Mystics talk at length about the illusory nature of this world and our existence in it. They use a variety of graphic words to describe it: dream, falsehood, shadow, sham, illusion, unreality, mirage. What do they mean when they describe our life and our world this way? Isn’t my body real? My house? My wife and children? Mountains and oceans?
Let’s look at the many ways in which the mystics tell us that everything we see, touch, and value so highly is, from their perspective, illusory.
The world is illusory because it’s impermanent
Someone once asked Hazur Maharaj Charan Singh:
Q: We are told that this whole business is a dream. Would you comment on that; what you mean by that?
Master: Well, it is a dream in the sense that there’s no reality in this body – and so the dream consists of 50, 60, 70, 80 years. Where are our forefathers, where are they now? Haven’t they quit the stage? It was just like a dream; they came and went away. They don’t exist anymore; they don’t exist permanently. Anything which doesn’t exist permanently is just like a dream.1
That was always Hazur’s primary way of defining what made this body and our existence like a dream – that it was impermanent. He would say that, in contrast, reality or truth was permanent and unchanging. So this world and our life in it were obviously not real, because they’re so short-lived and changeable.
Our past relationships, the role which we played in the last life as a husband, as a wife, as a child, as a friend, isn’t that a dream to us? Where are they? We’ve forgotten everyone. It was just like a dream. So this will also become a dream after we leave this body. There’s no reality. Saints say there’s no reality to that which you are attaching so much importance. A real thing always exists – it doesn’t perish, it is stable.
Then he said: “We’re all in a dreamland. We have to be awakened from this dream and find the reality, and when you are with the reality then you will know that you have got to get up from this dream – not before that.”
What does he mean by “when you are with the reality”? Perhaps he means in the Master’s presence, where the influence of the Guru changes our perception enough so that we can see this world more clearly? Or when we are able, in our meditation, to bring the attention higher and begin to escape from the world of duality? He says we only really understand that we have to awaken from the dream when we’ve at least temporarily escaped its influence.
Finally he concluded: “Mystics want to explain to us not to give so much importance to all these things because they’re not going to last. They’re going to leave you.”
The ego’s belief in its separate existence is an illusion
Another key source of the illusion we live in is the essential error in how we see ourselves. At the deepest level, each of us thinks, “I am me and I am separate from everyone else and separate from God.” That is the ego speaking, a part of our mind that is responsible for creating an imaginary barrier between our soul and the Father.
Guru Nanak Sahib describes, from a very high perspective – one that is outside time and above this physical plane – how we cycle through life after life, caught in the delusion created by the ego. That delusion or illusion, though not real, still has the effect of binding us to this world. He said:
Each one from ego takes his birth,
And clad in ego dies;
And comes and goes,
Gives and receives, and earns and spends,
And deals in lies or speaks the truth,
In ego all the while. 2
“In ego all the while”: Everything, everything we do, he says, is tainted by ego, that sense of being a separate self. But despite this powerful illusion and its repercussions, “we are in fact not separate from the Lord and never have been. But our mind and ego convince us that we are, and we have to escape that illusion before we can surrender our being into His.” 3
Maya draws its power from our unfulfilled longing for the Lord
For reasons we cannot understand, the Lord sent us out from his kingdom ages ago, into this strange existence we find ourselves in. We were given bodies and minds, and the ego developed. But underneath all those coverings, we have always carried deeply embedded memories of him. The mystics tell us that every desire, every need we feel is an expression of our native hunger for God, that yearning to end our separation and return to him. But our mind corrupts that pure longing and tries to satisfy it with impermanent and petty things.
Hazrat Inayat Khan says:
[A man’s] mind, his reason, always puts forward some other cause for his unhappiness rather than the real one, in order that he may be kept in illusion all his life, in order that all his life he should run after things which are not the real aim of his soul….And if the whole universe were given to him, his heart would not be satisfied, because the demand of his soul still has not been understood.3
And according to Idries Shah:
People, Rumi teaches, do not really know what they want. Their inner yearning is expressed in a hundred desires, which they think are their needs. These are not their real desires, as experience shows. For when these objectives are attained, the yearning is not stilled.4
So maya, in a sense, perverts our natural yearning for the Lord into lust, greed, gluttony and whatnot. The desires of the mind are all based on a false premise – that if we satisfy them, the craving will stop. But of course the mind is never satisfied, because it doesn’t get what it really misses. And the desires are almost irresistible. A disciple needs to beware of them his or her whole life.
