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Nondual Awareness and Minimal Phenomenal Experience

Nondual Awareness and Minimal Phenomenal Experience

Numerous authors have marshaled evidence for a consciousness devoid of content, during which perspectival structure itself is nearly or entirely dissolved (e.g., Baars, 2013;Forman, 1998;Josipovic, 2019;Metzinger, 2018;Millière, 2018;Miskovic, 2019;Windt, 2014). Such states offer a singular opportunity for isolating the most minimal structure of experience. While some have contested the theoretical plausibility of contentless awareness (e.g., Bachmann Hudetz, 2014;Hohwy, 2009), there are nevertheless compelling empirical instances of such states.

The challenge for a truly comprehensive account of consciousness is to integrate these 'anomalous' observations. Explaining minimal phenomenal experiences (MPEs) requires a shift in research emphasis, from focusing exclusively on contents and states of arousal, to also focusing on the consciousness-itself, or nondual awareness (Josipovic and Baars, 2015).Experiences of reduced phenomenal content can occur in several situations: naturally when transitioning to and from sleep, or under special circumstances, such as when waking from anesthesia, in some minimally conscious states and near death experiences, during profound sensory deprivation, under the influence of mind-altering substances, and during meditation and related practices. In an MPE event, content is so reduced that it seems to disappear altogether, yet one is not entirely unconscious as in deep sleep (i.e., there remains an affirmative experience of absence, rather than an absence of experience).While in principle there is only one kind of MPE, in the sense that the phenomenal content is either at the minimum or not, in practice, different MPEs can have different flavors.

The varieties of MPEs are specified by differences along several graded axes: (i) the type and degree of content that is absent; (ii) the type and degree of content that remains, both in the foreground and background; (iii) the absence of categorization and other conceptual reification; (iv) the absence of underlying structuring of experience along a subject-object dichotomy; (v) the presence and vividness of pure nondual awareness; (vi) whether its innate reflexivity is activated, and, (vii) other properties or dimensions of nondual awareness (Josipovic, 2019;Metzinger, 2018). Methods for intentionally inducing MPEs follow a progression, starting with quieted environments and perceptual silencing, to the mental silence of stopping cognitive functions and relaxing into the unconscious substrate, and, finally, to the innate silence of contentless or pure, nondual awareness. Below, we briefly review several experimental examples that can advance the scientific study of MPEs.In 1930, Wolfgang Metzger created the first visual Ganzfeld, involving the perception of a completely uniform surface. Prolonged stimulation in a chromatic Ganzfeld reliably elicits a dissolution of vision into a "mist" or a "sea of light" (Avant, 1965;Miskovic, 2019), with pronounced alterations in spatiality. One investigation found a staged sequence, starting from the perception of a concave-like surface, to the loss of all object qualities, and ending at a point where this indefinite transparency was felt as having "penetrated into the head" (Tsuji et al., 2004).

