More on Illusion and Reality

Illusions always arise with respect to a referent: they are compared to what is believed to be real and on the basis of the comparison are found lacking in some fundamental way. That is how we determine whether an object or experience will be labeled “real” or “illusory.”

However, at the moment of experience, illusions are always experienced as real. It is only after we have had the experience and compared it to some other experience that we can say it was or was not an illusion.

Humberto Maturana uses the example of a trout leaping to a fisherman’s fly. At the moment the fish perceives the fly and executes its leap, the fly is “real” – a living creature the trout can eat. It is only after the trout is hooked that that the illusion becomes apparent. That’s when the trout can say, “wait – this didn’t happen last time. This fly is not a real fly.”

Thus, if I assert some object or experience is an illusion, I am doing so via a comparison. The question is: what is being compared to what? (And – if I am feeling particularly ambitious – who or what is doing the comparing?)

What is being compared to what? I want to go deeply into this. I want to answer it in a satisfying and personal way.

That is, I want to be careful that I am not saying “the world is an illusion” because that’s what A Course in Miracles says. I don’t want to say “I am awareness itself” because Rupert Spira or Leo Hartong say that. I don’t want to say “I am that” because Ramana Maharshi said it.

What is my experience? How does that experience express itself?

I want to be attentive to the actual process of observation and determination as it happens in my living; I want to be responsible for it. What is it? How shall I speak of it?

In general these days, I am less interested in arguing that the world – or some aspect of it – is an illusion than I am in thinking out loud about the unexamined interior certainty that underlies these concepts and our dialogues about them.

Say that you and I sit out by the apple trees at dusk. We share a cup of tea. We talk or don’t talk. Here is the view from earlier this summer.


Is the sky an illusion? Are the vivid colors real? What about the apple trees on the right? The hemlock trees on the left? The bodies observing it all?

Bracket those questions for a moment. Set them aside. Beneath them there is an underlying certainty or confidence that something – whatever we name it, however we describe it – is happening.

Is that point clear? Before we get into the metaphysics, the folk physics, the quantum physics, the biology, the theology, the soteriology, et cetera, can we just agree that something is going on? Something to which all the afore-mentioned conceptual frameworks might be applied?

If that is clear, then consider these questions: how do I know that something is happening? How does it appear? Is it real? Is it an illusion? To what would I compare it in order to know?

The feeling of certainty or confidence is internal and abstract. I can’t point to it the way I can point to the sky. When I am attentive to it – when I am curious about it – the focus shifts in a subtle way. In a recent newsletter (sign up if you like), I suggested a way to think about this interior abstraction is as “being.”

Can we glimpse being itself? Impersonal, unconditional, all-in-all?

If not, why not? And how do we know “not?”

If so, then what questions remain when we do catch that glimpse? What questions are dissolved?

This raises another challenge. Given that a previous experience taken to be real was subsequently revealed to be an illusion, how do I know this new one (this glimpse of being, say) will not also be subsequently declared an illusion?

The answer is that I do not know it won’t be!

And with that, the bottom just . . . falls out. There is no certainty; there is no end to the questions. It’s inquiries all the way down.

What do we do then?

Well, I want to go slowly with experience (like, say, the experience of seeing and suggesting that “it’s inquiries all the way down”) and the assertions that I make about it. I want to speak to my experience of truth without aggrandizing it (i.e., posturing as the one who gets it). I don’t want to arrogate more certainty than is justified, assuming any is justified at all.

We are averse to doubt. We like teachers who reassure us the ground is solid, not teachers who glibly profess that maybe it’s solid and maybe it’s not and we’ll never know for sure. Confident teachers declaring they’ve got The Answer™ will always distract us from our responsibility to explore the interior – answerless though it may be – on our own.

Often, people become frustrated at this point. They feel curtailed or confounded. Am I really saying we can never know anything for sure?

Well, yes.  (And I am also suggesting – albeit not so much in this post – that we investigate the stability and “realness” of the underlying knower who knows we can never know anything for sure).

But also, saying “I don’t know” is not the end of the road. The bottom falls out but the show goes on. There is still making love and gardening and baking bread and long walks to and from the river and sharing tea under the apple trees at dusk.

