ILLUSIONS AND REALITIES

OCTOBER 24, 1999
R.M. FEWKES

The Hindu festival of Divali is celebrated on the last day of the Hindu autumn festival on the night of the new moon. It is a great festival of light—burning candles set floating out on the water along the banks of rivers, an awesome sight, special lights and candles in people’s houses, lights in temples, dazzling fireworks, gaily colored greeting cards, family visits, the giving of gifts. On Divali Eve, Laksmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune is said to ride across the land astride a giant owl just at dusk, scattering her gifts to all those who are deserving. To us Divali seems to be a strange admixture of Christmas (lights and gifts), the 4th of July (fireworks), and Halloween (a fall festival with flying witches and owls). To the Hindu it is a celebration of the victory of good over evil, light over darkness, of humanity’s never ceasing effort to achieve a true and harmonious relationship to ultimate reality.

One of the great emphases in Hindu religious and philosophical thought is that of reality versus appearance. Outer material things and the physical world are to the Hindu philosophical mind "maya", mere appearance, and illusion. The true reality is the inner spiritual principle, Atman-Brahman, which gives life and being to all things. There is only one God, God is spirit, and God is all there is. To live for the accumulation of material goods and material things, as our civilization tends to do, is not to be in touch with reality at all, but to be slaves to illusion. Moshka, or liberation, is to know inwardly one’s identity with the spiritual principle of reality, the Universal Self within all. Knowing this you should treat others as if they were manifestations of the one divine self, which in truth they are. Love your neighbor as yourself because your neighbor is yourself. This is the ethical impetus of Hindu mystical pantheism.

We may not accept the mystical pantheism of Hindu metaphysics, but the question of reality versus illusion is a pertinent one for us and for all people. How do we live for what is real and authentic, worthwhile and enduring? How can we be liberated from basing our lives on illusions that deceive or distort, dehumanize and destroy ourselves and others?

Many of you are aware of my interest in magic, a hobby that dates back to my childhood. The magician is paid to fool the audience with what are called "illusions". What appears to be so and what is actually so are two different realities. For example, the magician shows his hands to be empty, and then out of nowhere produces a red ball, which in due course disappears into the void from whence it came. People like to be fooled and to try and guess how the trick is done. They know that what appears to be so is not so and that the illusion is just that, an illusion. What’s secret is the reality. What happens when the secret remains secret and we don’t even know we don’t know it? That’s when we get in trouble. We take the illusion to be reality and are ignorant of our own self-deception. We all do it to a greater or lesser extent.

In one sense all human pictures of the world are "illusion", that is, selective oversimplifications of a sometimes bewildering and complex reality. Human beings cannot grasp the full complexity of things – physical, psychological, social or political – without some selectivity of apprehension, what one author calls a "psychic grid", which brings the meaning of life into understandable focus. The question is whether our particular grid helps us relate to life in a more creative and truthful manner or covers up reality for purposes of self-deception and perhaps the exploitation of others. And so if we are to grow we must be willing to test and compare our own views with those of others, realizing that as we change our world-view we change the world viewed and ultimately our way of living and acting within it.

Let’s take an example from the world of physics and the changing view of reality emerging out of the study of quantum mechanics. Most of you have at least heard of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. This grows out of the fact that "atoms are not things" but instead are better understood as energy-wave-particles in a shifting field of patterns of vibrations. It is impossible for a physicist to locate the position or predict the movement of electrons and subatomic particles since they can theoretically be in two places at the same time. This negates our usual understanding of space-time. And moreover, the observer presumably affects what he or she observes. Our consciousness thus changes reality, is no indifferent observer of phenomena, but can affect change in the phenomenon it seeks to study by the simple fact of being there, and that complicates things. Thus the reason for Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Another example: You may be familiar with Arthur Eddington’s parable of the two writing desks. First there is the commonsense solid desk of our physical senses which we can wrap with our knuckles, write on, even sit upon. This desk contrasts with the second desk of quantum physics which consists almost entirely of empty space sprinkled with unimaginable tiny specks of energy separated by distances a hundred thousand times their own size. The interior of the atom is nearly entirely empty, a vast void.

Matter dissolves into energy vibrations, dissolves into shifting configurations of a psi field. The psi-field of physics slides quite easily into the psi-field of parapsychology—as noted by two famous quotes from Sir James Jeans and Arthur Eddington: "The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine." "The stuff of the world is mind stuff."

And so we find on both the cosmic and subatomic scale the hard tangible appearance of things as seeming illusion. Perhaps Hindu metaphysics is right; the world perceived by the senses is maya, illusion. Perhaps Mary Baker Eddy and the Christian Scientists are right when they say "matter is unreal and temporal, spirit real and eternal."

