Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying

Book #2 was a complete mind-rogering. The book is a summary of the fourth Mind and Life conference.  These conferences are a series of encounters between His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) and prominent western scientists/philosophers in various fields.  Check out this enticing opening paragraph:

ALWAYS AND EVERYWHERE, humans have faced two major life passages in which our habitual mind seems to dissolve and enter a radically different realm. The first passage is sleep, humanity’s constant companion, transitory and filled with the dream life that has enchanted cultures from the beginning of history. The second is death, the grand and gaping enigma, the final event that organizes so much of individual existence and cultural ritual. These are ego’s shadow zones, where Western science is often ill at ease, far from its familiar territory of the physical universe or physiological causality. In contrast, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is fully at home here; in fact, it has accumulated remarkable knowledge in this area.

This mind and life conference was of particular interest because the West is not nearly as focused on or interested in death as Buddhists are.  In the Buddhist tradition, sleeping is sort of a nightly rehearsal for dying. The stages of sleep mimic the stages of the BIG sleep (or “the ultimate frontier” as the book calls it). Sleep and death are the two main occasions when we surrender our sense of self and drift into some sort of enigmatic abyss. Other less significant surrenders include sneezing, fainting and orgasm (the French for orgasm is petite mort, which translates as little death).  As I read, I kept thinking how contradictory it is that I often can’t wait for sleep, but am horrified by the prospect of death.

The most interesting topic in the ‘dream’ section of the book was lucid dreaming. Lucid dreams are dreams where you realize you are dreaming an can then control the dream.  58% of people in the United States have had a lucid dream, and roughly 21% have a lucid dream at least once a month.  But by comparison, those who have had training in Buddhist or transcendental meditation have an average of one lucid dream per week! Some of these enviable practitioners are then able to meditate within the dream. I wish I could do that.

I won’t go into the Tibetan views of death, because that is the reason to read the book.  I will highlight an interesting sub-topic: near death experiences.

“In summary, of the near-death population, 60 percent experience peace; 37 percent body separation or out-of-body experiences. Twenty-three percent entered the darkness, 16 percent saw the light, and 10 percent entered the light. The percentages follow the narrative. In other words, people abort the journey at different stages.”
Most people don’t want to come back. In fact, they get angry at the people who have resuscitated them. They’re irritated, confused, and feel that they’re being forced back into their body.  It seems that these experiences have a very beneficial effect on people. The researchers report that people who have survived clinical death or near death have greater zest for life; their concern for material life is much diminished; they have greater self-confidence; and they feel a real sense of a purpose in life. They become spiritually enthusiastic, more interested in nature, and develop a tolerance and compassion toward others. Also, they have a reduced fear of death because they have become convinced that death is a great ride!

As I was finishing this book on a business trip, I was getting my shoes shined and overheard another patron telling the shoe shiner that his wife was clinically dead for 3 minutes following childbirth.  He described an experience identical to the one described in the book, and said it took her a long time to accept that she could not experience a similar peace, clarity and timelessness in ‘this world.’  These studies and stories indicate that just maybe, something more is waiting at the edge of the ultimate frontier - our transition into non-being may be more than just turning off the light. I remain highly skeptical, but also very curious.  The good news is that we will all find out someday, the bad news is that we won't be able to discuss it. HHDL shares my skepticism:

The most striking observation of the turn of events was the Dalai Lama’s skeptical reception of the Western studies on NDEs. He seemed to be saying that these studies are misdirected. The trauma and shock that initiates these accounts and the ensuing events do not correspond to the sequential processes charted by centuries of observation of natural death. Furthermore, the qualitatively different experiential content also suggests, in his view, that NDEs are a process that is distinct from the stages of dissolution at death. His reflections on this issue are a strong caveat to many Westerners who have taken NDE accounts as predictive of what awaits them in their inevitable future 

The author of the book, who also served as the moderator of the discussions at the conference, offers his final thoughts:

I think that the issue runs even deeper, for an understanding of these levels of subtle mind requires a sustained, disciplined, and well-informed meditation practice. In a sense, these phenomena are open only to those who are willing to carry out the experiments, as it were. That some form of special training is needed for firsthand experience of new realms of phenomena is not surprising. A musician also needs special training to have access to the experiences of, say, jazz improvisation. But in traditional science such phenomena remain hidden from view, since most scientists still avoid any disciplined study of their own experience, whether through meditation or other introspective methods. Fortunately, contemporary discourse on the science of consciousness increasingly relies on experiential evidence, and some scientists are beginning to be more flexible in their attitudes toward the first hand investigation of consciousness.

More than anything, the book reminded me that through hard work and practice, one can experience and enjoy different levels of consciousness.  I think daily meditation will be a part of next year’s pledge.