For a transcript of this interview, see below.
Most OBE’s are probably lucid dreams, and you can test this in your own dreams.
Join Andrew in an interview with Evan Thompson, a remarkable conversation that covers a vast terrain of topics. This interview with Evan Thompson begins with a look at enactivism, the revolutionary concept explored with neuroscientist Francesco Varela in the landmark book The Embodied Mind, co-authored with Evan. The enactive view provides a platform for “I-making” as explored in Dr. Thompson’s most recent book, Waking Dreaming Being – that the self is an ongoing process of construction, a process that can be explored as the sense of self trans-forms when we fall into sleep and dream.
The conversation then turns to “quantum phenomenology,” Evan’s term for the highly discerning mind developed by meditators. In this context they explore the difference between access consciousness and phenomenal consciousness, a distinction that is critical for lucid dreamers.
The discussion then makes the important distinction between consciousness (which is dualistic) and awareness (which is non-dualistic), and then transitions to examine the place of psychedelics in exploring the nature of mind, and a provocative look at out-of-body (OBE) experiences, which are usually altered-embodied experiences. Most OBE’s are probably lucid dreams, and you can test this in your own dreams.
Evan Thompson concludes with a look at his next book, Why I am NOT a Buddhist, and the many shadow elements of Buddhist modernism, and the promise and peril of East-West cross-pollination — which can easily slip into cross-pollution. The discussion ends with a look at Buddhist exceptionalism, and the novel idea of cosmopolitanism.
See why Dr. Thompson is one of the most sought after thinkers in the world today!
About Evan Thompson
Evan Thompson is a writer and professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He works on the nature of the mind, the self, and human experience. His work combines cognitive science, philosophy of mind, phenomenology, and cross-cultural philosophy, especially Asian philosophical traditions. He is the author of Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy (Columbia University Press, 2015); Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (Harvard University Press, 2007); and Colour Vision: A Study in Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Perception (Routledge Press, 1995). He is the co-author, with Francisco J. Varela and Eleanor Rosch, of The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (MIT Press, 1991, revised edition 2016). Evan is an Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Read more…
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Welcome, everybody. I cannot tell you how excited I am to be hosting our guest today, my friend, Evan Thompson. We’ve been sending emails back and forth probably for six or seven months to arrange this. He’s been extremely generous to give some of his time and offer his tremendous expertise and scholarship on these topics. I can’t wait to dive into some really juicy material in this upcoming session. But I, of course, want to introduce Evan and I will do that in a more formal way. And then we’re just going to let this thing run and see where it takes us.
Evan Thompson is a professor of philosophy at University of British Columbia, but he is also an associate member of the Department of Asian Studies and Department of Psychology. He’s the author of many books including “Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy,” “Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind.” And co-author of “The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience.” His latest book, and I really want to talk a little bit about this at the very end of our program, is provocatively entitled, “Why I Am Not a Buddhist,” which will be available from Yale University Press January 2020. So, Evan, thank you so much, my dear friend, for taking the time to join us. What a delight.
Thank you very much for inviting me. It’s great to be here.
I have to share with our audience, we met under the most interesting circumstances. You may recall, it was at this utterly unique event that was hosted by Richie Davidson and his amazing Center for the Investigation of Healthy Minds. The reason I’m going to say just a little bit about this is because the meeting was actually resonant with part of what we’re doing in our Night Club charter, which I’ll give you a brief review on and for our listeners, what we did here was at the behest of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He had asked Richie Davidson to partake in an extraordinarily difficult study both culturally and scientifically in an effort to study what the Tibetan buddhists refer to as thukdam, which is a kind of post-death meditative absorption. It is wildly esoteric.
The conference was really extraordinary. We had neuroscientists, we had philosophers, we had Tibetan medical doctors, meditators, mystics, and basically anybody we could pull in off the street. It was an extraordinary event. I had the great good fortune of meeting you during that occasion. And I don’t know about you, but that stands out for me as truly one of the inimitable events of my recent couple years.
That was an amazing event. So I guess that was back in, like, I don’t remember, 2010 or 2011 maybe. I wrote about it in the chapter on dying and death in my book, “Waking, Dreaming, Being,” and that was an amazing event. Yeah. And, as you say, that’s where we met.
