This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. Thompson’s prologue was recently excerpted at the Mind & Life institute, and we are happy to present the final section of that excerpt here.
Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!
Staying with the Open Question
Shortly before his death, Francisco Varela talked about the Tibetan Buddhist notion of “subtle consciousness” in an interview with Swiss filmmaker Franz Reichle (see Reichle’s film, Montegrande: What Is Life?, and also the Mind & Life Institute). Subtle consciousness isn’t an individual consciousness; it’s not an ordinary “me” or “I” consciousness. It’s sheer luminous and knowing awareness beyond any sensory or mental content. It’s rarely seen by the ordinary mind, except occasionally in special dreams, intense meditation, and at the very moment of death, when one’s ordinary “I” or “me” consciousness falls apart. It’s the foundation for every other type of consciousness, and it’s believed to be independent of the brain. Neuroscience can’t conceive of this possibility, while for Tibetan Buddhists it’s unthinkable to dismiss their accumulated experience testifying to the reality of this primary consciousness.
Varela’s position is to suspend judgment. Don’t neglect the Buddhist observations and don’t dismiss what we know from science. Instead of trying to seek a resolution or an answer, contemplate the question and let it sit there. Have the patience and forbearance to stay with the open question.
I try to do so in this book. For a philosopher, staying with the open question means turning it around and examining it from all sides, without trying to force any particular answer or conclusion. But it also means not being afraid to follow wherever the argument leads.
Where the argument has led me reflects my ongoing personal journey over many years. When my father taught me Rāja Yoga meditation when I was seven, he instilled in me a philosophical and spiritual worldview in which the mind and consciousness are the primary reality. Growing up as a teenager at the Lindisfarne Association — the community of scientists, artists, and contemplatives he founded in the 1970s — I experienced firsthand how the scientific and contemplative worldviews can enrich each other. This upbringing led me to study Asian religion and philosophy at Amherst College, and Western philosophy and cognitive science in graduate school at the Univer- sity of Toronto. Yet, while pursuing my own research in philosophy of mind and cognitive science over the past 25 years, I’ve often found myself doubting whether consciousness — even in its most profound meditative forms — transcends the living body and the brain. At the same time, I think we need a much deeper understanding of the brain in order to do justice to the nature of consciousness and its embodiment. I also remain firmly committed to the partnership between the scientific and contemplative worldviews, which is crucial for giving meaning to human life in our time and culture.
To stay with the open question while following wherever the argument leads requires that we be resolutely empirical in our approach. By this I mean cleaving to experience and suspending judgment about speculative matters falling outside what’s available to experience. Experience includes inward experience of the mind and body gained through meditation, and outward experience of the world gained through scientific observation and experimentation. In neither case can there be genuine knowledge without communal testing and agreement on what the valid findings are. Buddhism and science both share this critical and experiential stance.
Western science has so far explored one small corner of the mind — the one accessible to individuals with little contemplative insight into their own minds, reporting to equally inexperienced scientists. The encounter with contemplative traditions raises another prospect — individuals with a high degree of meditative expertise reporting to knowledgeable scientists. Varela’s vision, in its boldest form, was that future cognitive scientists would be skilled in meditation and phenomenology, in addition to neuroscience, psychology, and mathematics. And contemplative adepts would be deeply knowledgeable in Western cognitive science.
My hope for this book is that it can help to foster this original kind of self-knowledge.