In the Tibetan Buddhist traditions that I have been studying for some time, there are frequent references to the fact that the path to spiritual growth or enlightenment must involve and/or result in recognizing that ordinary perception, ordinary reality is an illusion. What might this mean?
I have thought a lot about what is meant by ordinary experience being an illusion. I have no ultimate understanding of higher states or “enlightenment,” whatever they would be, but some reflections may be useful. Note I say some reflections, the concept of illusion is wide-reaching and powerful. What follows are somewhat scattered thoughts on trying to make the concept of living in illusion, and some of its consequences clearer in ways that might be useful to students of Buddhism, to psychologists, and to myself*…
* Note: I want to thank my wife Judy, who has been my editor for half a century, for making the things I write clearer. I have a bad tendency to try to cover all bases and link everything together, which is all right in principle but in practice leads to very long sentences, too much detail, and terms that are overly scholarly. I should thank her on all my blog posts, as I do in my books, but my posts tend to be too long already! I should also thank Palyne Gaenir, my webmaster, for creating my web site and blog in the first place and constantly educating me on how to use them effectively. Thank you!
Note too that I do not consider myself a Buddhist in the sense of a devout follower of it as a religion. I have enormous respect for its basic ideas and methods, but, to varying degrees I see it from the perspective of a modern, Western scientist who has has some contact and practice with varied spiritual paths. Paths, systems I also have great respect for. But I’ve also been raised in a time of widespread belief in Progress, and see various spiritual systems as human attempts to understand and contact some sort of realm we vaguely call “spiritual.” But our efforts are shaped by our enculturation and other human qualities. With good intention and effort, I believe we can help develop a more true and effective spirituality, as in, e.g., the young field of Transpersonal Psychology. My occasional questioning or criticism, explicit or implicit, of a spiritual system in this essay is not based on disrespect, but a recognition of Buddhism and other spiritual systems as highly valuable bodies of knowledge and practice. I doubt that any human conceptual or action systems are perfect, though. But with Progress, I believe that better understanding of them can help us advance human welfare.
Neurobiological/Human Basis of Illusion:
One interpretation that I can make, based primarily on Western psychology and neurology, is the realization that we do not simply perceive reality as it is. Rather our senses are specialized receptor and receptor processes, picking up some of the physical characteristics of the world around us but not others, further emphasizing some and deemphasizing others, and then, largely outside of conscious awareness, reworked into an ongoing, internal creation of a Biological-Psychological Virtual Reality, a BPVR. Biological in that our receptors and brains are built in a certain way, psychological in that further programming is carried out as we grow up and are enculturated, learn to see the world in a culturally “normal” way. We think we are perceiving things as they are, but actually we are experiencing a semi-arbitrary construction about them. It is semi-arbitrary in that if it differs too much from the way things actually are we won’t survive.
This BPVR, this virtual reality process, or, as I have sometimes called it, world simulation process is seen in its purest forms when we have a nighttime dream. There we are a character, implicitly taken as our self, located in a world in which things happen and in which we act. When we awaken in the morning, we may immediately note that the experience usually had somewhat different qualities from our ongoing waking experience, such as usually lesser sensory vividness or physically impossible events occurring. We didn’t notice these differences at the time. We habitually classify our recalled experience as a dream. We subrate it, we give it less reality value than waking experience.
I think that pretty much the same world creation process, the same BPVR process, the same world-simulation process as occurs in a dream, goes on in waking life. It’s happening right now, at this very moment that I am writing this and when you are reading this. But now the massive input from our physical senses must be accommodated, moment by moment, to make the “waking dream” we live in a reasonable facsimile of what’s actually out there around us, so we don’t walk into walls or off the edges of cliffs. “Reasonable” such that our internal simulation of physical events is making us act in ways so that we survive and get by. If the BPVR keeps us alive and undamaged, its done its job, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a high-fidelity simulation of what’s actually out there or not. From this perspective, seeing a fire as “flames” that you know can burn you or as dancing, hurtful demons who are always hiding in otherwise harmless fire are functionally equivalent – it keeps your hand out of the fire.
