As winter approaches, I feel like I’m getting old. Not so much physically, with the wrinkles, aches, and white hair, but more so mentally.
I feel like the illusions of youth have been shattered to some degree.
Listen, I’m only 26. I’m not old by any stretch of the word. But what I want to write about today is seeing through illusions.
Recognizing our models of reality for what they are.
The thing with illusions is, well, you don’t know they’re illusions until you go beyond them.
Life to me seems to be a sequential trading of one illusion for another. As a baby, we understand nothing apart from our own satisfaction/pain/discomfort/hunger, and our mother’s voice and breast.
Anyone seeing the baby from the outside is aware of the baby’s illusion, that the world is in fact infinitely larger and more interesting than baby can ever imagine, but we don’t try to explain this to the baby.
We know that with time, experience, and maturation the baby will experience this expansion of consciousness for itself.
The reason I feel old today, is that I’ve become aware of this part of the nature of human experience.
I may not know the absolute truth of reality, but I do know that I don’t know the absolute truth of reality. If that makes any sense.
“The only thing I know is that I know nothing.”
This knowledge, however trivial it may seem, has been changing my life. Knowing that I don’t know, that I can’t know anything for sure, is a double-edged blade.
On the one hand, it’s a bit sad. My models of reality become pretty meaningless, everything seems a bit confusing and ephemeral. On the other, it frees up a lot of energy. Mental space.
Knowing that my models of reality are not absolute allows me to apply the energy that I used to use for keeping them up and running, to other things.
Now, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak (does that saying terrify anybody else or is it just me?).
Even though a model of reality isn’t absolute truth, it may still be applicable, or even useful.
A model that’s not absolutely true, in other words, may still be true enough.
“I don’t believe anything, but I have many suspicions.”
– Robert Anton Wilson
True enough to keep you fit and healthy, along with your relationships. True enough to find happiness and fulfillment.
We live in this ever-eddying, swirling, constantly up-down, in-and-out, ever present experience we collectively call the world or reality.
I have no idea if anybody has discovered a truth to this thing, or if it’s even possible.
What I do know, is that some peeps have models of reality that move them forward, and others have models that hold them back.
The nihilist who sees only the bleakest side of every experience isn’t occupying a different reality than the optimist who strives to see the good instead of the bad.
They’re both here, now, right?
They’ve chosen different models of reality to live by, that’s all.
“We are happy when people or things conform and unhappy when they don’t. People and events don’t disappoint us, our models of reality do. It is my model of reality that determines my happiness or disappointments.”– Stefan Zweig
I’m not saying that blind optimism and denial of the pain of the world is a good thing, because it’s not. Nor am I saying you should be nihilistic. Not at all.
Both world views have their pros and cons. The nihilist will be way less likely than the optimist to blindly trust a malevolent stranger, for example. The optimist will be way more likely than the nihilist to grab a rare opportunity that presents itself to them.
But neither model is true. And both have serious drawbacks.
These are simple examples. Most of us don’t have a label we can apply to us. Nobody’s a pure nihilist or a pure optimist.
Our models, our reality tunnels, are an amalgamation of whatever experiences and influences we’ve encountered throughout our lives.
We’re cynical about some aspects of life, optimistic about others.
We’re open to new experiences in some realms of experience, and we’re closed off in others.
We react with love in some instances, and fear in others.
I think building a model of reality that’s absolutely true is a fool’s errand, to be totally honest.
I can hear the rationalists gasping in disbelief, the religious among you shouting “blasphemy!”.
What’s more, I think trying to build an absolute model of reality is a waste of energy. There are more important things to do.
“There is but one reality, that is true — but the two of you experience it in slightly different ways. The older you get, I should think, the more you will come to understand that the universe is very much a looking glass, Miss Lancaster.” ―
Accepting the fact that you don’t know what the hell is going on, as well as the fact that you may never know, will set you free.
Earlier in this article I stated that whatever our reality tunnel may look like, we all inhabit the same reality. This statement is arguable at best.
Do I inhabit the same reality as a fish? Or a snail? Or a piece of glass?
How do we actually define reality? Does reality exist without someone to experience it? Is there such a thing as an objective reality?
In other words, if a tree falls in the woods and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound?
Realizing that reality is fundamentally subjective, and not objective, has been a huge step for me in not only formulating a more precise model of reality, but in becoming a happier, more fulfilled, conscious human being.
