Book reviews

Miscellany of articles on the edge of the science of consciousness. Challenging and fascinating. On the roll of the body in consciousness and healing, about the metaphysics of introspection and more. View from Within: First-person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness is all that and more.

On the attempt to integrate the experience of consciousness with the findings of science. The duality between trying to be ‘objective’ and the actual first person perspective which is the very subject discussed is approached from several sides.

Like all scientific books, this one is particularly difficult to read for the non-initiate. I have been trying to get myself to read this one ever since I got it for my birthday two months ago.

Consciousness is always a fascination for me, and the scientific descriptions and explanations of it never really satisfy. This book attempts to bridge the gap between the experience and the ‘objective’ via the (updated) philosophy of Husserl.

Throughout the history of human thought … intuition has played an essential role (Claire Peugeot)

About first person methodologies – verbal and nonverbal

Scientists of consciousness are stuck with a very difficult paradox: they want to study objectively (otherwise it would not be science) something inherently subjective: the (human) mind. This paradox is one of the reasons for this book: the editors want to get out of the paradox and get up some sort of working method for taking the experience seriously as scientific data. In order to do that, what’s needed is methodology.

The peer review by J. Baars, included in the book (p. 216), notes, with reason, that such a field of science already exists. It’s called: psychology. But in a sense he’s wrong. Psychology says a lot about the content of consciousness, but very little about the experience of it. In other words: it’s very good at looking at our verbalizations of our experience of being aware, but not very good at the non verbal processes that are behind that.

It’s a legitimate question whether it’s possible to get to the nonverbal – but that’s certainly attempted by some of the authors in this book.

For instance, I was impressed by the study by Carl Ginsburg (p. 79) of people who had problems with how to use their bodies. Using the Feldenkrais method he was able to help them. Imagine a lady who’s had to live without hips her whole life, till at the age of 26 doctors think she’s stopped growing so they implant hips in her legs. Funny thing is: she’d learned to walk and everything without hips. But now, with the anatomy most of us take for granted she finds walking hurts. The operation has given her better tools, but her brain is not equipped to use it. Ordinary physiotherapy has already proven not to help. So she comes to Carl Ginsburg and he finds a way to let her experience what it means to have hips. This means the brain gets reprogrammed. Interestingly – she finds this means she becomes a different person. She doesn’t resist this. She just notes that her learning to walk as other people do, means letting go of the person she’d become managing to walk without them.

Carl does a better job of explaining it than I do, probably. The thing is: how we ‘are’ is intimately related with our physical being. People who loose weight often describe having to relearn life with this different lifestyle and body image. I think it’s a related (though less drastic) example. Our bodies are part of who we are in this world.

Not only is this an example that helps us understand the way the brain works in concert with the body – it also shows how important the nonverbal is. For this lady it’s all about how the body is experienced and used. Experiencing and using the body differently, because it has been upgraded, means relearning who you are. And while she could talk about that this meant changing who she was, she could not put into words how her personality was changing.

Intuition, introspection and meditation

One of the themes in this book is very much ‘hip’: they all touch on the spiritual side of practical psychology.

Introspection as a scientific method of researching the nature of consciousness is explored by Pierre Vermersch. He goes into why this method has been abandoned while also exploring how it can be reintroduced and why it’s important.

Claire Petitmengin-Peugeot (p. 43) goes into a topic that has been in the (scientific) news a lot recently: intuition. What’s been in the news is that in some cases intuitive knowledge is better at making the right decision than conscious knowledge is. This has lately been nuanced: in many cases thinking things through is a better way to make a difficult decision. Petitmengin-Peugeot doesn’t go into all that. She has looked at the process of intuition itself, using a method very much like the one described by Pierre. She notes various stages in the process that people experienced in using intuition can note for themselves. If you think she’s talking about psychics here – you’re wrong. Her sample population included 2 scientists, 8 therapists from different therapeutic schools, two artists and 12 people who experienced intuition in daily life (p. 48). The sample population included men and women. Reading her descriptions it’s clear that intuition isn’t something you just ‘have’, it can be refined and learned.

