I know when I say the world is an illusion that I sometimes receive a vehement denial from people. From them, I get a sense that they believe “the world is an illusion” is a denial of the existence of the world, a denial about the world’s importance, or otherwise is putting down the world (i.e. reality). This isn’t true of course (mostly), it is their own misunderstanding of illusions.
The world is an illusion, because it simply is not what it appears to be. To explain this further, I will use five analogies – mirages, magician’s illusions, movies, virtual reality (VR) games, and dreams. Hopefully, through the analogies you may get a glimpse to a deeper understanding of what is meant by the world being an illusion.
The first is the world as a mirage. I have spoken of the mirage of ego, because the ego too is mirage. But what is a mirage? It is the appearance of water in the distance in the desert or on a hot road and is caused by the refraction of light from the sky by heated air. There appears to be water in the distance, but it is not water…it is simply hot air.
Now I often connect this with suffering, because if you are thirsty in the desert – finding water is important to you. If you see a mirage and don’t recognize it as a mirage, the mirage fools you into thinking it is water…then you crave the water and strive to get there. But you never find water, and so you suffer. Of course, if you knew it was a just a mirage, there would have been no suffering because you knew there was no water. Now it is not as though there was nothing there, because what was there was hot air along the ground that refracted the light. We mistook what we saw for something it was not.
Suffering isn’t the only thing illusions bring, there may also be amusement and wonder. Think of watching a magician pull a coin from behind a child’s ear. Clearly, what appears to be is not so. Yet, the illusion brings delight. You could amusingly watch a magician turn a red billiard ball into a white billiard ball in his hands.
Now you could adopt the cynic’s view and think there are two different colored balls and he some how swapped them without you seeing. It isn’t real! It is all fake! But what fun is that? Recognizing it is an illusion or even knowing the secret of how it was done (so it no longer fools you), does not mean you can not enjoy the show. Being “just an illusion” is a put down for some…for others watching the illusion is a delight. Illusions are great things. A world without “magic” is a dull world indeed.
Again, clearly there is something there and something is going on. You can not deny its existence…and yet it is an illusion. It is just that what appears to be is not as it appears to be. It may not be real, but it doesn’t have to be.
Think about your favorite movie. You laugh, you cry, and you root for the hero. What is a movie? Isn’t it a fiction…a fantasy. It is a bunch of people playing on sets and locations trying to convince you that what you are seeing is real. Someone created the story in their heads, got actors to play it out, and then you watched it.
If you watched it in a movie theater, what was really going on? Before the show there was a big white screen. The lights darken and the show starts. In no time, we forget there ever was a white screen. What is being seen is a play of light and images, and what is really there is a white screen. Even though you may remember the white screen is there and what you are seeing is a play of light, you still get caught up in the film.
Funny enough, the same people that would say “it is just a trick…it is not real” to a magician, do not yell the same thing in a movie theater. They are quite content to enjoy the show even though it is not real. Does it exist? Obviously the movie exists – you are watching it. Is the movie real? It is not real in terms of what appears to be is what it really is (a white screen in the dark with light shining on it…this is what is – not people in trouble and drama).
The world is like a movie in which you are acting within. In this way life is like a fully immersive VR game – 3D and 360 degrees. Again, it is a fiction someone else created, but when you are wearing the goggles…it really seems like you are there.
I remember the first time my mom tried my VR goggles (it uses an iPhone and controller) and she played Sharks VR. You are snorkeling over reefs and seeing all sorts of fish while trying to keep an eye out for sharks. You would use a spear gun to keep them at bay at they approached. If you don’t pay close enough attention, you get eaten by a shark. You see the teeth chop down on you and the water goes red. My mom tried this once and she screamed like I had never heard before. Then she laughed and said, “a shark ate me…game over.”
Life is like a VR game, and yet we think we are this body-mind, when it is a temporary character being played within a game. We think things happen to us and could harm us…when nothing can really harm who/what you really are. We take the game way to seriously…when we could remember we are playing a game and have fun with it.
The world, however, is a VR game or movie you act in without realizing you are acting. So this is more like a dream. When you are asleep at night and dream, the entire world, it’s contents, and what happens in the world was created by your mind. You just don’t realize it. While in the dream, you think you are this one character in a big world. Say it is a nightmare in which you are being chased. You really believe there is someone coming after you…but it is really you coming after you.
While dreaming, it all seems incredibly real. While dreaming, it all seems incredibly important. You trip and fall, it hurts. You continue to run from your pursuer. But let us say, for some unknown reason, you “wake up” to realize you are dreaming. This is called lucid dreaming…dreaming and knowing you are dreaming. What happens then?
There is still this world you find yourself in and someone is chasing you. Maybe you decide to confront them now that there is no fear of death (which would be waking up in the real world). Maybe you continue to run and lose them. Either way, crisis passes…what to do with the rest of your time in the dream?
Some people (the cynical) might say – it’s just a dream, so I am just going to sit here until I wake up. This is denying the world you are in. But what is the fun in this? The world exists…it is what is being experienced now. So instead you might go on an adventure…play within the dream. Like you would in a VR game.
What you do in the dream is entirely up to what you want to do…but how you live in the dream and how you react/act to what happens in the dream are very different when you know it is a dream. What is there to fear? What is there to worry about? Instead, there could be a significant increase in joy – regardless of the “challenges” that come up…because you know ultimately it is a dream. Nothing then happens to you…but for you in order to continue the adventure.
I have covered how existence is not denied because it is an illusion. I have covered how it is not a putting down of the world…because illusions are great things. So all that is left to cover is “the world is important.” Someone might say, “if you know that ultimately it is a dream, it doesn’t matter.” Well, this is true…it doesn’t matter. But let’s say the dream seemed to last for a lifetime…you realize it is a dream early in life or midlife, so there are many dream years to come. What do you do with yourself?
I should remind you that the movie or VR game wasn’t real and that did not matter. So when you watched a movie and you cried for characters or called out “don’t open that door” – as if you could help them – why do this? It doesn’t matter. When the hero finally wins his fictitious final batter over evil…why do you cheer? It doesn’t matter. Or if you are playing a VR game…what does it matter if you make it to the next level or not?
This is the contradiction and confusion the mind/ego sees, because it wants things to matter. That is an egoic ploy to strengthen itself…I am doing things that matter, so therefore I matter. Nothing is more disheartening or dis-empowering to an ego than not mattering. It doesn’t matter, but it never had to matter.
This does not mean that we wouldn’t help others we see in trouble. This does not mean that if the environment (the world) is being damaged or destroyed that we wouldn’t try to help. You don’t have to do it because it matters…you can do it for the joy of it. People enjoy helping others…it is in the DNA programming. That is how we as a species have lasted this long. That is why if we see someone helping another (even if it was not real, like in a fictitious movie), we still feel good.
So it is very possible to realize this life is a dream/game and yet be fully engaged and connected in that dream/game. Not because it is important…not because it matters, but because it is for nice. For the joy of it. Because we feel good. Life becomes play this way. Play is done for its own sake…not for some grand purpose, to mean something, or otherwise gain something.
As a young boy, I played in the field and around a swing-set as I imagined I was rescuing a princess from an evil king. But why did I need to rescue the princess? Not because it was important. Not because it mattered. Because it was fun.