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  • Précis of Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy
  • Evan Thompson (bio)

The central idea of Waking, Dreaming, Being is that the self is a process, not a thing or an entity.1 The self isn’t something outside experience, hidden either in the brain or in some immaterial realm. It is an experiential process that is subject to constant change. We enact a self in the process of awareness, and this self comes and goes depending on how we are aware.

When we’re awake and occupied with some manual task, we enact a bodily self geared to our immediate environment. Yet this bodily self recedes from our experience if our task becomes an absorbing mental one. If our mind wanders, the mentally imagined self of the past or future overtakes the self of the present moment.

As we start to fall asleep, the sense of self slackens. Images float by, and our awareness becomes progressively absorbed in them. The impression of being a bounded individual distinct from the world dissolves. In this hypnagogic state, the borders between self and not-self seem to fall away.

The feeling of being a distinct self immersed in the world comes back in the dream state. We experience the dream from the perspective of the self within it, or the dream ego. Although the entire dream world exists only as a content of our awareness, we identify our self with only a portion of it—the dream ego that centers our experience of the dream world and presents itself as the locus of our awareness.

At times, however, something else happens. We realize we’re dreaming, but instead of waking up we keep right on dreaming with the knowledge that we’re dreaming. We enter what is called a lucid dream. Here we experience a different kind of awareness, one that witnesses the dream state. No matter what dream contents come and go, including the forms the dream ego takes, we can tell they’re not the same as our awareness of being in the dream state. We no longer identify only with our dream ego—the “I” as dreamed—for our sense of self now includes our dreaming self: the “I” as dreamer.

Similarly, while meditating in the waking state, we can simply witness being conscious and watch whatever sensory or mental events occur within the field of our awareness. We can also watch how we may identify with some of them as “Me” or appropriate some of them as “Mine.”

According to the Indian yogic traditions, which broadly construed include Buddhism, we can distinguish three aspects of consciousness.2 The first aspect is awareness, the second is the contents of awareness, and the third is how we experience some of these contents of awareness as “I” or “Me” or “Mine.” From this perspective, to understand how we enact a self we need to understand three things—the nature [End Page 927] of awareness and its sensory and mental contents, the mind-body processes that produce these contents, and how some of these contents come to be experienced as “I” or “Me” or “Mine.”

In Waking, Dreaming, Being, I take this threefold framework of awareness, contents of awareness, and self-experience—or what the Indian tradition calls “I-making” (ahaṃkāra)—and put it to work in cognitive science. Whereas the Indian thinkers mapped consciousness and I-making in philosophical and phenomenological terms, I show how their insights can also help to advance the neuroscience of consciousness by weaving together neuroscience and Indian philosophy in an exploration of wakefulness, falling asleep, dreaming, lucid dreaming, out-of-body experiences, deep and dreamless sleep, forms of meditative awareness, and the process of dying.

The organizing principle for the book comes from the Indian tradition, specifically from the Upaniṣads, which arguably contain the world’s first recorded map of consciousness. The earliest texts—the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and Chāndogya Upaniṣads—delineate three principal states of the self—the waking state, the dream state, and the state of deep and dreamless sleep. The later text of the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad adds a fourth state...


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pp. 927-933
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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