Is the World an Illusion?
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Many of us have heard people say, “The world is an illusion.” But why would anyone say that? (Knock, knock, knock - imagine the sound of bare knuckles knocking on a solid table.) It sure seems real to me! But does this apparent solidness of the world prove that it is not an illusion? What does it really mean to say that the world is an illusion? What evidence is there to support this idea?
Well, I suspect that people who have had a near-death experience or an out-of-body experience might have been saying something like this for thousands of years. Plato wrote about the near-death experience of a soldier over twenty-four hundred years ago. Perhaps I'll talk more about these types of experiences at another time but for right now, let's focus on what someone might mean by saying that the world is an illusion.
I think that a good definition of an illusion is something that tricks us into believing a false idea. The dictionary says that an illusion is a misleading image, a mistaken idea. Yet it seems to me that many people mistakenly think of an illusion as something that has no reality to it at all - something that does not even exist!
Let's dig deeper into this subject by considering a stage magician. He's a master illusionist. Many people have seen the magic trick where he puts his assistant in a big box and cuts her in half with a saw. What we see is real. We see her head, arms and feet sticking out of the box. But we are not seeing the whole picture. We don't see that there is another person hiding in the box who makes up the other half of the assistant and creates the illusion of one person cut into two pieces.
Even though our physical senses are doing their jobs perfectly, our incomplete picture tricks us into believing a false idea. Our false assumption that the feet that we see are the feet of the assistant leads to the incorrect conclusion that the assistant was cut in half. These two ideas are completely false but our raw perceptions are accurate. Once we see the bigger picture, we understand the true nature of the situation and we are no longer tricked by the illusion.
So in a funny way, it can be said that an illusion is real. Yes, it has a reality to it. It's just that its true reality is different from what we first thought. We were initially tricked into believing a false idea.
But there is something else about a good illusion that is very important and that is this: it is persistent. Even if we know the secret to the magic trick, if it is performed well, it still gives us the impression that something supernatural just happened. Even though we are not tricked by the illusion in the deepest way, the false idea still appears as if it is true and this is why we enjoy the magic show.
Now let's consider the moving images that you see on the big screen at the movies. Surprise! There aren't any moving images! Not one! Even though the art form is called “the movies,” you have never seen a single moving picture. The same is true for TV. Instead of true motion, we observe many still pictures presented one at a time so rapidly that we perceive all those still images as a moving image. And again, even when we know the truth, the illusion still persists. The false idea still appears as if it is true. You always observe what appears to be smooth motion even though there isn't any motion. That exists only as your experience.
Next, let's talk about the motion of the sun traveling across the sky. This is an excellent example of a natural illusion, and natural illusions are the most important ones for us to understand. In this example, if you did not know any better, you might insist that the sun really does move across the sky while the Earth remains perfectly still. That's what it seems like. You might even have precise scientific measurements of the position of the sun at various times throughout the day and your records might go back for thousands of years.
If I showed up and told you that the sun does not move at all, you might reject my statement out of hand. After all, you have a mountain of data that proves otherwise. If I further explained that the earth spins on its axis, you might be cautiously intrigued. You might admit that if the earth were truly spinning on its axis, it would indeed create the apparent motion of the sun traveling across the sky but you would also point out that that doesn't prove anything; it only presents a hypothetical possibility. And you would finally note that you should feel the earth spinning and you don't.
(By the way, the sun does indeed move through space. The sun and the entire solar system are orbiting around the center of the galaxy and one orbit takes about 250 million years. But the apparent motion of the sun traveling across the sky is due almost entirely to the spinning of the earth, not the motion of the sun traveling through space.)
Now, let’s suppose that I take you out in a spaceship to a vantage point where you can clearly see the sun and the spinning earth. You would learn the true nature of the situation from personal experience. And yet, when you got back to earth, the illusion would persist. You would still see the sun apparently traveling across the sky! At noon, it would be high in the sky and about six hours later, it would be setting low in the west. And no matter how hard you tried, you would not be able to feel the spinning of the earth. Even though there really is something happening to you, you cannot feel it directly with your body.
So now you ponder the paradox of knowing one thing - that the sun does not move - while watching its apparent motion. But remember, a paradox only seems like a contradiction. It is not an actual contradiction. In other words, there is a resolution, and of course, you already see it. Within one framework, something can be moving while at the same time, within another framework, it can be still. The key is that you measure the motion with respect to only one framework at a time. From within the moving framework of the spinning earth, the motionless sun will appear to move.
