“The world is an illusion” is a statement that gets tossed about in some quarters. It is my intention in this essay to share my understanding of the statement. An illusion is defined as “something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of reality.” Most people that I have talked to about the title statement take “illusion” to be equivalent to “mirage.” A mirage has no substance, function or meaning. There is a big difference between a distortion of or misleading impression of something and its total absence. I would include in the idea of illusion the revealing of an aspect or part of something rather than the whole. To take a simple example, think about what your impression might be if your first experience with a dog was only the tail. Your impression would surely result in a false or misleading perception of the actual nature of a dog. The word “world” in the title statement is probably better represented by the phrase, “your experience of and beliefs about reality.” Thus, we might translate the statement to read, “Your experience of reality provides a misleading impression,” while recognizing that “experience” begins as a perceptual phenomenon. This does not mean it has no substance, function or meaning. If someone uttering the title statement or someone hearing the title statement understands “illusion” as meaning “mirage,” I think the meaning of the statement is misunderstood. I think the original intent was to suggest that our perceived reality might seem to be true and correct but is in fact false or misleading. Hereafter, the word “illusion” is used to simply mean a distortion in our perception that results in a false or misleading impression of reality.
It is also likely that what you perceive is largely a cognitive construction. Neuroscientist Don DeGracia has pointed out that vision research shows that the visual cortex receives more input from the brain itself than from sensory input through the eyes. The eyes in turn are said to only take in about a fifth of the available sensory data. This appears to support the idea that we actually construct what we see. Persons who have been blind from birth and that medical science provides with an intact vision system still have to learn to see images that you take for granted. Some actually find the experience so confusing that they say they would prefer to be blind and wear dark glasses to block stimulus input. I will end this introduction with a quote from Albert Einstein that you might ponder, “Reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one.”
In the following, I will discuss the translated title statement relative to four perspectives,where the fourth is the likely source of the title statement.
The first perspective is biological. I will briefly describe here a way of looking at perception from an evolutionary perspective. There is only one person that I am familiar with who has developed and conducted research on this evolutionary perspective. If you’re interested in the details, I recommend you read Donald Hoffman’s book, The Case Against Reality.
The research done by Hoffman and the resulting scientific theory views what we perceive as “fitness icons.” Hoffman’s research and theory suggests that evolution has shaped our perceptions to be finely tuned to those aspects of the world that have fitness implications for us as biological organisms. Fitness refers directly or indirectly to things important for survival and reproduction. One way to look at this is that anything we perceive, including our body, is an “object” in a field of energies (note, what we call matter is just concentrations of energy) that go well beyond what we can sense. Evolution has shaped our sensory organs to only recognize those characteristics of the energy field that have fitness implications for humans. Further, what we perceive in a fitness icon is a representation of its critical features for us presented in a form that is most meaningful to us. There are many aspects of our environment that don’t have fitness implications for us and to which we are essentially blind. The limited amount that we do perceive seems to us to be reality. The belief that we see reality as it is, is an illusion. It is only a particular take on a segment of the sensory field. Your personal perception of reality is not reality as it is. It just seems that way.
The second perspective is psychological. Almost all normal people have what might be called a personality, self-concept or ego with which they identify. Whatever you wish to call it, this is what most people think they are. Bill, for example, has a lot of characteristics that he would ascribe to himself, such as hardworking, fair–minded, charitable, shy, a poor public speaker, apolitical, good with animals, a victim of an abusive father, and so on. All of these things and more are woven into a personal narrative, and this narrative is based in large part on memories of past experience. This narrative gives Bill a road map that tells him where he fits in. It also provides a ready explanation for things that he thinks, feels or does. It shapes his life by determining what he believes he can and can’t do, what he expects from life and how he goes about being in the world.
The thing about personal narratives is that they are to a great extent a fiction. To begin with, the narrative is comprised of selected memories from the pool of all the memories available. These selected memories, like all memories, are subject to editing and revision. Research shows that memories are not stable though we like to think they are. Memories change over time in both subtle and dramatic ways. Even two or more people having a similar experience will create different memories of it. This is often apparent in conversations with siblings about experiences shared in the home while growing up. In the course of weaving the memories into a narrative some license is taken in order to create a cohesive story, which is believed without question. The narrative seems like who you are but it is just a psychological construct that is mentally active whenever you aren’t focused on a task. You frequently review, update, edit and reinforce this narrative to the exclusion of many other possible variations on the narrative. The psychological construct posing as you is a constructed fiction, which does have elements of truth in it. I would say it can also be thought of as an illusion because it is a distortion of your complete body of perceived experience. Usually, those experiences that have a strong emotional component are the ones selected to weave a story around. Your construed personal reality is who you believe you are. It seems like it is your true “self,” but it is an illusion in the sense that it is to some degree a distortion of your fully lived experience. I have discussed this further in a post (among others) titled The Natural Mind on my website and in Chapter Four of my ebook, Self-Agency and Beyond.
