Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Illusion of Reality

All my life I have thought that there is some solid hardcore reality out there. That what I see is what is. But lately I’ve become convinced that reality is merely an illusion, and not in an old-school, philosophical way, but as a fact, staring right into my eyes. Whether one looks at it from a spiritual perspective or as a practical one or a scientific one, there is no denying the fact that we are living in a hall of mirrors.

We experience this world through the five senses we have. The magnificent machine called human body (and of all other living creatures) has sensory organs through which it takes sensory stimulus from the environment which then send them to brain, which finally creates the experience we have. But this experience is greatly limited by the resolution of the sense organs we have. For example, Mantis Shrimp has receptors in its eyes to detect polarisation of light. As a human being, I can only imagine how the world looks to the Mantis Shrimp. To cite an example of how we see what is not and not see what is, we can take the example of how we see the world around us as solid (most of it). But in reality, all matter, even in solid state, is 99% space. But our eyes tell us otherwise, and so does the sense of touch. When we put our hand on say, the table, it does not pass through it. (The hand does not pass through because of the electrostatic interaction between the atoms in the table and the hand.)

Sense organs act like receptors to physical signals like light and sound but the real magician is the little organ inside our heads- the brain. Different areas of the brain deal with different stimuli to create our reality, and our subjective experience of it. A series of experiments have established that we see what we expect to see. You might want to see this and this

And then there are dreams. While dreaming, it’s not possible for a dreamer to distinguish between the dream and the reality.  Whether we are falling from a tower or falling into a tub of chocolate, it feels real, we wouldn’t believe otherwise until we are awakened.

Some more evidence that our reality is defined by what we imagine comes from hypnosis. Under the state of hypnosis, if a subject is told that his feet are in warm water, his veins and arteries expand. That is to say that his body reacts as if his feet were really in warm water.  Brain scans done on people under hypnosis reveal that their brains can’t tell the difference between the images they see and the images they are told to imagine. (It means that the a particular area of their brain shows heightened up activity when they are told to imagine a certain image, the same that would light up if the image  really was in front of them.)

Another good example of how our thoughts fool us is how we perceive time. Most people (including me until recently) think of it as a continuum.  Time moves, years fly by, and we go from here to there to there. But if we stop and think for a moment, where is the past and the future, but in our imagination. We are just stuck inside this moment of now. I didn’t realise this until I read about it in a book. The future and past seemed very real to me until I stepped back and tried to look straight at them. What a big difference can perspective make!

In spiritual sense, the illusion is not merely what we see or touch or feel, the feeling that we are separate beings is an illusion as well. The ego, or the sense of self that tells me that "I" am a student, a businessman or a labourer, having these needs and those wants is also a part of this elaborate dream that one is dreaming. Sages and saints all over the world and throughout the history of time have been saying this same thing. Reality is an illusion.  And when one awakens from this dream, one becomes enlightened. When one is enlightened, he sees through the illusion. He not only realises that there is no pain or pleasure, except in the mind of the beholder, there is no “dreamer” . The enlightened man frees himself from the ego and sees through the ultimate illusion. He realises that everything is One and nothing is separate. He realises that the perceiver, the perceived and the act of perceiving is all one.

Whether it’s Jed Mckenna or Ramana Maharshi or Adyashanti or Richard Rose, they all have had similar experiences of enlightenment. They all see the world in a non-personal way, there is no person in them.

Maybe they are awake or they’re dreaming that they are, I can’t say! But the mere possibility that we can see that life is an illusion is promising enough to make me believe that such a state might be possible.

Now where does this all fit into the practical life? For one, it makes life much easier as when one understands that what one is thinking is not backed by reality but is just imagination (or just random neurons firing in the brain), one can start to take things lightly. One can try to be neutral to both pain and pleasure as one knows that he’s making them up. In short, one can start to control one’s thoughts, which is one of the most difficult pursuits. Though knowing that one is dreaming definitely makes the dream less scary or less enjoyable, depending on the dream one is dreaming, but in my opinion, it is a good bargain for a peaceful mind.