Is the world real or is it an illusion?

    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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About Chuck Gebhardt

I am a physician specializing in internal medicine. I sub-specialize in nutritional medicine. I am very interested in all areas of healing research, not necessarily limited to traditional medicine topics.
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20 Responses to Is the world real or is it an illusion?

  1. phillip sumner says:

    Hey Chuck, In this era of instant gratification, we tend to give instantanous emotional responses, that we feel are true. Much like they layers discussed, we tend to evolve emotionally as we age. Though age is not the quantifier, it is our ability to reason and how we adjust our response to what guides us emotionally. Not sure of my clarity, but I want to respond from my first read through candidly.
    The world is an illusion. We figure out reality as we recover from (insert your demon here).

    • Phillip, thanks for sharing your views. I think we agree that there is a reality that lies behind the illusions that life presents to us. I completely agree with you that we can reason our way to a better understanding. This can give us a perspective that points the way to freeing us from the illusions. The process of freeing ourselves is very important. I have just barely begun to explore this potential here in this first article. I hope you will continue to read the series and perhaps provide more feedback.

  2. samaryo says:

    Dear Chuck
    I like the way that you have approached this subject. I spent most of my life in the illusion of “victim-consciousness”. This illusion is strenthened by religion which teaches that we are unworthy. As I grew up with religion, I accepted that God allows suffereing for our own good and he blesses those who are deserving. Of course I never felt deserving but always felt unworthy. For as long as I can remember I have been trying to please God. I think that is the reason for me being such a serious person and hot having a good sense of humour.

    I am so very thankful that the scales fell off from my eyes a few years ago and I saw through the illusion. I no longer feel like a victim but rather like a co-creator of my own life. I take responsibility and do not blame others when things go wrong. I no longer believe in a God who is pulling my strings. I am a part of Source (otherwise known as God) and I am worthy and I am loved and I no longer live in fear. It is possible to see through the illusion and change your life.

    • Mary,
      You seem to be one of those readers for whom this article problably contained very little that was new. What I take from what you are saying is that this insight has made a major change in your life. This is my hope for this series of articles. I am hoping that some readers will find useful perspectives here that they can test out in their own lives. I am confident that some will find results like you describe. Only time will tell. Thanks so much for your lovely comment.


  3. samaryo says:

    Sorry Chuck

    I accidently posted that comment too soon. Good post and I look forward to the next “layer”.

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  7. Lee says:

    Hi Chuck,

    Thanks for a great article! I look forward to reading the rest in the series.

    Along the line of “candid comments”:

    I agree with you that the illusion of false perceptions of the world and our own place in it is a huge obstacle to our progress, both materially and spiritually.

    However, I believe there is an even deeper layer underneath those illusions of falsity. It may not be popular to state it these days, but I believe that the power that sustains that falsity is evil in the human heart, either intentionally chosen or simply not consciously seen and dealt with.

    In the realm of “consciously chosen” are those who have made the decision at some point that their lives will be devoted to accumulating power, possessions, and pleasure for themselves, even if it must come at the expense of others.

    In the realm of “not consciously seen and dealt with” are those who simply imbibe the materialistic and personal-pleasure-centered values of so many cultures in this world, and live unexamined lives of acquiring material things and experiencing life’s pleasures for themselves.

    Whichever may be true of a particular person, it is common that until the person makes a conscious choice to live for better motives, such as concern for the wellbeing of others rather than exclusively of oneself and one’s own family (which is often seen as an extension of oneself), the illusions of falsity will never be pierced, because those illusions are supported by an underlying evil of self-centeredness and materialism.

    Now, as our consciousness is raised and we begin to see through the illusions, we may indeed first identify the illusions as the primary problem. This, I believe, is why many spiritual paths focus on falsity vs. truth, or illusion vs. reality, as the primary issue of spiritual growth and evolution. We are more capable of seeing issues of truth vs. falsity because they are matters of light and darkness that our mind’s eyes can see and perceive as we open those eyes to higher realities.

    What takes longer to see is matters of good vs. evil that are more fundamental to human nature and to determining what the quality of our life will be. That’s because matters of good and evil are not matters of light, but matters of warmth. We can’t see them with our mind’s eyes except indirectly. We must feel them with our heart. And it takes much longer for us to open our heart than to open our eyes.

    So while I do agree with you that opening our eyes to pierce the illusions of this life is critical,
    I believe that is a first step leading us to the deeper work of confronting the coldness of evil in the human heart, whether intentional or unintentional, and replacing that coldness with the warmth of loving our fellow human beings and loving the God from whom we all came, and whose love sustains us every second of our lives.

    I discuss some of these issues of evil and its illicit “marriage” with falsity in my blog post:
    Strip Search Prank Calls, Domestic Violence: Evil Loves Deception

    None of this is meant to imply that I disagree with you. I agree with your thoughts as expressed in this excellent and thoughtful article. I see the parallel between your work as a physician healing the faulty or damaged workings of the human body with your work as a teacher healing the faulty and damaged thinking of the human mind.

