Book Review: Realizing Awakened Consciousness: Interviews with Buddhist teachers and a new perspective on the mind

Book cover 1By Matthew Joseph O’Connell

Realizing Awakened Consciousness: Interviews with Buddhist teachers and a new perspective on the mind. By Richard P. Boyle. Columbia University Press, 2015.

In Realizing Awakened Consciousness (RAC), Richard P. Boyle, a retired sociology professor involved with western Buddhism for several decades, interviews 11 western Buddhist teachers and attempts to develop a theory of awakening with a straightforward model for understanding its core characteristics that leaves Buddhist terminology behind. Divided into 17 chapters with the first 11 dedicated to individual interviews with teachers, Boyle draws on his own sociology background and the work of a range of popular academics. The second section, by far the more interesting, develops a theoretical model of awakening, heavily informed by sociological theory, a first as far as I am aware, along with insight and theoretical support from a number of prominent academics including; the neurologist Antonio Damasio, psychologists Alison Gopnik and Daniel Kahneman, the linguist Derek Bickerton, and sociologists Peter Burger, Thomas Luckmann and Anthony Giddens. The book ends with Boyle making suggestions for further research and an acknowledgement of the limitations of his model. What makes Boyle’s work stand out from the usual x-Buddhist fare is his understanding and elaboration of social reality and the social self, which moves discussion away from an overtly individualised model of the self and the usual droll discourse of the ego as the source of all evil. In this regard, there is a potential link to the work of Mr Tom Pepper at Speculative Non-Buddhism (SNB) and his own site The Faithful Buddhist, whose ongoing and laboured critique of ideology and ideological blindness amongst Buddhists (and pretty much everybody else) has proven so enlightening. Secondly, Boyle eschews a model of awakening based on the superman and constructs his model in alignment with theories proposed by the academics above. Will it be yet another celebration of the sufficiency of Buddhism? Will it talk of the ineffable, perfect goal of perfect awakening? Let’s find out.

Boyle states that his goal in this book is to “take awakening out of the obscure and somewhat opaque world of Buddhist teaching and cast it in a form that could be communicated to anyone” (P.216). This seems like a positive aim. Boyle claims to have had an awakening experience himself whilst interviewing the teachers so we can assume that it is contagious! The list of teachers interviewed includes a number of prominent figures from western Buddhism; Joseph Goldstein, Stephen Batchelor, Ken McLeod, Gil Fronsdal, Shinzen Young, to name a few. I have to confess to being utterly disinterested in hearing or reading further personal confessionals regarding Buddhist awakening or enlightenment, especially when they fail to go beyond the limits of current discourse, so my comments on the first section of the book will be brief. Some of the interviewees are happy to describe themselves as awakened, others are not. The point of interest is uncovering patterns within the narratives provided by the teachers and then stripping them of any super-natural or superlative qualities. Boyle does this by picking out three common features in their awakening experiences. The interviews are fairly uncritical, though Boyle does admit this himself in his conclusions. In a way, the interviews reveal how much nothingness is present in these people’s experiences, which is to say, in using a Buddhist trope, how empty their experiences are, but also how little value such experiences likely hold, at least initially, for the wider public. They are certainly filled with positive changes for the individuals involved leading to a very high degree of well-being, which I do not think should be discounted, although the conditions for achieving such an uncommon state of being do seem rare and inevitably limited to those who can afford the time and resources to reproduce some of the conditions seemingly necessary for your average Joe to achieve similar outcomes. Boyle generally avoids the political implications of his project, although some pages are dedicated to a reflection of the social implications of awakening and a critique of American conservatives.

The teachers share similar backgrounds with Boyle stating that they all “started out young, were highly motivated and drawn to Buddhism, highly intelligent, and invested a great deal of time in meditation practices” (P.191). Unsurprisingly, the three main focusses of their combined practices in moving towards awakening were;

  1. Quieting the mind; focussing attention on immediate, sensory experience
  2. Letting go; living without conditioned desires, questioning beliefs, ideas and habits.
  3. Cultivating compassion; one’s emotional relationship to the world becomes richer

Based on the interviews, the teacher’s experiences indicated an accumulative process of small and medium sized perceptual and experiential breakthroughs that in some cases were accompanied by sudden breakthroughs in perception. These were considered to be signs of awakening by some and simply part of a wider life experience by others.

Boyle is obviously interested in finding something to define as awakening. But what is it? He points out that awakening is a vague concept and that there has been an excess of phrases used to point at it whilst suggesting it is ultimately ineffable but that if the experiences are shared, then logically, appropriate terminology should be available. He initially considers two approaches to defining the thing; an operational definition or an apophatic definition, before settling on the creation of a comparative model between awakened and ordinary consciousness, based on our current understanding of the latter. He starts out by acknowledging that awakened consciousness does not equal saintliness and that it has limits, even going as far as to point out that Gautama’s tale is an oppressive one with subsequent traditions and teachers engaged in a cock measuring contest (my words) over who has the real, authentic awakening©.

