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What is Reality? Is It Really An Illusion?


When you read the words spoken by the wisdom teachers of old, one of the ideas they repeatedly emphasize is that this reality of ours isn’t what we think it is. It is in fact something completely different from what we all think. And it is the “thinking” that is getting in the way of us comprehending the truth. Once we get this fundamental, ‘big truth’ wrong, the confusion about all the little elements of our life is unavoidable. And the happiness, peace, ongoing contentedness and health we all seek will keep evading us. So in the following paragraphs I am going to endeavor to explain what this truth about the nature of reality is and what it means.

Among the old masters, the Buddha is probably best known for articulating this idea that the world is very different from what we think it is. In one of my favorite passages from the Buddhist canon, or any spiritual tradition, really, the Buddha is speaking with his disciples and is trying to explain what someone who abides in “real truth” sees. Here we learn what is it like to be enlightened. What does “this fleeting world” of ours, or what we would call ‘reality’, look like from that vantage point? He says that what most of us “think” is reality or truth is like is actually much less important than we think and lacking in substance. He describes it as:

A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;

A flash of lightening in a summer cloud;

A flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream. [1]

As real as it seems to our conscious minds, the Buddha is saying that what we perceive as the world around us “out there,” is actually not real; rather it is an illusion manufactured by the human mind, as transient as lightening in a storm or a bubble in moving water; as unreal as a dream or a ghost. And all the more amazingly, it is our mind that gives rise to our rich experience of this illusion through the magic of our dream interacting with everyone else’s dreaming minds in this projection we call reality.

We Only See A Sliver Of What Is Out There

To say this truth in modern day terms, we might use the word hologram to describe the reality outside that we project with our minds. And with the word ‘hologram,’ we are not just talking about the nature of how we see. The fact is that 90% of the neurons feeding in to the human visual cortex (where our conscious mind "sees" what's out there) come from other parts inside the brain itself. The other 10% come from the eyes and are really just registering the salient changes from outside and updating the illusory world we hold in our imagination. Nor are we just talking about the fact that our eyes can only "see" a tiny fraction of the spectrum light covers (only one ten trillionth of this spectrum, if you believe Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman[2]). And let’s not forget that this world of light that we can see or measure represents less than 5% of the mass and energy of the universe (the rest being dark energy and dark matter, which we cannot see or interact with directly with our senses or any instrument or test anyone has so far thought of). Nor are we talking about the fact that 99.9999999999996% of what we call solid, visible matter is actually composed of empty space thanks to the vast distances between atomic (and subatomic) particles[3]. Nor are we stopping at the idea from string theory and the work on the nature of black holes from people like Stephen Hawking, that the universe we perceive is a three-dimensional projection of the two-dimensional data stored at the edge of our universe.[4]

Perhaps each of these features of consciousness (or the cosmos) as science explains them circa 2018 play into the way in which our minds can create such an extraordinary collective misrepresentation. But the illusion or dream that the Buddha is talking about is even stranger. All those technical statements in the last paragraph are facts about the physical world as modern science understands them. But these ancient teachers are going much further. They are telling us that the world is not just something we perceive only a narrow part of; they are saying that we are the ones actually dreaming the dream or projecting the world that is being perceived. As Krishna says, “Humans are made of beliefs; they grow to become whatever they believe in.”[5]

We Are All Dreaming

Our subconscious convictions about what is or isn’t true are agreements about reality that we make with ourselves and with each other (as a community and as a species). So, when I look out my window and see a tree and a dog, if the Buddha and Krishna are right, it isn’t really a tree or a dog. I have come up with or learned of a concept called “tree” and “dog” and agreed with others what these concepts are and together, through our agreements about the millions of things in “reality”, we dream this collective dream. It isn’t trees and dogs or the atoms or quarks they’re composed of that make up our world. Rather, it is these agreements and beliefs and concepts generated by our minds, if Krishna and the other ancient masters are right, that are actually the ingredients that our world and our selves are made of.

