maintaining mindfulness in waking life and treating it as if it were a dream. This creates the habit if mindful attention that can be extended into actual dreaming. However this tradition does not find either state to be more real than the other. Thompson mentions Madhyamaka and Yogacara supporting this view, and I'd say only the Yogacara-influenced Madhyamaka version does so. Bottom line and as noted earlier, in these views both waking and dreaming are illusions compared with the really real, pure awareness from which all phenomenon springs. Through training of this witness, and using it to disidentify with both the waking and dream state, one can enter pure awareness in both the waking and deep sleep state and have direct access to the non-illusory, non-physical, really real.

Western lucid dream techniques tend more toward reality testing in the dream state, like reading a passage in a book and then re-reading it to see if it changed or not. One also does this reality testing when awake to create a habit that carries over into dreaming.[8] Here the assumption is that the waking state is more real. This perspective takes the waking state, and its measurement of objective reality, to be much more stable and doesn't accept it as illusion. While I'll admit that this approach also has its own inherent biases, and is based on a constructed self awareness, it at least doesn't hold to a metaphysically supernatural really real beyond the pale of natural phenomenon.[9]

In a discussion of how the brain affects the mind and vice versa, he notes that the latter is know as downward causation because the mind is apparently higher or above the brain or body on a hierarchical scale. He finds this misleading but accepts if for now to make a point.[10] The point being, it's a two-way street with brain-mind causation based on neurophenomenological experiments, lucid dreaming being one example. Recall that the dream ego can direct its dream eyes to make movements that cause the physical body's eyes to do the same. If one stops moving the eyes in the dream state this can cause one to wake up. As noted earlier, REM sleep activates some of the same brain areas and waves as the waking state. So some evidence suggests that consciously performing motor skills while dreaming, much like waking imagination, can increase performance on those skills while awake. This is also supported by Lakoff's notion of real reason in that it is metaphorically built on these sensori-motor image schema in a two-way causal relationship.

Imagination is involved in both waking and dreaming. Recall earlier that the brain wave patterns of both waking and dreaming sleep are similar. Even more so with lucid dreaming, since one is conscious that they are dreaming. Conscious awareness thus seems to be the indicator of when one is 'awake' in both states. In the case of the waking state it is awareness of the normally unconscious stream of consciousness, as well at the meta-awareness that watches this. That's one reason meditative traditions further develop this awareness during sleep, to make one's self-perspective a conscious, observant participant. Hence this is why it is called 'awakening' in the enlightenment sense.

However imagination does not mean something devoid of realty but rather the way our embodiment interacts with objective reality. In dreaming, although we turn off our sensory connection with the outside world, we nonetheless maintain a dream ego that operates within a dream world outside the waking ego, such world based on our memory of the waking outside world. The image schema that connect us to the outside world through our sensori-motor apparatus are operative in our 'imagination' during dreaming sleep as well.

Still, awakening in the traditional sense is about this meta or pure awareness that sees the content of both the waking and dreaming state as illusory, not the real deal. But the traditions didn't have the advantage of the third-person neuroscience to realize that imagination is not illusory or completely made up but a natural part of how we connect with reality in both waking and dreaming. This also contextualizes the so-called awakened state from a metaphysical absolute to a more naturalistic expression of our biological heritage located below reflective awareness in our primal and nondual image schema.

Thompson also said something interesting on pp. 198 – 200 to highlight the last point. In a discussion with Allan Wallace the latter thinks that this meta-awareness is indeed awakening and superior to and above --i.e., more real than--ordinary wakefulness and non-lucid sleep. Thompson disagrees, at least when it comes to non-lucid dreaming. These other kinds of dreams are important for learning and memory consolidation and acquiring skills, as well as developing one's creative abilities. Lucidity might inhibit these activities. Deep dreamless sleep is generally noted for allowing us to recuperate from the day's activities and intent focusing, to just go on idle so to speak. Lucidity during this might also interfere with that process.