Boyle takes some infant steps in removing the excess of wonder from the thing and avoids attempting to replicate a given tradition’s model of awakening. He does hold onto some tropes found in current western Buddhist discourse, however, highlighting how the teachers spoke of a gradual process of awakening to the consciousness that he will come to define, whilst casually reminding us that these are not necessarily the “full and perfect awakening,” (P.208) whatever that might be. This occurs throughout the book, but when he relies on his sociology background, he starts to become more interesting and it is possible to see these leaky moments as a reflection of his own explorative attempt to say something of worth and make sense of his own limited conclusions.

In building towards his model of awakening, Boyle states that ordinary consciousness is caught up in the self as the primary actor in one’s world and that a disappearing self is what leads to awakening. In drawing on the teachers’ experiences, he identifies three properties of awakened consciousness;

  1. No separation from one’s environment; removing boundaries between self and others
  2. No emotional attachment to the self, fluid and dynamic, spontaneity of being, freedom, lightness, peace and equanimity
  3. Not knowing: awareness co-arises with action, freely, at each moment. Detachment from the self and the stories in which it is implanted

This tripartite list leaves out love, compassion and empathy, which would make sense if the awakening conceived of here is simply a perceptual shift, which he ponders at various points. Boyle mentions Joshu Sasaki, the teacher of Shinzen Young, one of Boyle’s primary informants, in a discussion in which he separates awakened consciousness from saintliness. Boyle breaks with a Buddhist taboo by claiming that awakened individuals may be able to consciously inflict pain and that awakening could be a “part-time” phenomena for some. He goes on to define psychopathy and hints that perhaps Sasaki was both awakened and a psychopath. Compassion then is not necessarily concomitant with awakening consciousness in his view, or rather, is not a required or inevitable feature. This might explain why so many new age, awakened teachers turn out to be sexual predators and immoral, narcissistic idiots, whilst subjectively enjoying a high degree of the three qualities above.

Things get interesting as Boyle discusses the potential origins of awakened consciousness, which turn out to be very similar to either a child’s or a cave man’s consciousness! The discussion actually improves, at least for a neophyte to such a topic as me, as Boyle draws heavily on Antonio Damasio’s work regarding the evolution of consciousness, defining it as “a subjective experience in which we are aware we are experiencing awareness” (P.227). I assume Damasio’s work would get a scathing review from Pepper as he speaks of pre-symbolic, non-linguistic perception, free of ideology, but perhaps there is something of worth here.

The entire body is represented in the nervous system by neuronal maps, providing a kind of virtual double. According to Damasio, these interoceptive maps “provide a direct experience of one’s own living body, wordless, unadorned and connected to nothing but sheer existence.” Signals produced by these body maps are “felt, spontaneously and naturally…prior to any other operation involved in the building of consciousness. They are felt images of the body, primordial body feelings, [which are] the primitives of all other feelings, including feelings of emotions.” (P.228)

The idea is that the meditation practices described above help a person to reacquaint themselves with such non-symbolic experience and that this forms the emergent perceptual basis for awakened consciousness. Presumably such feeling is shared across ideologies and is primordial in that it is the same as the feeling experienced by the first human beings. Boyle goes on to describe how social reality gets in the way of this level of being. As a synthetic structure, it acts to filter all sensory data through itself, reshaping it to fit the dominant narrative that holds the social reality in place with the development of language going hand in hand with the development of social realities. In identifying with our particular social reality and the role we inhabit as a social self, we lose the ability to experience and perceive outside of the symbolic percepts that dominate the narratives of each.

Boyle’s co-existing consciousnesses allow for the continued existence of the individual within social reality. This leaves behind the often absurd notion that individuals can escape human constructs and be free of the symbolic entirely. Boyle states further that language is integral to social realities and any verbal or gestural interaction requires participation in a social reality, which has been constructed by our ancestors and refined, adapted, altered and expanded by subsequent generations, including our own. One result of experiencing awakened consciousness is to see through the blinding force of the social reality and cease to reify it, even when it may provide meaning and comfort. As the social self is “defined by how (well) it fits into the stories (of the social reality) as actor, observer, experiencing agent,” (P.237) attempts to undermine its social reality can lead to all manner of problems, including alienation, the loss of meaning and the destabilisation of one’s social standing. In this negative sense, the role of awakened consciousness can lead to immense upheaval, especially as a person’s emotional well-being is so closely tied to the “presentation of the self.” The more we focus on social reality, the less we are able to perceive perceptual input and in this way our conceptual articulation of the world and its events is dominated by the social reality we identify with.

Boyle points out though that awakened consciousness is devoid of any attachment to social reality. He continues in stating the need to “penetrate the common-sense that conceals the inner mechanics of social reality…that encompasses people and alters the way they experience the world” (P.239/240). An obvious problem emerges though in this analysis. If the promise of Boyle’s model is that awakening can rid individuals of their identification and entrapment within social realities, what are the alternatives, where do they go to next? Even Boyle notes that we cannot be rid of them entirely. Additionally, to what degree do the Buddhist teachers mentioned assist individuals they meet and teach to break out of the new social realities that western Buddhism has either built or co-opted?