I was back in Madison about a year ago and had a chance to hang out with Richie. Actually, the anthropologist who is now on-site in India, with all the gadgetry that they have out there, trying to collect this data that if and when it can be substantiated in a Western way. The prescience of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a paradigm buster. It really does expand the kind of myopic lens that the West has on what mind is and how it expresses itself and things like that.
Maybe we can circle around that too. That’s such a fantastic topic. But I want to get back to a couple other things with you to least launch this conversation. First of all, I want to applaud you for the extraordinary contributions that you’ve made and certainly the influence you’ve had in my life. I think you’re one of these rare beings who possesses a truly open mind and has the ability to tolerate open questions very much in the spirit of your mentor, Francisco Varela, and you are an exemplar of a scholar-practitioner. You walk the talk. or I should say you sit the talk, and your text…I want to start by talking a little bit about “The Embodied Mind” as we lead into “Waking, Dreaming, Being.”
“Waking, Dreaming, Being,” if there was a core text that I had to recommend for our audience, this would be it because this magnificent opus covers such an ordinary array of topics and every page is just packed with insights. For our listeners. I cannot recommend this book too highly. And I can’t tell you how many times I read it and studied it. And every time I go through it, I discover more.
Let me just tell you very briefly what we’re doing with our Night Club venture and then I’ll turn most of this over to you. Part of what we’re doing is designing kind of an online, international forum, a virtual university, virtual monastery, whatever you want to call it, where we can support the nocturnal adventures of oneironauts – those who are willing to explore the nocturnal mind, which to me, is just subtle states of mind. That’s what’s revealed in the journey.
In the back of our Night Club, we have playfully what’s referred to as Night School, which is basically six kind of tracks or curricula where we create a container for this exploration. The first one is the science and medicine of sleep. Then there’s the daily meditations, which include classic mindfulness, shamatha to vipassana meditations and the practice of illusory form. We also have a of four-part track of the nocturnal practices themselves, lucid dreaming, dream yoga, sleep yoga, and then bardo yoga. And then my schema, Evan, the way I kind of map these out is somewhat Hegeliann approach where dream yoga transcends but includes lucid dreaming, sleep yoga transcends but includes those two, and then bardo yoga transcends but includes all three.
I would love to start with a brief summary and I know it’s difficult to summarize such a profound text but the work that you co-authored with Francesco Varela, really eminent neuroscientist and really kind of the father of neurophenomenology and then Eleanor Rosch, “The Embodied Mind,” this book has really been a landmark text in the cognitive sciences.
If you could, Evan, as a kind of a prelude to where I want to take this conversation with you, is talk to us a little bit about the inactive view, what enactivism really represents, why is this such an original contribution, and in particular, how we can use these inactive tenets to understand the construction of this thing we call self. Is that a reasonable place to start?
That sounds great. Let me just start by thanking you for the very generous words you said about my writing. That really means a lot and it’s great to get that kind of feedback and response. It’s very inspiring to be here something like that and to take that and go on in new writing, in new work. So thank you for that. I really appreciate that.
With the book, “The Embodied Mind,” we began writing that book in 1986 is actually when we really first started writing, Francisco Varela and I. Francisco Varela was a neuroscientist and a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, very pioneering scientist known for a lot of original theoretical and experimental work in a number of different areas.
The basic reason we started writing that book is that cognitive science was, you could say it was really emerging and exploding, in the 1980s. By cognitive science, what we mean is the interdisciplinary examination of the mind and its relationship to the brain and the body using the tools of neuroscience and computer science and psychology and philosophy, linguistics.
One of the things that cognitive science was really making clear is that what we call the mind or the self isn’t a thing, it’s a collection of changing and interrelated processes. That’s, in a way, a very profound insight but it wasn’t being connected back to what mind and self are for us experientially, or you could say phenomenologically in terms of how we live our experience and the various structures that our experience takes for us.
So we were concerned to build a bridge between the scientific perspective and the experiential perspective. And then the question was, well, how exactly to do that? That’s where Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist meditation practice entered the story for us is that the Buddhist philosophical view of mind was always one that saw the mind is not a thing but as a collection of interrelated processes. But that was grounded in an experiential perspective. It was a theoretical perspective but it also had an experiential dimension. So we wanted to draw from the resources of that tradition in a way that could feed into and enrich cognitive science.