It all goes on just like it did, almost as if there’s nothing to get in the first place . . . This is a very important insight!

When we realize how little we know and accept that we cannot fundamentally know everything, then it becomes possible to lean into our actual experience. Who cares what it is? This is it! This very this! And we can be curious about it and responsive to it. We can revel in it and play with it. We can sing to it and listen as it sings back or doesn’t sing back.

In other words, we can consent to the gentle and natural bringing forth of love. We listen better. We become less insistent that this or that way of living is right or wrong. We soften; we melt. And as we do, life gives itself to us and we are adequate unto it. We are more than adequate unto it.

On that view, the question of illusion vs. reality subsides because the work is always to be attentive and humble, to go slowly and curiously, and see what happens.

Getting Beyond “Know Thyself”

Perhaps we are moving beyond a space of needing to “know thyself.” Perhaps we are entering a new space where it is enough to realize the process of knowing, without getting hung up on knower and known and so forth.

The self seems to be that which has certain identifying data (name, birthday, place of residence, family constellation), which data morphs into narrative (likes and dislikes, significant life events, hopes and dreams, hobbies, secrets, et cetera).

A profusion of flowers in the garden, a lovely tangle that makes me happy and grateful.

But before identity and narrative, there is that to which identity and narrative apply. There is that for which they are relevant or significant, that which attends them and which they attend in turn.

This “that” is a distinction that in our current state of thinking and speaking we refer to as a “self.” First comes the self, the particular distinction, and then come identity and narrative, which are effectively window dressing for the distinction to which they apply.

Perhaps part of the spiritual process is just seeing clearly this order: the self is that which to which identity and narrative apply. And then a further part of the spiritual process is attending the self, the that-which-occurs-prior-to-identity-and-narrative.

It is possible to give attention to that self, and to experience it in a direct way. This direct experience can be quite intimate and intense, given that time and place, identity and narrative apparently dissolve in it.

Yet there is also a potential for confusion in such intimate intensity. We sometimes end up identifying with the intensity, that pure state of awareness. As Ramana Maharshi put it “that Awareness which alone remains – that I am.”

Yet this “I” remains a distinction. It cannot be otherwise. In order to distinguish “I” we automatically distinguish “Not-I.” To bring forth a “self” – any self at all – we must also bring forth “not-self.” Else how would we know it?

Thus, the self for its existence relies on the other, who is also a self relying for its existence on another.

It is tempting to observe this circularity, this mutuality, and declare with respect to it: we are one. But this declaration is limited. A and B, who mutually specify each other, also mutually specify C, which is their unity, their oneness. It is this oneness that allows A and B to be both self and other (even though each is aware of only one self and one other).

But in order to specify C, we must thereby specify not-C. On and on it goes. That is why the declaration “we are one” is limited. C brings forth not-C, which in turn brings forth D, which in turns bring forth not-D. It’s true we are one, you and I, but we are not “only” one, or “the only” one.

It seems like we are locked into an infinite regress here (C leads to D leads to E leads to F et cetera). But rather than focus on that, it’s helpful to focus on the circularity that inheres between A and B, or AB and C, or ABC and D. Each forms a circle in which each is the full equal of the other, and in which each brings the other forth.

This circularity undoes – or dissolves – the inclination (which is premised on linearity) to ask about first causes, beginnings, before-the-beginnings, et cetera. There is no beginning. Nor is there any end. There is only being, wherever and however one looks, that is all there is. Being.

I am suggesting one actually go into this. I am suggesting one actually observe the distinctions and the distinguishing and reflect on them. They are living processes, dynamically capable of being observed.

And I suggest that in doing so, one comes up against lawful limits (there is a self that is not alone but exists in mutual codependence with others who could be one’s own self), and that these limits are nonetheless experienced as essentially infinite and eternal (without beginning or end), and that at some point in the inquiry, the giving of attention to all this, it becomes possible – it becomes desirable – to just breathe and say “okay, this is it” in a relative rather than absolute way.