When the subject of a spinning earth was first suggested to western culture in about 200 B.C. by Aristarchus of Samos (near Turkey), scholars presented several arguments against it. They claimed that people would be flung off the surface of the spinning earth, and that birds would have to fly hundreds of miles an hour just to stay above one spot. It seemed like an impossible scenario and “common sense” prevailed in a way the defeated the truth of the matter.  If you wanted to be accepted by society, you could not endorse this new idea. (If people thought you were a “nut,” you would be passed over when it came to good jobs that carried a lot of responsibility or social status. And you certainly would not have been hired as an astronomer!) But holding this false idea did not hinder anyone's daily activities and since people's fundamental desire to fit into society is so strong, the correct idea virtually disappeared from western culture.
In 1543, Copernicus reintroduced the idea that the earth spins on its axis as it orbits the sun, and again the idea got little support. Many people today believe that Copernicus waited until the end of his life to publish his ideas because he did not want the condemnation of the Church and the ridicule of his peers. During his time, those were two powerful forces motivating him (and everyone else) to just fit in. Obviously these days, the Church does not play a dominant role in matters of science and astronomy; that role is now handled by the scientific academy. Yet getting on the “wrong” side of any of these forces can still present challenges, even if one's viewpoint is worthy of proper consideration and more investigation. The power of ridicule continues to be very strong even though it is virtually overlooked as a force that shapes the beliefs of a society and therefore the beliefs of most individuals in that society. But let's get back to our story.
Over 100 years later, Galileo provided conclusive evidence that Venus orbited the sun with his telescopic observations of the phases of Venus, which look similar to the phases of our moon. It was subsequently shown that all the planets orbit the sun, and that the earth spins on its axis.  So finally, about eighteen hundred and fifty years after the idea was first presented to them, the western mainstream scientific community adopted the correct understanding. And notice that it did not just become socially acceptable to believe that the sun was the center of the solar system; it became a social requirement. Otherwise, you were pushed aside as a “nut,” but this time for the opposite reason!
Incidentally, one way to prove that the earth is spinning is to construct a very large pendulum, say 200 feet tall, and set it in motion. As the day progresses and the earth spins, the section of the ground that the pendulum swings over will change significantly and this can easily be observed (except at the earth’s equator). This was first demonstrated by the French physicist Leon Foucault in 1851 in Paris but it is fairly low-tech so it could have been done much earlier. But even still, you cannot feel the spinning directly with your body, which is why western culture resisted investigating the subject for so long.
The spinning of the earth provides a good example of how difficult it is for us to break free from incorrect beliefs when these false beliefs are based on misleading personal experiences that are shared by everyone. Add to that the fundamental desire to be accepted by society and you see how easy it is for us to fall into a trap of illusion. Is this what is happening in a very basic way with regards to our understanding of who we really are? Are we really only a body that is alive for a while and then gone forever or is there more to it?
The secret to understanding all illusions is to understand the bigger picture, the greater reality, that holds the little picture, the illusion. It is important to note that the bigger picture does not invalidate the little picture. In other words, the little picture is still real and valid as an experience. But of course it is wise to give up any false ideas that the illusion points to. So throw away what is false but don’t throw everything away. Live with the understanding of the greater reality!
This point is especially important to keep in mind when it comes to the paradox of understanding the True Self. There is only one self and this is the Divine Self, which is your pure awareness. The combination of your body, mind, personality and soul can be called your functional self but it is not really a self; it is not really a separate, autonomous, disjoint entity. It is not the source of its own awareness, just like the moon is not the source of its own light. Yet from the point of view of our common “ordinary” world, you will experience your functional self in a way that makes it seem as if it is the only real you, although separate and mortal. But this is just an illusion.
The main paradox of enlightenment is that the True Self – the Divine Self – does not become enlightened. Enlightenment is a set of conditions exhibited by the functional self, but that is not really you. Your True Self is the unborn eternal Divine Awareness, which never changes since it has no form that could change. It is free from all conditions and as such, it could never be or become enlightened yet it is what enlightens all souls.
