Who Am I?

The other day I came across a book on Tibetan Buddhism and the topic of lucid dreaming. I’ve long been interested in Buddhism, primarily perhaps because it is a very philosophical religion, especially in relation to philosophy of mind, and relatively undogmatic in terms of religious commitments. As I expect you know, lucid dreaming is simply the state of being aware that you’re dreaming – you “wake up” in the dream and think, “Oh! I’m dreaming!” Occasionally, this allows you to control aspects of your dream – to fly, perhaps, change locations, explore your fantasies – whatever. Buddhists are interested in this phenomenon primarily because they believe that there is a sense in which everything is a dream or illusion, including our “waking” existence. Waking up in a dream therefore helps us to gain insights that help us to “wake up” to the illusions that shape our daily lives, and in the process we may discover the deeper state of consciousness that underlies our everyday awareness, thus bringing us closer to “enlightenment”.

Reading this account, I was struck by certain parallels and differences with Descartes. In the Meditations, while employing his “method of doubt”, Descartes wonders whether at any “waking” moment he may not in fact be dreaming. Ultimately, he concludes – at this stage in his argument, anyway – we can’t know. Eventually he will decide that, even if everything is a dream or illusion, he can at least be certain that he (his mind) must exist: “I think therefore I am” (the Cogito argument). In order to think, I must exist . Therefore, while I am thinking, it must be true that I (my mental self, at least) must exist. “Ah!” you say, “But what if you were to stop thinking! Wouldn’t you thereby also stop existing?” Touché.

This is the basis of the old joke (which I’ve mentioned elsewhere): Descartes walks into a bar and orders a drink. He finishes it and the barman asks him, “Another?” “I think not,” Descartes replies—and promptly disappears. But the joke does raise a serious objection: if our thinking guarantees our existence, then what happens when we’re not thinking? So, according to this interpretation, Descartes’s argument would seem to be vulnerable to objections based on unconsciousness or deep sleep.

In his excellent book on Descartes, André Gombay calls this the “lay” interpretation of the Cogito – that is, the less sophisticated or “common” interpretation that someone in the pub might outline (assuming a Cartesian pub). We may contrast this with the “clerical” or professional interpretation usually adopted by philosophers: I cannot doubt the existence of my mind (at least while I am thinking), which suggests that I am my mind and not my body; I am a thinking thing. This more sophisticated interpretation doesn’t imply that I may pop out of existence when I have a nap; I don’t exist because I think, but rather my thinking necessarily implies my existence.

You may think this distinction between the two interpretations an overly subtle one, and may still be left worrying about where “you” go to when you’re snoring like a train in deep and dreamless slumber – and you would have a point, I think. I’m not a Cartesian scholar, so I may be wrong, but it seems that Descartes doesn’t directly address this objection anywhere. In fact, he seems at certain places in the Meditations even to entertain the “joke” interpretation himself. And so, in Meditations II, we find:

“I am – I exist: this is certain; but how often? As often as I think; for perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be.”

Of course, if he were only saying, a bit like Aristotle – who argued that humans are defined by their possession of reason – that “thought is our defining quality”, then the joke interpretation would remain merely a joke. The fact that we can think (or reason) doesn’t mean we have to do it all the time. But in arguing that we are “thinking things”, Descartes seems to imply that thinking is the process that makes us what we are, just as – for example – “being cube shaped” is what makes a box what it is, or “being round” makes a circle a circle. But once a circle stops being round, or a box cube shaped, then surely it is no longer that thing. And so when we stop thinking, don’t we also stop being “thinking things”? So perhaps the joke isn’t really a joke after all.

In relation to this, the Buddhist views on dreaming, sleep and consciousness are especially relevant and interesting. Tibetan Buddhism divides sleep into three types: the Sleep of Ignorance, Samsaric Sleep, and Clear Light Sleep. The Sleep of Ignorance is simply dreamless sleep (“sleeping like a log”), Samsaric Sleep is the equivalent of REM sleep (dreaming), and the third state is that of dreamless self-awareness, which Western psychology has no real equivalent concept for. We can see here that the Sleep of Ignorance is problematic for Descartes – but also for Buddhism, because, like Descartes, Buddhists consider the mind to be the ultimate reality. So how does Buddhism attempt to overcome this problem?

To understand this we must understand what is involved in Samsaric Sleep. The term “samsara” describes the world of illusion which most of us take for reality – our thoughts and perceptions, our desires and feelings, our identity, our sense of separateness. Buddhists consider all such things illusory, because all experience is ultimately “empty” (Sunyata) and without real existence. “You” think that “you” exist, but all “you” consist of is a random bundle of constantly changing thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, etc, that hold loosely together (in this sense, there is perhaps some resemblance to views held by David Hume). But this “bundle” is really just a bunch of prejudices; we hang on to certain feelings and experiences, positive and negative, and run from others. This defines our “personality”. But in reality, “you” are simply pure consciousness – an “I” without a fixed identity – which persists while the other things change or pass away. In fact, it would be more exact to say that we don’t possess a separate “I” at all, but are in fact merely partakers of the same state of awareness or being – Buddha-nature – which pervades the universe and unites all conscious beings, who are somewhat like radios all tuned to the same frequency. Translating this into Western terminology, we would therefore say that Buddhism is a monist philosophy (everything is part of the same single thing), and idealist (the true reality is mental). But if mind is the ultimate reality, and the real “you” is this state of consciousness, then what happens to that state during the Sleep of Ignorance?

You can see here that Buddhists face a similar problem to Descartes, but they go about solving it in a different way. Whereas for Descartes (arguably) all thought consists of concepts – involving a thinker (subject), a thought (mental content), and a thing thought about (object) – Buddhists acknowledge that consciousness may also be “non-conceptual”. The highest state of awareness that Buddhist lucid dreamers achieve when they “wake up” from the dream to the true nature of reality (Clear Light Sleep) is without or beyond concepts, and thus involves no division between thinker, object, and thought, none of which “really” exist. Furthermore, once this state of consciousness has been achieved, practitioners recognise that it was always present, but they simply hadn’t recognised it. In other words, there is a sense in which “we” are conscious all the time, but we only recognise this fact once we experience the nature of true consciousness.

All this may sound mystifying and self-contradictory – how can you be conscious in a way that you aren’t aware of? – and perhaps it is. However, maybe we could compare the situation to those actions we perform “unconsciously” – driving a car, cooking while listening to the radio – that obviously involve some degree of “awareness”, but where long stretches of time can go by without our seeming to be aware of our actions – unless we burn a finger on the cooker or have to swerve to avoid a cat. Could it be that certain forms of consciousness don’t lay down memories? In which case, it might be possible to be conscious during the Sleep of Ignorance and yet not remember it.

I’m not suggesting that this is the case, necessarily, and I’m not a Buddhist, but I think it’s interesting that both Buddhism and Western philosophy seem at different points to have arrived at the same problem. Descartes’s solution seems problematic and possibly incoherent; Buddhism’s perhaps less so but more radical, as it involves sacrificing our everyday notions of self and identity in favour of something much broader, much more impersonal, and therefore also much harder to define. For Buddhism, there would be no joke, for “I” don’t really exist anyway – but I’ll take that drink now anyway, please, barman.

Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.

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