The third perspective is cultural. This is a much larger narrative than your personal narrative but a narrative nonetheless. Every culture and sub-culture has a story that explains to members who they are, what they should believe and how they should act. This narrative is embedded in history, literature, media, myths (e.g., self-reliant individualism) and other means of conveying and reinforcing the story. Cultural narratives often overlap a nation so we can, for example, talk about the American culture or the American story — albeit with sub-plots. In some cases, the culture is broader than a nation and may, for example, be tied to an ethnic group (e.g., the Kurds) spread across several countries. What seems to be true to you is but one of many stories that could be woven about your culture by making different assumptions and emphasizing different events, different people and different interpretations. In fact, for anyone who takes the trouble, it is often much easier to see the revisions, editing and modifications of a cultural narrative across historical time than to see it in one’s personal narrative. This first became apparent to me when, as an undergraduate, I took a three-term course in constitutional law. I completed this course seeing the U.S. Constitution as providing a foundation more like shifting sand than a rock solid foundation. Identification with a cultural narrative is belief in just one of many potential constructions. While it may seem to you to be correct and true, it is an illusion in the sense that it is a distortion of the total cultural experience. If you would like to explore this dimension in greater detail, I recommend Jeremy Lent’s book, The Patterning Instinct and an analysis based in neuroscience by Iain McGilchrist titled, The Master and His Emissary:The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. It is also not hard to find explications of alternate stories about cultures, especially from groups diminished by the prevailing story.
To summarize the first three perspectives, you have biologically imposed limitations and restrictions on what aspects of reality that you can perceive and how you construe them. You create a fictive-self as a tool for negotiating your way through life and explaining your thoughts, emotions and actions. You adopt a belief in a constructed cultural narrative in which to embed your personal narrative and try to sync the two to work together. All of these, in their own way, distort the deeper reality from which they are extracted. In short, relative to the deeper reality they are illusions. In most cases useful and also true in a superficial sense.
The fourth perspective is the really deep dive in this essay. There are a number of labels that might be used for the fourth perspective. I will call it the spiritual perspective, because that is a term commonly used these days for some of the things that will be discussed. This is a perspective recognized by many traditions, including Christian, Buddhist, Moslem and the Vedantic and Tantrik traditions in India.
When talking about religious and theistic philosophical systems, it can be said that they often have two faces. The exoteric face, which is the public face and is most visible through its churches, temples and so forth and by its practices, ceremonies and rituals. The exoteric face is most often associated with systems of belief. Then there is the esoteric face, which may be associated with monasteries, ashrams, and even ascetics and hermits. The esoteric face is most often associated with systems of practice (see the Introduction and Part II of my ebook Self-Agency and Beyond) and personal experience of gnosis (intuitive knowledge of spiritual truth). The esoteric is a side of Christianity that has largely been absent for some time, but is currently seeing something of a revival. This segment will draw on the esoteric face and the teachings of individuals referred to as sages, awakened, realized and enlightened among other labels. The presentation will be somewhat generic rather than tradition specific.
The view from this perspective asserts, on the basis of phenomenological knowing or gnosis, that the material cosmos, including all life forms, are epiphenomena that arise from a universal primordial awareness/consciousness that has no beginning nor end. I make a distinction between awareness and consciousness in the Introduction to my eBook Self-Agency and Beyond but will hereafter stay with the term consciousness. This primordial consciousness contains the material cosmos but is not limited to the material cosmos. In another essay, I describe the cosmos as like a cosmic egg, characterized by locality*, floating in a sea of primordial consciousness (characterized by non-locality*). A sea of consciousness that is inherently intelligent, creative, inquisitive and unconditionally accepting of its own being and everything that arises from it, This type of conception can be found in either a theistic version called panentheism (see Part III of my eBook SelfAgency and Beyond or one of several essays such as this one) or a philosophical version called monistic idealism (see the works of Bernardo Kastrup and in particular The Idea of the World, which is for most readers not the book of his to begin with. I suggest starting with A Rationalist Spirituality). You can find a list of most of Kastrup’s books along with an audio interview about each book on a page on my website.