B. Alan Wallace (p. 175) and Jonathan Shear with Ron Jevning (p. 189) go into another popular topic: meditation. They explore the methodology and conclusions that can be drawn from traditional meditation methods and the philosophies that have sprung from them. This dialog is clearly ongoing in science, as shown by the reception of the Dalai Lama among scientists of consciousness (though he is absent from this book). Exciting topic.

Wallace maintains that it takes an experienced meditator to be conscious enough of what goes on inside to look at it objectively. This makes for difficult science because it would mean that aside from their scientific training, researchers would have to invest years to learn meditation as well. Still, it’s a perspective that deserves serious attention.

Shear and Jevning look into the practical results that have already been obtained through different meditative traditions and the implications they have for the future research in this area.

Do we have the time to criticize the critics of introspection?
(P. Vermersch, p.18)


One of the areas of consciousness study that I’m least familiar with is the philosophy of phenomenology. I call it a philosophy, because it usually seems to be more about talking about talking about consciousness, then about actually researching it. The articles published under this heading are partly in that tradition.

For instance I could not understand what Nathalie Depraz was talking about in her article about The Phenomenological Reduction as Praxis (p. 95).

Francisco Varela went into the experience of the present, which is a nicely practical topic. Still, I didn’t really take much from it.

Since William James is one of my favorite original psychologists, I did read the article by Andrew Bailey with interest (p. 141). James went into that nonverbal theme more than is usually stressed when people talk about his phrase ‘stream of consciousness’.

To top it off Jean Naudin and a lot of colleagues talk about the Husserlian Reduction as a method of Investigation in Psychiatry (p. 155). Husserl was the founding philosopher of phenomenology, apparently. I thought they gave a helpful perspective on the experience of being a schizophrenic. It made clear that it is helpful to look at underlying patterns, instead of only at symptoms, when trying to understand psychiatric patients.

  • Editors: Francisco J VarelaJonathan Shear
  • Series: Consciousness Studies
  • Paperback: 313 pages
  • Publisher: Imprint Academic (September 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0907845258
  • ISBN-13: 978-0907845256
  • Product Dimensions: 9.9 x 6.9 x 1 inches

When I first became a Buddhist, and did so within Tibetan Buddhism, I got a few emails warning me that I had entered a patriarchal movement. They were not wrong, though my teacher seems (while himself male) pretty good at giving his female students the same opportunities as his male students. In fact, the most prominent of his students are female and not a breath of scandal has touched him.

Personally I decided pretty early that while my personal choice of teacher would be dependent on quality not gender, I did not see how the central teachings had anything less to say to me, merely because some (or even many) of it’s exemplars were male.

A few years on my basic stance hasn’t changed, but I do realize just how much it matters to have female roll models, which is why I bought this book as soon as I became aware of it.

This is one of those dharma books that you just can’t read all at once. Not because it isn’t well written – it is – but because each story is so touching that you need some time to digest it before moving on to the next.

I am new to meditation, new to Buddhism as a practice, and these women are trailblazers. They are, as each current Buddhist teacher teaching in ‘The West’ is, pioneers. However, women who teach Buddhism today are pioneers in another way as well: they are women in a tradition that has in the past limited the scope of women in spiritual attainment and education. And yes, as this book shows, women are still at a disadvantage in Tibetan Buddhism, though the gap seems to be getting smaller. For instance, six nuns in Karma Lekshe Tsomo has six nuns in her nunnery that are ready to become geshes*. The only reason they are not yet geshes, is because they are not fully ordained nuns, because the full ordination has died out in Tibetan Buddhism. Some Western nuns have taken full ordination in a Chinese lineage, but that route is only open to those who have the money.

Feminism is a bad word, in some circles, probably because it’s associated with anger. Each of the women Michaela Haas interviewed had limitations put on their practice and learning because they are women. However, as the advanced practitioners they are, they are not angry. Some of them are outspoken and feel strongly that changes need to be made. Others feel it’s up to each individual to make what use they can of the opportunities they have. But none of them resort to anger. Instead they simply light the way, and make it easier for women who come after them.

It is hardly possible for me to share all I loved about this book. There are the references to more books about strong women in Buddhism, which have been made available on the website dedicated to the project as well:

As the author shares in her Preface, she started the book when after two decades of study and meditation she found herself struggling with the clash between Tibetan culture and modernity. It’s a familiar struggle, one that any westerner will recognize who is serious about Tibetan Buddhism as a path. Because this book came out of that struggle, it is as much about that clash as it is about women in dharma.

