Review: Waking, Dreaming, Being by Evan Thompson

waking, dreaming, being by evan thompson. bardo, brain, buddhism, consciousness, evanthompson, hypnagogic, madness, meditation, memory, philosophy, neuroscience, sleeping.
Waking, Dreaming, Being
For those who are sceptic, religion acts as a repellant. The moment someone mentions some line of thought emanating from thousands of years ago and then goes to praise a religion, one feels a darkness of blind faith and gullibility surrounding that person. However, it makes sense to separate the rituals and practices of any religion from the underlying, core philosophical thoughts and then immerse in analyzing these thoughts. By doing this, one not only abstains from the pure, senseless ritualistic conventions, but also comes to terms with something that is more inherent and satisfying than unquestioning faith. So when I came across this book by Evan Thompson, there was something in the subtitle which attracted my attention: neuroscience, consciousness, and self. So this didn't look like a typical faith sorta book. I found myself blindly rejecting any philosophical or inquiring thoughts emanating from religious schools on the basis of the outward practices engaged in by most of the followers of any religion. Sadly though, the truth is that most of the followers of any religion nowadays are least concerned with the base thoughts of their religion, but more with the physical aspects of prayer, chanting, sacrifices and the like. This book has opened a new world of inquiry and made me open to a critical inspection of meditation, the question of self, consciousness, and above all, the awareness of "being" or "I", and a neutral way of looking towards Hinduism and Buddhism. For those who are already deep into meditation or belief (in Hinduism or Buddhism), this book will take your thoughts a step further by combining scientific probing with Eastern philosophies. And for those, like me, who were ardently uptight about not poking their noses into anything with the letters G-O-D on it, will be taken to an altogether realm of deeply satisfying questioning and experience. The general reader is going to come out of it much more reflecting, considerate and possibly with an enhanced outlook of the world and self. I can't recommend this enough and goes straight into one of the best books I could have come across till now.

In essence, the believer has full faith in his belief; the agnostic wants to escape the burden of being accused of tilting on one side; and the atheist takes absence of evidence as evidence of absence and has full faith in his non-faith.

There are ten detailed chapters, each to some extent building up on the previous ones. Though the author does state that most of them can be read independently and gives a guide-frame for doing this, but it would be much more fruitful to go sequentially. He begins with consciousness, the oldest answer "to which comes from India, almost three thousand years ago. Long before Socrates interrogated his fellow Athenians and Plato wrote his Dialogues, a great debate is said to have taken place int he land of Videha in what is now northeastern India. Staged before the throne of the learned and mighty King Janaka, the debate pitted the great sage Yajnavalkya against the other renowned Brahmins of the kingdom". The kings questions result in an answer which moves "from the distant, outer, and visible to the close, inner, and invisible". The debate ends with Yajnavalkya's famous declaration: "The self is 'not this, not this'" (neti, neti). Thompson often gives a background to the origins of such philosophical treatises, for example, the four states of consciousness - waking, dreaming, deep and dreamless sleep, and "the fourth", or pure awareness is mentioned in Mandukya Upanishad. He explains the one syllable OM/AUM: A expresses the waking state; U the dreaming state; M the deep-sleep or blissful state. Consciousness is described and borrowed from Hindu/Buddhist descriptions as luminous, which reveals everything and itself too. But here too there are multiple camps, one on the side of 'self-illuminating', the other preferring that "for a conscious experience to be revealed, there needs to be a second, higher-level cognition of that experience". But Thompson personally doesn't agree with the latter and says that it falls in the trap of an infinite loop, for every level of consciousness, if not self-aware, needs to be apparent to a higher level. Through Buddhist beliefs and validated by scientific investigations, he brings to light the nature of consciousness: perception happens through successive periodic cycles instead of as one continuous process. Like a miniature version of the wake-sleep cycle, neural systems alternate from moment to moment between phases of optimal stimuli, and phases of strong inhibition, when they're "asleep" and least responsive.

Then he moves to waking and sleeping, pure awareness, dreaming, witnessing, imagining, floating, dying and finally the self. The treatment of each topic is completely accessible and rigorous, leaving one desirous of knowing more. Sometimes however his deductions aren't convincing because of the approach: when Thompson believes in or agrees with a concept, he is ready to take witness or self-professed accounts at face value, but when he disagrees, he questions whether such testimonies can be accepted without brain scans. And he does accept that brain scans also don't reveal the complete picture. Science, as he admits, still has lot to catch up with Eastern philosophy. It is impossible to cover the breadth of this book in a review without risking too much revelation. However, the following lists some important topics which have been written about and explained: hypnagogic state, synesthesia, sleep patterns classified as REM & Non-REM, sleep spindles, observer memory and field memory, lucid dreams, lucid awakening, dream within a dream, downward causation, Nyaya & Advaita Vedanta schools of Hindu thought, soteriological accounts, bardo cosmology, thukdam, annihilationism, reificationism, neuronihilism, his own 'Enactive approach to the Self', mereological, and many many more.


The two best chapters are about Death (wherein his own experience of meditation and trying to accept its inevitability would cause the reader to come to grips with something which we know is going to happen but we choose to ignore it all the time) and Self. One cannot but stop debating when reading the chapter about Dreams: how can reality be a dream? If we are dreaming even while waking, meaning that our lives and our realities are nothing but dreams, then how come we are affected through our bodies? Why does working out in a gym make one feel good? If it is a dream, it shouldn't matter whether I work out or not. Why do my muscles develop at all if it is a dream? Why do I meet people in my dreams and emote with them? Are they also their dreams merging with mine? And if merging with mine then which mine is it, the one being dreamt of right now or the one dreaming it right now? What about germs and bacteria which make me sick? Do they make me sick only in dream, but not outside of it? Why make me sick at all? If all of this is dream then why is there so much destruction, hatred? If it is all dream, why should love matter so much in Buddhist philosophy? Why can't hatred also be tolerated, after all it is a dream. Why do I feel hungry if I am living a dream? Why? But yes, it cannot be said that 'it is nothing but a dream' because a dream is never nothing, it emanates from something. As he gives example, dreams are not had by congenital blind people, so that don't have that visual experience to create visual dreams. So does this mean that dream is related to sensory experiences? What about a child who is born healthy and normal, due to some infection or disease goes to coma and ultimately becomes vegetative - what about his consciousness, will it ever evolve? Why can't a child think in the same way like an adult if consciousness is the same and doesn't change? Is the dream real or the real a dream?

Thompson quotes Indonesian poet Sukasah Syadan, with which I would like to end this review:

Dream
last night
I dreamed
that I dreamed
that I awoke
a sleepless man
posting
on what I dreamed
last night


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