How Art Thou Not Real?

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Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
— Albert Einstein

One of the principal teachings of Vedanta is to see that all objects are not real. This is not an easy concept to grasp, even for those who have been studying Vedanta for some time—not because of its seemingly outrageous claim, but because most everything we experience feels so real. “Real,” as used in Vedanta, means that which is present and never changes. A second definition of real is that which is not dependent on or made of parts. As you may soon realize, nothing fits that definition—that is, except for awareness. You might protest, “Space is always present, never changes and isn’t made of parts!” True, except that space relies on awareness. Without awareness, there is no space. Awareness is that which cannot be reduced any further. Everything resolves into awareness which is what Vedanta means when it says existence is non-dual. 

But we don’t need Vedanta to see that all objects are ephemeral, fleeting and without substance. In fact, basic high school science already shows us that nature isn’t what it appears to be. Imagine an empty football stadium with a single fly on the fifty-yard line and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how vacant atoms are. If we were to remove all the empty space within every atom, the planet would shrink to the size of a marble (a very dense and heavy one). 

Or take the feeling of solidity—when we push against a wall we aren’t in actual contact with anything solid. Instead, what you feel are electrons from the atoms in your fingers pressing against the electrons in the wall. The reason for the feeling of repulsion is because it takes energy to push two atoms close together and re-pattern their electron “dance”—which is more energy than your muscles can provide. When examined closely, objects are just clouds of tiny particles held together by electrical forces. What you are touching are just repulsive energy fields. So any feeling of solidity is just an illusion.

In many ways big and small, nature shows us that our mind is doing some amazing things to make our experience literally ‘come to life.’ Take light, for example. Light is just made up of invisible magnetic and electrical fields (more energy fields!). We know that neither magnetic or electrical fields have any visual properties and yet, somehow our neural circuitry creates colors and patterns out of them. It’s all just stimuli that our brain uses to produce an image in our mind so that what you see isn’t what you get. From this perspective, life may be seen as an elaborate stage constructed to work correlatively as a single unitary process with our senses, and science shows us that the mind is the linch pin that holds it all together. 

The mind acts like an undetected function in the background that constructs our apparent reality. The same life force that digests our food and circulates our blood, is the same life force that creates the world in consciousness. Like our bodily functions, the mind works so seamlessly to create our experience that we aren’t even aware it’s happening. Our error is that we take the world to be solid, unchanging and real. To reveal the truth, all we need do is see through the illusion of this constructed dreamscape. There is no ‘out there.’ It’s all proven to be just invisible energy fields stimulating our senses. It’s worth emphasizing, the world is an appearance built on algorithms operating in the mind. And we haven’t even gotten to what Vedanta has to say yet!

While Vedanta is sometimes described as a science, its objective isn’t to show how all God’s stuff works. For that you need physics, biology, chemistry and mathematics. Instead, Vedanta uses experience to empirically arrive at the principle that existence is non-dual—in other words, that all objects resolve into awareness. To make the point, Vedanta traditionally teaches about the location of objects, as well as about the three states of consciousness: wake, deep sleep, and dream states. 

The teaching on the location of objects works very similar to what science is already telling us. It begins with mysterious ‘stimuli’ or sensations which we’ll call a power, or maya. According to Vedanta, maya doesn’t exist “out there” because that would make existence dual instead of non-dual. Vedanta says maya occurs in awareness but isn’t a part of awareness. This is why maya is mysterious and just a tad bit baffling—it’s neither a part of awareness nor outside of it. These stimuli occur when we make contact with any of the five basic elements (space, air, fire, water, earth) via the sense instruments (eyes, ears, skin, tongue, nose). The sense instruments are simply data inputs that send data from the properties of an object to the internal sense organs (“internal” meaning within the mind, or subtle body). 

In spite of what we might believe, the data doesn’t come in registering as “table,” for example. The object is perceived by the internal sense organs as individual properties such as brown, hard, smooth, etc. No sense organ perceives an actual substance or object. For each property there is a corresponding sense organ so that, for example, the sense organ that correlates with the eyes only detects color and shape, and the sense organ that correlates with touch only perceives temperature and texture. The sense organs channel the aggregated information to the mind which then—without any effort on our part—traffics the incoming information and applies name and form, so that wet, cool and blue become “water,” and hot, yellow, and flickering become “fire.” If you follow the sequence, you’ll see that what we perceive as “fire” is just a thought and its location isn’t ‘out there’ but in the mind. We don’t live in an object universe, we live in a thought universe! We never have actual contact with any objects because everything is constructed in the mind. In short, all objects are just stimuli and our reality, mind-assembled.

Now, if this isn’t all obvious to you, don’t blame yourself. We’re hard-wired to see the world as ‘out there,’ not located in our mind. It’s as if we were all born with virtual reality players strapped to our heads and our parents forgot to take them off. We assume the VR program playing in front of our eyes is real because we don’t know any better. The appearance is so real, so life-like that it fools everyone. In short, that’s maya. Maya is what makes an unthinking person not realize that, for example, a pot is just clay or a shirt, just cotton. Maya is the power that both veils and projects thus, hiding the truth from us. Maya is like a desert mirage because although you may have the experience of seeing water on the horizon, it’s not something you can drink, let alone walk up to. So with Vedanta, we’re able to say that an object can both exist and not be real at the same time. And as basic science confirms, just because something appears to be one thing doesn’t mean it is so. 