Thompson asserts that these other non-lucid dreaming states are also authentic, real and useful, so lucidity should not be the measure of, or solution for, everything. I'd add this is also true of our ordinary waking state as well. Otherwise we end up identifying with this meta-awareness as the be all and end all of enlightenment with the resultant dualistic, hierarchical and metaphysical notions between the real and the apparent typical of such traditions, and typical of formal operational (formop) reasoning. I've noted elsewhere that the latter is also operational in the the former, since said traditions emerged around the time formop did so. Ironically it is the rational ego of formop that is the witness or this meta-awareness, and also given this capacity for a more objective third person perspective of ourselves it tends to fall into such dichotomous and metaphysical separation from our embodiment and the so-called relative plane into a heavenly, or at least completely abstract, plane.

Chapter Seven, Floating: Where Am I?

It starts with a discussion of the different bodies according to Yoga: physical, energy, mental, subtle, causal. Thompson sees this not so much as actually different bodies in different planes of existence but as experiences of altered embodiment. The neural correlates of such different embodiments overlap with those of switching from first to third person perspective when we dream and imagine. E.g., in out-of-body experiences one still maintains a sense of a body from a centered perspective, which still orients via spatial image schema like up/down etc. This is even if we see our physical body from a third -person perspective, as if from above, since that perspective is still 'self'-centered with spatial orientation.

Such experience is grounded in seeing the self as subject or object. In out-of-body experiences (OBEs) the self is split between the two, since you identify with both but your self-location is seeing your physical body from a third-person perspective. This is confirmed with brain studies showing the temporoparietal junction being affected, which is responsible for these perspective shifts. This grounds such experience naturally in perspectival shifts instead of different bodies that can metaphysically separate from the physical. There is no evidence for the latter and plenty for the former.

It phenomenologically seems like the latter, which often leads to ontological dualism within traditions devoid of such scientific study. This reinforces my prior contentions that when we develop formal abstract rationality we also develop the third-person perspective, which tends to be misinterpreted metaphysically both in the meditative traditions as well as even the scientific materialist perspectives with their own mind-body, subject-object splits. E.g., see Cook-Greuter's description of stages 3/4 and 4. She, like other developmentalists, use Piaget as a primary source up to this point, where there has been a lot of empirical research.

Chapter Eight, Sleeping: Are We Conscious in Deep Sleep?

Can we be conscious during deep sleep? It seems perhaps so, but it is a prereflective or reflexive sort of consciousness. When awakened from deep sleep sometimes we forget who or what we are, but we know that we are. This is a temporary loss of our reflective, autobiographical self that must be reconstituted by memory. But there is a certainly about our prereflective awareness in that moment. I'm reminded of the discussion of the aggregates in the IPS fold thread, how they are impermanent and fleeting and must be continually reconstituted from moment to moment. But that would apply equally as well to this prereflective awareness, that it too is not some permanent, pristine or original face.

Yogacara and Vedanta schools posit that upon awakening one remembers the experience of this prereflective state. It's a state of consciousness without an object, whereas waking and dreaming have objects. It is an absence of objects but not of awareness. However it is interpreted as a pristine, original and metaphysical face due to its lack of taking fluctuating objects as its focus, the True Self or Witness, when in actuality it is simply our natural, embodied and prereflective awareness. Sure it seems like something metaphysical due to activating more primal brain areas and temporarily suspending the brain areas that give a sense of self in relation to space and time. But that is an apparent phenomenological sense devoid of the more third-person neurosciences that contextualize it more accurately.

“It seems possible, however, to extract the phenomenological core of the Advaita Vedanta conception of dreamless sleep from Vedanta metaphysics,” that such a state “is logically distinct from the Vedanta belief that the self is essentially pure consciousness” (245). Vedanta assumes that since a sense of ego is absent from this state that it must therefore be “transcendental—meaning not fundamentally embodied. It's open to us today, however, to think that the egoless consciousness in dreamless sleep is a fundamentally embodied consciousness, by which I mean a consciousness that contingent on the brain and other systems of the body,” thereby removing it from Vedanta's metaphysical frame (250).