The final state collapses the perceiver/perceived dynamic and becomes undifferentiated, with subjects concluding that their "vision does not function any more". Such residual experiences might consist of unalloyed sensations of luminosity with no inside/outside boundaries (Benson, 2001;Cohen, 1957), or even feelings of blindness (Hochberg et al., 1951).From these varied sources, we can tentatively conclude that when perception has no adequate object to constitute, the perceiver loses the capacity to constitute a sense of one's self being affected by an object 'out there' (Fasching, 2008;Zahavi, 1999). With the ceasing of appearances, there is no one for whom those appearances can appear to: An isolation of the very process of appearance making occurs through a failure of perception from a discrete point-of-view, leaving only the empty, background medium of experience.Awareness without content appears to occur in several stages of the sleep-wake continuum (Windt, 2014). Bertram Lewin (1946) originally drew attention to what he called the "blank dream" corresponding to an experience of the empty visual screen onto which the manifest elements of the dream are projected. While the screen itself is not usually seen as a distinct element (attention being captivated by the dream narrative unfolding in dream space), not so in blank dreams where the screen appears alone.Around 30% of post-awakening reports may consist of a definite feeling of dreaming, with no ability to report the dream's content, known as a 'white dream' (Cohen, 1972;Siclari et al., 2013). Using Early Night-Serial Awakenings, Noreika and colleagues (2009) found the frequency of white dreams was close to 40% during Stages 2 and 3 of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. White dream reports can also occur upon anesthetic sedation (Noreika et al., 2011).A classic interpretation of white dreams is that they reflect failures in memory, either during encoding (Siclari et al., 2017) or retrieval (Cohen, 1972). That a proportion of white dreams are indeed merely forgotten dreams seems, at this point, to be beyond dispute. However, the possibility remains that some percentage of white dreams are examples of MPEs (Windt, 2014).Another plausible interpretation proposes that, (a) white dreams do indeed contain some content, but that (b) the content is of a weak perceptual quality that lies between the vividness of a typical dream and the experience of deep, dreamless sleep (Fazekas et al., 2019). Support for this hypothesis comes from an EEG study (Siclari et al., 2017) which reported that, compared to no dreaming and dreams with recalled content, white dreams are associated with intermediate power in high frequency oscillations recorded from sensory "hot zones". Reduced neural activity in posterior regions may correspond to perceptual representations occupying the low quality end of the spectrum of conscious experiences, characterized by diminished vividness, greater ambiguity, and less stability (Fazekas et al., 2019).Whether white dreams are best accounted for by degraded perceptual content or by the near absence of content altogether remains unclear, but the latter possibility is attested to by imageless lucid dreaming (Windt, 2014).

