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.

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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 states thread, it too being without content. It's a natural state due to (caused) 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 neuroscience studies on whether such meditative training provides that sort 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.

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

Chapter Nine

Death is the topic of this chapter. 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, physiologically 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 conditions 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 evidence whatsoever.

As you know, t, I appreciate this neuroscientist's cautionary perspective. At each point I feel an inner nod.

Regarding the examining/exploring/speculating on bodies non or slow decay after death, I had a girlfriend who priorly was the girlfriend of a guru-sort of man named Adano Ley. She was youngish and impressionable, a serious student of what he had to teach, and of course was profoundly 'in love' with him and the entire journey with him and the community.

I was entering her scene in the aftermath of that profound-for-her experience, while she remained in the thrall of teachings, and it was both a bunch of eye-opening enrichments for me and a difficult act to follow, though that metaphor doesn't really capture it. To me she was remarkable herself in many ways, and too far out in lala land - I tried to join he but couldn't really so after a few years exited.

As I remember, he had an unusual history, including being in a body cast for a long time while healing extensive injuries and perhaps related illnesses. He recovered, apparently with expanded visions of life, death, and spirit. Somethings like that.

She took me along to sit in gatherings of many of the more popular yogi's and gurus of the 90's who visited LA.

As the story goes by her and the other adoring community members-followers, he chose to 'die', leave the body, when he was ready, as he had been saying he would when ready. He died and was found squatting on a toilet (he was big on the importance of evacuations, along with a very unusual dietary theory). It is said that, the same as was attested about Yogananda's delayed decay by the LA corner's office, Adano was not decaying in the usual way. Many of the viewers of the body at the wake agreed that they smelled rose, another traditional sign of special passings on. If it were easy, I, always the scientific questioner/doubter would like to have had more objective confirmations.

While I was with her, I read many unusual books that she was quite certain were unequivocally, for the most part, true. One book was about the saints of India and in history who had "confirmed" miraculous passings, some who were enshrined, as in Goa.

http://www.livingtolive.com/adano.html

What a trip - I still don't know what to make of a lot of it :)

Glad I took the tortuous, rich, perturbing journey.

theurj said:

Chapter Nine

Death is the topic of this chapter. 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, physiologically 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 conditions 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 evidence whatsoever.

I've just recently been given a copy of another new book on the neuroscience of meditation, this one from more of a personal/experiential point of view (it is by a participant in Wallace's The Shamatha Project):  The Less Dust, The More Trust.  I can't post it publicly, but if someone would like an electronic copy, let me know and I can send it to you.

Chapter Ten

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 Bryant or Varela discusses. 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 (aka the assholon). 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.

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 exceeds it via an emergent level beyond. In that sense then more basic or pre-access awarenesses are not levels of this sort of consciousness but distinctly different aggregates. This 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.

To be continued.

It's time to interject some posts in other threads, like this one and several following:

This article by Thompson & Davis relates back to my earlier ruminations on memory and the five aggregates. A brief excerpt with further study and commentary to follow:

"We outline here how the traditional theoretical context of mindfulness practice can offer important suggestions for scientific research. In particular, the five aggregates model draws distinctions that are not always clearly formulated in contemporary cognitive science, but that are crucial for a scientific understanding of the function of mindfulness meditation. We suggest below how empirical hypotheses about the role of memory and its relation to attention and consciousness in mindfulness meditation can be refined in light of distinctions suggested in the Buddhist five aggregates model" (586-7).

There were a lot of technical terms, both Buddhist and scientific. He tries to bridge them to find correlations but admits they are at times questionable or approximate at best. Nonetheless to translate, we've seen some of this earlier in this thread and elsewhere, the aggregates being, body, emotion, base mind or core attention, volition and consciousness. He relates the 3rd and 5th to open monitoring and concentration meditative techniques. Granted both have a focused attention and monitoring function and activate both aggregates. The latter monitors wandering away from and return to a selected object of focus. The former monitors wandering away and a return to focus on whatever is present. It activates more the base level and inhibits selective attention.

Further reflection on the last post relates to earlier posts in the thread. And themes I've been harping on for some time. One being it takes an egoic-rational operation with the capacity of deliberative and selective attention to 'meditate.' Aka, the fifth aggregate of 'consciousness.' Or in Damasio's terms, the narrative self. Now the monitoring comes from the 3rd aggregate, this base or core awareness but one with ipseity, unlike gross body awareness or slightly more subtle emotional feeling tone. To put it in Damasian, the body and emotions obviously have attention but lack human ipseity. And after it emerges it translates body and emotions in particularly human ways distinct from the animal world, with which we share these aggregated 'levels.'

Going back to forms of meditation, we need the selective attention to choose a focus. We need the base core awareness to monitor the basal attention of the body and emotions. And we need the volitional will to hold the selected object in awareness, be it a particular object or whatever object arises. The process activates all the aggregates and aims at their integration, which integration never gets off the ground without the synthetic ego. Which recall earlier is much more than the 'I,' or the increasing degree of ipseity of the last 3 aggregates, as it has gone back to bring forward the body and emotions in balance and equilibrium. Again, the fold which doesn't necessarily get more complex and higher but more integrated and deeper.

Now to complicate this further, as if that isn't enough, if Luhmann is right the aggregates are not transcended and included levels but are separate systems altogether that nonetheless interact via structural coupling. And as suggested earlier, perhaps individually they continue to undergo development on their own given their continual coupling as a more complex assemblage. It's not so much that the higher integrates the lower but that equivalent and separate systems synergize in a more integrative coupling in a strange, democratic mereology.