This relationship between experiences and beliefs goes in both directions. Our beliefs shape our experiences but then our experiences reinforce our beliefs. Interestingly, this is not just an idea of mystics from the ancient past. Science is also beginning to demonstrate this to be true. David Eagleman of Stanford University, for example, ran an experiment where he scanned the brains of 130 volunteers as they watched videos of different people’s hands being randomly stabbed by a syringe. Each hand was labeled “Jew,” “Muslim,” “Atheist,” “Christian,” etc. When the needle stabbed the hand of someone that was the same affiliation as the viewer (e.g. a Christian watching an Christian), the viewer’s pain centers were shown by the MRI to be highly activated, as though they themselves were being stabbed. When they observed the hand of someone not in their “in-group” being stabbed (e.g. an atheist watching a Christian), they didn’t experience the pain to nearly the same degree. The very belief that a hand belonged to a similarly affiliated group (religious or not—the atheists showed the same response) caused a profound difference in brain activity. In other words, the subject’s beliefs caused their experience of witnessing the stabbing to be completely different. If the subject believed they were witnessing someone in the in-group experiencing pain, they too experienced pain as their reality. If they didn’t believe the hand being stabbed belonged to their in-group, then the pain center in the brain wasn’t activated, or at least not to the same degree. Same objective activity, completely different experience of reality depending upon one’s beliefs.

Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water?

So we can see that the great religions (and the minor or forgotten ones too[6]) shared this idea that reality is illusory and maybe scientists (like Dr. Eagleman) are starting to prove some of it. But just because there is agreement on the nature of reality by all these people who have emerged as the most revered spiritual teachers of all time anywhere, their religions have also promoted some pretty funny and provably false notions—about creation and the heavens for example. So, if some of their notions are so absurd, should we throw everything out and only stick only with what science has so far “proven”? That isn’t a solid rational choice not just because by doing this we might end up throwing the baby out with the bath water or because the silliest things in these ancient spiritual texts were probably said by the people writing about these great figures rather than what these masters themselves said. (Peter Cresswell's work are instructive in this regard.)

But could we go further in defense of the religious texts? Maybe those apparently false ideas about the nature of creation and the cosmos weren’t so crazy. Maybe the world being created by the word of God or the earth being supported on the back of turtles are no more true than our own Big Bang mythology? I know, I know. I’m starting to sound a little batty but just bear with me for a minute. If this notion is true that our so-called reality is our collective dream and things like trees and dogs are concepts that we agree on rather than being objectively “real”, then maybe our concepts are just getting more complicated and fascinating but are still just collective beliefs and agreements about truth. If reality is an illusion of our own creation as the ancient masters say, why couldn't those crazy old creation myths have been true among people that agreed that they were true? Maybe our ideas nowadays are just getting more complicated and the illusion we project is adapting to the advancement of our ideas?

Here you will be no doubt thinking of the common argument against this: The defense of the idea that the world exists independently of our minds and that it follows these a priori laws of physics is that any theory about the nature of reality needs to accurately predict what is observed in nature through experiments and these observations and experiments must be able to be consistently replicated by others. But there is a problem at the heart of this defense. The problem is the starting assumption that the world exists independently from the human mind. If, on the other hand, we assume that the mind invented the world then don’t we arrive at a different answer? Let me explain what I mean.

Math As The True Reality?

We take it for granted at this stage of our intellectual development as a species that nature precisely follows pre-existing mathematical laws. But as Albert Einstein once said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”[7] Why is it that mathematics, a technique of pure thought and reason, is so exquisitely able to describe the physical world around us? As Eugene Wigner famously asked, why is it that our observations about the math associated with the motion of objects here on earth, just as an example, so perfectly could describe the motion of distant planets? To what do we owe this mathematical efficiency? He called it "a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve."[8] Isn’t this an extraordinary coincidence? Why couldn’t they just as well follow some other laws of physics?[9] It seems that the answer the ancient masters would give to Einstein and Wigner is that this isn’t a coincidence at all. The reason the universe is comprehensible, the reason that coincidence is the wrong word, is so obvious that we miss it: Our mind created it, projects it, in a sense is it. So, of course the one maps to the other! That’s like saying isn’t amazing that we can read a sentence! Well of course we can read a sentence! Our minds invented letters and words and grammar and language and then we used our minds again to write the sentence. So, of course we can read the sentence! Same thing with math (a construct of mind) and the universe (also a construct of mind).

