Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
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.
Here is the NYT book review:
Firstly, UBC, like most modern Ed. institutions are now grooming agents for neoliberal capitalist systems; and it is no small coincidence most people leaving those places after 5 or 10 years are facing a lifetime of debt bondage. But let's put that aside here.
By now you probably know my take on things: when one dies one is dead and that one of the worst ideas in human history was to make religion out of that experience. And yes, in some ways, science has done the same thing i.e. scientism .
To me, a more reasonable pragmatism would probably be a better container when it comes to the life and death dichotomy. Keeping an open space here shouldn't really be as difficult as it is because in the end even Evan concedes he doesn't know ( for certainty anyway).
But yes, too, I get the fascination of what happens when Gautama meets Derrida (khora) and Caputo (Post-conventional theism) , on the side of the road. This has been an interesting read:
Which to me, almost leads full circle to the early Indian masters with their positing of the eternal void as the impersonal aspect of god juxtaposed to the sublimity of the person of KRSNA. Oh well, we do try. But we already know the disaster of what happens to Indian thought in the modern age, right Deepak? Andrew Cohen?
Thankfully, we have Kenny to sort the whole bloody mess out for us:)
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.
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 match 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. Ch. 1 investigates the nature of consciousness as light or luminosity, and how it manifests in the waking, dreaming, deep sleep and pure awareness states. Ch. 2 focuses on the waking state, how the stream of consciousness is make 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. Ch. 3 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, 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.
Chs. 4, 5 and 6 are on falling asleep, dreaming and lucid dreaming, and how the sense of self changes withing them. Each of these states has distinct brain activity. Ch. 7 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 without one's biological body” (xxxvii). Ch. 8 explores whether some type of consciousness persists in deep, dreamless sleep, with some preliminary sleep science in support. Ch. 9 is on what happens to consciousness when we die. He presents studies of experienced meditaters who can subjectively monitor their consciousness as they die, which has effects on how quickly the physically 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 one can also do so as they die, thereby slowing, but not stopping, the degenerative process. Ch. 10 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.
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 kennilingus, the Self as pure awareness and cause of all phenomenon. In the continuing Upanishad 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). I.e., 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 Thompson thread:
"But whereas the Advaitin takes this minimal selfhood to be a transcendental witness consciousness, I think itʼs 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."
So it remains to see how he'll apply what other paradigms reveal about this apparently transcendent and metaphysical consciousness that is source for all phenomenon as a more naturalist conception. Especially so in light of a comment in prologue on taking phenomenal experience of said consciousness by adepts steeped in such metaphysical traditions as evidence in itself.
As to the last statement, in that regard it would be enlightening (excuse the pun) to read kela's thread on mystical empiricism.
Also note the same critique in the 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.
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 (re)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 is the sense herein described. I sense a correlationism here that privileges human consciousness as a necessary prerequisite to experience.
Binocular rivalry is where two different images are presented to each eye. One will see each whole image one at a time alternatively. 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 Luhman'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. Which consciousness appears to be in a continuous stream, 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 call these phases the 'aggregates.' (See this previous discussion and related links therein. Note that the aggregates are again discrete, autonomous, and interdependent in our networked assemblage, not hierarchically subsumed.)
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.
It's a long, detailed chapter; to be continued.
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. I.e, much like the much longer waking and sleeping cycle, brain wave cycles that happen in milliseconds have a similar effect on perception. These experiements support the hypotheis 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.*
Further studies showed that adept meditators have better access and discernment to shorter millisecond stimuli. That is, there training allowed them to not only perceive stimulation of shorter duration, which non-meditators could do unconsciously, but to conscious 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 organize the gaps and the perceptions into a continuous whole? How does this affect changes in consciousness from waking, dreaming and deep sleep? Theravada posited that there were active and passive forms of consciousness, and that the latter type were 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 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.
*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.
He discusses a study of long-term meditators doing compassion meditation, which 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 general focus on an individual 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 by keeping this '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 Dalai Lama 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 this 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 the further 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 the Lingam 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 posts on Vajrayana's inclusivist model, much akin to kennilingus. 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 kennilingus (excerpt G). 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 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 leave 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? To be continued.
About the status of compassion meditation as an 'open monitoring' practice, I believe what he said was that these particular meditators approached it in that fashion. They already had a lot of skill with it, so they didn't need to imagine individuals and direct compassion at them; instead, they could just suffuse their open state with a sense of compassion.
I don't see that on p. 72. I see him say that during this form of meditation "usually one directs this wish toward a specific person or group." And yet this compassionate wish is itself pure and expansive, but it is still a specific emotion of focus as opposed to any other emotion. Open monitoring would simply note the feeling of compassion and let that go too on its way to contentless pure awareness.