Direct Experience: What is Real and What is an Illusion

What is a helpful way for us to think about the question of what is real and what is an illusion? What light can direct experience – giving attention to our experience of living – shed on this question?

I remember an ACIM study group many years ago. A woman arrived late and as she prepared to sit down, a chorus of voices cried out “don’t do it! The chair is an illusion!”

Obligatory laughter ensued.

Variations of that joke abound in ACIM and nondual circles. They reflect an awareness of the fact that those spiritual traditions teach students that the objective material world – the one we sense with our bodies – is an illusion.

There is no world! This is the central thought the course attempts to teach (W-pI.132.6:2-3).

In order to get the joke – to be in on it – you have to be aware that this teaching runs directly contrary to our human experience. The joke is funny because we aren’t sure how to navigate this proposed divide between what’s real and what is not.

The suggestion I make in this essay is that denying experience is a form of violence and that there is a better way.

Look again at the proposed or apparent divide. Someone is about to sit down. If the chair is not real, they’re going to fall and hurt themselves. If the chair is real then either we are confused about what our spiritual tradition is teaching us or our spiritual tradition is wrong.

Experience speaks to us clearly and emphatically: here is a chair. It has both form and function. We know what to do with it. It is wholly helpfully integrated into our experience of living in the world.

And then A Course in Miracles comes along and says don’t pay any attention to your senses or your thinking about what those senses are showing you. They don’t have the slightest idea what’s going on.

This becomes a conflict: what do you believe? Your senses that show you a world that is predictable and reliable? Or the spiritual tradition that says there is no world?

If we are only talking about a chair, then maybe it’s not such a big deal. But what if we are talking about people? What if I walk past a homeless person who is cold and hungry and my response is to shrug off her misery because she’s just an illusory appearance in an illusory world?

Or this: if race is an illusion, then racism can’t be a real wrong worth addressing, right?

Intuitively, most of us don’t want to go there. It’s funny to think about a chair being unreal. It’s harder to ignore the suffering of another being. And it’s unloving to think that dismissing an entire class of people is justified because the world and its contents aren’t real.

A lot of folks who get squirmy at this juncture tend to argue that even if the world isn’t materially real, it still has some purpose. It’s a dream, yes, but it’s our dream, and so it’s filled with learning opportunities and other tools by which to awaken.

That is not an unhelpful way to think about the conflict, in the sense that it attempts to resolve it in favor of something practical and helpful. But at the same time, it’s a bit like having our cake and eating it, too. We want to sustain the spiritual tradition of A Course in Miracles– because we’re attached to it, invested in it and so forth – and we also find a way to behave in socially normative and productive ways.

Where this mode becomes problematic is that no matter how we categorize it, and no matter how we try to make it productive, the fundamental premise of denying the world is inherently violent. So we have to give attention to it.

Set aside for a moment what A Course in Miracles says, or what we think it says, or what some teacher says it says. Stay with your direct experience.

Right now – in this moment – what is the nature of that experience? Don’t gussy it up with theory. Don’t quote anybody. It’s just you being you. Nobody is going to be impressed or unimpressed with your answer.

As I write, my children are asleep upstairs. Chrisoula is not asleep but is still in bed reading. The cats are to my right, watching birds a the feeder. I am drinking Greek coffee. Out the window I can see the back yard, raspberry bushes, horse pasture and through a far bare copse of trees the river, on the far bank of which cows graze.

These images are imbued with meaning. They have names, provenances, purposes. Some I like better than others. My brain takes this welter of sensory data and categorizes and organizes in ways that work for the organism. This is the world; this is living in the world. And it includes – naturally and without effort – a sense of intimacy. It is “my” experience; “I” am living it.

Moreover, there is apparently no way out of this intimate subjective experience. Even knowing that there’s more to the world than this coffee, this family, this landscape – a city named Paris, say, or Bob Dylan songs – shows up in this subjective experience.

There is nothing special about seeing this clearly. It is simply a fact available to all of us when we let common sense have its say. Intimate subjectivity is at least in part what it means to be a human observer. This is what it feels like to be you. No more, no less. And no big deal.

Often when I talk to people about this, they want to interject course quotes, biographical details about Ramana Maharshi, the importance of opening your heart chakra, and so forth. I want to do that too, sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with that but none of it undermines – or improves upon – the basic fact that our living and our world all appear within the container of subjective experience.

The suggestion is that we give attention to the rich vibrancy of subjective experience and become familiar with it. Familiar and comfortable.

Seeing this clearly – grounding ourselves in the fact of experience – matters because it is from that foundation that we can begin to explore in a sustainable way what is real and what is illusory or whether those distinctions are helpful in any instance and if so, how. More to the point, we can do so in a way that is coherent, not violent.

Why do I use the word “violent” here?

When someone is having experience X and we call it Y we are doing violence to them. In essence, we are denying them their fundamental right to exist. If someone says “I have cancer” and we say “cancer is an illusion” we invalidate them.

If I go out into the pasture to feed the horses and simultaneously deny that the horses are there, then I am going to make myself insane. Why? Because I am actively denying an experience that is fundamentally present and inviting response. To refuse to respond – or to degrade my response – is to violate (do violence to) that experience.

If you visit my home and I say over and over that you are an illusion, a projection, and not real, then that is a denial of your experience of yourself as real. And it is a denial of my experience of you as real. The violence adheres to us both.

Does that make sense? We cannot simultaneously accept something as real and deny it is real. It hurts too much. It’s a form of lovelessness.

Again, I am not suggesting one analyze this or dress it up. I am simply suggesting one notice the way that the world is here, and the self, and other selves (including dogs, horses, dandelions and so forth), and our living in this world invites response and mutuality, and that denying this hurts.

So that is the basic problem, and again, all that is suggested here is to just see the tension clearly, as an experiential fact, not a big idea about metaphysics or ACIM or what-have-you.

When we see it clearly, one thing that happens is that maybe our inclination to deny experience – to write it off as illusory – subsides a little. Rather than insist this is or isn’t real, we can just let it be what it is. We can give attention to it.

I say that all the time: give attention. The richness of experience – what it is to be you, what you are about – is so vivid and alive it is almost too sweet to bear. This is true! A few weeks ago a bee landed on the clothesline near where I was reading Lorine Niedecker poems. And it was so beautiful, so exquisite – the sounds it make, the color of it, the ideas that it incited about honey and love and the complexity of bee culture and bee bodies . . .

In that one little moment one could taste life to such exquisite degree . . .

This is what Emily Dickinson was getting at when she wrote I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed.

I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue –

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door –
When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” –
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun!

This insight is hardly unique to Dickinson. Her genius was not that she experienced life differently than you and I, but rather in her willingness to see it so clearly and then write about it. The “liquor never brewed” is given to all of us; the question is really in our willingness to recognize it and to sustain the recognition.

Again, no arguments are being made here about truth is. No metaphysics are being discussed. We are just looking clearly into our experience, seeing its nature, and letting it be what it is.

And as we experience it – as we sip those heavenly drams – we can begin to sense perhaps the way in which denying those drams, refusing that tankard, is a fruitless exercise at best, and a harmful one at worst.

Thus the way clears to bring forth love. And that is the why and the how of our living in the world.

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