"Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?" You may recognize this quote from Westworld: It's a question posed to android hosts in an amusement park, where the line between what’s real and what isn’t, is beyond blurred.
Though this out-there scenario is TV science fiction, the question might not be so irrelevant for us modern humans. Appearances and impressions are of ever-increasing importance in a world influenced by images and internet; and yet many of us know, deep-down, to query the biases of media, business and politics.
Illusion is well and truly all around us; things are not always as they appear to be. But how can we ever really determine what is real? Hindu philosophy provides an interesting perspective, citing worldly illusions (maya) as the obstacle to knowing absolute, supreme reality (Brahman). Here I will explore these concepts, explaining how yoga can be used as a tool to lift the veil of reality.
Brahman: Omnipresent Yet Elusive
Brahman is a central concept in the Upanishads (ancient scriptures that make up the doctrine of Vedanta philosophy). In Sanskrit, Brahman is defined as satyam jnanam anantam brahma, which may be translated as “that which never changes,” “knowledge,” and “infinity.” It is undoubtedly an elusive notion to get to grips with, but perhaps the most succinct characterization comes direct from the scriptures themselves: “All this is indeed Brahman.” It is the omnipresent source of all that exists and is present in everything; every person, every molecule, every atom.
Advaita Vedanta teaches that Brahman is the only true reality. The essence of all that can be experienced and yet it remains unseen, Brahman is the thing that binds everything in this universe together as one. When thought of as an all-pervading, absolute existence, Brahman seems to reflect what many religious and spiritual traditions think of as God. But the Upanishads declare that Brahman appears to us in a multitude of godlike names and forms only because of our ignorance. Like a coiled up rope in the dark appears as a snake, Brahman looks to us like a god because we superimpose human perceptions and ideas upon it.
(More on the concept of Brahman in Atman Is Brahman: The Meaning and Philosophy Behind This Essential Yogic Saying.)
Maya: Ignorance and Illusion
As long as Brahman is understood from a dualistic and separative standpoint, we are said to be dwelling in ignorance. This is known as maya, which is another pillar of Vedanta philosophy. Although maya is born from Brahman (along with everything else in the universe), the two are juxtaposed as opposites: Brahman the ultimate reality, maya an illusory non-reality. Mind-boggling? Absolutely. Put simply, maya is best understood as the apparent reality of our material world, the world as we perceive it through our five senses. It is not an illusion because these things don’t physically exist, but rather that they are not what they appear or are perceived to be.
Our human minds project names and forms onto everything; from tangible objects to abstract feelings, roles and relationships. Whilst this process enables us to order the material aspects of our lives and communicate effectively with one another, problems stem from our inability to recognize that these names and forms are not real. We are more than jumbled minds and physical bodies walking around on the earth, yet the veiling power of maya leads us to believe that all there is to life is what’s directly in front of us. In another sense, maya represents the culmination of beliefs and roles that an individual holds to be true about themselves, whether political, religious, economic or social. These ideas are not real, rather merely objects of perception that create a false sense of reality.
(When you see past maya, you realize You Are a Spiritual Being.)
Probing Beyond Appearances
Everything we experience and consider to exist is, thus, only real in a limited sense, from a limited perspective. We rely on our senses to interpret the world around us, and yet they have a restricted ability to discern truth. We end up with a distorted, surface glimpse of something far greater than we can possibly interpret using just our eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin. The sky has no color, and yet our eyes declare it blue. Your chair is made up of particles in constant motion, yet to you it feels solid. The greatest scientific discoveries occurred only by probing beyond appearances to discover what lies beyond, and even science is continually re-writing that which it thought to be true.
We encounter such illusions every single day, but they go largely unacknowledged or ignored. Maya is found all around us, especially in the "reality-checks" of our daily lives. Have you ever got to know a person to find out later that they are not who you thought they were? Ever worked up jealousy over someone’s natural beauty only to realize they were painted in makeup? What about that snack labeled nutritious or fat-free — did you check the ingredients? We frequently discover that things are not what we thought or expected them to be, and yet most of us continue to unequivocally accept everything in our material world as a reality.
Remembering Reality Through Yoga
Although maya may sound like a negative and destructive force, the issue is not with maya itself; rather, it is our identification with the illusions around us that cause pain and suffering. When we identify ourselves with the body, mind and ego, we superficially misperceive reality. We suffer anger, misery and unfulfilled desires; we fear disease, old age and death. Yet none of this affects our true, innate nature hidden beneath. Yoga is a tool to help us to remember this reality. Through practices like asana, pranayama, mantra and meditation, we can momentarily move beyond maya and recognize the divine nature both within and in everything around us.
Meditation is particularly effective as a means of unveiling maya and re-writing our equation with the universe. With enough practice, it is possible to shut out external illusions and reach an experience or understanding of Brahman. When the mind and senses are withdrawn, the ego eventually dissolves. This causes a paradigm shift in worldview and awareness, commonly referred to as a spiritual awakening. No matter how fleeting our glimpses of Brahman may be, lifting the veil on reality in this way serves as a reminder that what we believed to be sources of happiness and fulfillment are often, in fact, causes of suffering and imbalance.
Question the Nature of Your Reality
Why does it matter what is real or not? Isn’t reality subjective anyway? I urge you to question the nature of your own reality. I doubt you will discover that you are an android trapped in an amusement park, but you may well be surprised by what you find. Just as it is ignorant to be satisfied by a shallow judgment of another person, it is a crying shame to be content with a surface view of life. The result of blindly accepting appearances as real is that we take things for granted, we stop seeing the divine, interconnected nature of everything around us. The universe is vast, messy and tangled, and there are a great many mysteries we may never uncover. But beneath it all, we are interlinked by a pure and simple reality. By moving through maya and remembering Brahman, we can recognize that there is life beyond material illusions of name and form, life beyond ego and suffering.
(Continue reading for more philosophy on the Roots of Suffering.)