‘Maya‘ or illusion is one of the most commonly used words in Indian spirituality. Everything is an illusion, we are told again and again. And today, Quantum physicists agree, saying that everything that we perceive, including the separation between ourselves and other people and objects, is nothing but an illusion.
But, what does illusion really mean? Does it mean that if you are hungry, there is no point in eating, because food is an illusion? Or because YOU are an illusion? It took me a few months to start to understand that just because something is an illusion, does not mean that nothing exists in its place.
Illusion is not the existence of something, but its perception.
When you glance at the picture above, it looks as if a miniature Eiffel tower is standing on the paper. On taking a closer look, we realize that it is just really clever drawing. When we look at a table, we see a solid surface, separate from ourselves. On taking a closer, very microscopic view, we realize that everything is made of molecules and there isn’t really any separation, just a variation of density.
It’s All About Your Perception
Going deeper, we start to see that absolutely everything we know and believe is based on perceptions – and it is only the illusion that we perceive. For example, when someone comes and tells you that they just enjoyed a chocolate cake, you go back to the experience of eating chocolate cakes in your past, and feel happy for them. Now if you realize that they don’t like chocolate cake and are unhappy they had to eat it, you go back to another memory when you ate something you didn’t like, and imagine that they feel the same way.
In both cases, you imagine that what you felt in the past in a similar situation, is exactly what the other is feeling. And this is the biggest illusion we foster.
It’s Never the Same
I remember going to a science museum in Singapore as a teenager, and finding a bunch of tasting ‘papers’ in a bowl. When we licked the paper, some of us found it sweet, and some sour. We were utterly surprised to find that all the papers had the same taste. And yet, what we were experiencing was completely different.
When you fall and hurt your knee, when you eat an apple, when you get your heart broken, when you get a massage or place your foot on the earth, your experience is unique. Just like no two people can ever see the same rainbow, no two people can experience anything the same way.
Going Back to the Point of Reference
Absolutely everything we talk about, needs a point of reference. When you say ‘sweet’, you are referencing with sugar. When you say ‘anger’, you are referencing to what you feel in situations where people think you or someone should be angry. This is why behavior that might seem completely acceptable to you might be completely offensive to someone else – because you are using different points of reference.
One major pitfall in being bound by illusion is that we cannot relate to people who are experiencing something we have never ourselves experienced. Or when their perception varies greatly, like having a drastically different threshold of pain. This creates disruptions and problems in relationships. Also, forgetting that perceptions are limited to our current view of the situation can lead us to get lost in unnecessary and intense emotions.
A careful look back at our own lives will show us how our own realities have changed with our perception. Maybe you hated eating broccoli as a child, and now you love it, or maybe you thought your father was the most amazing guy on the planet, and now he’s just human. Opinions change with perception. And perceptions are variable, based on where you stand.
If we can just remind ourselves when we speak with others, that what they have or are experiencing has no relation to our own experiences, and that their experience is completely unique, it creates a great shift in relationships. We move from ‘I know what you are feeling’ to ‘I’ll never know how that feels for you, but you have my attention and/ or my support’.