The above is an abstract and intellectual understanding of ordinary perception being an illusion, although I’m sure it contains much truth, but it’s not normally cited as a basis for spiritual growth or enlightenment. I think it can be used that way however in simply reminding us that, at times, it’s a good idea to question our “obvious” perceptions. They really are a semi-arbitrary construction, influenced by our human nature, our general social conditioning, and the conditionings and learnings of our personal history. Sometimes simply recognizing that our perceptions or interpretations of our experiences may be mistaken or biased can save us from a lot of suffering.
Altered States Experiences:
Another way of grappling with the idea that ordinary reality is an illusion can be seen by drawing on what happens in altered states like psychedelic drug experiences (or strong emotions, as they temporarily induce altered states). Here one’s perception of the world and of oneself can be drastically changed. When this occurs in a very positive way, and the world seems so much more beautiful and meaningful than it does with ordinary perception, it is tempting to think that now you have seen the ultimate Truth, whereas before you were living in illusion. “Illusion” then means your previous experience was a significantly altered construction of perception rather than a “true” one.
Let me give a personal illustration, although it is an old and dimmed by time memory of mine. In 1966, reading P. D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous book on Gurdjieff’s teachings, he talked about simultaneously focusing attention both inwardly and outwardly, “self-remembering,” in order to produce real “awakening.” I tried it, and suddenly had an experience that was quite vivid. It only lasted a few seconds, and I can’t recall the specifics of it now, but it was perfectly clear to me during that experience that now I was actually awake, and that my ordinary life had been a low-quality dream. If I wanted to know a higher truth, I had to “wake up” this way more often, indeed permanently.
Similarly experiences as a subject in psychedelic drug experiments while in graduate school gave me what seemed to be much truer and more beautiful perceptions of the world. On the other hand, under the influence of psilocybin or LSD, I could, mostly out of the corner of my eye, see all sorts of brilliantly colored little creatures racing up and down the walls. I couldn’t see them clearly at the speed they were moving at, but they were beautiful! As real as that seemed, I interpreted it then and there as some kind of hallucinatory drug effect, perhaps induced by the normal, tiny saccadic movements of my eyes. My idea of what the world was really like did not include all sorts of creatures, normally invisible, that raced up and down the walls of laboratory rooms.
It makes sense to me then that if a person’s ordinary life has a lot of suffering in it and, accidentally or through some kind of spiritual training, they have altered states experiences like this, they could easily become attached to the idea that they have finally seen Reality, that ordinary perception is indeed false and illusory. However the tendency to cling to the belief that now you are finally awake and enlightened may be a major distortion in and of itself. There are frequent warnings in Buddhist literature about clinging to good experiences and their aftereffects and letting them inflate your ego.
Conviction and Brilliance is Not Enough:
One of the things I really like about the method of essential science is its insistence that no matter how satisfying a theory is, especially your theory, no matter how brilliant, logical, mathematical, fashionable, nor how much it shows how brilliant you are, that’s not enough to show that it’s a step toward some final, true understanding. You have to work the logic inherent in your theory and make predictions about things that could be observed under new conditions. If what you theorize is true, if A occurs, then B should happen. You then set those conditions, A, up. If your predictions work out, A is set up, B happens, good, keep developing your theory, you’re on to something useful! But if they don’t work out, A is set up but B does not happen, too bad for your theory! It doesn’t matter how wonderful it is and how attached to it you are, it needs revision or rejection and replacement.
Belief in Illusion as an Aid to Lessening Attachment:
An aspect of this Buddhist emphasis on the illusory nature of ordinary perception strikes me as quite useful. I think Buddhists are quite right in pointing out how too much attachment or too much aversion (negative attachment) toward the events of life create neurotic biases, misperceptions, reactions and overreactions, which thus create a good deal of unnecessary suffering. If I think it’s desperately important to be a smart dresser, for example, but I don’t have the money to buy the latest fashionable clothes, I’m going to suffer. But if I simply stopped being so attached to the idea that looking good that way is so important, my suffering would lessen or disappear.