    • Lee,

      I do not think we have any real disagreement about our views of the main topic of this article. We agree that there are illusions that mankind would be far better off without. We also agree that the piercing of illusions is a very worthwhile effort for those who are interested in spiritual advancement. I think we also agree that most religious and spiritual teachings endeavor to assist us on this path, although they often differ in the specifics.

      There is one area on which we differ on, though. I am not really sure what “evil” is. To me, what we label as evil is what we find objectionable or even abhorrent in the behavior of others (and sometimes even our own behavior). Evil, from this vantage point, is a judgment that individual humans make. It is a highly variable thing that is not easily defined and codified. One could argue that it is defined for us by certain sacred texts, but this presumes you accept a given text as authoritative, and this is always arguable.

      This is a huge topic, and I do not expect that these brief statements do anything except give an idea of how vague this word is to me. I do not think our different views of this issue are that germane to the topic of this article, though. I do not think that those who are caught up in what we would agree are evil motives would have much interest in trying to pierce the illusions this article begins to try to address. This whole series of articles is designed to appeal to those who hold the welfare of others as a major concern (but this may actually be a much larger group than we often imagine).

      Many thanks for your interesting and engaging comment, Lee.

      • Lee says:

        Hi Chuck,

        Thanks for your reply. I agree that we agree on most of these points! 🙂

        I am also aware that there is a great deal of confusion out there about the nature of evil, and also a great deal of resistance to the very idea of evil. This, I believe, is largely because many religious groups have misused the term to mean exactly what you describe: a condemnatory judgment that some humans make on others because those others are not behaving the way that religious group thinks they should.

        That is not the true meaning of evil.

        A very simple, pragmatic definition of evil is that evil is anything that harms or destroys another human being. Many extend this definition to include harm to animals and plants, and to the earth and its ecosystem in general. (“Sin” is, very simply, *intentionally* doing things that harm or destroy other human beings.)

        The reason I believe that the question of evil is germane to your topic is precisely what you point out in the last full paragraph of your reply: those who have evil motives will have no interest in piercing the illusions that you and I and many other teachers wish to shine the piercing light of truth onto. This means that before a person is receptive to having those illusions pierced, that person must be willing to rid his or her heart of the evil that resides there.

        Seeing just how much evil there is in this world (all you have to do is read the daily news), I think that the problem of evil in the human heart is a much bigger problem than many spiritual teachers wish to confront and deal with. Not that anyone can change another person’s heart. But if we are to have a clear understanding of the human situation, we cannot close our eyes to the underlying power that creates and sustains the illusions we seek to dispel.

        Many people who have found some spiritual enlightenment find themselves frustrated by the small audience for that enlightened thinking, as compared to huge audiences for popular entertainments, some of which are very materialistic and even quite brutal–such as the sport of boxing. Many people who have found some spiritual enlightenment think that if they can just get the message out, millions of people will flock to hear it. However, that will not happen as long as so many people are driven by materialistic and self-centered goals and desires.

        That is why the primary focus of God’s work to bring people to spiritual rebirth is not on the mind, but on the heart. Once God has reached a person’s heart, the mind will follow.

  8. Lee, I still find the topics of evil and sin to be very problematic. It is not as simple to me as you seem to imply in your comment. I will look to other writings on your blog for clarification of your meanings when you use these words.

    For now, though, I want to make an observation in response to your comment about small audiences for enlightened teachers. It seems to me that I am finding more and more people with ever deeper understanding of what is going on in our world. Whether you call them enlightened or not, this group seems to be growing rapidly. I think the internet is a huge catalyst in this regard. It amazes me when I see the depth of insight that so many demonstrate in their writings. If I am right, this is a very optimistic development that bodes well for our future.

    Thanks for your interesting comments.

  9. Hi dear Chuck!

    Unfortunately my comment disappeared while pressing the wrong button. And my dog ate the “Yeast dough” in the kitchen. Something went wrong I guess… OK. I give it a new try.
    First I agree with you. The Internet is a big big Blessing to me too. I found you! I found Heavenletters and other specialgifted People.
    “Sin” I have heard and I like this view means in its original version in the bible “to miss the goal”. Or in other words, to feel separate from God (which is a main illusion in this world I belief). I found it in German on the internet. You sure have the description in English too. I belief this is how Jesus meant it, and not, what was and still is told us from the churches, because they used it an still use it as a powerful tool that allows the church in God’s name to set us free from our sins and binds us to the church lifelong.
    I guess the concept of “evil” was also invented by our Christian churches and other ruling communities. It is a powerful illusion I belief. There is no “evil” outside or inside of us that “rules” us. We are the creator all by ourselves I belief.
    On the other hand we are ruled unconsciously I belief by our “unconscious mind” which holds all memories and their emotions from our lives. We could also call it the “inner child”. I highly recommend Dr. Hew Len’s lectures visible on YouTube. Over a period of 7 years I have regularly visited a depth psychological group to get in contact to my inner child to resolve negative memories.
    Dear Chuck you say there are layers of illusion. And the external layer you call the “victim consciousness illusion” and you pointed out also that “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.” As I belief we are fully responsible about our life and our reactions towards the world. This is true to me, as you already know from my comments on “Heavenletters”.
    It is true but mostly not visible to us because in this world on earth we are caught in illusions. The most invisible illusion is this “inner child” our tactile memories, that are wrong illusions but caught in each of us invisible and unconscious.
    Sorry but I really missed in this blog that the clients of the therapists have a reason, a background in there live that leads them unconscious in this abusing relationships. And I also would like to understand your view about the other side of this abusing relationships. What about the partner who abuses?
    So I do not understand your concept fully right now. But I’m looking forward.

