I have a very dear friend who is a self-described Buddhist leaf-on-the-wind. He is one of the kindest people I know and he earnestly strives to love and give without attachment or selfishness. I love him and admire him, I honor his sincerity on his spiritual path, but he does have one habit that kind of bugs me. In conversation he frequently says, “well, whatever, it’s all an illusion anyway.”
I know this is a Western popularization of the Eastern idea of Maya – the illusory world of polarities and separateness that we live in. Maya is the world where we have us and them, you and I and where we have ego and the Self. In modern day Quantum Physics, this notion of Maya is reinforced by the notion that we create our own reality from our own minds – that the electron does not exist until it is observed by the observer. This notion of the world as illusion is also depicted (in a most bad-ass way, I must add) in the Matrix movies. Here, the entire world we think we live in is literally just a computer programmed illusion meant to keep us from questioning the nature of reality.
And I love all the new physics and scientific discoveries about the Unified Field and string theory. I love the Matrix movies and how Neo discovers that we are not limited by the confines of the illusory world we have known and we can fly and stop bullets and do some amazing kung fu! I love the Bhagavad Gita and the Lotus Sutra and all the Eastern wise ones freeing us from our illusion of selfishness. However – when I hear someone say the statement “it’s all an illusion anyway,” I cringe inside.
I found this gut feeling I’ve had in my insides whenever I’ve heard that statement perfectly expressed in Eknath Easwaran’s introduction to the Bhagavad Gita:
“The sages called the dream of waking life – the dream of separate, merely physical existence – by a suggestive name, maya… In the Gita, maya becomes the creative power of the Godhead, the primal creative energy that makes unity appear as the world of innumerable separate things with ‘name and form.’
Later philosophers explained maya in surprisingly contemporary terms… the mind looks at unity and sees diversity; it looks at what is timeless and reports transience. And in fact the percepts of its experience are diverse and transient; on this level of experience, separateness is real. Our mistake is in taking this for ultimate reality, like the dreamer thinking that nothing is real except his dream.
When we look at unity through the instruments of the mind, we see diversity; when the mind is transcended, we enter a higher mode of knowing – turiya, the fourth state of consciousness – in which duality disappears. This does not mean, however, that the phenomenal world is an illusion or unreal. The illusion is the sense of separateness.”
Ah! Finally, an articulate understanding of why I have always been annoyed at these modern day dismissive “it’s all an illusion” comments. I’ve always just said – “argh! it’s not an illusion, it’s the creation.” But I had never been able to put it into words quite that clearly. When I read these words I felt a big CLICK in my being, and a big sigh of relief.
That’s it. The fact that our ultimate reality is one of Unity and Oneness with God and with each other doesn’t mean that the whole of God’s creation is just an illusion and of no consequence. It’s just the sense of separation that is the illusion – in reality, the world that we live in is a gift of wonder and beauty and it’s something that should be cherished and enjoyed, not dismissed as all an illusion. That’s why I’ve always felt that shrugging your shoulders and saying “whatever, it’s all an illusion anyway” can be kind of rude.
What’s worse is when someone looks at suffering – one’s own suffering or the suffering of others – and thinks, well, it’s just an illusion. Sure – maybe on the highest level of reality everything is God, including the evil people who can abuse and torture other human beings – and maybe in the highest level of reality the souls who are enduring this pain will one day return to the Unity of God and all will be good again. But on this level of the creation, suffering is real and suffering deserves compassion and action. Whether it’s a person accepting their lot in life because it’s all an illusion anyway or someone shutting their heart down to the suffering of others because it’s not really real – I don’t think that is what is meant by the teachings of maya.
Maya is “the creative power of the Godhead that makes unity appear as the world of innumerable separate things.” This level of reality that we live in is an expression of the Oneness of God appearing as innumerable people and animals and flowers and millions of wondrous little creations. We should do everything we can as long as we are here in the body to make it the most loving, compassionate and beautiful expression possible.
I think the whole purpose of all these teachings about Maya is to get us to wake up to the reality of Unity while we are still here in the creation. And it’s not so that we can understand that while we are in this body nothing is real and we just have to put up with the illusion until we leave our bodies and return to the truth of Oneness Consciousness. How much more wondrous and beautiful are the mountains and seas and birds of the air when they are experienced as part of a continuous loving Oneness, an illuminated and sparkling manifestation of God Herself! How much more marvelous is a tree when it is seen with amazement as an extension of my own Self, just like looking at my own hand as a part of me. How much more beautiful is another person when in their eyes and their face I see the essence of my own soul!
“Here again we can illustrate from physics: the world of ‘name and form’ exists only as a condition of perception; at the subatomic level, separate phenomena dissolve into a flux of energy. The effect of maya is similar. The world of the senses is real, but it must be known for what it is: unity appearing as multiplicity.”
So, instead of dismissing this world as illusion, let’s just dismiss the separateness and see the Unity in all of creation so we can wonder at the unbelievably beautiful flux of Divine energy that we are all a part of.