THE BLOG
11/01/2014 07:09 pm ET Updated Jan 01, 2015

Waking, Dreaming, Being

Simon Winnall via Getty Images

Dreaming and waking up have puzzled and fascinated humanity since prehistoric times. Paleolithic cave paintings, according to some art historians, depict mental images from dreams and the borderland between sleep and wakefulness. The ancient Indian texts called the Upanishads describe three states of the self -- waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. The early Chinese Daoist philosopher, Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu, 369-298 B.C.E.), wrote that only after one is "greatly awakened" does one realize that it was all a "great dream," while the fool thinks that he is awake. The word "Buddha" means "Awakened One."

Lucid dreaming -- being aware of dreaming while you're dreaming -- is a vivid way to experience waking up and dreaming at the same time. You wake up within the dream without waking up from the dream. In the 1980s scientists showed that lucid dreaming is a real and unique state of consciousness in sleep. In the past four years, brain-imaging experiments have been done with lucid dreamers. Instead of cave art depicting the dream world, we now have images of the dreaming brain.

The first time I went to India I had a lucid dream that inspired me to write my new book, Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. I was asked to speak at a dialogue, organized by the Mind and Life Institute, with the Dalai Lama and leading neuroscientists. My first night in Dharamsala the monkeys screeching at the village dogs woke me up, so I did what I've always done, since I was a kid, to fall asleep. I let my mind drift and tried to watch for the moment when sleep would start. The next thing I knew I was flying over a tree-filled valley with the clear awareness that I was dreaming. Tibetan Buddhists say that meditating in a dream can reveal the fundamental awareness beneath waking and dreaming. So I tried to meditate but wound up flying again, still aware that I was dreaming.

The dream seemed like a good omen. It was my first lucid dream and I had come to Dharamsala to talk about the mind-brain relation from my perspective as a philosopher working to integrate Western philosophy of mind and the neuroscience of consciousness with Buddhist philosophy.

In both Western and Asian philosophy, lucid dreaming raises puzzles about the self. When I say, "I realized I was dreaming," who is "I"? When I describe "my" partial dream control, who is the agent or controller? And how is all of this -- awareness, the sense of self, and the feeling of agency -- related to my sleeping brain and body?

In my book, I propose that the self is a process, not a thing or an entity. Just as dancing is a process that enacts a dance and in which the dance is no different from the dancing, so the self is a process of "I-making," in which the "I" is no different from the making. When we're awake and occupied with some manual task, we experience our self as our body geared into our environment. Yet this self withdraws into the background 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 fall asleep, the sense of self slackens. Images float by and our awareness becomes absorbed in them. In this "hypnagogic state," the borders between self and not-self seem to fall away.

The feeling of being a distinct self comes back in the dream state. Although the dream exists as a creation of our imagination, we identify our self with only a part of what we imagine -- the dream self. But when we have a lucid dream, we experience a different kind of awareness, one that witnesses the dream state. No matter what images come and go, we can tell they're not the same as the awareness of the dream. Similarly, while meditating in the waking or dreaming states, we can simply be aware of whatever sensory or mental events arise. We can also watch how we tend to identify with some of them as "Me" and hold onto some of them as "Mine." We do this especially when we daydream about our past or future and identify with the imagined protagonist as the self.

This three-part framework -- awareness, the contents of awareness, and "I-making" -- comes from Indian philosophy. I use it combined with neuroscience to explore consciousness and the feeling of self in wakefulness, falling asleep, dreaming, lucid dreaming, out-of-body experiences, dreamless sleep, meditative awareness, and the process of dying.

Since that Mind and Life dialogue ten years ago, a growing number of scientists, philosophers, and scholars of religion have taken up the project of creating a cross-cultural and contemplative science of the mind. Many of us are gathering at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies in Boston, October 30-November 2, 2014, hosted by the Mind and Life Institute. Our hope is that science and contemplative traditions can work together on the common project of understanding the mind and giving new meaning to human life.

This post is part of a series in conjunction with the 2014 Mind & Life International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, taking place October 30 - November 2 in Boston, MA. To learn more about the Mind & Life Institute, please visit here.