The Mind and The Illusion of Reality


by Jayaram V

Mental peace, gentleness, silence, self-control, purity of thoughts and feelings, this is said to be the austerity of the mind. Bhagavadgita 17:16.

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few. Shunryu Suzuki.

Imagine you are walking in a garden with your friend and you both stand before an old tree and silently observe its beauty and majesty. At the moment, do you think you both are perceiving the same tree? Are you sure that you both focused on the same details and constructed the same image of it in your minds? Do you know that the one tree becomes a million trees in the minds of a million people who watch it? The one world becomes as many in as many minds as there are people on earth. You, the one person, become many in the minds of all the people you know. Each of them may perceive you differently and understand you differently.

The non-dualistic school of Vedanta (Advaita) stretches this analogy all the way back to Brahman, the Universal Self, and regards Him as the one, ultimate, true, and only source of all projections, reflections, and illusions that manifest in existence. At individual level, each of us is a creator. Each person, like Brahman, becomes many in different inner worlds of different people. Such diversity results in multiple realities concerning each of us which are difficult to resolve into an integral and harmonious whole. This is the illusion of existence in an ever-changing world, which we often cling to as real with unhappy consequences. In all the images and appearances in which you create yourself in numerous minds, it is difficult to discover the real you. In your own mind, you experience different moods, emotions, and states of consciousness, and in each of them, you outwardly become a different person, which makes it rationally difficult for anyone who knows you to establish your true identity. Yet, we somehow believe that we can judge people and things, and draw rational conclusions about them.

Such illusions and differences in perception arise because of the way the mind works. Our minds make us blind to our own faults and to certain truths of our existence to create the illusion of security and continuity. Stella (name changed) is a script editor in a publishing company. Her duty is to edit the books her boss short lists for publishing and ensure that the manuscripts are thoroughly checked for all possible spelling and grammatical mistakes before they are passed on to others in the line. Stella says that she had gone through hundreds of manuscripts, and her observation is that self-publishers will have a hard time editing their own works, because their minds blind them to their own faults. According to her, even if you carefully go through your manuscript several times, you will most likely miss to notice some obvious errors.

Behavioral scientists are aware of this shortcoming of the human mind. They know that your mind does not let you see everything clearly even if you pay enough attention. It fills in the blanks and makes up many things to give you the illusion of reality that would strengthen your beliefs, thinking and attitude. Your mind builds many illusions and keeps reinforcing them to save you time and effort. They help you manage simple and routine tasks and provide you with quick solutions to the challenges that you face in a complex world. It is why changing the perceptions of people, their choices, preferences, beliefs, and behavior is so difficult. How can you change people when they feel secure and comfortable with their mental constructs that may not necessarily correspond to the reality outside?

Understanding reality of illusion and the illusion of reality

There are two aspects to any reality that you experience. One is objective reality that comes from outside through your senses, and the other is a subjective reality that arises in you as its reflection in your consciousness. In between the two is your mind, like a lens with its own impurities and parallax error. Your subjective reality is the distilled reality. It is a construct of your mind, which does not fully correspond to the reality outside. It is a distorted version of the objective reality, distorted to the extent you are distracted by the modifications of your mind.

This is a problem with which seers and philosophers have grappled since ancient times. They noticed that the reality of things became distorted in the human mind to the extent the mind was drawn into external world and was attached to the things or repelled by them. The distractions and modifications of the mind that were caused by external and internal factors put people under a kind of spell and prevented them from seeing the truths of their existence and their essential nature. In extreme cases, when the difference between objective and subjective realities became too distant, people became delusional and mentally abnormal. We know that under the influence of drugs, alcohol, and intoxicants, people tend to become temporarily delusional and lose touch with the reality. Sometimes the gap between the two can grow wider and result in hallucinations and abnormal behavior. In ancient times when people completely lost touch with outside reality and acted as if they were different people, they were considered to be possessed by good or bad spirits.