This view further asserts that particularized consciousness in each biological organisms is simply a contracted kernel of primordial consciousness that in its particularized form is unaware of its roots in primordial consciousness. The material cosmos was “imagined” into being by primordial consciousness to serve as a basis for the evolution of life. Life serves as the vehicle for kernels of particularized consciousness and in a self-conscious life form that might be called personal consciousness. The purpose of particularized consciousness is to provide primordial consciousness with the opportunity to explore its own infinite potential through experience. Experience arises out of the tension that is created through complimentary pairs, such as, satiety and hunger, hot and cold, life and death, love and hate, good and evil, male and female, health and disease, and so on. Once set in motion, this system is independent and autonomous, allowing full expression of whatever it generates.
This is a complex perspective with many variations that all point to much the same conclusions. The paragraphs above hardly do justice to the perspective but that was not their intent. If you want to explore the fourth perspective further there are a number of reference links above. You might also read Part I of Tantra Illuminated by Christopher Wallis for the philosophical foundation for the yoga tradition based in Tantra. You can also find additional essays on my website by employing the search engine or looking at the titles page. Finally, you might get some idea of this from the poem Conundrum that I recently wrote and that can be found on this page.
Many persons who have realized their true nature as vehicles for primordial consciousness and have opened to consciously embodying primordial consciousness have made statements such as the title statement for this essay. Their intent seems to be to convey that there is a deeper reality beneath what seems to be reality to most humans. From their perspective, what most of humanity calls reality is in fact closer to a lucid dream in primordial consciousness. This does not make it any less real or meaningful to participants in the “dream” but what the “dreamers” perceive as reality is a false or misleading perception of the deeper reality underlying it and therefore can be called an illusion. A similar statement that is associated with this perspective is that “There Is No Doer” about which I have also written an essay titled Are We Merely Divine Puppets?.
* locality and non-locality are physics terms that essentially mean within space/time and beyond space/time respectively.
Welcome to another edition of Night Owl, where people with unusual perspectives on life get a chance to be heard. This interview is with Teresa Gentry, a phenomenological psychologist who uses introspection to study issues of interest. The following is a transcript of the live interview done with Teresa over Zoom. For brevity, I’ll simply use initials to indicate who is speaking. Subscribers can watch the video of the interview on the Night Owl web site. Let’s dive in.
NO: For openers why don’t you tell us briefly what a phenomenological psychologist is and what introspective methods are.
TG: A phenomenological psychologist studies one subject — herself or himself. Introspection attempts to observe the thoughts arising in the mind and to allow a free association among those thoughts without attaching one’s thinking mind to any of them.
NO: That doesn’t sound like a very scientific approach. It certainly isn’t objective.
TG: No. It isn’t objective. It is clearly subjective, which is the nature of phenomenological research. No one is truly objective. Researchers who claim to be objective are deluding themselves. We inhabit a holistic universe. How can a researcher stand aside from the whole and conceptually isolate an aspect of the whole as an object for study and not bring anything phenomenological to the investigation? It isn’t possible. There are methods that can be employed to minimize phenomenological confounding, but they can’t be eliminated. The phenomenological self decides on what questions to ask, what methods to use to obtain an answer to a questions and what the answer means. The mere act of studying an objectified aspect of the whole has the potential to significantly impact the study.
NO: How can you learn anything generalizable to others by simply studying yourself?
TG: It is pretty simple. What you do is observe thought patterns until the more personal ones fade and deeper patterns begin to emerge. Through an evolving process of extinguishing personal patterns one begins to reveal core patterns.
NO: And what is a core pattern?
TG: A core pattern is similar to what Jung called an archetype. It is somewhat like a template that is shared by all people or subgroups within a larger population. Personal patterns are permutations or individualized elaborations of core patterns that adapt the template to an individual. At the core level, common patterns are revealed that are generalizable beyond the research subject, that is, me.
NO: Is there a methodology to introspection or is it a personal talent?
TG: Certainly, some untrained people will be better at it than others. However, there are a variety of protocols that are taught that facilitate the introspective method. These begin with contemplative and meditative practices, use of autosuggestion, conditions of sensory deprivation and psychoactive substances, to name a few.
NO: Do you have a specialized focus for your studies?
TG: Yes. To return to Jungian terminology, I currently focus on the anima.
