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BOOK REVIEW: Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying ed. by Francisco J. Varela

Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: An Exploration of ConsciousnessSleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness by Dalai Lama XIV
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is a product of the 4th Mind & Life Institute Conference that took place over five days in October of 1992 in Dharamsala, India. It reads as a narrated description / transcription of the event. The Mind & Life Institute was established as a dialogue between science and Tibetan Buddhism, and is actively supported by His Holiness the Dalai Lama—who is an important figure in the book, both asking questions of the presenters and offering clarification on Tibetan Buddhist thinking on various points. The exact subject of each conference is different, but the mind is a recurring theme. Which makes sense as Tibetan Buddhist practices of the mind are as advanced as any, and it would be of great benefit to understand them better from a scientific perspective.

As the title suggests, this conference (and the book) deal with three topics: sleeping, dreaming, and dying. This may seem like a case of “one of these things doesn’t belong,” but from the Buddhist perspective on consciousness it’s a sensible enough grouping. One can think of it this way, sleeping and dying are points at which consciousness goes bye-bye. [Although, lucid dreamers retain consciousness in REM sleep, and there are unsubstantiated claims of the ability to maintain consciousness in sleep by extremely advanced practitioners.]

There is some front matter (a forward by the Dalai Lama and an editor’s Introduction) and then eight chapters. The first chapter discusses both the Western and Tibetan perspectives on “the self,” what it is, and whether it is [real or illusory.] This topic seems unrelated to the book’s theme, but it’s a way to develop a common understanding for the rest of the discussion. If participants have different views on what a person is, mentally speaking, and what consciousness is, then it’s easy to talk past each other without even realizing it. The second chapter is an overview of what was known about sleep, principally from the perspective of neuroscience (it should be noted that neuroscience was a fairly fledgling term at that time.) The next three chapters (ch. 3, 4, and 5) are about dreaming. The third chapter is a bit unique. The general approach throughout the book is to give the understanding of science and then to compare and contrast that with Buddhist thinking. However, chapter three’s discussion is led by a proponent of psychoanalysis (i.e. the Freudian approach,) which isn’t so scientific, but is a Western philosophical approach. [Chapter one is also heavily philosophical.]

Chapters four and five delve into the subject of lucid dreaming, which is referred to as dream yoga in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. For me this was the meat of the subject, and it was the reason that I bought the book. Tibetan practices on lucid dreaming are incomparable, and at this point science’s understanding was beginning to blossoming as well.

The last three chapters are on death, and each offers a different character. The first two emphasize Western views, but in different ways. Chapter six outlines the Christian position on death—a theological rather than scientific understanding. Chapter seven explains the medical community’s view of death. This sounds straight forward, but it’s a much more technical subject than one might imagine. What organ has to stop functioning and for how long before one is actually dead. Besides all the coma patient stories, one may be aware of cases historically in which people were discovered to have been buried alive accidentally due to bad calls by doctors. The last chapter is about near-death experiences. This is an area in which there is a great potential for differing views. While science doesn’t deny that people have all sorts of fascinating experiences such as seeing bright lights at the end of “tunnels” and out-of-body experiences, scientists tend to attribute such events to material causes. [Neuroscientists can now induce out-of-body experiences by zapping a specific part of the brain.]

There are graphics in the form of diagrams and tables in the chapters that are most technical (e.g. chapter two and chapter seven,) but they are used sparingly. There’s an appendix that describes the Mind & Life Institute, as well as a glossary that explains both Tibetan and scientific terms. There are also a few pages of end notes that will help one find related material.

The weakness of this book is clearly its age. The Buddhism probably hasn’t changed much, but the science has changed a lot. Since 1992 there has been a revolution in understanding of the brain due to advances in functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and other technologies.

However, despite the book’s age, there’s a lot of thought-provoking discussion, which offers plenty of room for both scientists and Buddhists to gain a better understanding of the mind and consciousness. I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in dream yoga / lucid dreaming, or—for that matter—death.

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