The problem of understanding reality also gripped the minds of several European scholars such as Kant, and Schopenhauer. Kant argued that the objective reality that humans experienced was an illusion because the human mind used its known models and molds to make sense of it. Schopenhauer accepted the argument of Kent, but believed that even though the mind was subject to illusion, things were still knowable through direct experience, internal perception, or intuition. Schopenhauer read the Upanishads and was aware of the Vedanta philosophy. It is possible that he arrived at his conclusions based upon his study of them. The Yoga Sutras (4.16-17) declares that the objective reality is independent of the subjective reality. It exists whether you perceive it or not. Otherwise, what will happen to the objects that no one perceives? Things are perceptible to the senses from direct experience, but they are truly knowable only when the mind is still and free from modifications, and the seer is in complete harmony with them.

It is true that the mind stands between you and the reality. For example, the way you perceive reality is very different from the way a dog perceives it. Dogs have infrared vision and can listen from far to subtle sounds, whereas human do not have those abilities. On the other hand, humans can see millions of colors, which dogs cannot see. Therefore, the world which the dogs perceive is very dissimilar to the ones that humans perceive. Such differences exist not only between species but also with in each species and groups of individuals. Some are keen observers, some are good listeners, and some are good in grasping others' feelings and empathizing with them. Such abilities may also change and evolve with time as civilization progresses. For example, the world which we perceive today is very dissimilar to the world our ancestors perceived because we have a different understanding of the things now.

What this means is that if the human brain evolves in future or develops newer abilities and senses, it may probably see the world in an entirely different light. In this sense, the world is a Maya, or an illusion. Your perception of the world may not be the same as that of your friend. You may both live in the same city. You may like it, but your friend may not. Such differences in preferences and perceptions arise because the human mind, acts like a sieve. It filters your perceptions according to your knowledge, likes and dislikes, habits, and beliefs. Therefore, truly, your reality is an illusion of your mind. It is your mental construct, which you use to add meaning and structure to your life and identity. Thus, the illusion of reality becomes the reality in the human mind, while the reality that originally induced it remains completely or mostly unknown.

Impediments to truth

The seers of Hinduism speculated about the nature of reality and human consciousness, and identified several factors that interfered with our ability to perceive truth. They called them impurities (malas) or obstacles to knowledge and freedom, since they fettered the mind with attachments (pasas) and led to the delusion (maya) of mistaking the untrue for true, and truth for falsehood. According to the scriptures of Hinduism, the following factors are largely responsible for the distortions in our perception and comprehension.

1. Modes of nature (gunas), namely sattva, rajas and tamas, which induced people to act righteously, selfishly, and egoistically.

2. Attraction (raga) and aversion (dvesha) to the pairs of opposites (dvanda) such as heat and cold, or pain and pleasure.

3. Egoism (anava) which strengthens our individuality and makes each individual perceive the world and others as distinct and separate from himself.

4. Desires (kama), which cloud the mind and lead to attachment.

5. Lack of knowledge (avidya), or ignorance, which prevents one from seeing the truth that is hidden in things.

All schools of Hinduism recognize delusion as the natural state of mind. Human beings are endowed with intelligence (buddhi) and the power of discernment (vivekam), but they are enveloped by the darkness of several imperfections and weaknesses. They increase to the extent you are drawn outwardly, and become involved with the world. If you want to see the reality as it is, you must mentally withdraw from the field of observation and become a passive observer. Your mind has to become still and utterly clam, without any modifications, as you become indifferent to the events that happen around you, so that you can see the world without distortions and distractions. A person who develops such a unified and undisturbed vision is called a seer (rishi). A seer is one who can penetrate into the nature of things and understand them from inside out. He does not go by the illusion of appearances but by the substance or the truth that is hidden in them. He does not cling to the objects he sees, but lets them present themselves to him in their natural (prakritic) and purest (sattivic) state. The purest state of an object, as our scriptures describe, is the original state that Brahman, the Creator, intended it to be, not what you made out of it. An object remains pure in your perception and memory if you do not superimpose your constructs upon it.

