Francisco Varela and Waking, Dreaming, Being

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. In today’s post on the final day of our feature, we are happy to post an excerpt from a fascinating interview of Thompson conducted by Joy Stocke at the Wild River Review. In the interview, Stocke and Thompson discuss the importance of his upbringing to his work, the influence of Francisco Varela, and the Dalai Lama, among many other topics, though we’ve chosen to focus on the discussion of Francisco Varela for this excerpt.

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WRR: Your book, ultimately, is a meditation on consciousness. Is consciousness wholly dependent on the brain or does it transcend the brain

Thompson: That’s the fundamental question of the book. I felt compelled to write about it because it kept coming up for me in different ways, some of which were personal and some intellectual. On a personal level I thought about the question a lot when I was working intensely with my friend and mentor, Chilean neuroscientist, Francisco Varela, just before he died. He was terminally ill and we knew that at some point soon he was going to die.

I write about the last real conversation I had with him, how it centered on consciousness and the question of its transcendence. It was fall of 2000 and Cisco and I were in my dad’s apartment in New York on the Upper West Side, writing a scientific article about consciousness and the brain. We weren’t raising that question at all in the article but we were talking about it a lot when we weren’t working. Cisco was a Buddhist, and knew that he was going to die soon, so transcendence was something he was contemplating. From a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, consciousness is the most fundamental luminous nature of awareness, underlying more ordinary cognitive forms of the mind, and it’s not considered to be brain dependent. Cisco took this perspective very seriously, but he was a neuroscientist, so he was also skeptical and doubtful.

The experience of talking to Cisco about this and watching him die and feel the loss intensified the question for me. It was a question that I had always thought about, having studied Asian and Western philosophy, but also having grown up in the New Age and yoga world where it was just taken for granted that people had multiple lives and that consciousness carried on after physical death.

But of course when you start studying philosophy and science, those kind of ideas get subjected to intense criticism, and all of my professional career as a philosopher working with neuroscientists put a lot of critical pressure on the beliefs that I had been raised with. So, on an intellectual level, doing work in the philosophy of mind, it was natural to constantly return to that question.

WRR: How did Francisco Varela look at all this? Especially at the end of his life when he still had much work to do. He could have felt that there was a lot he stood to lose.

Thompson: Varela had always been a very successful, groundbreaking scientist. Just before he died, he had major breakthroughs in the work he was doing on the brain basis of consciousness. Some of his studies had gotten a lot of attention, and had been published in places like Nature. He had a fantastic lab in Paris where he was bringing together people with the highest technical skills, but also with a deep interest in contemplative perspectives on consciousness.

So, the conversation I write about in Waking, Dreaming, Being occurred in my father’s apartment at a very pointed moment. Cisco was explaining to me––both from his own experience and from his understanding of Buddhist ideas––why it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that there could be an aspect to awareness or consciousness that would be unchanging across any perceptual or cognitive state, and that wouldn’t be perturbed by any bodily fluctuation. The traditional Indian image for this quality of awareness is luminosity, something I write about in the book.

Cisco was saying that from the experiential perspective of encountering the basic luminosity of awareness, which is what it is whether you’re awake or dreaming or deeply asleep or under anesthesia (he had experienced being aware under anesthesia and encountering that quality of luminosity there), it would be natural to think that consciousness is something unchanging or constant, that it wouldn’t be terminated by the death and decay of the brain. And as he was presenting that perspective, I was presenting a neuroscientific perspective on why even that line of consideration––although it’s extremely compelling from a first-person experiential perspective–-does not necessarily imply that there really is a consciousness able to persist in the absence of the brain or the body.

WRR: Was he trying to convince you otherwise?

Thompson: It was a poignant role reversal––Cisco arguing the Buddhist view while I argued the neuroscientific view. But he wasn’t trying to convince me or force anything. And I wasn’t trying to convince him; we were exploring the matter together. He was, in his words, “staying with the open question.”

I use this phrase in the book for the kind of attitude we need to cultivate, especially in the face of death. If you have the chance, watch the film Monte Grande, which is about his life, and was done shortly before he died. He talks about precisely what we’re talking about–death and what happens to consciousness. He presents the Buddhist view and he presents the neuroscience view; and he says that you have to stay with the open question, instead of trying to resolve it intellectually. You have to do that in an existential way, with your whole being, in the face of death. So that is another key thread for me in the book, this idea of staying with the open question.

WRR: How do you stay with the open question?

Thompson: For me, it means turning the question around, thinking about it from many angles, being open and curious, and following wherever the evidence and argument take you.

The question about consciousnes and brain came to the forefront in the “Mind and Life” dialogues Francisco Varela created with the Dalai Lama. (The Mind and Life Dialogues began in 1987 as a joint quest between scientists, philosophers and contemplatives to investigate the mind, develop a more complete understanding of the nature of reality, and promote well-being.) On several occasions, some of which I’ve participated in and write about in the book, the Dalai Lama has presented the Tibetan Buddhist view that pure awareness is not brain-based. Of course, the neuroscientists have immediately pushed back.

As a philosopher, I’m interested in these moments when very different traditions come together, traditions that are intellectually rigorous and that can argue with, probe, and challenge each other. I’m interested in writing that does justice to the question itself rather than in trying to present an answer and defend it against all possible objections, which is what philosophers today typically try to do.

I wanted to write a book where the question was the guiding idea for looking at a range of different kinds of experience: sleeping, dreaming, lucid dreaming, the dying process, out of body experience, and perception. I wanted to bring to bear the critical observations and arguments from several different traditions–Western science and philosophy, Indian yogic philosophies, and Indo-Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Read the interview in its entirety at the Wild River Review.

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