The Persistence of Illusions
One of the thorniest issues for anyone, let alone a spiritual seeker, is learning to distinguish between what is “illusory” and what is “real.”
In exploring this issue I encountered the following concepts:
Illusion: something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of reality.
Reality: something that exists independent of ideas concerning it; a real thing or fact.
Maya: the illusion of reality of sensory experience and attributes of oneself.
Delusion: a false belief or opinion.
Mirage: an optical phenomenon; something illusory, without substance or reality.
Hallucination: a sensory experience of something that does not exist outside the mind; a false notion, belief or impression; illusion; delusion.
Reality-testing: the objective evaluation of situations that enable one to distinguish between the internal world of thoughts and the external world, and between the self and non-self.
There’s some circularity in these definitions but that simply highlights that the illusion/reality discussion can be a bit boggy.
In the course of my inquiry I experienced mini-glimpses, mini-insights, mini-epiphanies, mini-realizations. Such a mini-insight was the recognition that as biological beings we are illusion-making beings. That that is what the five senses, central nervous system, brain and thinking mind are all about. According to mainstream materialist neuroscientists, electrical impulses in the brain account for all my thought patterns and mental experiences. And it is in the brain where thinking mind ultimately “interprets” the sense data – including interpretations of its own thoughts.
That “interpreting” is the illusory-world-in-the-making, whether the interpreting involves a cognitive narrative, a visual image, a felt physical sensation, a mouth-watering aroma, the sound of thunder or a sour taste in the mouth.
So what did this mini-breakthrough understanding do for me? Was I able to see the “reality” beyond the illusion? Did I see pass the mind created sense of me; pass the mind created representations, beyond the illusions to . . . truth? Well no . . . that didn’t happen. I didn’t see some dramatically different reality or even a little bit different version of reality; what I experienced looked and felt strikingly similar to, if not identical to, my so-called illusory everyday reality.
Then what is this “reality” that the various wisdom teachers talk about? What is the important subtext of the reality/illusion discussion that I am supposed to heed?
Part of that spiritual instruction is that the mind created sense of “me” is an illusion and by extension any suffering experienced by the illusory “me” is also illusory. And the end of suffering, in significant part, comes about by being able to “see” through the ever-changing illusory “me” to that which never changes, ever is, was never born and never dies, which is what “I” really am.
But my understanding of the interpretive activity taking place within the body did nothing to dispel the illusory world. So what is different, if anything?
Consider that white light passing through a prism can be fragmented into a rainbow of colors; yet the prism itself is not the source of that light. Similarly, while the brain may “permit, transmit, and express mental events and conscious experiences that have their sources elsewhere, it does not produce them.” Just because I can listen to music on a radio doesn’t mean the radio is creating the music.
What is different is not so much how the world looks but how I am in the world. Since I am manifested as human being I’ve come to terms with the apparent fact that my interpretive illusory world isn’t going anywhere fast; that I organically create it every morning when I wake up from physical sleep. Thus I relate to “illusions” by acting “as if” they are real but “knowing” they are not. And that can make a big difference of how you are in the world . . . or not.
So if a moment of awakening doesn’t deliver you into your version of “absolute reality” don’t be so hard on yourself or feel anything is wrong or that you have somehow failed. Remember you are manifested as human being and illusions come with the incarnation. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that the only voice you hear is the one in your head.