And if we don’t wake up to this fact, the world is going to reflect our starting assumptions back to us in an infinite regression ("It's turtles all the way down," to quote the funny Stephen Hawking anecdote from A Brief History of Time) to more and more explanations as we come up with more mathematical techniques. Take the story of why the sun comes up each day without fail. In the old days, one human explanation for this was the sun god drove a chariot across the sky each day and returned it to the other side beneath the world-ocean each night. This explained observations. This was the projection of the collective human mind in that time and place and it worked for them. But then we learned that the earth is round and so, since the earth was obviously motionless, we assumed the sun spun around us. Then we learned that we were actually orbiting around the sun, which, since all the other stars appeared fixed in the sky, at least in relation to each other, we figured must be the center of the universe. Then we learned that actually our sun is only one of a hundred billion suns in our galaxy and our sun is far from the center of our galaxy. Then we learned that our galaxy is only one of at least a hundred billion other galaxies that are in a horizon visible to us and that there is actually no center to this universe which may well be of infinite extent. And now as we try to figure out where the whole universe came from, we are learning that space and matter and even time may well have emerged from absolutely nothing.

Or maybe from a big crunch that preceded our big bang. Which itself was just one of an infinite number of crunches and bangs. Or maybe we popped out from a quantum fluctuation in another universe which itself was just one of an infinite number of other universes and which is continually popping out even more universes of infinite extent. This is the state of cosmology today. Just like the Greeks with the story of the sun chariot, we’re still quite sure how it all works, behind the scenes. But our explanations fit with what we can observe.

Four Possible Explanations

Again, here’s the problem with all this: none of these ideas exist independent of whether a conscious human mind is there to conceive, project and perceive them. The place that all ideas exist is in the mind, including math and ideas that explain where we come from and how the universe functions. Is this true? If not, if the mind didn’t create and project this dream or hologram we are living in, what are the other possibilities to explain why the world is as it appears? Three come to mind. Let’s take a look at them each in turn:

One possibility is that there is a supernatural being, which we can call God, that created all of this. He meticulously crafted the laws of physics and set our universe in motion and put us here to enjoy and rule it all (or whatever your version of this is). Something like 85% of humans alive today believe in God[10] (and ~25% of scientists do too[11]!) so this is clearly the prevalent explanation. Whether it happened just like it says in the bible or the Koran or the Upanishads or [insert your religious text or creation story here], whether this god simply created these elegant laws of the universe and set it motion, whether this god then intervenes from time to time or never does, whether this creation happened in the recent or distant past, or whatever your particular flavor of religious belief spells out; regardless of what variety your belief comes in, you still have a faith that there is a God that set it all up. So that’s the first possibility: God did it.

A second candidate to explain the situation is the agnostic one. In this version, we take ‘the universe as we see it’ as given and decline to state whether we believe it is all an illusion and whether there is a supernatural creator god (forgetting for the moment that we can only “see” less than 5% of it thanks to dark matter and dark energy and almost all of what we can see is actually empty). In this view, we limit our attention and opinions to what we can see and measure and trace the story back only insofar as the observable data and pure logic carry us. What lies beyond is simply unknowable and anyone that goes there is a fool. Or, if it is knowable, it isn’t known now so it is pointless to conjecture beyond what repeatedly observable data and systematic, intellectually coherent, and peer-reviewed theory can say. I would guess that most scientists fall into this camp. Sadly, if you believe the ancient wisdom teachers, taking this view limits the human potential for happiness and peace, but it is the safest intellectual stance and the best way to look smart in front of the well-educated Western elite.

A third possibility, one favored by an increasing number in the physics community because of its growing support from both work in theoretical physics and recent experimental results confirming many aspects of these theories, is that the reason our universe exists with the forces of nature and constants of physics so finely and perfectly tuned for life is that there are an infinite number of other universes, each with its own forces of nature and constants of physics, infinitely expressed differently in each one. On this view, if you believe MIT professor Max Tegmark, there is “no distinction between mathematical structures and the universes they describe. [Tegmark] argues that mathematical equations describe every aspect of the physical world, so that each physical object corresponds to some entity in the Platonic world of mathematical structures and vice versa. In this sense the two worlds are equivalent to one another, and Tegmark’s view is that our universe is a mathematical structure.”[12]

And so, in this third way of looking at the problem, the reason our particular universe is so perfectly tuned for life is that we are here to witness it. Every other possibility exists out there somewhere in infinite space and time but most of those places are not hospitable to life. You often hear evolutionarily-minded religious people saying something like: “isn’t amazing that earth harbors all the finely tuned parameters in temperature and pressure and gravity and so on for humans to have evolved! Surely there must be a God.” To which a scientist in this camp would reply, well, not really. There are a hundred billion other planets in our galaxy (let alone the other hundred billion galaxies in our universe that we can observe, and the infinite number of other universes beyond that) and almost none of them appear to have these conditions. We exist because one of these planets, in one of these solar systems, in one of these galaxies, in one of these universes, happens to be the extremely rare one to have these exact conditions. So, it is no surprise that we’re here. In an infinite universe, everything that can happen will happen with some probability eventually. We just happen to be where we can happen so there’s nothing so special about us at all. (This encompasses the so-called anthropic principle or the so-called principle of mediocrity.)