This breathing (I am not being metaphorical but really indicating giving attention to one’s experience of breathing, of being breathed) – this relaxing into (not resisting, not adapting, not altering) what is as it is – is what makes us fundamentally happy, peaceful, coherent, creative and so forth.

Finally, I think a language around this process that is not inherently spiritual or religious or therapeutic but basically logical – like directions for screwing in a light bulb – is helpful. That is, rather than spiritualize our confusion and inattention, why not just be clear and attentive?

rain falls on the river out back, low in a dry summer, like the rest of us longing for that which we are.

In a funny way, it is actually easier to be clear and attentive than unclear and inattentive. But we have to want to see it that way.

Part of why I suggest a non-spiritual/religious mode of dealing with this material is that spiritual/religious modes tend to be conclusive. And any conclusion with respect to the self (or Truth or God or the Whole or whatever) strikes me as incoherent in terms of logic and – more importantly – community.

It is incoherent logically because we can never stand outside the domain of experience in order to compare it any putative truth. Therefore, experience is always conditional – it is what it is, but what it is, in the ultimate sense, is foreclosed to us. Statements like “there is only this,” while tempting because of their pretense to certainty, and the comfort certainty brings, are effectively superstition. They are magical thinking. We just don’t know.

More significantly, it is a distraction in the communal sense, because our problem is that we are unhappy, and fixing this is not complicated – we just have to let go of what makes us unhappy! It’s not a spiritual problem. It’s not a psychological problem. It’s a mechanical problem. If you see a rattlesnake on the trail, you don’t need a metaphysician to know to stop walking. You stop walking; you give the snake its due, and this happens naturally. Like that, happiness is natural. To be is to be happy. But we can ignore this, or forget this, and thus make ourselves unhappy.

We can turn the rattlesnake into a problem of God or metaphysics, what are basically undecidable questions. When those questions are posed in the sense of “I have to answer this in order to be happy” rather than “asking these questions makes me happy” than we are effectively screwed.

I speak from considerable experience in that regard . . .

But it seems that we are beginning to move beyond that space, the space of complicating things in favor of a space where our natural proclivity for joy, helpfulness, peace, cooperation and so forth might prevail. I hope so. We need that, as a species, and the ecosystem of which we are such a problematic part needs it, too.

On Letting Go – and thus Knowing Deeply – Christ

When I say “let go of Christ” or “let go of A Course in Miracles” what I mean is: let Christ be. Let A Course in Miracles be. Let God be. I don’t mean have or don’t have, possess or don’t possess. I mean simply give attention to Christ, or God, or A Course in Miracles and see what happens.

These wooden Christs – or Buddhas sometimes – are part stump, part discarded wooden bowls. Setting them just so in the little glade past the horse pasture makes me happy, as visiting them does. What we refuse – throw away – remains to illuminate what can never leave.

In a sense, to “let go” is to be curious. It is a state of openness in which one releases to the maximum extent possible their expectations and investments. Rather than insist Christ be this or that, or have this meaning rather than that – which is to insist on Christ as a certain kind of experience conforming to expectation and desire (which is unloving) – we simply attend the experience or Christ as it actually is for us, in that moment.

When we do this in a sustained and gentle way, we begin to see how “Christ” or “A Course in Miracles” or “God” or “Spiritual Term of Your Choosing” are really just forms of conditioning. They are descriptions of experience – often that we want to have, or expect to have.

Giving attention – rather than describing – is a way of discovering what is actually present, rather than what may be present, or was present in the past, or what we hope or fear will be present.

For me – which is not to say for you – letting go of Christ means that Christ sort of . . . floats away. It is like releasing a balloon. The balloon is vivid and beautiful but once my grasp on it lessens, it gently slips my hold and slowly rises and drifts away.

In its place is something closer to Michel Henry’s observation in I am the Truth – here paraphrased – that Christ is the light in which all things, including “Christ”, are seen. Henry approximately equivocates Christ with Awareness or Consciousness, and thus divests it of its personal and historical connotations.

The coming of Christ into the world is subordinate to the coming of the world itself, to its appearance as the world. Because if the world had not first opened its space of light – if it had not been shown to us as that horizon of visibility cast beyond things, as that screen against which they are detached – then Christ would never have been able to come into the world or show himself to us . . .