The way that that culminated for us in this idea of enaction was to develop a line of argument drawing on both cognitive science and Buddhist thought, where instead of seeing the self as something fixed and the world as something fixed and the relationship between them being the self is representing an independent outside world. Instead to see them as both interdependent and co-emergent where meaning was enacted or created through that interdependency. The way I just stated it now, it’s very abstract, but we tried to illustrate that through a whole bunch of concrete examples in how perception works, how action works. And we use the term inaction to mean you could say cognition as embodied sense-making rather than as the representation of an independent outside world by an independent inside mind.
That’s amazing. I guess you’re already hitting on so many topics that we could really start to riff on. One is this idea of, in a very real way, I think you could argue and you do in “The Embodied Mind” when you bring in the tenets of dependent origination and the 12 nidanas that this is another way to talk about an origination/emptiness. A kind of joining the best of the East and the West and this somewhat unsettling notion about how fundamentally nothing is fixed. It’s not just self or other, it’s any phenomenal display rises in this vast interconnected nexus of causes and conditions. Lest we think this is some abstract, philosophical parlor game, this has tremendous implications for how we live our lives and how we relate to ourselves and others.
Also, kind of the double entendre of how it is that we literally make sense of reality that…and this is where I want to take this idea of enactivism and kind of bolt this topic into the practicalities of our lives. This process that you talk about quite extensively in “Waking, Dreaming, Being,” of I-making. How it is that we go out in usually a completely unconscious, i.e. non-lucid way, and they’re constantly co-creating our entire reality, both self and other in this kind of elegant dance, however unconscious it may be. That can either give rise to a great deal of suffering if it remains unconscious because then we’re just kind of prisoners of this process.
Or if we can bring these unconscious processes into the light of awareness, and this for me is how I use the word lucidity. When I play with lucid dreams, I’m more of just a lucid principle of the lucidity principle altogether, the awareness principle. So let’s go a little bit further with this. Let’s talk a little bit about how it is neurologically and then even in a resulting phenomenological expression, how it is that we literally go about making sense of our world and unaware that we’re actually doing so.
Well, that’s a huge topic. So the way that I come at that in “Waking, Dreaming, Being” is really through, as you say, thinking about how our sense of self is constructed. I use the term I-making for that. And that’s actually a more or less literal rendition of the Sanskrit term Ahamkara, which is used throughout different Indian philosophical systems, understood in different ways by those different systems. But generally, it refers to how the sense of I is constituted or created, or you might take dynamically put together. And in “Waking, Dreaming, Being” what I’m specifically interested in is how our sense of having or being a self shifts across the whole sleep-wake cycle of consciousness.
So for example, the framework I use to talk about this is to distinguish…and here again, I’m drawing this from Indian philosophical traditions is to distinguish between awareness, the changing contents of awareness and then ways that various contents get identified with as I, or me, or mine, and others as not me, or not I, or not mine. So, there’s a kind of division or cut made within awareness with regard to contents that are identified with as self and those that are then, you could say, dis-identified with as not self. And what I’m interested in is how that…I see that as a dynamic process.
So how that changes across, let’s say, waking perception where when you’re very much engrossed in a kind of task that requires perception and movement. It might be driving, or it might be playing tennis or it might be tapping at your computer, you have this kind of absorbed sense of self that’s very much grounded on the feeling of the body as self.
But then if you start daydreaming or mind-wandering, then the contents that you’re generating are mental contents that are, you could say, decoupled from that immediate perceptual contents and that are drawing on images from memory, images that you project into the future. They’re purely mental images but you identify with them as something that is you both in terms of, you could say, what’s presented in the image. So, you might have an image of yourself in memory, but also the experience of imaging as a mental process. It feels as if it’s yours, but it’s happening in this kind of mental arena that psychologists called mental time travel where you project yourself into the past or forward into the future.