NO: Please define anima for our viewers.
TG: Anima, in depth psychology, is related to the female archetype or the core patterns related to being female.
NO: Please tell us something of what your studies have revealed to you.
TG: As a female researcher my goal was to uncover core patterns unique to females.
NO: Did you find any core patterns and, if so, what was their nature?
TG: Yes. First and foremost was the core physical pattern. This pattern is one that begins to be understood at an early age. Even as a child, a female recognizes that she has a body designed for a specific and complex biological function. She may not fully understand this pattern yet but she is aware of it.
NO: Are there any other core physical patterns?
TG: Size and strength are observed by female children to be attenuated in adult females relative to most adult males. Later in development this is personally experienced with male peers. Thus, a female child comes to see females as physically smaller and weaker than most males.
NO: Rather obvious to adults, but I can see where it might be a significant understanding when it first arises in a child.
TG: Yes. This is recognized as a defining characteristic of the species. This core physical pattern is compounded by recognition of a core temperament pattern. In general, the temperament behind actions executed through the core physical pattern is more assertive or aggressive when articulating male behavior relative to female behavior. In short, the female child recognizes that she will probably be physically smaller and weaker and that her physicality is less energized by temperament.
NO: Yes. I can see where the first realization of these core patterns could have a psychological impact for both female and male children. What follows on this realization?
TG: The earliest stage of social development rests upon a perception of “like me” or “not like me.” This usually leads to differentiation into male and female peer groups and the development of different peer cultures reflecting differences in physicality and temperament. These groups tend to stereotype one another while viewing themselves to be diverse and complex. This tendency is reinforced and elaborated by the family and society into several layers of secondary patterns. The two groups move through childhood on different tracks with minimal cross-over or overlap.
NO: I have observed exactly what you’re describing. I have also observed a significant weakening of this division later on.
TG: Specifically, one sees the division broken down to some degree by the onset of puberty. The introduction of sex hormones into the relatively stable same-sex groups is disruptive but is not sufficient to destroy the groups and their respective gender cultures. Hormones also initiate additional core patterns.
NO: Elaborate on these patterns from your studies, please.
TG: In the pubescent female, sex hormones stimulate two new core physical patterns. The first core pattern in puberty is the transformation of the body by the development of secondary sexual characteristics. The second core pattern is the initiation of internal physical changes that initiates fertility. These two patterns then become the stimuli that trigger the full activation of sexual orientation that in most cases casts males in a different and more desirable light.
NO: So it would seem. What do you find following on from these changes?
TG: Along with the full activation of sexual orientation comes desire for male attention, along with anticipation of pleasure and intrusive thoughts and feelings related to sexual activity and conception.
NO: This suggests to me a potential conflict with earlier core patterns that you described.
TG: Indeed. The development of secondary sexual characteristics, coupled with awakened sexuality, puts a young female in an awkward position. Such a girl gets a lot of attention both covert and overt from males ranging in age pretty much across the spectrum from adolescents to seniors. The attention can be and often is intrusive and unwelcome. The girl wants attention but realizes that it has to be managed because there isn’t any way to selectively attract it with high precision.
NO: I can see how it could be something of a shock to unexpectedly find yourself the center of unwanted sexual attention. So, how is it managed?
TG: Yes. Attention that is unsolicited, unwanted and often difficult to repel. Keep in mind the other earlier realization that one is smaller, weaker and less aggressive than most males. Physically managing unwanted attention isn’t generally an option. Fortunately, during the preadolescent period the same sex peer group provided an educational experience in which young females had an opportunity to refine their social perception and skills.
NO: Why is this fortunate?
TG: Because it provides skills that help a female become more adept at picking up on social cues and to then deploy social skills suitable for manipulating an undesirable situation.
NO: Is this usually effective?
TG: It can be effective in situations where the male is well socialized, not highly aroused and not intent on imposing his sexual arousal on the female. However, all too frequently this is not the case. To see that this is true one need only look at how common sexual abuse and sexual assault are in society.
NO: So, it is often the case, isn’t it, that a female in her very person is a walking advertisement that has a general rather than a selective appeal, which can attract potentially dangerous attention and even assault.
TG: Yes. In fact, society uses females as sexual objects, which exacerbates the situation. I refer to enhancement of secondary sexual characteristics for social ends such as commerce.
NO: Are you saying that society socializes women into roles that require them to make a certain type of presentation if they are to be seen as socially acceptable.