    Love and hugs! Uta

    • Hi, Uta,

      I am sorry to hear you’re the words of your first comment got erased, but I greatly appreciate your decision to write it again. This is so frustrating when it happens.

      I also feel lucky to have found you. It is so important for people with like concerns to work together and share. I really believe that a big part of why we are here is to help each other.

      It sure does seem that we are powerfully impacted what has been called “the unconscious mind.” There is no doubt that many of us have had experiences that were so unpleasant that we even suppress the memories of what happened. When therapists can help someone to uncover such repressed experiences and deal with them consciously and constructively, it is clear that many aspects of their lives seem to almost magically improve. To me, this is strong evidence that an unconscious mind is a real thing and its contents have very important impacts in our lives. Certain of our basic assumptions seem to operate unconsciously also. When they are unquestioned, they get buried in our view of the world and produce their results automatically and outside of our awareness. Of course, it is the second kind of unconscious content that this series of articles is directed toward. (I am considering writing a second series of articles to address the first kind, though.)

      I have explored Dr. Hew Len’s Ho’oponpono also. I see his work as an advanced system that produces a spiritual approach to life. It reminds me of mindfulness meditation. There are so many promising paths and therapies now available to anyone who has access to the internet! I also think the concept of an “inner child” is a very useful way to conceptualize much of the unconscious content lurking in our minds and helping create our lives. Many of the inner child approaches also seem to have effective ways to make positive changes available to those who use this approach.

      Uta, my example of therapists observing clients with multiple abusive relationships was not explored very deeply. I was just pointing out that these patterns clearly exist. I know of people who have had a half dozen or so such experiences. It happens so predictably and frequently that it is clear to me that it is not a chance occurrence. Why do these patterns develop? I suspect there are many reasons, and they vary from person to person. What I am pretty sure of, though, is that it is often something within the mind and spirit of the abused individual that draws them into these situations. I also am aware that the abusers themselves often have had repeated abusive relationships. This seems to be two sides to the coin, and I would guess the dynamics are similar.

      Thanks, Uta, for your wonderful comments.

      Much love,


  10. utasteger says:

    Oh wow – thank you Chuck for your wonderful grand answer. Very interesting. Very happy to see our views are not far apart from each other.
    Yours! Uta

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  13. uta1steger says:

    Dear Chuck,

    regarding to the last article “Seeing the world through new eyes”, I have started to reread the previous articles of this series.

    So you point out, that the reality we live in could be more, than our “scientific world view”. And that there have been made false conclusions in our current scientific world view.
    And we also have false views in how we see ourself. You point on our views of negative feelings, so as being a victim or feel guilty instead of being responsible and alterable with an attitude of love. And now you point to the fact on how we behave in our lives. You call it the “victim consciousness illusion”.

    I like what you say a lot and I agree fully. Nevertheless I want to add this:
    This is a whole new world view you put in ONE ESSAY!! Not easy to understand let alone to accept.

    Since we do not learn to call today’s world view into question, wether in school nor from our parents or social networks, we have to study this of our own accord. Thanks God there are books and websites that help us change our view. I read Heavenletters daily, so I would like to add todays Heavenletter here, since the point of this one is that we are responsible.

    Love, Uta

    • Dear Uta,

      Many thanks for your kind and helpful comments. It does my heart good to hear you say that what I have written is worth carefully exploring and even re-reading. There are so many sources of incredible insights and answers on the internet these days that it is almost overwhelming. There is so much and so much is fantastically helpful!

      After reading your comment about the sweeping scope of some of my articles, and I look back on what I have been trying to accomplish, I see that you are completely right. These are topics that are dear to my heart and on which I have spent much time and effort. But for some readers, they are completely new. For others, they may be in much more depth than they have considered in the past. Over and over again, I find my writings are much harder for others to follow than I would expect them to be. From what I gather, it is usually not the clarity of my writing so much as how far the material is outside the box of what we usually deal with. Perhaps I need to narrow my focus and simplify a lot more than I do. Either way, thank you so much for your feedback on this and you can be sure I will give it careful consideration.

      The Heavenletter that you link, Uta, is quite interesting. It extends the concepts in my articles much further and to deeper levels. For those unfamiliar with Heavenletters and wanting to know more about them, a look at my blog article introducing them may be helpful (If an omnipotent Creator exists, and He chose to speak to us today, how might we know it was Him speaking?) If my articles could be likened to introductory college level material, Heavenletters would be graduate level in comparison.

      Thanks so much for all your help,



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