This brings me to an incredibly salient hypothesis called consciousness first.
It’s very simple really, and goes hand in hand with Occam’s razor. In fact, it’s the neatest, simplest explanation of reality that I’ve ever encountered:
Consciousness is the point from which all reality arises.
There can be no object without subject.
In the history of the world, nobody has experienced anything objectively. How could they? Experience in itself entails consciousness. Without consciousness, nothing is.
“Nothing” is really an overstatement. The term “No-thing” is more appropriate. The former implies the absence of “something”. The latter implies the absence of “thing”.
“Nothing” is a concept. A concept is a thing. “Nothing” can be experienced as a concept, “No-thing” can’t be experienced at all. In the absence of consciousness, no-thing is.
If that doesn’t make your head spin the first time you think about it, congratulations!
This all ties into the nature of illusion. When we realize that out entire reality is subjective, springing out of consciousness rather than containing it, the possibilities for experience and growth become limitless.
What I’m saying is, life is a dream. A dream is the most famously illusory state of mind known to man, but as you realize the fact that life itself is illusory as well, it changes your idea of what’s real.
If life is a dream, or an illusion, does it necessarily make it any less real?
But then we’re lead to our next question, which is this: If life is real despite being an illusion, then how can we say that dreams are any less real than life?
The thing is, all experience is as real as it can possibly be!
If you experience something, anything, it can’t be experienced any more or any less than it actually was. In fact, that statement would be meaningless.
Everything that arises in consciousness, arises in consciousness. And that’s that.
So in that sense, any experience is real.
Okay, so that’s pretty interesting, but how is this practical in any way? How can this knowledge improve your life?
Well, when we stop fussing over reality, over what’s real and what’s not, we can actually start having some fun with experience. We can decide to enjoy and learn from all experience equally.
Meaning is to be found in anything. Humans are creators of meaning. Meaning isn’t inherent to anything, instead it’s our minds that imbue experience with meaning.
Notice that I said experience. Not item, place, person or teaching. In the end, all concepts, all things, all people and all places are only as real as they are experienced, meaning as the appear in consciousness.
Listen, having fun with experience is all well and good, but it doesn’t seem practical in this world to just take any old dream or hallucination for reality. Does it?
Absolutely not. This human experience has rules, laws. We need to follow those laws if we want to keep playing this game. Fair enough?
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be aware of the fact that we’re playing it.
You know when you play monopoly and you get so sucked into the game that you start to act and feel like you’re actually a millionaire? That the plastic houses and fiat currency are actually real and valuable? Even though at the end of the evening, it all goes back into the box?
Take it a step up. When you inevitably die, all your possessions, friends, personal attributes will go straight back into the box. Sound familiar?
Now imagine two players of monopoly. One of them’s so engrossed in the game that he’s forgotten his existence outside of it.
“A person who plays the game knowing he will win, doesn’t impress me as much as the person who plays the game even though he knows that he might lose.” ―
He follows the rules because they’re all he knows, and he builds up an empire of hotel chains and real estate because that’s where you get meaning in monopoly.
The other guy does everything the same as the first player, with one difference: He still remembers his existence outside of the game.
When things start to go badly for him in the game, he reminds himself of the piece of cake he has waiting for him in the fridge. He’s not attached to the outcome. At least not in the same way as the other player.
If the first player loses the game, his entire universe (seemingly, to him) crumbles down all around him. His clinging will make him irrational and prone to stupid error.
The second player, although he may be enjoying the game immensely, will be cool and detached enough to see what’s actually going on, and the fear of losing will not be all consuming.
This is enlightenment.
When you get that life is a game, everything changes, even though everything actually stays the same.
The buddha saw through all illusion, maya, and that’s why he was called an enlightened one.
Seeing through the illusion of separateness, of subject and object, of self and other, is a noble goal. But even getting a glimpse of what’s on the other side of the curtain can change your life forever.
In my case, a lot of meditation, psychedelics, and a chronic illness all worked together to get me to the point where I could peak behind the curtains and see the truth.
Then I put the curtain back and went on with my life. But I will never forget what was on the other side, even if it can’t be conceptualized, or much less put into words.
There are ways to see beyond the illusory nature of reality. In fact, there are plenty of ways. I’ve written many posts on this site detailing them. But they all have something in common: work and dedication.
You need to be prepared to work for the glimpse. You need to want it enough.
When you take that drive, that need to see beyond the veil, all doors will be open to you.