In this way, we might say that Christ is Love, just as we might also say that God is Love. And then we give attention to Love and see what happens. We become curious about Love. We let go of Love.

Allowing life to be – to appear as it is, without insisting it be something else or something different – is very liberating. It is clarifying. And we are always sufficient unto it, for we are it. When we are free, we notice that we are life giving attention to life. There is nothing to lose; there is a lot to share.

There is a lot of joy to be tasted in this simple clarity, a lot of peace. The ups and downs that inhere in the body’s adventures and misadventures don’t cease, but our attachment to and investment in them relaxes. We are less distracted by them, because there is another way, one that is given to us as us.

That way is the calm and quiet stillness of being itself, which includes us – which gently dissolves us – in itself. It is like the pleasure of holding another’s hand. Nobody teaches us to want this or be happy with it; no instruction manual is needed. It simply is.

Doubt as a Christian Virtue

Radical doubt underlies my experience of being Christian. At any moment – for any length of time – I am willing to let the whole practice and tradition go, to see it all as unhelpful, confused, discriminatory, superficial, distracting, unnecessary, illogical . . .

It is like an enormous wave overtaking this aspect of my experience, decimating it and strewing the pieces for miles across the landscape.

The work is to let this wave of doubt come and go of its own volition without resisting it, without trying to turn it into something that it’s not. And then, in the ruins, in whatever remains, reconstruct anew the fundamental relationship: self/other, self/Christ, self/God, self/world, et cetera.

It is not easy.

Given my structure as Homo Sapiens, my inclination is to solve problems and resist what appears to cause them. When uncertainty arises, the inclination is to do whatever possible to convert it to certainty. Doubt is the sand on which no stable residence can be constructed.

This feels rational and self-loving. After all, it is a natural aspect of being human. I am not disappointed in myself for being unwilling to live in doubt.

Yet on the other hand, doubt, too, is natural. It, too, arises as a fundament of my structure and nature. Clearly it is sometimes merited – how else do we learn? Become more loving, helpful, patient, instructive? Thus, I want to notice doubt. I want to give attention to it.

Letting doubt just happen – letting it arise naturally in my living without rushing in to change it – is what I mean by “noticing” doubt. By “giving attention”, I mean simply letting doubt have its own space by being in responsive dialogue with it. What does it feel like? What does it want? It clearly wants my attention. But why? How?

Who and what am I when I doubt?

I do not seek doubt, and yet at times it is there. I cannot kill or otherwise end it, for it always returns. While I have the capacity to respond to doubt, I am not its author. I am not its master. Like temptation, like surrender, it is given.

Of course, if doubt is natural, then it arises in concordance with Christ, the light in which all things have their existence. In the lawful order of God, that which appears is what is given and, as such, is the material in which it is also given to work out holiness and grace, and to end – if possible, to whatever degree possible – our alienation from God and Love.

Thus, rather than resistance and disdain, doubt deserves welcome and acceptance. In a sense, this suggests that Christ is that which – in addition to welcoming Christ – is that which doubts Christ. Christ inheres in doubt as well as certainty.

Thus, when I sit quietly and doubt Christ, I sit with Christ. In my nonresistance to doubt, I affirm Christ and Christ affirms me, even if – perhaps especially if – I do not experience the relief and joy such affirmation would seem to propose.

So Christ does not come and go according to my experience of doubt or of certainty; Christ is present in and as both.

This is another way of saying that Christ is beyond – transcends, perhaps (is other than) – the dichotomy of “I feel good/I feel bad.”

I am not suggesting that if we are unhappy we should double down on our unhappiness. It’s okay to come in from the rain. It’s okay to take an aspirin. It’s okay to call bullshit on somebody who’s full of shit (temporarily or otherwise). I simply observe that doubt is not antithetical to living Christianly.

When I no longer resist doubt but accept it as “also Christ,” as “Christ which does not come or go,” then an opening appears. Life widens. Doubt exposes a chasm, an abyss, one we are already toppling through in darkness. It reveals that as constituted – in our very living right now – we cannot find our way, cannot assert who “we” even are, or what “our way” might even be.