The body is illusory
Let’s look next at another seemingly solid pillar of reality – our body. The mystics see it as utterly ephemeral, nothing but a dream, and they encourage us to realize how short-lived it is and to prepare for its end.
The mystic-poet Eknath says, “Your body is the shadow of a cloud, the water of a mirage – passing, unreal.”5 And then:
The body goes in a moment,
but we don’t believe it.
A ripple on water – this is the world.
A mirage of water is not water,
the shadow of a cloud gives no rain.
A statue of salt dissolves in water –
this body is dying while you look at it,
And yet we don’t believe we’re going to die. There’s a story about a minister who began a sermon on death by saying, “Everyone in this congregation is going to die.” As he scanned the audience to see the effect of his words, he noticed a man in the front with a big smile on his face. He asked the man, “Why are you smiling, given what I’ve just said?” The man replied, “I’m not from this congregation!”
We use any excuse to fool ourselves!
Saints see the entire arc of a body’s existence, from embryo to corpse, as the briefest flash. They also see the whole range of our past incarnations, all the many bodies we have inhabited. So how can they take this particular body seriously? They warn us to look higher and not get caught in the body’s dream.
Although the body is a dream, it is a magical gift
Although the physical body can indeed be a trap and is an illusion, it also carries within it the secrets and power of the Shabd, the divine energy that permeates the universe, which transcends all illusion and is the ultimate truth, the ultimate reality. In a way, the body is a sort of Trojan horse. Kal, the negative power, created this creation so cunningly that every aspect of a human being is surrounded by maya, so the poor human is trapped. But the Lord hid himself within the human body in the form of Shabd, and is there to sustain the soul and, when a Master appears, awaken the soul and help it escape.
Hazur once said, “Sister, it is better to treat this whole life just as a dream and during the dream try to find out the reality which is within every one of us.”7
So during the dream, we need to discover the ultimate reality inside ourselves. The saint Bahinabai says:
Only within this dream of a body
can you awaken to Truth and rest in the One.…
If you walk the way of a teacher of Truth,
you’ll reach the Real through the unreal.8
She’s saying that to reach the real (the Shabd, the Lord) we have to use the unreal (this body), and, of course, we have to have a Master. And the Master contains that same dichotomy – his Shabd form is real, but his physical form is unreal, is maya, as he has been saying. So again, we reach the real through the unreal.
Another mystic speaks on the enormous value of this strange lump of flesh we inhabit:
What a treasure has been placed in your hand!
Unlucky souls turn this treasure to dust –
this body that holds the essence of all goodness,
this body that holds a library of scriptures,
this body that breathes true holiness into holy places.
Kanhoba says, Nothing can compare
with being born human.9
So in this amazing device, this pot of filth and temple of divine love, we have to find the real while immersed in the unreal.
Are we wake or asleep?
A story goes like this:
A disciple met with his Master to discuss the nature of liberation and to ask about the position adopted by those who attain it. The disciple asked: “Master, how is it possible that a liberated human being can remain at peace when faced with the tragedies suffered by humanity?” The Master said, “Imagine you are sleeping and that you dream that you are in a boat with a lot of other passengers. Suddenly the boat hits a rock and starts to sink. In your distress, you wake up. Would you go back to sleep in order to warn the other passengers that the boat is sinking?10
Now, this is not to say that masters aren’t compassionate. They are supremely tender-hearted and feel for the suffering that beings undergo in this world. But they have a higher perspective, which helps to answer the common question, “How could a loving God create a world that contains so much suffering?” They say that human beings are, in effect, dreaming their existence and their suffering. As Baba Ji has told us, only the Shabd is real; everything else is illusion.
Mystics say that the problem isn’t with the creation, but with our perception of it. Hazur once said that the creation looks perfect to the perfect one. The bottom line is that the masters are trying to wake us up from the dream so we can share their higher perception.
Science’s argument against the illusion of this physical world
Let’s consider our situation from the perspective of a modern physicist. It turns out that physicists also argue that we are living in an illusion.