Hi t - I'm glad you posted this integrative commentary where you link with prior on-topic discussion and exploration. As I have been 'behind the power curve' on these studies (& alas will probably always continue there), these links speak to some of the questions that I have ongoingly.

Some ongoing questions always wonder at the persuasiveness of particular taxonomies, like the five aggregates, where I wonder about research into internal consistency within and overlap among categories.

As you referred back to others of your exploratory threads, I have gotten to feel acknowledgment for the many complexities that confound cross-discussion. For example, some of my somewhat dated and low level studies (in these rapidly expanding and shifting sciento-philosophical fields) have broken down physiological substrates of early-life human development and psychology to arousal, sensory thresholds, affect, and attention, looked at through the selected gross contextual lens of conditions of safety or threat. In my glance-through, I saw some of this language engaged.

Also by referring to Bryant's paper the democracy of objects, I saw at my first probe into the book how one of my recent comments to Bruce regarding his thread on David Loy could be seen, using Bryant's language, as slippage between the cracks of knowing of both "epistemological realism" and "anti-realism." My parting apologetic was something like, "Of course I don't really know what I am talking about :) (I'm not sure my placing myself into a refined philosophical construct proffers me any great benefit, but was kind of fun. Did I just slip between those cracks again :)?)

Thanks,

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 provided an embodied 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. (Remember the 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. (See his three-part series “The depth of the exteriors” that begins here.)

The above capacity of called self-projection which gives rise to a historical self that Damasio calls the narrative self and phenomenologists called 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). Also recall the previous discussion of the various forms of ipseity, like this post and following.

Thompson then brings in Candrakirti and a corrective to the Yogacara on defining the self. As notes 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 only arises when it is takes as 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).

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).

This article seems to support the notion of self-designation as necessary for humans to perceive something. It notes that the color blue didn't appear in languages until much later than other colors. We may have seen it but couldn't identify it. Or maybe we just couldn't see it until we could designate it.

"But do you really see something if you don't have a word for it? [...]  [B]efore blue became a common concept, maybe humans saw it. But it seems they didn't know they were seeing it. If you see something yet can't see it, does it exist? Did colors come into existence over time? Not technically, but our ability to notice them may have."

Also recall Balder in this post bringing up an article by Sonam Thackchoe called "Prasangika's semantic nominalism: Reality is linguistic concept." I found a free copy of the article a few posts later. In later posts I quoted and commented from the article:

"Tsongkhapa claims that the Prāsaṅgika posits all realities through the force of linguistic convention: language and ontology are understood to be mutually embedded within each other. [...] Neither language nor ontology has priority over each other" (427-8).

"The Prāsaṅgika therefore disagrees fundamentally with Dignāga-Dharmakı̄rtian idea that [...] reality and language stand apart from each other independently and constitutively. […] Reality can never be a linguistic entity, it must be an ineffable—extra-linguistic and non-conceptual whereas language is always divorced from reality, operating purely at the conceptual level" (428).

"Candrakı̄rti argues that all determinate categories, sensory faculties, and phenomenological experiences are dependent on our conceptual constructs, and these in turn depend on the conventional terminologies of everyday language. Candrakı̄rti’s argument, then, is that cognitions apprehend the objects of experience, and those objects that we experienced are conceptually (therefore linguistically) represented in the cognitions as having the representations of some specific categories" (431-2).

"The Prāsaṅgika’s semantic theory is fundamentally different from the semantic realism of Theravāda, Vaibhāṡika, Sautrāntika (even Svātantrika) all of which argue that language and reality are mutually exclusive, and that linguistic concepts apply only to the unreality—conventional truths" (432).

"What about nirvāṅa or ultimate truth? Could it be argued that they exist as merely names or concepts? The Buddhist semantic realists’ answer to this question is one of an unequivocal negative. They hold the view that ultimate truth (by extension nirvāṅa) is ineffable: non-conceptual and extra-linguistic. The linguistic concepts and ultimate truth can never coincide—the two are mutually exclusive" (436).

"Prāsaṅgika maintains it is a category mistake to assume that there exists ontological / metaphysical dichotomy between nirvāṅa and saṁs̄ara or between ultimate truth and conventional truth" (442).

My translation using some outside sources is that we cannot help but use our categories in designating anything, hence we can only know or translate reality via such categories. Which is not to say that reality is our categories, only that any reality we can know it filtered through those categories. To know meaning to have meaning, hence semantic nominalism. This is not linguistic nominalism, since our basic categories/image schema are pre-linguistic but have semantic content via our embodied relationships. Hence there is this non-dualistic relationship between our pre-linguistic basic categories and objects which still allows for real objects to exist without that relationship. But when going linguistic we might make two mistakes: 1) forget this embodied grounding and separate the linguistic words from the pre-linguistic meanings; and thus 2) separate embodied meanings in words from reality as such into two distinct and separate ontological realms, one samsara and the other nirvana. Or a formal, metaphysical view by another name.

Image schematic basic categories are our link to experiencing and translating reality, but cannot do so with reality in toto. Nonetheless, reality for us cannot exist without these basic categories. Per L&J language arises from and extends these embodied image schema, so language too has as much claim to our experience of reality once it emerges. There is no going back to some pre-linguistic and pure apprehension of reality as such, since such a chimera never existed in the first place.

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What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

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