I don’t like using the terms “real” and “unreal.” Is a mirage real or unreal? I bet I would get conflicting answers if I asked many people. When a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, was it real or unreal? Again, I bet I would get conflicting answers. So I am not sure what you mean when you ask about “real” or “unreal”.
We do have a unique sense of self. Much of it is bound by recurring thought, memory, the limited and localized experience of the sense organs, and a sense of contraction within the body.
There is this body/mind and the body/mind can only be aware of what it can be aware of. For example, if the body/mind is at work…it does not know what is happening at home (unless some sixth sense has been developed). This body/mind moves around the greater world and is only aware of what is immediately around the body/mind.
Through conventions of speech and what is said…we have come to believe that we are just this body/mind or some thing within it (often considered somewhere in the middle of all the major sense organs…behind the eyes, between the ears, etc….in the head).
However, our unique sense of self can and does change. Infants are considered to have an “oceanic feeling” – referring to the sensation of being one with the universe. This sensation shrinks over time. It is boxed in and covered by our concepts and memories about who and what we are. A bad boy, a good girl, a crybaby, etc. We are constantly referred to as this body/mind and it is the only body/mind we directly control. Sit still…stop fidgeting! Pull yourself together! You will go to your room! Is it any surprise we come to identify with the body/mind and forget the oceanic feeling?
Now, enlightenment does not end the life of this body/mind and experiences of the body/mind. So a “relative sense” caused by the five senses…a body/mind moving around in the world…does not disappear. One who is enlightened still feels the pain of a disease of the body…but it just no longer is a problem or causes mental anguish (i.e. suffering).
However, the “relative sense of self” and being limited to only our 5 senses does not necessarily mean you are separate or other from everything else. We overlook that we are not usually aware of our left kneecap or the big toe on the right foot or our liver or our pituitary gland.
“If you become aware of the fact that you are all of your own body, and that the beating of your heart is not just something that happens to you, but something you’re doing, then you become aware also in the same moment and at the same time that you’re not only beating your heart, but that you are shining the sun.”
~ Alan Watts
We are not aware of so many things within the body and within our mind…and yet we identify with just the body/mind or some thing within it. This does not have to be so.
It is possible to feel at one with your surroundings. This is a classic mystical experience. I once meditated in a square of sorts on my college campus years ago. The fall trees were in full color and it was a beautiful twilight evening. While meditating, I suddenly felt at one with all the trees, the ground, the buildings, etc. This was a temporary experience and passed after a few minutes. Over the years, I have had various similar experiences, so it does not seem far fetched for me to think that what Alan Watts said is possible.
After awakening in 2005 my understanding and also my experience (whenever I just look with a quiet mind) is that there is really no separation – regardless of the limited experience of sense organs or direct control. I am just as much this body/mind as I am the couch I am sitting on. I am also the wall across the room. I look around and don’t see anything other me. There was the realization that the personal and separate “me” is an illusion. It exists…a unique sense of self…but it is not what it appears to be. The Self (universal) is what is really going on. But in saying the universal is what is really going on, this does not overlook or deny that there is only this one body/mind that is available for conscious and direct control. There just is no separation or otherness between “unique sense of self” and “the universal.”
Like when you see an ocean, we see waves and we may even think of the waves as separate entities in their own right. That is due to conventions of thought and speech though…there is only the ocean. It is only when we want to speak about a part of the ocean that we talk about a wave’s height and actions. But there isn’t even a part…because “part” is a convention of speech…there is only ocean.
If the wave was conscious, had some control, had some localized senses of awareness, and a memory, then it might have a unique sense of self as well. However, all there is is the ocean. The self-image of being a wave does not separate one from the ocean. The lack of conscious and direct control over more than just the one wave is not proof of separation.
Just because you can’t control it does not mean it is separate (or do you create your own insulin in the pancreas consciously). Just because you are not aware of it does not mean it is separate (or are you aware of your thymus gland right now). Just because you don’t remember it does not mean you didn’t do it (or do you remember the first Thursday of May when you were five years old). Even consciousness is not a proof of separation or otherness…for did you cease to exist during deep dreamless sleep? At at time when we are not conscious of a thing…we continue to be. We did not end with the end of conscious awareness…and so we do not wake up as someone else.
Consciousness, control, feeling/sensing, and memory really do not determine the boundaries of what you are. Furthermore, when the mind is silent…labeling and dividing stops. Then there just is what-is…and you are That. After realizing you are That, there is still just the experience and control of this one body/mind…as a unique sense of self, but that is not separate or other than the universal.