waking dreaming beingWaking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. by Evan Thompson. Hardcover 451 pages. Columbia University Press.

Working with dreams almost invariably leads to explorations of consciousness, identity and reality. Many of my articles (such as “Humbling Dreams,”  “When the Dream-Ego is Slippery or Sleepy,” and most recently, “Dreaming and Anatta: Non-Self”), demonstrate that these big themes are particular favorites of mine. I’m fascinated by questions about the nature of the self, waking and dreaming—but although I ponder these questions endlessly, my pondering tends to lose itself in the complexity of the subject (or else becomes poetic and misty, rather than concrete and complete).

Reading Evan Thompson’s remarkable book, “Waking, Dreaming, Being,” I find myself longing for an intelligence as sparklingly clear and lucid as his. In this book, he systematically investigates the intricacies of the very mind that is doing the investigating. With great care, and perhaps some tricks with mirrors, he examines every dancing dust mote in the shaft of sunlight that is consciousness itself. (See, I’m going for the poetry again…)

Although, as the book’s title suggests, Thompson uses straightforward language and addresses basic concepts here, I found that following the unfurling skeins of his reasoning gave my brain a good workout. It’s exhilarating to participate in such hard mental exercise, with the satisfaction of knowing it’s all about the process rather than the product: there are no easy answers to the big questions.

Like the best of scientists, Thompson rigorously tests hypotheses, but keeps an open mind in the presence of Mystery, where the scientific method is inconclusive. Like the best of spiritual explorers, he allows the imagination full engagement, values paradoxical insight and compassion, while grounding faith in common sense and separating fact from fantasy. The most trustworthy guides are those who continually find new ground within their own fields of experience. Thompson is a trustworthy guide in the fields of consciousness.

“Waking, Dreaming, Being” covers those fields of consciousness from the perspectives of neuroscience and spirituality (specifically, Vajrayana Buddhism). Consciousness—and the self which subjectively and objectively experiences consciousness—is already a slippery concept. Is consciousness dependent upon the physical brain? Are dreams hallucination or imagination, or some other form of experience entirely? Does experience define reality?

“What we experience can not be separated from how we experience. The thoughts, images, and emotions we bring to whatever we encounter, as well as the meanings we mentally impose, condition what ‘reality’ can mean to us. In this way, the waking world is mind-involving and mind-dependent. Realizing this fact—waking up to our participation in the creation of our world—resembles becoming lucid in a dream.”

–Evan Thompson, “Waking, Dreaming, Being,” p. 189

This book helps us to “wake up to our participation in the creation of our world.” But who or what is doing the waking up, creating, and participating, and who or what is being created? Ahh. This is where my mind stops, but it is where Thompson just gets started. “Waking, Dreaming, Being” takes us through the realms of consciousness we’ve “created”: ordinary waking life, ordinary dreaming, lucid dreaming, deep dreamless sleep, hypnagogic and hypnopompic experiences, meditative experiences, out-of-body experiences, near-death and dying… and more. Beyond the point where the conversation tends to turn to other topics, we persist. And the mind opens further than we thought it could, conceiving of more than we thought we could conceive.

Some bubbles are burst in the course of this book, but others just keep getting bigger and bigger, their soapy surfaces getting thinner and thinner, until there’s nothing but space and a spherical sheen surrounding everything. Finally, we don’t know whether we’re inside or outside this bubble, inside or outside the sphere of our own ideas. (And there I go, dissolving into mist and mystery again!)

If you want to stretch and strengthen your mind, this book is well worth the exercise!