Again, the argument I am making here, the one that these ancient masters have articulated, is that all of reality as humans perceive it is actually an illusion, a projection of “mind”; we are dreaming the whole thing collectively. In looking at these three other possibilities, it seems that you could equally apply this illusion/hologram view as a variation on any of the other three. In the first one (the "God did it" view), you might say that, sure the world is an illusion but that's just because God created this illusory dynamic. If you fall into the second camp (the "I only believe what I can measure" camp), you could look to neuroscience for clear evidence that the world we perceive is an illusion. Three examples that spring to mind are 1) the brain scans discussed above that reveal how beliefs create our reality; 2) the neuroscience from people like Sam Harris and Benjamin Libet showing that free will is an illusion; and 3) the neuroscience and neurophilosophy around how the brain constructs consciousness, for example from academics such as Thomas Metzinger. Or if you fall in the third camp (the "the universe is math" camp) and you have concluded that every possible universe exists an infinite number of times and all of them are just math then this too is a variation on the same theme of the world being illusory since concepts like math and infinity are just that, concepts. They exist in the mind.

So let's say these ancient wisdom teachers were on to something when they described this world we perceive and observe as humans as but a projection of our own imagination. If they were right, there is an extraordinary consequence of this insight: The implication is that we have the ability to shatter the illusion when we choose and to shape it as we choose. We have a special power, a direct line in to the source of all power and we don’t know it. As Jesus put it, “The kingdom [of heaven] is like a person who had a treasure hidden in his field but did not know it. And [when] he died, he left it to his [son]. The son [did] not know about it. He took over the field and sold it. The buyer went plowing, [discovered] the treasure, and began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished.”[13]

So, we’ll go on finding more galaxies and planets and more subatomic particles and more elements and more multiverses and big bangs in an infinite regression because our mind can keep imagining them. And there’s no reason we shouldn’t do this if it helps make the world more enjoyable or livable or safe or entertaining or whatever “treasure” (to use the term from Jesus’ parable) means to us. But we shouldn’t do it with the hope or assumption that there is an end to this search. Truth is not of the mind. It is mind. These ancient teachers tell us that this treasure can never be explained or logically proved. It can only be grasped, known, or, really, remembered.

So, the lesson appears to be that we uncover our treasure by realizing or remembering that we control our mind and everything it creates, including our beliefs. If we want to change our experiences, we need to start with our mind and our beliefs. But what kind of beliefs are we supposed to have? What is best?

Here we can turn to Jesus, who tells us that there is one belief that is true and that is more powerful and helpful than any other: the belief that we are perfect, pure love. And anything we believe that we have that is different than that is going to (self-)create a living hell of one degree or another. And it will be of our own making. As he puts it, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them." The implication is that to begin with, we are pure. There is nothing good or bad (or defiling) outside of us, in “reality.” Even though we are pure to begin with or essentially, the things that we produce nevertheless have the power to “defile” us. Humans produce thoughts and beliefs and ideas and actions, and we produce our agreements about what truth is. This is what shapes who we are and what our experience of life is like. We can choose “evil” or “sinful” or “defiling” thoughts or beliefs, in which case our life will be like hell, to use the words of the New Testament. Or we can choose to recognize that Jesus or Love or God or the Kingdom of Heaven or whatever you want to call it is, in the words of Jesus, “in your midst”[14] or “is inside of you, and it is outside of you… Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find Me there."[15].

The Buddha once said that “words cannot explain the real nature of a cosmos” and in “any truth-declaring system, truth is undeclarable; so ‘an enunciation of truth’ is just the name given to it.” [16] I’ve tried here to declare the truth but acknowledge that the Buddha was right, and that what I have written is just another declaration rather than truth itself. Ultimately each of us will have to arrive at our own knowing or remembrance. Hopefully these thoughts expressing my own grappling, in words, will help others with their own recollections.