But is that all you need to do for more happiness? The way you dress does have social consequences in many cases, of course, just to complicate things. The most effective illusions and delusions contain lots of truth…
It’s easy to advise people to be less attached or less repelled by various things, but many of our perception and reactions are habituated and/or driven by unconscious factors. So how do you actually bring about change? Change in one sense, a rather scientific sense, of how can your ideas, beliefs, theories about reality get closer to what reality actually is? Change in a more Buddhist sense of how do you reduce or eliminate suffering?
You can work on specific attachments and aversions. One modern psychotherapeutic technique for phobias, extreme aversion, e.g., is desensitization. If a client is dreadfully afraid of spiders, you show them pictures of spiders that are far away while coaching them on staying relaxed. As a client relaxes to the sights of a spider at a certain distance, you then show pictures of closer spiders, etc., until the aversion is significantly reduced.
That kind of desensitization therapy is very specific. There’s a much more general way to lessen attachment, illustrated in Buddhism by emphasizing that ordinary reality is, in toto, an illusion, samsara to use the Buddhist term for it. This is probably not sufficient to lead to Buddhist enlightenment in and of itself, but helpful. A teacher frequently tells people that the ordinary world they perceive, and their ordinary self they experience is not real, they are illusory. After all, how much effort are you going to put into protecting or enhancing something that seems wonderful, but is really just an illusion? Or fleeing from or fighting something something that seems terrible, but is just an illusion? Thus the more you buy into this teaching that ordinary reality is largely illusory, the easier it becomes to be less attached to it. For facilitating the development of equanimity and lessening attachment, the specific truth or falsity of the idea of reality being illusory may not matter much.
Of course when non-attachment becomes too general, this may lead you to stop paying attention to things that are important or vital to ordinary, embodied life, and so cause suffering. And we may end up living quite shallow human lives by not investing in, wanting or rejecting, most everything… ;-( Buddhism, as I’ve been exposed to it, tries to prevent extremism here by, among other things, emphasizing the vital importance of developing compassion for and helping others, whether their suffering is “illusory” or not.
Belief in Illusion as Allowing More Insights:
In our culture we have all been exposed to ideas about the Freudian unconscious mind and how its contents are mainly negative, memories of traumatic experiences, nasty aspects and desires or fears of our personalities we would rather not face, etc. So you may be instructed to do a vipassana (insight) type meditation in Buddhist-type training, observing what comes up in your experience with concentration, clarity and equanimity, but you could subtly be actually holding back some of these possible arising because they might be too overwhelming or unpleasant. You’re not consciously holding back, but your unconscious creates ways of defending you from them. I devoted a whole chapter to these kind of defenses in my Waking Up book.
But if you are at least fairly convinced that whatever comes up, like all aspects of ordinary reality, is largely or wholly illusory, you may be more relaxed about allowing whatever wants to rise to arise, and more able to observe it with greater equanimity. By learning to deal with something normally threatening with equanimity, you’re neither actively rejecting it or, for positive arisings, craving it, you develop more equanimity. Shinzen Young’s recent book The Science of Enlightenment, explains how this can work.
Someone shouting at you and making threatening gestures is usually a cause for concern, but an auditory and visual image of that person rising in your mind is much easier to deal with by maintaining equanimity. So belief in illusion may be a useful training aid, making it easier for unconscious material to arise and to (hopefully) be processed by being observed. Over time, it loses its potency for distorting your perception by being observed with concentration, clarity and equanimity.
Is there a danger that too much belief in the illusoriness of everyday life would make a person careless enough to be seriously injured? I feel there’s some sort of creative balance needed between believing things are illusory as a “tool” and not believing in the reality of the tool, the illusoriness of things and self, too much… And, perhaps, believing in “reality” and “self” but not too rigidly?
Much more could be said about these issues, but this essay is already long…
Science is an interesting project that could be described as an attempt to get better and better understandings of reality, understandings that transcend the limitations of unaided human sensory and reasoning abilities. Could we say the same about Buddhism? Or other spiritual systems?