We will revisit these points throughout this book yet I want to inspire you to take some time now to really start to think about these ideas. Don’t rush over them. Perhaps you will get to the point where you understand this truth not merely as a concept, but as your living experience.
A sage is both wise and practical. In our example of the spinning earth, it is wise to live with the understanding that the earth is spinning on its axis and yet it is practical to speak about the sun traveling across the sky. Similarly, it is wise to understand the True Self and yet it is practical to respect the functional self and behave in a responsible way. Yes, there is something happening to you that you cannot feel with your body but acknowledge that there are other ways to know deep truth.
As another example, consider the following. We have all heard people say, “We are all one.” Why does this simple statement sound like pure nonsense? Because it mixes two very different frameworks.
The first part speaks from the framework of our common, ordinary world. That world is filled with people, the “we” of the statement. I believe that we are each a unique expression of the eternal divine essence. In other words, we are each different in our form - our body, our mind, our personality and so forth. So in our common world, we find the diverse “we.”
Yet the second part of the statement speaks from the framework of the divine source, the “One” Creator that brings forth all things. This is where we merge into our oneness. This essence is the same for all of us. In other words, we are all the same in our essence, but not in our form.
By mixing the two frameworks and omitting an explanation of what the frameworks are, the statement leads to confusion. Something that is plural cannot also be singular, right? Or can it? This is similar to saying that something that is moving cannot also be still. Again, we see the solution to our riddle: we should only use one framework at a time. This is why I like to say:
“In form, we are many; in essence, we are one!”
Now let's consider the experience of time. Could it also be an illusion?
Suppose you and your friends have plans for dinner and a movie, and you arrive promptly at the restaurant with your appetite piqued. But thirty minutes later, you are still alone and beginning to wonder if there was a misunderstanding. Is this the right day? Fifteen minutes later, you are just about to give up and order without your friends when suddenly they arrive!
Their apologies for being late seem a little disingenuous but you're willing to overlook that. They notice that you are a bit unhappy with the situation and they try to fix everything by proclaiming that you should not be so concerned about time since it is only an illusion, as if that means that it doesn't exist at all. But you might be thinking, “Hey, no matter what time really is, we're all having a late dinner and we're going to miss that great movie!”
Is time an illusion? My opinion is that within our common, daily experience, it certainly is real as an experience and for that reason, it does matter. It's what allows us to coordinate many of our activities and in this respect, I certainly appreciate it when people act responsibly. And more importantly, time is what allows all processes to unfold. You can't have growth without time. But is there more to time than meets the eye? I think so and in that way, it is indeed an illusion.
Perhaps I will say more about time at another time, but for right now, let's step back and ask some bigger questions. Is there more to reality than that revealed by the physical senses? Is our entire physical world the “totality of reality” or is it just “part of the picture?” Does it trick us into believing a false idea? Is it therefore, an illusion?
What is the true nature - the full nature - of reality? What role do we play in it? To what extent do we have freewill? To what degree do we control our own life? Are both life and death an illusion? Without the proper understanding of that subject, we would suffer from the effects of a very important false belief. And finally, are you an illusion? Is there more to you than meets the eye?
While our magicians use ordinary means to create the illusion of a supernatural event, is God doing the opposite? Is God using supernatural means to creates the illusion of the ordinary world?
Does God intentionally hide from us like the magician's secret assistant in order to invigorate the play we are all in and charge it with emotion? Could God and creation be the same reality, just like water and ice? Different “things” but the exact same essence? The mystic says, “Yes!” and the implications are mind-blowing!
(By the way, God is not a thing - God is not an object - but the right words are hard to find.)
So perhaps now you see why I often say:
“You are not simply connected to God; every aspect of your being is divine!”
“God is not just deep within you at a special place; you are divine at every level!”
So every time you see the sun traveling across the sky, ask yourself, “Is everything in our world of form magically and paradoxically the form of the Formless? Is this all just an illusion?”
Yes, ponder this every time you see the sun.
The End - Thanks for reading!
This essay is a slightly edited excerpt from the second chapter of my book:
Living the Paradox of Enlightenment.
If you enjoyed this essay, then you might like some of my other work:
• My main website is here.
• All my spiritual essays are here.
In truth, I honor your divine nature, Thomas Razzeto
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Written: 2005 and expanded on October 30, 2008. Copyright 2005 Thomas Razzeto - All rights reserved.