After nearly a week of start-stop and consider-dismiss… only to start again, I have finally concluded that I need to approach this post from what could be considered one of many endpoints. With apologies to one of my favorite movies, The Sound of Music (and to the almost-never-fails adage to “start where you are”), I do—in this instance only—fly in the face of the words sung by Julie Andrews: “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…” Instead, I leap ahead to potential queries that this exposition may beg.
As part of an ongoing series, this post is the tiniest drop in a conceivably bottomless bucket. I have been ruminating about this topic my whole life (even as a small child), and Life itself strongly and incessantly refills this deep and swelling pool of thoughts. I realize, however, that I am but one of millions, probably billions or trillions of people who, throughout history, have at some point wondered or philosophized about the matter.
“It” is the dawning that Life as we know it is an illusion. Before I proceed, I remind myself and others that the illusory nature of Life forms the foundation of many ancient spiritual traditions: For example, Hinduism and Buddhism—and their lesser-known offshoots—use the concepts of maya and impermanence, respectively, to frame their beliefs about the illusion that is Life.
Rather than enter into an academic treatise rooted in the study of world religions, I posit here my observances and experiences that bolster the intuited reality of illusion. “The reality of illusion?” Although that phrase may seem inherently contradictory—and it is—it also points to the probable reason why, when people sense the illusory nature of existence, typically they do not pursue the mystery, nor do they immediately end their life. (As in: If Life is not real, and I am not real, why not turn out the lights that bring the charade into all-too-sharp relief?) I imagine that in order to combat the discomfort of existential angst that may arise with a sudden (or slowly rising) realization that material phenomena and physical existence are inherently ephemeral (and thus ultimately illusions), many people who catch a glimpse of the “reality of illusion” quickly tamp down the thought and pass it off as inane…or borderline insane.
One of the most insistent intellectual trip-ups as I slogged away at the mental morass in which this topic resides for me has been the question: If all of this is an illusion, why spend time discussing it? Why try to formulate any type of articulation about something that does not exist? The trick to disentangling myself from that line of thinking comes with the idea that the illusion is the existence, and that “to be” in this material lifetime is the reality that accompanies the illusory existence.
Heady, perhaps weird stuff, I know: Yet when one recognizes—even for the briefest of moments—an iota of illusion, that barely-there end of the thread begins to draw you in, like the witch’s breadcrumbs for Hansel and Gretel. If you feel that you do not—can not—sense or understand any of what I describe, think for a moment about where you are and what you are doing. If you are seated, you perceive that you are still; your chair is stationary, and the floor beneath you is steady. “Reality,” though, reminds us that your lungs and diaphragm are moving; your blood is flowing; your neurons are firing; your muscles are contracting and releasing; your eyes are moving, and of course, your heart is beating. And that chair cushion is shifting, even imperceptibly, with each rise and fall of your breath, each expansion and recession of your gently humming anatomy.
To expand upon the idea of the movement swirling around you (and within and of you) at all times, think about the planet that we call home: It rotates as it orbits, and yet we feel nothing. We notice light changing to darkness and back again, over and over, and we take that cycle as normal, as routine, as proof of “reality.” And it is real, because what we humans deem real is most often verified by our senses. But the earth’s rotation—and our unfelt acknowledgement of that fact—demonstrate that senses are fallible, and that “reality” is more than what our senses are able to perceive: Perception alone does not denote “real.”
So, I have had to jump all the way to the inevitable questions that arise with regard to Life-as-Illusion before I have made much headway with how to open oneself to the illusion… and why. For me, the philosophies and practices of yoga not only provide the framework for living with and in illusion, they supply the technologies that help me navigate within and beyond the illusory paradigm that we call Life. In coming entries concerning this immense, eternal topic, I will address the primary aspects of yoga that, in my experience, help one to move past the potential feelings of fear or instability that can accompany the first inklings or thoughts that your existence is but a temporary storyline in a series of plots projected onto Earth by the Universe.