Since you have at least started reading this article, something about this question must have caught your attention and prodded you to explore the idea further. After having considered it in some depth, I have come to the conclusion that this absurd-sounding question can act as a sort of doorway to insights with the ability to enrich our lives.
If your initial reactions to assertions that declare the world to be an illusion were anything like mine, you rejected them as nonsense. But the way this assertion is usually phrased, it directs our attention to only one of two potential meanings of the word “illusion.” Illusion in the sense implied by how I wrote this question means “not real” in the same way an hallucination has no real substance and resides entirely within the mind. In contrast to this sense of the word, when we stub our toe on a piece of furniture, the pain can be quite intense, forcefully reminding us that the physical world is no hallucination. If we are sure of anything about our lives, it is that the physical world around us is real.
On the other hand, there is another meaning of illusion with the potential of providing us with a deeper understanding of our world. The word “Illusion” can also be used to mean a belief about something whose true reality is different from what we at first might think. A good example of this type of illusion was the ancient belief that the earth is flat. There was a time, of course, when everyone’s common sense completely supported this mistaken impression of flatness. Because this impression was based on very real, repeatable experiences, the flatness of the world was obvious to everyone. Of course, that was long before our modern awareness of how the earth rotating on its axis gives us our days and nights. The false conception of flatness has given way to a larger and more complete understanding of the complex movements of our solar system. As this example shows, illusion in this second sense means a misinterpretation of real sensations and experiences that lead us to false conclusions.
Some of our greatest philosophers and theologians have been instructing us about the deceptive nature of reality for millennia (for example, consider Plato’s cave, the Hindu concept of Maya, and recent teachings like those of A Course in Miracles). Even a quick review of these writings will confirm that it is the second sense of the meaning of illusion that they are concerned with. An in depth study of these sources and traditions not only discloses the remarkable similarity of their messages, it also helps illuminate a cluster of interrelated false beliefs that combine to mislead us about who we are, how the world works and our role within its events. Further, we also find that these false ideas have a clear organization and structure. They exist in layers with the more superficial ones covering deeper, more hidden layers.
As I have examined this multi-layered structure of false beliefs carefully, it reminded me of a set of Russian nested dolls. You know: the child’s toy where the outer doll can be opened to reveal another doll inside and that one can be opened to reveal yet another.
This article will be just the first in a series in which I will explore some of these layers of false conclusions, starting with the most superficial and working towards the deeper layers hidden beneath. The layer of illusion I will discuss in the remainder of this essay might be considered a key to it all, since if we don’t successfully penetrate this first level, we will not even begin to look for the deeper levels that will remain completely hidden from view. This failure might mean that important insights that promise to help transform our lives for the better will remain unavailable to us.
I will give this top layer a name, and call it “the victim consciousness illusion.” Part of the structure of this level is how we can be blind to how our own decisions and actions can contribute to unwanted experiences later on in our lives. A clear example of this comes from the reports of therapists counseling people who have the “bad luck” of choosing partner after partner who abused them, and have lived through a whole series of relationships that ended badly as a result. It is often obvious to therapists in situations like this that the outcomes are a result of the individual’s choices, but it can be quite a challenge to get clients to free themselves from seeing themselves as victims. The mystery for people locked into this part of the illusion can be either the inability to connect their decisions with the outcomes, or it can be an inability to understand why they are making such bad choices in the first place.
A different part of the structure of the victim consciousness level of flawed reasoning is probably even more important. To begin to explore this layer, let me point out what may seem obvious to some readers: no matter what happens in our lives, what really matters to us is its emotional impact. It is not the event itself; it is the way we react to it. Some examples may help here.
Consider two mill workers who lose their jobs as their company closes and moves overseas. One may be angry about how unfair, low-wage competition has taken away his paycheck and become very depressed. His coworker, in contrast, may see his job loss as an opportunity to finally start the lawn maintenance business he has always dreamed of, giving him the ability to use his unemployment check to get by until his new venture is fully up and running. The same event results in two dramatically different responses.
Next, consider two women who lose their elderly mother from a year-long bout of cancer that has taken her life. One daughter may see her passing as a blessing, since she is no longer suffering, and feel quite sure she has moved on to a place of comfort and reward. Her sister, however, may be tortured both by guilt from not being with her when she died, and the conviction that her religious beliefs have put her in a place of eternal punishment.
Contrary to what we might think, it is not so much the events themselves that count, it is what they mean to us and how we feel about them that truly matters in our lives. The exact same event viewed from different vantage points can be experienced in completely different ways, depending on how we assess the situation. To further compound our error, our reactions are usually felt to be an intrinsic part of the events, with our contribution completely invisible to us.
As these examples show, is it not true that the emotional impact of many, if not all, of the events of our lives originate entirely within us rather than being somehow demanded by the external events surrounding us? How often do we take our decisive role fully into account? Isn’t it completely natural for us to automatically project the cause of our emotional responses to what goes on in the world out away from us, remaining blind to how critically important our contribution is? This quite natural tendency creates the powerful and compelling misconception that when our lives take very unpleasant turns, we are victims.
Until we see beneath this layer of illusion, we cannot even begin to examine the real mechanisms behind how we emotionally respond to what happens in our lives. Many of the most undesirable experiences we face will continue to be viewed as due to either terrible luck or the regrettable decisions of others, neither being under our control. Both our responsibility in the processes we are involved in and the opportunities to improve our lives these insights might allow will elude us.
If what I have said so far is nothing new to you, I thank you for your patience. For those for whom it is at least somewhat new, the careful consideration of this outer level of faulty reasoning will be an essential step to uncovering the real source of our emotions and feelings. But whatever your awareness and understanding, continuing to explore what lies beneath this layer will be worthwhile.
I am absolutely convinced that mistaken core beliefs and assumptions about our world and our place in it are responsible for much of our frustrations, anger, anxieties and suffering. If I am correct, finding the perspective needed to clear these faulty ideas will inevitably result in more of an attitude of acceptance, appreciation and peace of mind. Seeing our erroneous conclusions from a greater vantage point will begin a process of dissolving them and freeing ourselves from their bondage.
In the next article, I will recount events of my life that turned my view of the world completely inside-out and started the exploration that has been the basis of this series. This story will help introduce a couple of the deeper illusions I alluded to above.
Please be generous in making candid comments, if you feel so inclined. This series of articles is a work in progress that can only gain from your thoughtful feedback.
Peace, love and joy to all,
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