And yet, in this emptiness – in this void – we discover agape, the unconditional, impersonal, all-inclusive love which shifts our living from the narrow confines of self (that can be lost, found, and lost again) to the radiant wellspring of the collective, the whole related unto us, in which my joy and your joy are one joy, one love.

It is knowing this one love that enables us to live from it – as it – and thus embody the good news that death is conquered and only happiness and peace need attend our living. Doubt is not a failure of faith, nor a glitch in our well-being but the essence of our humanness, which forever relates us through Christ to Love itself.

Wanting Monasteries

For a long time I wanted a monastery.

Then I wanted one with whom to want a monastery with me.

Then I wanted one with whom to expand this want to include the various ecstasies associated with the insights one imagined would be gained in the monastery, yet are in this living mainly enacted sensually in the body and its play.

All of this was a distraction constantly elaborating itself. It was enchanting; I was enchanted. And like all of those who are enchanted, I could sometimes enchant, and bring others into and along with my dreaming.

Yet all of this was not an expansion of my living, nor a recognition of our shared foundation in love, much less a bringing forth of love. It was more in the nature of forcing enclosure on the free expression of life, which inevitably choked and strangled it, causing stagnation and frustration.

Our mental anguish and psychological struggles are not separate from our body’s ability to conserve itself and take joy in its conservation (by wanting this form of living over another – the monastery, say). The one specifies – or mirrors, perhaps – the other.

Moreover, our suffering is never personal, but involves the collective (again, through specification or, if you like, mirroring). The culture, as such, moves in us as much as we move in it. By definition, we neither thrive nor suffer alone.

Therefore, it is imperative that we address our unhappiness, as and where it is experienced, and see if it cannot be remade into happiness, as and where it is experienced, and if it can be so remade, how it can be, and what contribution we might make to the project.

As it happens, what arises naturally is happiness and love, and yet as human beings who are capable of reflection in and through language, what also arises is division and fracture (this is the observer/observed divide, which is basically a misinterpretation of what self-reference is) so that happiness and love, while not obliterated, are blocked and obstructed, which sickens us, in our both our aloneness and our togetherness.

Attention given to the blocks, which are simply attempts to enforce and/or restrict patterns of thinking (see the previous reference to enclosures), is healing because it undoes the blocks. Through attention one sees that they cannot actually force life (through projection) into any given pattern and so gradually simply attend to the patterns that are given.

The result is ease and gratitude and inner peace, which naturally extends itself by teaching itself how to recognize and remember itself.

You could picture a flowing river: its steady flow towards the sea, the many eddies and currents rising and falling and appearing, both on its surface and deeper down where one cannot physically see (but can feel when they stand in the river).

Could you step into the river and with your hands or your mind or any other aspect of your living turn the river around? Stop it in its channel? Turn it to ice? Or to sand?

You might interrupt it in some insignificant ways. You might end this or that eddy. But you cannot stop the river on your own.

I realized that I did not need a monastery, because no monastery was given, and thus wanting a monastery was the source of considerable anguish and grief (for which, I imagined, the monastery, or the one with whom to want a monastery, or the one with whom to play at the healing one imagined was implicit in the monastery was a cure).

Once the longing for the monastery dissolved, more or less, what remained was the peace one had long projected unto the monastery and unto the one with whom the monastery might be simulated (romantically, intellectually, sexually, familially, et cetera).

What was left was the living that lives itself, outside of time, and without conditions or qualifications that would separate it from any other living. I realized that this living was itself all that was given, and that it was sufficient – it was more than sufficient.

And so the work becomes attending the bringing forth of love in this living, not by enclosing it or by forcing it into this or that form, or by looking away from it towards some imagined other living, but by simply noticing it as it is.

What one notices – and I resist this mightily, still – is that the discrete self is also merely another object, like a coffee cup or a dog or an idea of justice. It too appears, no more important or less important than any other appearance. And the light in which all these appearances arise – call it Christ, call it consciousness, call it your Heart Light, call it whatever – does not distinguish between appearance. It is a light that does indeed fall on the just and the unjust alike, the preferred and the not-preferred alike.