Of course, meditators are very familiar with this. Say you’re sitting in meditation and maybe you’re practicing mindfulness of breathing. Well, as we all know, the mind generates its own kind of spontaneous contents. And many of them are images of things that you immediately feel affectively and cognitively identify as self. But they’re within this mentally created space that projects you into the past or projects you into the future. So that’s sort of one dynamic of I-making just in the waking state, which is the difference between you might say sort of absorbed, embodied activity, with a very bodily grounded sense of self. It’s a sense of self that’s like the mental spinning of a tale or of a story.
And then we can think about what happens as you start to feel drowsy and as you fall asleep and that might happen in ordinary night’s sleep or it might happen in, say, the context of sitting meditation. There, especially if we are thinking of trying to be as attentive to what happens as possible, so not just kind of crashing into sleep but being very attentive to the way that the transition from waking into sleeping is actually quite extended and has a sort of fine-grained texture that we can examine that psychologists called the hypnagogic state, the state meeting into sleep. This is where we have the same kind of mental content generation process happening. But there’s a sense of absorption and a kind of dissolution of self-other boundaries that happens, what some psychologists call a kind of dissolving of ego boundaries.
So that sense of I-making then is in a way, you might say, it’s shifting or it’s coming apart so that it’s not this very subject-object kind of structured experience. It’s more of an absorbed, almost rolling, you might say, spellbound or kind of fascination with images. And then there’s a drop into sleep, which is a kind of blackout as it were.
Then in the dream state, if it’s a vivid-imagistic dream, that sense of the word dream, then that sense of self reemerges where, again, there’s a distinction between what self and not self but now within the context of the dream state. But the dream state is, of course, entirely a mentally generated content.
Then in a lucid dream, you become aware of that. So the sense of self shifts again. This is what the term I-making, for me, really encompasses is a way of tracking all of those changes in the sense of self and how they’re very much being dynamically created through mental activity across the sleep-wake cycle.
That’s fantastic, Evan. It’s really exactly confluent with what my aspirations are with our little Night Club venture because really, you know, there’s a lot of kind of self-help or code words going on with what we’re doing. You know, darkness is a code word for ignorance of the unconscious mind and lucidity is the code word for awareness. Dream, and this is what I’d like to talk to you a little bit later because you talk and ask this question and attempt to answer it in your book, you know, what is dream? On one level for me, dream is manifestation of mind. But what I think is so kind of resonant here is this is exactly the way I use these nocturnal practices. Excuse isn’t the right word, but as a medium to explore the construction and deconstruction of the self-sense is in transitions to these different levels of integration and disintegration.
Just to come back to something you said at the outset, I believe this kind of self-othering and not self-distinction is also something that Francisco was starting to explore towards the end of his life when he was working with kind of the deeper iterations of, you can say, the immunology principle and how it is that, you know, what we know of biological immunology and that you have kind of philosophical applications.
But what I want to talk to you a little bit here is, to me, what it seems like maybe this is one way to look at it, and let me see if this lands with you, is one way I talk about ego is ego is exclusive identification with form. One thing I’m hearing when you’re speaking this way, Evan, is that in a certain sense, when we go from the illusion of a fully constituted self, here in a Freudian sense, you know, ego is first and foremost a body ego. And when we fall asleep, ego is provisionally falling apart because this identification with somatic physical form is falling apart.
But the way I look at it now, especially in these kinds of liminal dreaming stays, which is a new term, sometimes used for the hypnagogic space, it’s almost as if the sense of self is being handed off from gross to subtle to very subtle form as ego disintegrates from its exclusive identification with outer form, then the baton, so to speak, is handed to imagistic or so-called mental content until that eventually dissolves and one loses consciousness all together in the non-experience of the dreamless state. Then, of course, the whole thing is kind of reconstituted as we come out from that and kind of reconfigure everything back together. But to me, would it be a fair thing to say, Evan, that the common denominators throughout this entire cascade is, in fact, either gross or subtle levels of identification with form? I mean, isn’t that one way to talk about what you were just referring to?
Very much so. I think you could use the word form. I tend to talk about it in terms of identifications for different kinds of contents, mental contents or contents of awareness. I mean, but those contents have various kinds of forms. So they might be, if we’re thinking of, say, the hypnagogic state, they can be visual images, they can be images and other sense modalities, they can be thought-forms. Of course, all of those kinds of contents and forms reappear in the dream state. Then there’s an interesting question about sleep states that are dreamless where you may have other kinds of subtle forms that don’t really make up a dream in the sense of an immersive experience of being in an immersive space that has some sense of time and sense of place that would be the case for a sort of typical imagistic dream but there may be other subtler forms of contents that are present. And still, there’s…I mean, it’s an interesting question to ask, you know, what exactly the sense of I were subjectivity is like for those subtler forms, as you call them, or subtler contents.