Boyle returns to the work of James Austin and acknowledges that current understanding of the interaction between social reality and the brain is limited but that Austin’s two brain system model may provide the key to understanding awakened consciousness, positing that ordinary consciousness is found within the egocentric processing systems while the allocentric system is where awakened consciousness resides, with the two separate, specialised brain systems usually in poor communication. Improving this communication would allow an individual, or groups to inhabit perceptual experience outside the social reality and social self that they have identified with. Rather than the non-symbolic acting as a permanent refuge in which the awakened person inhabits, the two consciousnesses would interact.

As well as Damasio, Boyle draws heavily on Alison Gopnik’s work, in particular The Philosophical Baby, to examine language development in children. Firstly, he notes that language focusses a baby’s open perception onto smaller perceptual frames. It provides the basis for the imagination and representation of events that are not immediate and a sense of time; past and future. Boyle, in part, sees awakened consciousness as a movement in reverse; a sort of reclaiming of our earliest modes of pre-linguistic perception. Such childlike perception would be accompanied by the knowledge and skills gained since then, including our relationship to social realities through language, ideas and concepts, but does such a claim leave Boyle’s conclusions open to accusations of infantilising Buddhist practitioners? Children are, what’s more, seen as naturally empathic, in particular up to the age of six, when the social self becomes more fully formed, so that empathy may be seen as a sort of innocence and unquestioning, uncritical openness to others. There is a problem of romanticising children here as some spiritual folks are want to do but it could be an avenue to look at and would resolve the issue of awakening being something we create or go out and get.

Boyle does mention the role of critical thinking in his analysis, but it is minimal and reflective of his quandary concerning the relationship between discursive thought and the thinking mind and the awakened consciousness he defines. Readers at SNB will be all too familiar with the confusion that thinking creates for many Buddhists and Boyle appears to have met a stumbling block in this regard. Is it possible that Boyle is stumbling on the results of many of our most ‘enlightened’ contemporaries? Not the ones he interviews necessarily, but those ever-smiling Buddhist and New Age teachers who giggle at the world while it burns whilst inviting their followers to let go and enjoy the sinking ship without a worry or thought. Boyle himself doesn’t claim that enlightened folks are infantile and he places critical thought amongst the qualities of awakened consciousness but it is an interesting question to ponder, especially as it could answer the question of why certain folks have managed to develop an immense capacity for pleasure whilst exhibiting extraordinary degrees of self-absorbed narcissism that mirror that of a spoilt toddler. Boyle also explores the social reality of the Piraha clan which appears to feature linguistic constraints that force the Piraha people to live in the present with a high degree of equanimity, with minimal attachments, even to loved ones. They operate with an allocentric perspective and seem to enjoy very high levels of daily happiness and stoicism. The exploration is interesting enough but perhaps their social reality needs to be critically evaluated further.

Boyle himself skirts around the term awakening throughout, settling on a distinction between ordinary and awakened consciousness that he goes on to develop into a four-part comparative model with the four parts covering conscious awareness, emotions and feelings, thinking, and meaning or ontological security. He states that awakened consciousness is a natural, physical possibility for everyone if they put in the work. His conclusion being that it is simply an alternative use of the human potential that produces ordinary consciousness.

These are some of the basic premises that inform Boyle’s conclusions


Awareness is formed by an interaction of perception and conception with perception being rooted in external and internal sensory information, and conception working with symbols, in particular, language. Due to sensory information often being incomplete, the gaps are filled by perceptual processing filling in the gaps by creating percepts that fit with previous experience. The same is true for conceptual processing. This processing is generally unconscious and generative and is usually concerned with maintaining a degree of consistency.

Ordinary conscious awareness

This is marked by the need to maintain consistency in internal narratives. The social self features as the principal character in an ongoing story that is defined by social reality within which the social self finds its role. Perceptual representations are modified accordingly in order for consistency to be made possible. This is a labour intensive process with symbolic processing acting as a drain on perceptual clarity. The experience is egocentric in Austin’s model.

Awakened consciousness

This has its base in pure perceptual representations that are unconditioned by symbolic processing which implies that sensory perception in uncoupled from the narrative of the social reality, with the social self no longer being the central character and symbols no longer being manipulated to fit into a pre-existing narrative. Due to the lack of labour intensive symbolic processing, perception becomes cleaner, clearer and more vivid. Although symbolic reality is constantly available, the relationship with it is based on detachment and objectivity. The experience is allocentric in Austin’s model.

Finally, awakened consciousness is accessed by carrying out the three disciplines that form the core basis of most Buddhist meditation practice.