These are dreams in which a minimal form of presence is maintained (although this presence can be completely disembodied), in the apparent absence of any sensory images. One account describes this state as one in which "no symbols are encountered, visual or otherwise... all awareness of the self as body or special entity leaves... characterized by peace, silence..." (Magallon, 1991; see also Bogzaran, 2003).Since spontaneous or experimentally induced MPEs are transient and highly unstable events, their recognition by untrained observers is extremely difficult and rare. Not surprisingly, advanced meditators who have developed the requisite stability of attention, have provided us the largest amount of data on these conscious states (e.g., Shankman, 2009).Contemplative traditions, such as Yoga, Vipassana or Vajrayana, have charted variety of MPEs that can be induced via sustained attention and silencing of other mental functions (Sansk. vrittis), characterized by progressively reduced phenomenal content (Aranya, 1984;Gunaratana, 1980). A particular type of MPE that can occur with such meditative practice is the full absorption (Sanskrit: samadhi; Pali: nirodha samapatti; but for a different definition of samadhi see Milliere, 2018). In it, all experiential content disappears, there is no sensing or feeling, no awareness of oneself, nor awareness of any kind. One can know this state only retroactively, after emerging from it. Some traditions propose that this constitutes coming into contact with the empty background medium of experience, conceptualized as the substrate, which is neither fully conscious nor entirely non-conscious, and is thought to function as a pervasive potential or matrix for structuring of experience (Germano Waldron, 2006). It stores the patterns of organizing experience along subject-object polarity, reified via different conceptual processes, from basic propositional beliefs and categorizations, to elaborate selfworld models. Layers in the unconscious substrate have been proposed, related to the specificity of such patterns (Higins, 2011). Different types of MPEs can then be understood as instances of different layers of the substrate surfacing into foreground.Occasionally, with a full MPE such as described above, there can arise a vividly present awareness without any other phenomenal content. While this can be induced via certain types of absorption meditation, it is usually most clearly experienced upon suddenly attaining lucidity within deeper stages of NREM sleep, when phenomenal content is mostly absent (Josipovic, 2019;Varela, 1997). In the initial moments of such lucidity, before even the very subtle conceptualizations occur, there can be a vivid presence of awareness that is empty and cognizant, but without any other phenomenal content, without any thoughts, emotions or perceptions, without a sense of body, space, orientation, time, or the usual sense of self. It has been described as though the blackness of nothingness is lit and pervaded by a clear transparency of awareness' cognitive capacity (Josipovic, 2019). Such awareness appears not as a mere absence of any phenomenal properties (Dainton, 2001), but as a luminous, innately reflexive or self-knowing cognizance that is vividly present to itself (MacKenzie, 2012).This awareness appears to know without relying on any of the usual conceptual and symbolic process, empty of even the subtle or 'floor-level' conceptualizations such as categorizations and propositional beliefs. Nevertheless, it is not non-cognizant. It is prereflective only in the sense that it does not operate via conceptual reflexive structures (MacKenzie, 2012). So, it can be said that its reflexivity is innate and non-representational. This innate self-knowing is its essential or defining property that makes it unique and different from various states, functions or contents of consciousness (for detailed discussion see Josipovic 2019). As such, this awareness can be regarded as the consciousness-itself, the most basic aspect of consciousness, 'prior' to the unconscious substrate, phenomenal content or conceptual construction.Unlike the conceptual cognitions based on the substrate, when phenomenal content is present, this awareness knows it 'nondually', without relying on the transitive subject-knowingobject structuring, hence the term nondual awareness. Thus, although nondual awareness is clearly distinct from content, this differentiation is not a case of phenomenological duality (Dainton 2001;Josipovic 2019). Furthermore, nondual awareness is not temporally bound in the same way as ordinary cognitions. Rather than being a specific cognitive event, once selfrecognized, it functions as an ongoing context of knowing, akin to the way that space appears as an empty unchanging context for all events. From the perspective of this awareness, the unconscious substrate appears as based on three mistaken cognitions: non-recognition of nondual awareness by itself; non-recognition of nonduality of this awareness and phenomenal content, and, mistaking subject and object poles of experience for a reified and separate subject and object (Laish, 2015).A number of specific issues frequently arise in the discourse and research on nondual awareness and impede progress in understanding it. Some, like the confusion between different levels of discourse, the reification implied in linguistic and other categorizations, and the nature of subject-object duality, have been discussed in depth elsewhere (Dunne, 2015;Josipovic 2014Josipovic , 2019Metzinger, 2018). Preconceived ideas and commitments to views that have no understanding of nondual awareness are further impediments, in particular, fears that nondual awareness may imply a self, or that there is an aspect of experience that may be essential, enduring, and innately positive.But perhaps the main hindrance is the implicit attentional bias or habit of focusing exclusively on phenomenal contents, rather than also on that which is aware of them. This orientation is also responsible for mistaking the substrate and its layers, experienced as minimized phenomenal content, for nondual awareness. Granted, different features of MPEs such as silencing of the narrative self's inner speech and its underlying self-world model, the loss of body boundary and the sense of agency, are all interesting as topics for research, yet an exclusive focus on them, will lead us to miss the awareness that is at the foundation of human consciousness. This habit is so pernicious, that even in those moments when nondual awareness begins to emerge from underneath the substrate, one tends to make it into an object of thinking, noting, or meditating, thus obscuring it with a mental representation of itself. When the nondual awareness occurs within a waking state, this same habitual orientation toward phenomenal content leads to mis-conceptualizing it as the effect it has on the experience of body, emotions, cognitions, or environment. Rather, nondual awareness is first and foremost an awareness, and not merely a change in phenomenal content, be it perceptual, affective or cognitive.As previously proposed (Josipovic 2014(Josipovic , 2019, nondual awareness is mediated by a thalamo-cortical network with its main node in the central precuneus, that, among other nodes, also includes areas of the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex. In manifested or realized nondual awareness, this network informs itself about its own integrated state via reentrant oscillatory activity, irrespective of whether the content-related activity of cortex is silenced or present. Instances of isolated or pure nondual awareness, without any other phenomenal content, may suggest the activation of non-specific thalamic nuclei alone (Schiff, 2010). This is unlikely, as the presence, vividness, and especially, the innate reflexivity of this awareness, necessitate an engagement of a parieto-frontal network that is integrated across the intrinsicextrinsic brain boundary, even when the specific intrinsic or extrinsic contents are absent. .

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