And so, actually, part of what I talked about in “Waking, Dreaming, Being,” is that it’s the whole nature of dreamless sleep or deep sleep, both from a physiological perspective and from an experiential perspective because the standard sort of line in neuroscience that we often hear is that, well, dreamless sleep is a blackout state. It’s a state of absence of consciousness. If you actually look at what the neuroscience evidence is and what people mean when they say that, it’s not so straightforward at all. The state of dreamless sleep is not one thing, there are many, sort of, sub-states and different kinds of forms or contents and qualities. It’s not one thing in terms of what the brain is doing. If you wake people up from that state and you ask them to describe their experience, you get different kinds of reports depending on the questions you ask. So that’s a complicated realm in and of itself, whereas you say, the forms are not gross, they’re much subtler.
To me, what comes to mind is what Ramana Maharshi once famously and cryptically said that really when I take it to heart almost puts the Western view of reality completely up on its head where he said, “That which does not exist in deep dreamless sleep is not real.” So, the implication there is, well, what really does “exist” is, one could argue, formless awareness. In that sense, that is…and you mentioned in your book, especially as a representative of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, that state is referred to sometimes actually as a causal state. I mean, it is from that formlessness out of which everything then arises.
What happens in the West, at least from my lens, Evan, is this kind of wake-centricity, this kind of ontological supremacy that we attribute to the waking state because that’s fundamentally the state that we have the most control over, at least allegedly. Then when that control falls apart as we fall asleep, we tend to dismiss these more subtle states simply because we’re not lucid to them. And so the reason I’m saying this is that part of the charter of these nocturnal meditations is that if, in fact, we can maintain lucidity or awareness as we drop into these deep states, we realize this kind of ultimate democracy of the mind, what the Buddhist tradition refers to as one taste for the great equanimity, kind of the equanimous nature of consciousness through all these different states.
That’s what I find just fantastically interesting is to see how it is that we come online in the morning, literally go offline at night, and then how each one of these experiences that we have access to every single night can bring a greater sense of awareness and appreciation. As you say in your book, this is what’s so beautiful, gives us the opportunity to really be more fully human. I mean on one level, if we only attribute reality to the one-third of what’s available to us, categorically not temporally, another was the waking state, we’re leaving out two-thirds of reality. I think this fullness that you’re alluding to could really be explored using the medium of these nocturnal practices and obviously, the really subtle daytime meditations that support them. I just wanted to toss that into the mix.
Yes, I’m very sympathetic with that. William James in his lectures on the varieties of religious experience, in his chapter on mysticism, has this wonderful statement that the ordinary waking state is just this very limited, kind of, slice of a much, much wider spectrum of consciousness. He says something like, “It’s the filmiest of screens that separates the waking state from all of these other states,” and all of these other states include the ones that we cycle through on a daily basis as we fall asleep and as we dream or as we practice or spontaneously have lucid dreams, as we descend into the depths of sleep and as we reemerge into awakening. So, I think that that’s exactly right.
I think there’s an interesting difference in perspective. I mean, as you say, there’s a kind of orientation that we’re culturally very familiar with that privileges the waking state. Whereas when Ramana Maharshi speaks in that way that you quoted, that’s very much reflecting probably a kind of yoga Vedanta perspective, where what happens in deep sleep is you would turn to a kind of ground state of consciousness that is, as you say, causal in the sense that that’s kind of the fundamental level like a zero energy state in physics. Then the waking state and the dreaming state are, sort of, excited states out of that low energy state, which is what’s present in deep sleep.
A tradition like Vedanta and yoga, you could say, prioritize that state because it’s what you descend through in order to experience the fullness of being, or Brahma if we’re talking about it in a Vedanta or yoga discourse. Some versions of Buddhism are not so sympathetic to that idea, but then other developments of Buddhism are much closer to that. So that’s an interesting cultural difference.
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