Developing an all-round vision

According to our Puranas, in the beginning no one had the all-round vision of things, except Brahma, the Creator god. When he manifested from the waters of life from the Cosmic Egg, he was endowed with four heads which looked in four directions and made him omniscient. Other gods were not comfortable with his superior position and supreme power. Therefore, they contrived to cut off one of his heads and limited his ability to know things. In the Hindu pantheon, the status of each deity depends upon his or her ability to know. The highest of all is Brahman, the knower of all. In the body of an individual it is the Self. The ability of other deities to know and grasp, who are personified in the beings as the senses and organs, becomes limited according to their position and status in the cosmic hierarchy.

How can you develop such a vision? In both Hinduism and Buddhism you will find specific methods with which you can purify your mind and body, and see things clearly. The methods help you free your mind from its usual illusions and attachments, so that you can learn to clearly see the truth that is hidden behind the illusory surface and become established in it. With effort, any yogi can cultivate a pure, passionless, and stable mind, and become a seer, or a true observer. A seer has not only a clear vision that can penetrate and see beyond the surface truths, but also a silent and vigilant mind that sustains his concentration and mental toughness. Hence, he is also known as the silent one (muni), and the stable one (dhira), whose mind is silent and withdrawn, but insightfully awake and attentive. As he transcends the natural limitations of the mind, he develops the ability to perceive things without effort and easily enter the essence of things without being influenced by them.

Have you ever stood in the presence of a true spiritual master. Even if he is in a crowd of a thousand people, he can instantly focus upon a particular individual and instantly gain insight into his thoughts. Sometimes, by a mere glance he can identify a troubled person and give him a blessing. He is able to do it because he has without egoism, desires, and expectations. When he has none of this, he can easily empathize with others and feel their feelings and thoughts. It is said that in ancient India the seers who lived in the densest forests were able to use the same awareness to establish rapport with the wild animals that roamed around them and live in harmony with them.

Bondage in Hinduism means having desires and attachments. They hold you down to things and people. Each relationship that you build in this world becomes a fetter that keeps you in chains. True freedom (nirvana) is freedom from desires, and expectations. It is the extinguishing or burning away of all the bonds and shackles that your mind builds in you and holds you in chains. The scriptures say that the human birth is a great opportunity to free your mind from desires and escape from the problem of mortality and suffering. With their intelligence, human beings alone can train their minds to see things as they are and break free from the illusions to which they are subject. The following are a few well-known practices that can lead to freedom from illusions.

1. Eating right food: The Bhagavadgita suggests that eating the right type of food or sattvic food leads to physical and mental clarity It describes the sattvic food as that which increases lifespan, purity, strength, health, happiness, (and) satisfaction, which is tasty, oily, firm, (and) agreeable.

2. Practicing virtue: Virtue should be practiced by observing rules (cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study of scriptures, and devotion), and practicing restraints (nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy, and non-covetousness). In Buddhism the same is aimed by the Eightfold Path (Right view, Right intention, Right speech Right action, Right livelihood, Right effort, Right mindfulness, and Right concentration).

3. Restraint of the senses: It is also referred to as withdrawal of the senses. You have better control over your senses when you have detachment, dispassion, and sameness towards all. You can cultivate them by overcoming desires and clinging, living without expectations, and cultivating indifference to the pairs of opposites.

4. Restraining the mind: By nature, the human mind is fickle and unstable. It can be restrained, stabilized and balanced by the above mentioned three practices, along with meditation, concentration, introspection, devotion, and mindful observation.

Cultivating a pure mind that sees things objectively, thinks rationally, and remains undisturbed in an ever-changing world is vital to our physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. Whether you are an atheistic or a theist, whether you practice any particular religion or a composite religion of your own, having a stable mind that can see things as they are is greatly helpful in our fast paced world to deal with your problems and keep your sanity. You mind constructs your reality. We should always remember this truth. If you can keep your mind empty, free from judgment, open, unassuming, you let truth enter without modifications and distortions.

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