“To further develop this capacity, the primary task is to move attention to perceptual reality and away from wandering thinking. Finally, one must learn to accept the source of meaning that is available in perceptual reality while letting go of the emphasis ordinary consciousness places on conceptual or narrative meaning.” (P.287)

His complete summary model can be found in the appendix. There is some repetition, but I am including it so that his core conclusions can be read and critiqued by those who desire to do so using the ideas and methods developed at the SNB site.


Considering that Boyle’s theoretical claims lie heavily on the role of social reality and the social self, he uses a relatively simplistic model of both and this is one criticism I have of his work. He also relies at times on an ambiguous use of the term awakening. This is likely due to his reliance on a relatively small number of Buddhist teachers and this is possibly the weakest link in his project, which he does admit towards the end. As an initial sociological pet project, it provides some relatively objective conclusions that could easily omit the term awakening all together, and asides from advertising and an attempt to pitch the book through the allure of such a term, I see no reason for it to be used.

Boyle notes that Buddhism has primarily attracted the white and the wealthy in the West and oddly suggests that “Buddhism could benefit the poor too, but perhaps we should focus on resolving inequality as well” (P.270), with the rather worrying objective being to “produce a larger pool of potential recruits.” He attaches this to a brief analysis of the correlation between attachment to a strong social self and reality, and the fact that conservatives (in America in this case but likely true worldwide) experience greater fear, anxiety and are less curious, open, preferring quick answers, which correlates with religious fundamentalism.

The project is capped off by an interview with the retired neuroscientist James Austin (the author of Zen & the Brain (1998) and a number of further books that attempt to connect scientific findings to meditation and its results) as an appendix and both author and his informants are favourable to Buddhism and possibly influenced by the desire to fit their conclusions to Buddhism’s self-claims.

The big, big issue though is whether Damasio is right in stating that raw, non-symbolic perception is possible, then learnable and applicable in meaningful ways. If so, and if wed to some form of empathic re-engagement with the world and the dominant social realities of our time, then perhaps it could provide the basis for an objective engagement with social realities and those who inhabit them whilst accompanied by an experience of existential ease and wellbeing, loosely defined as awakening. Otherwise, awakened consciousness may be limited to providing a therapeutic basis for relief from the claustrophobic nature of the social self. If this leaves aside the potential to crack identification with a given social reality and social self and become acquainted with the Lacanian hole at the centre of all beings, which as many readers will know can be a terrifying experience, then awakened consciousness would seem to be no more than mere escapism.

If we accept that awakened consciousness is found in a separate, physical, cognitive system, as Austin claims, co-existing with ordinary consciousness, which is what Boyle settles on, then awakened consciousness could be an experiential possibility that one has to rediscover and then train in, get acquainted with, learn to move between the two as primarily perceptual, sensorial realities. If awakened consciousness co-exists with ordinary consciousness, then they could be seen initially as two constructed modalities of being, as subject and as de-subjectified person.

As Adrian J. Ivakhiv discussed in his essay republished at SNB (Žižek v. Buddhism: who’s the subject?), Zizek and Vajrayana Buddhism are concerned with the re-emergence of the de-subjectified individual into the world (social reality) and if Boyle’s model ends up having coinage in a wider discussion of the relevance of meditation practice and perceptual, experiential breakthroughs, then the next step would be to explore the limits and potentials of such a form of consciousness when re-engaging with social realities in ways that are set on reducing collective ignorance and suffering. Such an exploration would have to go beyond the trite discussion of compassion that so often stifles creative exploration in this area by Buddhists. In fact, does awakened consciousness stand up to the intensity and traumatic nature of global injustice and suffering without being aloof? If so, awakened consciousness could simply be the means for a retreat from the world.

Ultimately, Boyle limits his conclusions to defining the positive states that accompany the experience of emergent awakened consciousness and the reduction of existential suffering. I have discussed the tendency of awakened individuals to find justification for their experience within Buddhism and the need for them to leave Buddhism aside and find relevance for their experiences outside of Buddhism (Reconfiguring Enlightenment: A post-traditional reconfiguration) and I would suggest that if his work has value then that be the next step.


Boyle’s sociology background provides a welcome break from the scientifically focussed texts that seek to marry Buddhism to science. Boyle’s ideas become more interesting when he leaves Buddhism in the background and explores the boundaries between consciousness and perception and the social realities we are born into in the construction of a self and the possibility of de-selfing. Tom would no doubt find much to dismantle in Boyle’s text. It does have redeeming qualities, however, and it led me to reflect on the general distaste for therapeutic usages of Buddhist practices here at SNB as well as the issue of non-symbolic perception/experience, which I am not really qualified to comment on. Pepper’s arguments are convincing, yet, Boyle has articulated experiential possibilities that are of no doubt highly beneficial to those who access them. If we were to avoid absolutes, then perhaps it would be acceptable to state that through certain trainings of awareness, combined with the reflective dismantling of the habitual patterns that form the basis of the social self, we can come close to an experience that has the characteristics of non-symbolic, raw, experiential living, but that is an approximation in which we are constantly pulled back into social reality, or infiltrated by it. An awakened mind may simply have more room to choose which of the social realities available to engage with whilst no longer being identified with it, and if driven by the desire to act on the world, to work on and within those social realities where it is possible for the individual to bring about positive change.

