Defining the nature of consciousness or the nature of the physical reality that surrounds us has been a long-standing debate among scientists or philosophers. Today, quantum mechanics provides evidence that discredits the theories of materialism and joins those of the contemplative traditions. To understand this, here is a video that addresses the essential points and that by the strength of its demonstration can engage us in an authentic cognitive revolution.
Trying to understand the nature of the mind as well as the nature of the phenomena that we perceive as reality are topics that have fascinated me for many years. At an ordinary level this may seem superfluous, even nebulous, if one thinks that things are simply what they are, while being mainly concerned with trying to build a satisfying life.
Nevertheless, whether we like it or not, appearances are deceptive and there is no longer any possible doubt that they are1Many examples support this assertion. One that is particularly eloquent is to remember that “colors exist only in the brain. In fact, they have no material reality because color is a sensation. If an object illuminated in white light appears colored to us, it is because certain wavelengths of the incident light are no longer present in the light returned by the object due to the interactions of the light with the matter of this object.” La genèse des couleurs, un dialogue entre lumière et matière, Bernard Valeur (2014).. We may not understand why, we may not even be interested in why, but whatever we think or say, the truth of the illusion remains. However, if we take the time to investigate, it can become clear that this confusion is one of the primary causes of mental suffering. This is why, it is so important to seek to understand the causes of this confusion and beyond what is the reality of who we are and what surrounds us.
While this is a topic that is historically debated among scientists and philosophers, there are three sources of knowledge that are essential to consider in forming one’s judgment: the contemplative sciences which include the systemic knowledge developed by contemplative traditions, based on individual experimentation, introspection and critical analysis of mental phenomena to describe and explain the processes and experiences of different states of consciousness; cognitive neuroscience with aspects of physiology, psychology and brain imaging; and finally quantum mechanics, whose discoveries have truly shaken up our understanding of the world and of physical objective reality.
I recently participated in a retreat with Alan Wallace who is an American Buddhist scholar, researcher, translator, interpreter, practitioner and teacher who has an abiding interest in the intersections between consciousness studies and scientific disciplines such as psychology, neuroscience and physics. He possesses a deep erudition of modern and contemplative sciences, combined with 50 years of very serious meditative practices. It is this vast fundamental and experiential knowledge that has allowed him to develop a sharp critical analysis of the nature of consciousness and the perception of reality.
The text that Alan Wallace commented on during the retreat was the Seven-Point Mind Training which is a classical teaching of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a method of mind training that relies on formal meditation practices and daily life situations to free oneself from the grip of the ego and develop qualities such as wisdom and compassion. These teachings involve the refinement of the practitioner’s motivations and attitudes to transform thoughts into virtues and develop more appropriate responses to life’s challenges.
The seven points are divided into fifty-nine aphorisms designed as a set of antidotes to undesirable mental habits and causes of suffering. One of these aphorisms is “View all phenomena as dream-like“. If at first sight this precept seems incongruous or even paradoxical, it nevertheless creates the opportunity for an intellectual and experiential journey which, if carried out with rigor, can lead to an authentic cognitive revolution.
I am therefore delighted to share the 45 minutes of explanations given by Alan Wallace on this aphorism during our retreat. He refers to the dream experience, to intersubjective reality, to the principles of materialism, to quantum mechanics, and challenges our perceptions of appearances that lead us to believe that colors, sounds, objects, attributes are all physical phenomena that exist and manifest themselves outside and independently of our consciousness.
Of course, this is a complex subject to grasp. And this is where the challenge lies: having the curiosity and the courage to engage in a profoundly counter-intuitive analysis, as the force of appearances and individual and collective habits have totally shaped our perception and conception of ourselves and the world around us. Just as we would swear that the sun revolves around the earth based on what we observe every day, what we spontaneously and naturally believe through our physical and mental perceptions is unfortunately just as false.
The video is in English, but I have integrated French, English and Italian subtitles. As Alan Wallace uses from time to time uncommon terms or terms coming from Buddhism, I have made a small glossary which includes the terms, presents briefly the contemplative masters mentioned and presents the notes and quotations from the main physicists in quantum mechanics to which he refers. The glossary is available here.
Explore the nature of appearances
The topics covered are:
- What is the nature of dreams? (00:00)
- The content of mental and sensory experiences is immaterial (06:51)
- The principles of metaphysical realism are discredited by quantum mechanics and contemplatives (14:40)
- A Cognitive Revolution: whether one is dreaming or awake, appearances and objects do not exist from their own side (22:02)
- What are the differences between the dream state and the waking state? (27:37)
- How do things exist? (29:54)
If ever there should be errors in the subtitles, please forgive me and feel free to let me know. I thank Alan Wallace for his gracious permission to share this video and his notes.
May this video inspire you to begin or deepen a personal investigation into what is, for some of us, a quest essential to human existence.
To extend the reflection, I also recommend the recent Arte documentary entitled What are the powers of thought? (in French with multilingual subtitles).
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Laurent van Steenkiste
Edited image. Original image credit: Jorm S