Neurologically, in deep sleep brain waves slow down into the delta range. Large-scale brain integration and synchrony shuts down. Such integration is necessary for access consciousness but apparently not so for phenomenal consciousness, which is what meditative traditions presume is happening in deep sleep. Said traditions also claim that through such training one indeed can access the phenomenal consciousness of deep sleep.

However in Vedanta consciousness in deep sleep is causal, i.e., a metaphysical notion of it as the foundation for the entirety of reality as such. Thompson naturalizes this state as causal in the sense that some neuroscientists see it as a default mode of consciousness. I'm reminded of tonic attention from this post in the IPS states thread, it too being without content. It's a natural state due to (caused by) our embodiment, not some transcendent, metaphysical cause. We see more of the metaphysical slant with Tibetan sleep yoga, which sees this state as pure awareness. Yes, it may be an ancient, causal, ground brain state of awareness for other and newer brain states, but again it's quite a leap to the cause of ultimate reality as it seems to phenomenal experience.

Recall earlier it was noted that deep sleep lacks large-scale integration. However to date there are no neuroscientific studies on whether such meditative training provides that sort of large-scale brain integration necessary for access consciousness. Long-term meditators did exhibit some gamma activity in a part of the brain, but it was isolated to this part whereas other parts did not exhibit these waves. Large-scale brain integration it was not.[11]

Chapter Nine, Dying: What Happens When We Die?

The Tibetan Buddhist view is that we survive death as pure awareness. This 'mental' body then seeks a new physical embodiment for rebirth. Those in this tradition practice dying via a meditative process of dissolving the body, emotions and mind to arrive at this pure awareness that survives death. It is similar to the process of falling asleep, with the pure awareness of deep sleep similar to or the same as that in death. Hence dream and sleep yoga are further practices for death preparation.

However dreaming and deep sleep, as well as the imaginative practice of simulating death, are not actual, physiological death. And comparing dreaming, deep sleep and meditative states to death just because we imagine the process is similar is not evidence that the process is the same during death. Thompson is “very skeptical” that such comparisons are a “literal description of what anyone will experience at the moment of death and afterward” (287). It does though provide for a “ritualized phenomenology” that trains one in a cultural, soteriological and meaningful approach to dying (291). It's a different matter though to transfer this to an ontological status.

Traditional Buddhists also claim that the slowing of the physical body's deterioration process after death is proof of one attaining to pure awareness, as well as proof in life after death. In one case, a Buddhist master's body apparently did not deteriorate for 18 days because he was in the pure awareness state. However certain physiological conditions can also delay putrefaction, like a cool, dry atmosphere, as well as the intestine being free of organisms. This particular master's state matched such conditions, a more plausible explanation. There have been other verified cases though of the slowing of the decay process after death. Some speculate that meditative training while alive teaches one to slow metabolic activity, so doing so during dying may do much the same, thereby slowing the deterioration process. But it is only speculation at this point.

Near-death experiences are also used to prove an afterlife. But there is “no compelling evidence for thinking that the brain is inactive or shut down when these experiences occur.” A most famous case used to support a NDE “in fact provides no such evidence. On the contrary, upon careful examination this case actually supports the claim that near-death experiences are contingent on the brain” (309). All NDE reports are anecdotal and “there are no documented cases of veridical out-of-body perception in near-death experiences” (310).

The mythical rainbow body was not even addressed, assuming that given the above such a thesis is entirely imaginative and lacking in any physical evidence whatsoever.

Chapter Ten, Knowing: Is the Self an Illusion?

The self is neither identical with nor separate from the five aggregates. The latter are body, feeling, perception, will and consciousness. Hence consciousness per se is not the foundation for the self or the universe at large. Thompson's enactive view of the self, which he bases on his interpretation of Nagarjuna, does not see it as an eternal essence but as dependently arisen and contingent, yet not reducible to the ephemerally fluctuating aggregates. It is “a self-specifying system,” a “collection of processes that mutually specify each other so that they constitute the system as a self-perpetuating whole in relation to the environment” (325). Here we see the sort of dynamic systems autonomy Levi Bryant or Francisco Varela discusses.[12]

I'm reminded of Wilber saying here that the basic structures (aggregates) are not the self. The latter can identify with these structures but said structures “either emerge or they don't,” more or less intact, in themselves not broken or dysfunctional (23). The self integrates the basic structures as well as the states, much like the above definition of an autonomous system. The difference though is that in another context from the same article Wilber sees the levels of basic structures as levels of consciousness (5), which is itself one of the aggregates. And the self itself goes through the same basic, structural levels of consciousness. The metaphysics of consciousness sneaks in.

