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.