Let us consider what Lawrence LeShan, a psychologist, has to say about these two realities. Is one in fact true and the other an illusion? LeShan has written a book, THE MEDIUM, THE MYSTIC & THE PHYSICIST in which he compares descriptions of reality as told in the words of mystics, psychics and quantum mechanics physicists. When the statements are lined up one after the other they are indistinguishable. They all describe a world in which things and objects, people and human consciousness blend into one reality – it is the world of the One in which all things and events coinhere, are part and parcel of one another. LeShan calls this the Clairvoyant Reality. When human consciousness enters this mode of being telepathy, mystical experience, spiritual healing can occur and the "Tao of Physics" (title of a book by Fritjof Capra) becomes intuitively known and comprehended.

When human consciousness functions in everyday Sensory Reality such things seem incomprehensible, unnatural, not possible. The world of Sensory Reality is a world of separate discreet entities, each with its own being and reality, related but not reducible to a single identity. This is the world of the Many. In Hinduism this is the fundamental paradox of God and the World, the One and the Many. Joni Mitchell has looked at both sides and remains utterly confused and makes the honest confession, "I really don’t know life at all." At the end of all our knowledge life is still ultimate mystery.

LeShan has looked at both sides and says it’s not that the Clairvoyant Reality is true and Sensory Reality illusion, as classical Hinduism would say. Rather they are both true in their own realms of being. It’s just that human consciousness finds it difficult to function in both realms at the same time. When one is predominant the other seems less real and illusory, and so it is. They are alternate realities and each seems true when consciousness is functioning at that level. It’s when we mix up the levels in our thinking and acting that we can get into difficulty.

I remind you of Ramakrishna’s story about God the man versus God the elephant. God the man should have had enough sense to get out of the way of God the elephant. On one level, everything may be God and everything reducible to energy and spirit, but on the level of Sensory Reality the physical elephant is real and you’d better move away. And you’d be well advised not to try walking through walls unless you’re prepared to take the consequences or unless you are a highly advanced yogi siddhi sage who can transform matter at will with the mind.

And so what is reality and illusion? Well, as we’re learning it all depends on where you’re coming from. Sometimes we fail to see the obvious right before our eyes because we’re looking for something that isn’t there or doesn’t exist. We seek for illusions and reality passes us by. My colleague, Neil Bakker, relates a story he read about a smuggler who brought garbage from Spain to Gibraltar every night.


Sometimes we do miss the obvious, fail to see the forest for the trees. SO, keep your eyes open. Look for the reality behind the appearance, but in so doing, do not neglect what is in front of you. The challenge of separating reality from appearance is probably greatest in the realms of politics and romance. Things are not always what they appear to be. The politician and the lover may make promises that do not bear out in reality, and when the truth is finally known disillusionment may be the result. That is certainly true in the world of love and marriage. The person you thought you married (the romantic illusion) and the person you actually married (the human reality) are often two different people. In the long run the reality can be far more satisfying than the illusion could ever be, but so many marriages these days fail to survive the evaporation of the romantic illusions because the reality falls so far short. Loving real people takes hard work, a lot more than our illusions of them. But real people can love us back, as the illusions we have of them can never do.

Don Harrington, minister emeritus, Community Church in New York, tells us about meeting the wife of one of his colleagues. His ministerial colleague was 62 but didn’t look a day over 40. When he met the man’s wife he was shocked. She was a little old lady with white hair and wrinkled cheeks. To Harrington she looked as if she might have been the man’s mother. The next time he saw his colleague he mentioned that he had met his wife on a separate occasion. The man’s face glowed with pleasure. "That woman!" he said, "isn’t she beautiful? So lovely! So lively! She sure keeps me jumping!" Don Harrington reflects.
I realized that when he and I looked at the very same person, we saw two quite different human beings. Which was the real woman, the one he saw, or the one I saw? You see, he saw the spiritual reality, the true essence of the person. I saw the outward appearance. He had known and lived with her intimately for 40 years. I had seen her for 5 minutes. What a presumption it would be for me to say that what he saw was an illusion, and that what I saw the reality. Oh no! It was I who saw the illusion, and he who knew and loved the reality.

We live in a universe in which human feelings, thoughts and aspirations are part and parcel of the life process, and we change and are changed by these inner realities and how we act upon them. It is illusion to think that only the outer reality, the appearance of things and events, is the real. It is also illusion, I would contend, to believe the opposite, that only the inner reality of thought and imagination is the real and the outer physical world mere illusion. One is the obverse of the other in a complimentary play of wave and particle, spirit and matter, energy and mass, thought and being, Atman-Brahman, universe and God.

The challenge we all face is how to live for what is real, worthwhile and enduring in life, how to be liberated from basing our lives on illusions which deceive and harm ourselves and others. Hinduism teaches us to go beyond the mere appearance of things to the depth of reality that underlies everything that is.

The prayer of the Upanishads can become our prayer also as we face the ever-present challenge to distinguish the illusions from reality and to base our lives on what is real and enduring.