Consciousness though as but one of the aggregates means awareness of the presence of something selected from the system's internal or external environment. It would be more of an access consciousness than merely phenomenal consciousness. The former depends on the latter, yet the former exceeds it via an emergent level beyond. In that sense then more basic or pre-access, phenomenal awarenesses are not levels of this sort of consciousness but distinctly different aggregates. The access consciousness, while the most complex emergence among the aggregates, is not the be all and end of awareness, let alone of the ontic. And it is not the self-system, which integrates all the aggregates within its autonomy. Again, the integral is not so much a level but an integrated autonomy. In that sense then any autonomous system is integral, even if not all that complex.

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 provides 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. 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.[13]

The above capacity of self-projection gives rise to a historical self that Damasio calls the narrative self and phenomenologists call 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).[14]

Thompson then brings in Candrakirti and a corrective to the Yogacara on defining the self. As noted 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 affliction only arises when it becomes 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).[15]

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).


[1] In that regard it would be enlightening (excuse the pun) to read kela's IPS thread on mystical empiricism. Also note the same critique in the IPS Sam Harris thread , most recently on his new book. Kela also has a number of comments on this phenomenon (that is the source of all phenomena) earlier in the thread.

[2] E.g., Levi Bryant in this blog post.

[3] See this IPS discussion and related links therein. Note that the aggregates are again discrete, autonomous, and interdependent in our networked assemblage, not hierarchically subsumed.

[4] An image occurred to me when reading this, that of the bar code on all products and with which we're all familiar.


Our perception operates digitally, on and off. The off is the spaces or gaps between perceptions (akin to Spencer-Browns unmarked spaces). And yet we can organize the perceptions and the gaps into a coherent, meaningful whole via brain synchrony. Granted those wholes are not final or metaphysical assholons, but are open to revision and progressive development. There are even gaps between the wholes, which gaps are considered in cross-(whole)paradigm Multipli City. Multipli City is indeed a universal kosmic address, but that address is itself multiple, dependent and contextual.

[5] Wilber's Excerpt G discusses the different energy bodies that 'house' the more subtle levels of consciousness. He bases it on Vedanta and Vedanta-influenced Vajrayana virtually to the letter, hence the DL talking in an almost identical way. I've commented on this excerpt in several places and times throughout the IPS forum, this post being one. In the following post I discuss how Wilber, again following the DL's tradition, speculates that consciousness can exist apart from its physical and subtle bodies to reincarnate (p. 44 of G).

[6] Also see the IPS Batchelor thread.

[7] See the IPS states thread and the fold thread, the latter particularly on the function of memory.

[8] This doesn't work with conservatives, as they've lost the capacity for reality testing in waking life.

[9] It is also as metaphysical as the representation model, and as I've argued elsewhere both are symptoms of formal operational cognition from different angles.

[10] My hope was that he would explore something more akin to the IPS fold thread, but he did not.

[11] This post and the one following from the IPS Harris thread are of relevance here as well.

[12] However I would qualify that this system is in relation to an environment, not the environment, since per OOO and other contemporary ontologists there is no one overriding and self-same environment that itself inherently exists. A system selectively responds to those things or processes which promote or debilitate it, so out of any number of possible things or processes outside its boundaries only those selections are in its enactive environment.

[13] See his three-part series “The depth of the exteriors” that begins here.

[14] Also recall the previous discussion of the various forms of ipseity, like this IPS post and following.

[15] Also see "Prasangika's semantic nominalism: Reality is linguistic concept" by Sonam Thakchoe.

Non-linked Works Cited

Thompson, Evan (2015). Waking, Being, Dreaming, New York: Columbia University Press

Wilber, Ken (2006) Integral Spirituality, Boston: Integral Books.

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