Personally I think it ads to the book, and probably makes it more interesting for men as well. After all, we can’t just become Tibetan Buddhists – though many try. We can follow the advice given by Mayum Tsewang Palden (who is given only a small place in this book) who says to Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel (quote):

Dear, you don’t have to try to be a Tibetan. You don’t have to be an American. Just know your own mind.

In fact, I liked her chapter a lot. Elizabeth also says:

It is like an unspoken rule that we don’t talk about our doubts or unresolved questions, and I question that.

This book can be read as an overview of what is wrong in Tibetan Buddhism today, or as an inspiration for women to achieve what they can within their circumstances. I hope the effect will be double: by honestly looking at the inequality still present in the system, the book may help quicken the resolve on these issues. At the same time I am taking it as a reminder just how deeply women too can realize the dharma.

Reviews on Amazon are generally positive, but a few people seem to take the messenger for the message. Yes, there are problems, but that doesn’t make a book announcing those problems a bad book.

All in all, I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who can handle a truth that is neither black nor white. There is a myth of a swan that can take the milk from the water, and each of us has to try as well, if we want to seriously transform our lives.

* Geshe is a degree in the Gelugpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. It takes 12 years of study and is, as such, comparable to a PHD.

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Mindfulness for Dummies review

April 24, 2014

What’s the ideal mindfulness book? Personally I don’t really need to read another book EXPLAINING mindfulness. The term is confusing, very general and even somewhat misleading. And no book I’ve read deals with any of that (1). Instead most mindfulness books I’ve read treat mindfulness like it’s pretty straight forward. Which, in a way, it […]

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Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth

April 7, 2014

Obeyesekere is the kind of thinker I love: sweeping, sociological, anthropological and philosophical. However, unlike myself, he’s a real scholar and doesn’t ignore the details. In Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth he looks at just what makes karma special from rebirth thought in cultures around the world. The unifying theme he finds is […]

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Thumbnail image for Neufelt, Ronald W. (ed). Karma and rebirth: Post Classical Developments

Neufelt, Ronald W. (ed). Karma and rebirth: Post Classical Developments

April 6, 2014

This book is a companion to Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. Instead of looking at the classical period (before the common era), it looks at more modern developments in interpreting karma. That means it starts with Buddhism 2000 years ago, catches up to Hinduism in the 1850s and covers the reception of karma in […]

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Thumbnail image for Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy (ed). Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions

Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy (ed). Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions

April 5, 2014

Another of the books I looked at to get my facts straight when writing about karma was: Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions, edited by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty. It’s a collection of academic articles on the topic, collected in 1980 in hopes of deepening the understanding of karma in cross-religious perspective. That means [...]

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Karma: Dimensions of Asian Spirituality

April 4, 2014

In researching my (upcoming) book about Karma, I brushed up my knowledge on the topic. One of the books I turned to was Karma: Dimensions of Asian Spirituality by Johannes Bronkhorst. My teachers at Leiden University whisper his name with awe. Professor Bronkhorst is a living legend in the study of India and Buddhism. From the […]

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Thumbnail image for HH the Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World

HH the Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World

March 30, 2014

The Dalai Lama is well known as the (officially former) leader of the Tibetan people in exile and as a spiritual teacher. In this book he has done something unprecedented: he wrote a book for non-Buddhists, with no aim to convert them. As a Tibetan, his approach to ethics – the topic of Beyond Religion: […]

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Thumbnail image for Trying not to Try – Wu Wei and De

Trying not to Try – Wu Wei and De

March 13, 2014

How do we fall asleep? Trying to sleep only worsens insomnia. Trying to achieve something worsens the result in many areas of life. In Chinese philosophy this paradox is described through the twin principles of ‘wu wei‘ and ‘de‘. Wu Wei is roughly what we would call ‘flow’. The experience of being in the moment, […]

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Thumbnail image for Alphatudes – the alphabet of gratitude

Alphatudes – the alphabet of gratitude

November 17, 2013

I am always a bit suspicious of books about gratitude. The very concept sounds to me like a way of telling people to not feel their pain and ignore their troubles. This book is not like that. It tells us to lovingly embrace our emotions, to deal with our fears and sorrow. Yet it is […]

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