Finally, the book is noteworthy in its attempt to leave aside world-transcending characteristics for this terminally abstract phenomena, though it inevitably encounters many of the limits laid out at the Speculative Non-Buddhism site. It is amateurish enough to be accessible to a general audience, light enough to be ignored by the hard sciences and accessible enough for a general intelligent audience who may be curious about the phenomena of Buddhist enlightenment/awakening without the religion tagged on. It would no doubt receive a better structured critique from the founding fathers of the non-Buddhism project, specifically with regards to the scientific basis for Boyle’s claims and theoretical assertions, but I have, nonetheless, attempted to provide a brief analysis of Boyle’s book with some critical thought.

Critique away folks.


Reconsidering enlightenment: A post-traditional reconfiguration (1)


Conscious awareness

Ordinary The results of perceptual processing are modified to be as consistent as possible with the person’s social reality and social (symbolically represented) self. Individuals see the world from an egocentric perspective and experience separation from that world and from other people. Because the amount of symbolic processing required is large, activity devoted to perceptual processing is reduced and the vividness of conscious awareness is diminished.

Awakened The results of perceptual processing are not altering by symbolic processing, although the information and expertise encoded in symbolic systems can be accessed objectively (i.e., additively).   Individuals see the world from and an allocentric perspective and feel connection with that world and the people around them. Without the intense personal involvement of the social self in the drama and complexity of social reality, more processing time is available for sensory awareness and conscious awareness is more vivid.

Emotions and feelings

Ordinary Emotions are cued by stories generated by social reality, as learned during childhood. Emotions tend especially to be linked with the self and its adventures in social reality.

Awakened Feelings are initiated by interoception, and processed particularly in the brain stem. When there are no attachments to the social self, most of what we usually call emotions do not exist.


Ordinary Kahneman’s fast and slow thinking are both available. How well they work depends on attention, which in ordinary consciousness usually requires some effort. Without attention, wandering thinking is the default.

Awakened Fast thinking is most developed here and may be the only mode possible. Slow thinking requires holding in conscious awareness symbols (or percepts) that are not present in immediate experience, and wandering thinking allows thoughts to free associate without direction, so both slow and wandering thinking return the thinker to ordinary consciousness.

Meaning, or ontological security

Ordinary In a scientific framework, meaning is supported when the contents of conscious awareness are both logically consistent internally and compatible with perceptual information. One major source of folk meaning comes from sharing support within the group for the social reality that shapes conscious awareness. The other source is degree of fit between perception and social reality. To the extent that both degree of fit and social support are low, meaning is threatened or destroyed and the person experiences increased dukkha.

Awakened Conscious awareness of the perceptual reality of the moment is accompanied by feelings of truth, joy and authenticity.   Perception can be questioned as possible illusion, but that does not throw into doubt feelings that we are a fully connected part of the natural order. Interoception gives rise to primordial feelings based on physical states of our body, some of which (e.g., “happiness,” “kindness,” “feeling securely grounded”) provide meaningfulness of their own



13 responses to “Book Review: Realizing Awakened Consciousness: Interviews with Buddhist teachers and a new perspective on the mind”

  1. Craig Avatar

    Thanks for this review.

    Boyle definitely puts himself in the Secular Buddhist etc. camp. He and his interview subjects come to the subject with a seemingly unconscious assumption that there is such thing as ‘awakening’. This leads to an attempt to find the true essence of Buddhism, thus the truly awakened teacher breaking free of the shackles of Buddhist identity. These ideas would just seem silly to the subject of full strength anatman ideology. No?

    Can’t help some sarcasm:

    “Boyle points out though that awakened consciousness is devoid of any attachment to social reality.”
    No need to change anything, then? Even poor folks can transcend their reality. Then we won’t have those pesky ‘unintended’ consequences of ‘just business as usual’ capitalism to worry about if poor folks have transcended them. It’s a win win.

  2. Faustroll Avatar

    Nice work,

    My only quibble, not with your review, but with the mention of Damasio in the book reviewed would be the following, as I posted on twitter, to some consternation I’m afraid. Damasio states clearly in the work of his referenced above that waking “consciousness relies extensively on language.” His speculations on the core self, or proto-self, are “speculations” as to substrates of consciousness. In no way does Damasio state, that “raw, non-symbolic perception is possible, then learnable and applicable in meaningful ways.” Damasio’s work is a work of speculative science. In no way is it directed towards discussions of awakening other than ordinary wakefulness. My apologies if that is consternating. It is important in my opinion to maintain a little bit of mental hygene when using works of specualtive science outside of their original contexts, and when turning them to other uses.

