“This is a table.”
Grappling with Nonduality and “the Illusion”
This place is a dream. Only a sleeper considers it real. Then death comes like dawn, and you wake up laughing at what you thought was your grief.
— Jalaluddin Rumi
Towards the end of a lovely family dinner, after hours of wine, funny stories and entertaining yet relatively trivial small-talk; my aunt, dad and I snuck off to pass around our dessert: a hurried bowl of cannabis, the great unifier of counterculture-era boomers and tree-hugging millennials. Predictably, the discussion took a significant turn from surface to substance. Bob III and I had a passionate yet respectful discussion about many of our standard topics of conversation… that night we were gabbing about yet another mystic parallel... how this line from Meister Eckhart sounds like Chuang Tzu or something like that.
After patiently listening to our seemingly-endless dialogue, my beloved aunt thoughtfully jumped in.
She said that as a fellow spiritual person she understands and appreciates the vast majority of what we’re talking about: the value in being inclusive to others, the underlying parallels across major faiths, the positive effects of meditation, etc.
“I get all that…
What I struggle with is ‘the illusion’,” she said.
She knocked on the table and declared, “This is a table.
Dad smiled at me and I smiled at them, realizing that it was now preposterously on me to attempt to explain in a few sentences the metaphysics behind nonduality. Fortunately in that moment, my expectations of my own capacity to explain away what is nearly unexplainable, were quite low.
Nonduality means “not two”: that everything we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is merely another appearance of the One.
Now we know thanks to modern science that we can only see a few hundred nanometers on the electromagnetic spectrum. We can’t hear ultra low-frequency sounds. We have machines confirming hard evidence of what the wisdom traditions have been getting across for millennia: that this plane of existence is not quite what it seems.
The ancient Hindus gave us this understanding in the Vedas, some of the oldest texts in our civilization. Rishis (seers) aligning with a higher consciousness at the top of the Himalayas called this world maya (illusion), explaining that this world is finite, and since only the Divine is Infinite, it is therefore the Only True Reality.
The Vedic definition of “real” differs a bit from the English translation. Within Indian philosophy, “Real” does not mean “perceptible to the senses”, but rather:
So the question contemplated by Advaitists (Indian nondualists) and mystics the world over really is: “Is this perceived world permanent, unchangeable and self-luminous?”
According to the sage of Arunachala, Sri Ramana Maharshi, that answer is a definitive “no”. The names and forms appear in Brahman (God), the underlying substratum of all material phenomena. So it’s not necessarily that this world is “unreal” but rather, that, as David Godman summarizes Sri Ramana:
When the world is known and directly experienced to be a mere appearance in the underlying Brahman, it can be accepted as real, since it is no longer perceived as a separate entity.
If one knows oneself to be Brahman, one knows that the world is real because it is indistinguishable from one’s own Self.
The Buddhists have some interesting conceptual overlap with Advaita. Unlike Hindus, they’re indifferent to the presence of God, but they similarly don’t give the world of form much solidity either.
Their sense of the “illusion”, or maya, is based on our tendency to misperceive, including our misperceptions of time. Buddhism considers this world transitory, allowing us to be less attached or dependent on externalities. A Buddhist monk might respond to my aunt in the following way:
This is a table, as we’re looking at it tonight. But if you step back far enough, it was a tree before that, and someday it will likely be scraps in a wood pile. It could be burned for a fire, and then it will be ash.
This world is constantly changing forms so don’t be fooled by what it seems to be at this moment.
One unfortunate aspect of nondual talk is that it can be perceived as being dismissive or cold to the problems affecting this world.
This is a common misconception I hear often: If it’s all illusory then why should we bother doing anything? There are people suffering the world over who need help, and we need to help them!
Damn right we do. Illusion or otherwise.
The late Ram Dass spent his life harmonizing Eastern spiritual philosophies with passionate social action.
He talked about how accessing a place of Oneness can generate empathy and consequently radical compassion to address suffering. His humanitarian work took him to helping cure blindness in Nepal, supporting refugees in Guatemala, and teaching prisoners meditation in San Quentin.
I was in Guatemala and one of the women, widows whose husbands had been murdered before their eyes, one of these women said to me through a translator, ‘Thank you so much for leaving your home and family to come and help us.’
And I said ‘I didn’t. You’re my home and family.’ Who’s leaving what?
And I felt that, the truth of that at that moment.
Because she was defining it as though she was Them, but I didn’t see her as Them, she was Us.
— Ram Dass
All of this would’ve been a better explanation for my dear auntie. But what I said that night was that while acknowledging its conceptual difficulties, the best analogy for the world as we know it, is a dream.
When you’re really in a dream, it feels like you’re really in that environment.
I waited tables in college and after you work a few double-shifts in a row, when your mind is thoroughly consumed by the job, it’s pretty common to have a “wait-mare”. They are dreams where you are the only waiter in the restaurant: it’s a packed house with every table trying to get your attention, livid customers are yelling at you, some are walking out cursing the whole establishment. You write down orders furiously but you can’t read them back (because it’s a dream) but you try to anyway, then you go to the computer to put in all the orders that you can’t read. Their collective anger rises to a crescendo, ultimately waking you up... opening your eyes, exhausted, from working all throughout your dream. Then you head into work for the morning shift.
The world, like a dream full of attachments and aversions seems real until the awakening.
— Adi Shankara
Most dreams are frustrating because you want to get to a certain place, or tell a certain person something, and you can’t. You are captivated by its dream figures, you are bound by its imaginary rules.
Then you wake up. And realize.
Well, according to the mystics you woke up back into another dream.
This table is just an image in this one.