They say that each of us is made up of about 50 trillion cells. Each of those cells contains 20 trillion atoms. Each atom, when looked at closely, consists of a lot of sub-atomic particles, but each sub-atomic particle, if looked at closely, consists of nothing but energy. So, we are in effect, nothing but energy. What we see when we look at ourselves or at another person or object is just an energy field, an illusion of solidity that is in fact almost entirely empty space, with just a certain amount of energy creating the illusion of substance. 11
For example, if you expanded an atom to the space taken up by a football stadium, the nucleus would be the size of a marble sitting in the middle of the field, and the much smaller electrons would be whizzing around at the outer reaches of the stadium. Everything else would be just empty space. Not much there! But very convincing to our senses.
Hazur Maharaj Ji once had the following interchange with a disciple:
Q: Is this world really here or is it a dream world?
Master: This world is perishable. You will not be able to stay with this world forever. This world is perishable.
Q: Does it really exist?
Master: It exists in a manner of speaking. When you are in a dream, everything looks real to you. When you wake up from a dream, then only you realize that there was actually no reality at all. It was just a dream. While being in this world, we think it is absolutely real. When we leave this world, then we know it was just a dream.
Q: Are we in the world or aren’t we?
Master: At this time we are dreaming! When we wake up from this dream, then we will know that this world is perishable. 12
So that’s a good transition from talking about all the different forms of illusion to asking why it matters and what we do about it.
Why do the mystics emphasize the illusory nature of this world, this body, this life? Essentially, they are trying to wake us up, to shake us out of this trance induced by maya, in which we’re completely seduced by the world – its pleasures; its promises of wealth, power, and fame; and its horrors, which fascinate us so intensely that we can’t take our eyes off them. The saints keep telling us not to get sucked into the show of this world: it’s only a very compelling reality show, but it’s not Reality. Turn your attention, they say, away from the reality show to not Reality. That’s why Baba Ji has told us to be serious about our meditation but not take life too seriously.
But we don’t want to wake up; we’re absolutely glued to the screen of life and can’t tear our attention away. And we’re so dead asleep that we don’t even realize it most of the time.
Fortunately, our master is not content to let us sleep. He will wake us up. And that’s the single most important lesson from this discussion – that we will never wake up from the dream, we will never see through these myriad layers of illusion, without the assistance of a living master, someone who is awake, someone who exists outside the fog of illusion.
In her book The Case for God, Karen Armstrong, a writer and former Roman Catholic nun, retold this famous story:
One day a Brahmin priest came across the Buddha sitting in contemplation under a tree and was astonished by his serenity, stillness, and self-discipline. “Are you a god, sir?” the priest asked. “Are you an angel … or a spirit?” No, the Buddha replied. He explained that he had simply revealed a new potential in human nature. It was possible to live in this world of conflict and pain at peace and in harmony with one’s fellow creatures. “Remember me,” the Buddha told the curious priest, “as one who is awake.” 13
So our master is constantly shaking us in various ways, to try to get us to open our eyes and wake up from this dream, this illusion. And he urges us, prods us, tries desperately to persuade us to do our meditation with all the intensity, love, and commitment that we can muster, as that’s the only path to awakening to Reality.
And what is that Reality? The Shabd or divine power or Name. The Shabd or Name is God in action, and it takes physical form as our master. The Shabd or Name is the power that will save us from this world.
As the mystic Narhari taught:
A painter strokes his brush on a wall –
this is the world, nothing real here.
Children build houses of sand,
then knock them down and go home.
Everyone does their work here –
they love it as their own so they take it to be true.
If you really want to achieve something real,
just repeat the Name, says Narhari, and stay close to the mystics.14
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. I, #39
- Quoted in Divine Light, 7th ed., p.32-33
- RS Greetings, Autumn 2001, p.9
- Idries Shah, The Sufis, p.140
- Many Voices, One Song, p.260
- Ibid., p.208
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Tape of 2 December, 1988, Question 10
- Many Voices, One Song, p.147
- Ibid., p.143
- Quoted in Spiritual Link, March 2009, pp.24-25; from 101 Cuentos Clasicos de la India, comp. Ramiro Calle,
- Much of this was drawn from a 2011 TED talk by Jeff Lieberman on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0--_R6xThs
- Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. I, #18
- Karen Armstrong, The Case for God, p.330
- Many Voices, One Song, p.166