  3. fionnchu Avatar

    Thanks to Matthew for the lively review and Glenn for posting and hosting it. This is an aside, but I share this with those who may have an interest in Western Buddhism and its transmission, and how this is packaged for readers today. As Gopnik is cited above, this may intrigue some of you.

    Allison Gopnik wrote a popular, autobiographical article about Hume and possible connections to Jesuits who had tried ca. 1716 to convert Tibetans. The Atlantic titled her Oct. 2015 cover story “How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis” (hey, it got me to read it).

    In it she refers to her more detached and academic Hume Studies 2009 article on this same issue.

    Click to access gopnik_humestudies_withtoc.pdf

  4. Faustroll Avatar

    Thanks again for writing this review. I’ve perused the Boyle book a little using your quotes as a way in to it. The book looks quite good. My intuition that he was perhaps not the most skillful reader of neuroscience were affirmed by further perusal. I do think he is a good enough reader, however, to not put the views you quoted in to Damasio’s mouth exactly. Damasio clearly states, and this I think Boyle gets, that the brain stem and the core self are largely unconscious. For Damasio, they simply are in a most quotidian sense and in no way are they framed as something one might idealize or return to.

    What I don’t think Boyle gets, but that is a key part of Damasio’s ethos, is to never reduce any function of the human mind to just “a part or section of the brain”. Case in point, Damasio holds, as I do that the brain in situ and in vivo is always a global and multileveled phenomenon with many aspects working in concert. Naive use of brain imaging to discover an “awakened brain” would never be likely to be on his agenda. A social scientist might get away with that kind of naivete, but not a neuroscientist of Damasio’s care. I’d advise extreme caution when approaching his discussion of the core self and the brain stem. These are, as it were, always in operation and exist as “negatives” one might say, as they form a kind of implicit background to conscious awareness.

    Many neuroscientists are themselves careful to avoid the kind of naive brain imaging that equates parts of brain with parts of mind. Damasio is one of them. The intricate feedback between some of the “highest cortical” interpretive activities and the “lower” brainstem inputs is one of his interests. Theorizing about the core self in Damasio is done as a scientist’s modeling of the living human being using the blind man’s stick of current theory, hypothesis, and evidence. If anything Damasio has had an impact that is counter to any trend that would map from brain to mind so naively as Boyle suggests.

    I’m impressed by this blog. Nice work. and thank you for the opportunity to respond.

  5. matthewoconnell Avatar

    Thank you Faustroll for your illuminating comments. Being utterly ignorant in such matters, it’s very helpful to have someone who seems to understand it all much better shine a light on Boyle’s naivete. The comment you quote in the original “…then learnable and applicable in meaningful ways” is my own as a lead on from Boyle’s speculation rather than referencing Damasio. I’m just displaying my own ignorance!

  6. Greg Avatar

    Thank you for the thoughtful review!

  7. Faustroll Avatar

    Thank you Matthew, for writing such a thoughtful review. I can see how much work you put into it, and how much care, and I very much appreciate that. It’s hard not to fall under the spell of the siren song of the “brain sciences explain it.” I’m surprised that Damasio is as popular as he is because he is not exactly a rousing writer. I’ve read his work, and I read it avidly, but I find myself wondering how anyone else could enjoy this. Is his popularity due in part to the hype that surrounds the “brain sciences”?

    He does have some good insights, and he has been very important in the affective or emotional turn in the brain sciences, but for a humanist or Spinozist it might not be that interesting. Some of the salient insights might be. However, my take away and my caution would be that Damasio is very careful to frame his work as speculation and that it never sets itself up as explanation in a lay sense. It does not answer questions, but rather it poses new ones, and it serves to remind those working on local problems in the brain sciences that the whole of it is as yet unsynthesized. It may also ignite curiosity in people.

    I can understand how those in other disciplines are keen on using brain imaging as sources of information about “awakened brains” or what have you. At the very least, one could write a grant for that, and do some imaging. But what would be the value of it, other than work for the researchers and a peer reviewed paper? The most reliable source of information about what is going on in someone’s mind is still a conversation with them. And perhaps, a problem with gurus is their penchant for self-promotion and deceit and their unreliability as informants. Unreliable informants are an old problem for social science. I don’t think brain imaging is a way out of that problem.

    Thanks again for the review and for your kind and thoughtful response to my comments.

  8. matthewoconnell Avatar

    All this politeness and niceness is most unexpected. Thanks again Faustroll for further clarification.

  9. Living the Dream Avatar
    Living the Dream

    I think there are a couple of points that I’d like to make:-

    1) I would anticipate the more willing and enthusiastic self-promoters of their own (subjective) “awakening” (so called) would turn out to be especially prone to fantasy – which might be benevolent, or malevolent both for themselves and for others they inveigle into participating in group sessional activities – and most likely a blend of healing and harm is to be expected. When combined with the sort of typical complexity found in human beings the outlook (strictly from the POV of observing the very many seductive opportunities to accumulate insight through pedagogical means) doesn’t look too promising – my own intuition is to reject the sort of small distinctions made by both secular humanists and cult leaders as to the provenance or “essence” of our emancipation – and also to discount the escalating social prestige generated by such charismatic means.