This is a complex question, because the primary overall aim of Buddhism, as I understand it, is the relief and cessation of suffering. But it makes sense that you need to have a fairly good understanding of reality to do that. But then again, as long as I avoid the fire because of those hostile demons… So Buddhism might be quite good at reducing suffering while not that good at getting at all aspects of real reality? But greater equanimity probably usually leads to more accurate, less distorted observation of what is happening outside you and inside you, so…
There’s much for us to learn here…
On the Misuses of Illusion:
A negative use for emphasizing that perceptions are illusions is for people calling themselves spiritual teachers (honestly or dishonestly) using the illusion idea and practices of applying the belief to desensitize students from noticing a Teacher’s inconsistent or negative actions and teachings. “It looks like my Master was cruel and exploited that student, but since my perceptions are illusions in my unenlightened state I shouldn’t dwell on it but continue to see the Highest Teachings in his or her words and actions.” It happens, and not just with Teachers who are conscious frauds, not really spiritually advanced, but also with those who do have useful spiritual things to teach but are normal, imperfect humans like us. Sad but, for us humans, too true…
The practice of trying to see one’s teacher as manifesting, as being the Buddha in Vajrayana Buddhism, e.g., can be psychologically very powerful in weakening habitual and unenlightened habits of perception and thinking, but can also be used in ordinary exploitative human ways to maintain a teacher’s power over students…
As humans, we are pre-programmed to accept someone else as greatly wiser than ourselves and listen to and accept their version of reality. Simple evolution here: young kids who didn’t listen to their parents’ warnings not to wander off into the forest, e.g., tended to get eaten before reproducing. When we were children, our relation to our parents was, in many ways, like that of (primitive?) people to gods and goddesses. Our parents were so much wiser, knew things we could not understand, were powerful, loved and protected us (usually) and told us they loved and protected us. If we didn’t understand why they told us to act in some specified way, we should obey anyway, we would understand when we matured and became adults.
Of course we each consciously think that we are adults, and we are smart and independent. That may be true much of the time, but the “circuits,” the habit-instincts of accepting a powerful Authority Figure are there in our subconscious minds. Freud usefully described it as transference, and it goes throughout the rest of life to various degrees. At some more primitive level of mind, we sometimes project the authority of our parents on to other adults and so have seriously distorted and magnified views of who they are and what they know…
Sometimes I recognize this in myself, especially if I’m ill and frustrated: I want a Magic Mommy and Magic Daddy to make everything all right! And how often do these transference habits operate with no conscious knowledge on my part?
In the 1970s I was in a powerful but non-traditional spiritual growth group. The leader, psychiatrist and gestalt therapist Claudio Naranjo, introduced us to Bob Hoffman, who had developed an entirely new technique for taking people through a fast and effective “psychoanalysis” to work through neurotic habits acquired with our parents in our personal history. Hoffman spoke to the group and described the therapy he and Naranjo had adapted to be more of a group process model, so it could be applied to dozens of students.
Hoffman had hardly spoken for two minutes before it was clear to me that he was a phony. I was a scientist who knew about what psychics could occasionally do, but clearly this man’s ego was much bigger than his actual abilities. But I had enough confidence in Naranjo to decide I would go through the process and give it a shot.
I learned a great deal about myself and my parents doing the therapy, so my investment of time and effort was very worthwhile. But the big surprise came with the last session of the therapy, led in a group by Bob Hoffman himself. It became immediately obvious to me that Hoffman’s physical appearance, style of dressing, and style of talking were very much like my (then deceased) father’s, and I had projected my unresolved issues with my father on to Hoffman! It was shocking, as I realized I had not actually heard his introductory talk about the process, I was caught up in the illusions created by my unresolved issues with my father. And, to my amazement, having worked through many of those illusions in the therapy, I could now see Hoffman freshly… and have had a much more mature psychological relationship with my (memories of my) father since then.
Enough! Plenty to think about, so much more depth we could go into, but we risk overload!
Basically we live in a world simulation, a BPVR, Biological Psychological Virtual Reality, an illusion. It’s a best guess perceived as reality, a world model affecting our perceptions and reactions. To know generally that our perceptions are “illusory” can, used correctly, help us not automatically over identify with these best guesses, give us a chance to look at the world and ourselves more deeply . But, like all human tools and processes, the concept of illusion can lead us deeper into illusion, misused by others and ourselves…
Charles T. Tart