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[1] Diamond Sutra, Chapter 32 (The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng (Shambhala Classics) (Kindle Locations 2781-2785). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition). See also the Lotus Sūtra, chap. 15, “For the Tathagata sees the triple world as it really is: it is not born, it dies not; it is not conceived, it springs not into existence; it moves not in a whirl, it becomes not extinct; it is not real, nor unreal; it is not existing, nor non-existing; it is not such, not otherwise, nor false.” (H. Kern, trans., Saddharmapundarika, Sacred Books of the East 21).

[2] “Take what we call visible light. We have specialized receptors in the backs of our eyes that are optimized for capturing the electromagnetic radiation that bounces off objects. When these receptors catch some radiation, they launch a salvo of signals into the brain. But we do not perceive the entire electromagnetic spectrum, only a part of it. The part of the light spectrum that is visible to us is less than a ten-trillionth of it. The rest of the spectrum––carrying TV shows, radio signals, microwaves, X-rays, gamma rays, cell phone conversations, and so on––flows through us with no awareness on our part.” Eagleman, David. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (pp. 76-77). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition

[3] Taking a Hydrogen atom for example and using very rough math, if the nucleus were the size of an orange, the electron orbital “cloud” would be approximately 30 kilometers distant.

[4] See Chapter 9: Black Holes and Holograms The Holographic Multiverse. Greene, Brian. The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos (Kindle Locations 4352-4354). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[5] Bhagavad Gita 17:3

[6] This same general lesson about the illusory nature of reality can be found throughout the world’s spiritual traditions. In the Hawaiian mystical tradition, for example, we see this idea of the world as a hologram in the saying that “perception is projection.” (There is no official Huna text that I am aware of but books such as “Mastering Your Hidden Self: A Guide to the Huna Way” by Serge Kahili King and “The Foundation of Huna by Matthew James bring a contemporary articulation of the main ideas.). The Mesoamerican/Mexican Toltec tradition also shares this idea, teaching that “Dreaming is the main function of the mind, and the mind dreams twenty-four hours a day.” (Ruiz, Don Miguel. The Four Agreements (Toltec Wisdom Book) (Kindle Location 168). Amber-Allen Publishing, Inc.) The catalog could continue but I will leave it to the ancient Egyptians to round things out: “the things that the eye can see are mere phantoms and illusions.” (Freke, Tim. The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs (p. 48). Tim Freke.)

[7] Einstein, Albert (March 1936). "Physics and Reality". Journal of the Franklin Institute. 221 (3): 349–382.

[8] Wigner, E. P. (1960). "The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences. Richard Courant lecture in mathematical sciences delivered at New York University, May 11, 1959". Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics. 13: 1–14

[9] Another example that illustrates coincidence of just the right math explaining the universe can be seen in this phenomenon where mathematicians periodically come up with a new kind of math as the pursue mathematical elegance and symmetry and beauty. And then, seemingly by extraordinary coincidence at some later date, a physicist comes up with a new way to look at reality and searches around for math that could help describe it and ends up finding just the right math had already been invented. Take the elliptical motion of planets. Long ago, the heavens and planets were thought to be organized in perfect spheres around the earth. But no, they’re in ellipses, which had been described mathematically millennia earlier by Euclid as an exercise of pure thought. Or take the example of string theorists following some extraordinary ideas about the fundamental nature of the sub-atomic realm and then realizing that years earlier mathematicians had invented an intricate class of mathematical structures that allowed them to articulate and explore their physical theories.

[10] https://www.washingtontimes.com/blog/watercooler/2012/dec/23/84-percent-world-population-has-faith-third-are-ch/ or for America only: http://news.gallup.com/poll/193271/americans-believe-god.aspx

[11] Study by Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund composed of approximately 1,700 interviews with scientists at elite American universities

[12] As articulated in Tegmark, Max. Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality (p. 317). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Quote describing Tegmark’s views from Vilenkin, Alex. Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes (p. 222). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. See also the work of physicists such as Alan Guth, Alex Vilenkin, Laurence Krauss, Leonard Suskind, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, Steven Weinberg, etc.

[13] Gospel of Thomas 109 or see also Matthew 13:44

[14] Luke 17:22

[15] Gospel of Thomas Sayings 3 and 77

[16] The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng (Shambhala Classics) (Kindle Locations 713 and 636-637). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.


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