    2) This kind of experience, it’s conditions and properties have no obvious connection to improving social outcomes and neither should we expect them to lead to some optimal configuration for ethics either – why do we think they should? A deflation in our committments to significant parts of work (allegedly) attributed to Buddha, Nagarjuna, Spinoza, Kant… and a few others may be advisable if we wish to better comprehend such an “event” – not as an accomplishment (even an “emptying out” / self is usually mistaken as being in this category) but rather more as… a collapse, or a fracture in our fondess for continuity and “oneness” – whether or not we prefer a idealistic, speculative (religious) interpretation from our favourite guru or a more practical, humanist (empirical) sounding version from folk like Damasio.

    I won’t be tempted by either – inasmuch I am not in need to another “representation of a general procedure of the imagination” – but I can see why many, (many) others will lap up a book of this nature – science as we know can be highly unscientific ( – and social science – well – it’s not much more than a post-kantian euphemism for churning unfalsifiable theory into academic ephemera isn’t it?

    No one (of course) is in the market for a radical departure from the usual lame trajectory that has large populations accelerating towards an entirely imagined schematism for awakening – where it is claimed sensible intuition and conceptual / categorical principles and models can be brought together in perfect unison to provide us with the comfort of knowing our experience and knowledge of the world is possible in one theory of everything – driven by myths like these – that we will soon divine nature and unveil ourselves simultaneously – but only with hard meditation and discipline, magnetic resonance imaging and a nuanced understanding of social reality.

    The observable fact that there is a “market” for awakening and books about awakening really should have revealed enough as to the internal energies you’ll likely find hidden with such a concept without sucha great review – (hint: it’s all about eating organic and going on expensive retreats). I can recommend a few alteratives to all of this – but if paralysing terror that can leave you cold, sweaty and dumbfounded in the most awkward of circumstances isn’t the sort of meridian response you are looking for – then I suggest continuing with the courses on awakening where the food will be better, the locations are amazing and the people – well – okay – the food and the locations are great. Therapy is usually the best option for most people little wonder – or maybe a cushy career as a speculative neuroscientist or social scientist could work just as well?

  10. wtpepper Avatar

    Thanks for this review, Matthew. It is refreshing to see somebody address such books without the usual blind adulation.

    The only quibble I would have would be that I wish my name were left out of it. Whenever I read someone speculating “what Tom Pepper would say” I find it terribly disheartening. Just reminds me once again how completely I have failed to make my arguments clear–which is why I’ve mostly stopped trying, lately. Nothing I’ve said is all that novel or original, and perhaps others can make the case more clearly than I can.

    Once again, another book trying to explain to the intellectually lazy (in words of one syllable, as they used to say), how to get enlightened and be superior to everyone you know in just three easy steps! Of course, Boyle remains devoted to the core problem of all such empiricist/atomistic models of the subject: convinced he has escaped the illusion of a “self” while he is doing nothing but reifying exactly that one illusion. What else is left over once we have removed all the unfortunate social/symbolic systems that have “encompassed” us and “altered” our “experience of the world”? Who is the self being encompassed? Having these experiences? Like most of the folks he interviews, Boyle has mistaken absolute delusion for awakening–believing that once one is so thoroughly interpellated into the social system that one feels as if there is no thought involved in any action, no effort at all, then one is “free” of any social construction. Sad, but common.

    My position (and here I go, foolishly restating it, sure in advance I will fail to do it any more clearly) is that there is no such core eternal self trapped in the (socially constructed) world. The socially constructed just is the self, and we should not try to escape it (there is no leftover to escape the social–that’s like trying to take keep the hole and get rid of the donut). What does it lead to? Once again, nihilistic quietism, and the devotion to a disturbing ideal of a core eternal atomistic self that seeks only to passively “experience” the world in a more pleasant way. What if we could drop the structuring assumptions of the empiricist subject, and consider the ideal to be attaching more strongly to a consciously chosen story and socially constructed self? To choose acting in the world over experiencing it? Ah, but there’s no point in restating all this, is there?

    I haven’t read Damasio in a while, and no longer have the one book of his I bought. My memory of his work (and this might be incorrect, I’m just recounting it to make a point, though) is that he was trying to do something quite similar to Locke or Hume: to begin from some core and fundamental sensory experience, and explain how all our ideas, even all culture, develops from there. He seemed to me to be trying to do this, getting stuck, and rather than giving up his fundamental empiricist assumption he would resort to rhetorical slight of hand and partial and tendentiously readings of philosophers, then try all over again with another book next time. Locke, of course, had recourse to the soul, and Hume (who didn’t) gave it up as an impossible problem. If we all took a lesson from Hume, we might be able to move on and see that ideas and culture, etc., arise only once multiple individuals are engaged in symbolic communication–and so mind must be collective, and cannot be explained by empiricism.