What about when you’re sleeping and in the dream state? Vedanta says the dream is you. It’s like a movie that is simultaneously directed, produced, acted, filmed and watched by you. In the dream state you are both the subject and the object. You are the person, the house, the people, the weather, the trees…the whole creation! Where else would your dream come from? Which brings us to the question, how is a dream different from the world you experience when awake? A dream feels real while you’re in it, it’s only when you awaken that you realize that it was all just a dream. Just like you experience objects when awake, the dream-objects are just a thought located in your mind. There is no difference between the wake and dream states other than one is God’s dream, while the other is personal.

Vedanta makes several points to show that objects are not real (that which isn’t always present and changes). Objects are not real because:

1. They are temporary, fleeting, impermanent, uncertain, unstable, limited, and changing from one moment to the next. All objects have a beginning and an end.

2. They are dependent on other factors for their existence; they are made of parts. What constitutes a cat? If the cat loses a leg is it still a cat? What if it loses everything we assume makes a cat: legs, tail, whiskers, fur, ears, and fangs. Is it still a cat? How do you define the essence of a cat? All objects are just an aggregate of other objects, a temporary arrangement of parts governed by universal laws. 

3. They are divisible. Shirt > fabric > thread > cotton > fiber > cellulose > carbohydrate > molecules > atoms > electrons, protons and neutrons > quarks >…all the way to awareness. Awareness is the smallest derivative because without awareness, nothing exists.

4. They are only a play of inert and insentient elements. The Five Basic Elements as defined by Vedanta are space, air, fire, water, and earth.

5. They cannot be verified, because what you’re experiencing is actually only the properties of an object (color, shape, texture, smell, sound, taste) which belong to the senses and not the objects themselves.

6. They don’t exist in all states of consciousness. Where is the world when you’re in deep sleep? It is unknown, as are all objects.

So, now that we’ve defined why objects are not real, what are they? 

Objects are:

1. Gross and subtle forms. For example, thoughts, feelings and emotions are all considered subtle objects.

2. Inert, they are the basic elements as described previously.

3. Maya—That which makes the impossible, possible. Maya also refers to the Causal Body (the unmanifest seed form of all objects) as well as the gunas. The gunas are the essential constituents of all forms and include sattva (knowledge), rajas (energy) and tamas (matter).

4. Thoughts. As we learned from the teaching on the location of objects, all objects are just thoughts located in awareness. Vedanta asks, “How far are the objects from your mind?”

5. Name and form (nama-rupa)—A construct created by the mind, derived from properties the sense instruments detect and the sense organs perceive. When shown a piece of jewelry, we might say it’s a gold bracelet, but actually we should say it’s bracelet-y gold. This apparent reversal is the power of maya.

6. Mithya—Objects are superimposed over a substrate (awareness). The definition of mithya is “apparently real.” That which is mithya is as good as non-existent. To discriminate between mithya and satya (that which is real, a.k.a. awareness) is one of the main objectives for students of Vedanta. We like to say the world is like a dream because nothing lasts, nor is it what it appears to be—it’s mithya. 

7. Awareness. Ultimately, all objects resolve into awareness. The objects are me, but I am not the objects. What this seemingly cryptic phrase means is that all objects are constructed out of awareness, but they aren’t who I am. Who I am is awareness—the screen upon which all the objects appear. Vedanta says the existence of an object belongs to awareness, not to the object. Maya reverses the relationship between existence and an object so that, for example, a mountain appears to exist. But the truth isn’t that a mountain exists, but that existence “mountains.” Just like from clay a potter is able to shape an infinite variety of pots, cups, plates, etc, maya adds name and form to awareness to produce an infinite array of objects. Another way to look at is awareness being similar to water—it has no particular form, but it can assume any form.

At this point, you might be asking yourself the reason for wanting such object-related knowledge. What’s the usefulness of knowing the world isn’t real? In fact, it might feel a little unsettling that nothing here is actually real. If objects aren’t real then life is just a dream existence, right? 

Don’t despair, Vedanta isn’t nihilistic. While it sometimes has the unwelcome task of delivering the bad news, it isn’t trying to freak you out (After all, Vedanta’s end goal is to alleviate suffering, not cause more). Once we have the knowledge that objects aren’t real, we can begin to realize a few of things:

Happiness isn’t in the object. If objects aren’t real for all the reasons mentioned above, then they must not hold the happiness I believe them to have. That means the happiness I believe objects contain is really just me, awareness. 

I am that which is beyond all objects, including my body. Objects are as good as non-existent because they have no effect on me. If I am awareness, then ultimately, I have nothing to worry about because nothing can touch me. I am immutable.

Vedanta is different from other kinds of knowledge such as physics, chemistry or biology. With science the close examination of objects only reveals more ignorance (that there’s more to know), but self-knowledge is that when known, everything else becomes known. 

The knowledge of objects is an important step in seeing the world and consciousness as inseparable. As Vedanta teacher James Swartz tells us, “It also paints such a detailed picture of Isvara [God] that once the whole creation has been revealed, the ego will find it impossible to take credit for what it experiences.” 

In other words, it makes us humble.


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