    Once again, I shouldn’t have written such a long and rambling comment–but I at least have the excuse that I am not an atomistic being with free will, just an effect of the social practices of which I am a part!

  11. Living the Dream Avatar
    Living the Dream

    @Wtpepper If you are claiming that “there is nothing but” the socially constructed self – then you are correct – this is not a controversial view – although IMO it isn’t a valid claim. The socially constructed self is an interesting notion but can, nonetheless be prosecuted as being guilty by association along with the litany of delusional fiction generated by Platonism / subjective/transcendental idealism/sollipsism and empiricism you seem to suggest it can (messianically?) disrupt. The challenge to this notion is that – rather than fallback to the (so called “hard”) problem of direct experience – the idea of a socially constructed self – is just that – it’s a claim that the objects of our experience are made possible only by our relation to others – that is – social realities not derived from experience. The game you are playing then with folk whose experience / thinking must be different to yours might be seen as a kind of displacement activty – it’s classic, “bait and switch” – “I don’t believe in (x-buddhist) schematas and empirical models and theories – it’s all nonsense – ha! – the correct schemata is social constructivism”. So, your worries about how you are being perceived in forums is perhaps a more useful line of enquiry inasmuch it shows an opportunity to develop a less didactic transactional space – and I’m hoping that you see that as an incentive – if not – then the pressure on the possibility of living out your “socially constructed” existence must either motivate you to extend whatever coping mechanisms you currently prefer in face of such dichotomies or – you will have to create further intellectual distance between your practice and your prefered theory – with a risk of then being seen as a hypocrite. At the moment, and possibly elsewhere – the way you are presenting your arguments shows no indication you are really in the market for dialectics which is fine – but if that is true – then your notion of a socially constructed self only has a meagre future which would cause anyone holding on to such a fragile system further anxiety I think. Other than a few hints at self-chastisement which may or may not be insightful – the overall tone of your posts is in stark contrast to your explicit claim here – one does not need to merely imagine a “core eternal self trapped in the (socially constructed) world” – your posts display every feature of such an idea (whether we claim it to be true or not) – and furthermore provides ample evidence to suggest that this blog is the very embodiment of a community of “core eternal self(s) trapped in the (socially constructed) world”. If you lived your claim – a more consistent response would of course to give up persuadeing others that your claims are valid – specifically in places like this and in the way you seem so anxious to achieve – but rather PLAY NICE – but instead we are treated to multiple, exemplary situations of a “core eternal self trapped in the (socially constructed) world” claiming there is no such thing and choosing to do that in a disagreeable and rude manner (for reasons which are not at all clear). Such irony should serve as a portent that only further stupidity will be forthcoming – unless that is you are prepared to adjust your MO – the belligerence (are you an antinatalist?) doesn’t square at all with your ideas of a socially constructed self – unless of course you can find it in yourself (or, if you prefer – your social network) to correct what seems to be a clear failure to think things through. The sort of audience that is either unwilling or incapable of seeing (if not the error) at least the internal inconsistency in the divergent theory and practice you espouse I would expect you to acheive only the kind of limited success you have thus far in these spaces. The challenge of course for anyone deploying such a schema and practice is to sufficiently explain to others what our condition is according to whatever schema is preferred. All the defensiveness that arises from such assertions and relentless attempts at qualification when it is not a necessity born of direct experience but rather the necessity of Platonism / subjective/transcendental idealism/sollipsism and empiricism… et al in posing such questions and generating such unresolved philosophical questions above the presentation of ourselves – as we are (or would be) if we were willing/capable of disabusing ourselves of such ideas seems… surplus to the demand?

  12. Craig Avatar

    LTD said:

    “This kind of experience, it’s conditions and properties have no obvious connection to improving social outcomes and neither should we expect them to lead to some optimal configuration for ethics either – why do we think they should?”

    That’s an interesting question. Did Buddha’s awakening lead to an ethical life? Not sure what that would be, but I think ‘his’ focus on ‘the end of suffering’ points to some sort of ethics. Unfortunately, the ‘sages’ in Boyle’s book see ending suffering as some sort of shift in consciousness. This leaves them in complete complacency of the systemic causes of suffering in this world. They’re off the hook and to most they have a great excuse. Only in capitalism could this occur. Ideological delusion is THE cause of suffering. If we could break the delusion that the current status quo (capitalism) is true reality and causing so much suffering, then we might have a chance.

  13. bodhisARTva Avatar

    ‘Awakened’ — In the way that, even on a cloudy day & at night, the sun IS always still shining, we all already are awakened, we just don’t ‘know’ it. It’s a both/neither kind of thing, opposites which simultaneously cancel each other being true …. simultaneously! “Awakening is beyond concepts” — the dualities of none/all, it/not-it limit the possibility of getting it ……… Just as anyone who claims they have psychic power probably does not (though the possibility exists that SOMEONE has it), anyone who CLAIMS they are awakened …… yeah, no, probably not.

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