TG: Clarify “presentation.”
NO: I mean things like fashion in clothing, sensual fabric, color, make-up, adornment, styling of hair, as well as patterned movement and mannerisms. Things that are aimed at stimulating sexual attention in males.
TG: I know that women can and do present themselves with the intent of being sexually attractive at certain times. However, my research suggests that many women actively work on their presentation out of an aesthetic sensibility or a desire for beauty that is on average much stronger in women than in men. In short, their presentation is usually for the appreciation of others with a similar aesthetic sensibility, which is largely other women, though it also captures the appreciative attention of some men.
NO: What do you think is the basis for this aesthetic sensibility?
TG: It is an ability that evolved over the history of the species and is intimately tied to women’s use of aesthetic sensibility to select for traits in males that altered first their appearance and then their behavior in order to further female sexual autonomy. This is, evolutionarily speaking, driven by the desire in females to produce the most viable offspring possible. Especially, male offspring that have a high probability of being, at maturity, selected by females as mates and therefore highly likely to successfully reproduce.
NO: I’ll have to give this idea some thought. How does this lead to fashion, make-up, adornment and so forth, if its origins lie in an evolutionary need for women to mold male appearance and behavior?
TG: You are correct about the origins, but once an aesthetic sensibility was established, it took on a life of its own. In short, it became a foundational block in the establishment of a female culture. A culture that has generally been interpreted wrongly because it has been viewed from a male-centric perspective in the context of an overall male-oriented culture or patriarchy.
NO: So, you would say that there is a biologically based tendency within the female population to individually take their person as a canvas on which to make their best attempt at creating beauty?
TG: Yes, I have no disagreement with that as a summary statement. I would also mention that this tendency also manifests itself not only in personal presentation but also in contexts associated with the person, such as the beautification of living spaces.
NO: A most interesting digression. Shall we get back to the original topic concerning the objectification of woman as a sex object and the conflict this leads to ?
TG: Certainly, the need for attention in some ways creates an approach-avoidance conflict. The female desires male attention to find a mate and seeks to attract it but fears unwelcome and intrusive attention and tries to avoid it. This creates the potential for a lot of anxiety about cross-sex interaction, because it is often difficult to predict how such interactions will develop.
NO: I hadn’t thought much about it, but I see your point. Are there further points that you would like to bring out?
TG: Yes. Not only is the maturing female faced with the real possibility of becoming the victim of male sexual assertiveness, if not outright aggression, but she also recognizes the potential for long-term complications.
NO: Are you referring to an unwanted pregnancy?
TG: That is one possibility, though that risk is more easily managed than in the past. Even so, the risk still exists and has many social, economic and personal consequences. Coupled with this risk are others. There is always the possibility of being physically injured or even killed, of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease and even long-term mental health problems such a PTSD.
NO: You paint a pretty scary picture.
TG: It can be, especially for some young females, but also for mature females as well. It is not uncommon for significant problems related to anxiety to impact female behavior. Social anxiety and withdrawal as well as problems such as eating disorders and substance abuse are also possible.
NO: I have never really thought much about it, but what you say makes a lot of sense.
TG: I’m sure you’ve had little incentive to think about it. However, imagine running around on a firing range with a target on your back and you may get some sense of the situation.
NO: Being aware of your predicament then leads to anxiety?
TG: No, not initially. There are social conventions that serve to provide some protection from potential problems, especially if one exercises discretion in combination with social conventions.
NO: I take it bad experiences are most likely if one lets her “guard” down at some point?
TG: Yes, it is easy to get relaxed and feel comfortable as one sort of habituates to one’s circumstances. I don’t think it is necessary to go into detail, but most women probably could tell you about getting “cornered” on dates when alone with a male who has been a “gentleman” up to then and suddenly becomes both aroused by the situation and is motivated to be very demanding. I would also point out that letting one’s guard down is not the only problem.
NO: What else poses a problem?
TG: Males have historically used chemical means to reduce or eliminate resistance to their intentions. For a long time alcohol was probably the most widely used chemical disinhibitor. More recently a range of intoxicants have been introduced that can be employed to make “date rape” much easier to accomplish.
NO: It is becoming clear to me that the circumstances you describe have potentially serious psychological and lifestyle consequences.
TG: One should become very vigilant and always on the alert for suspicious circumstances, suggestions and invitations. It can become difficult to openly trust many of the people you encounter. Such a state of vigilance is a precursor for a rather persistent feeling of general anxiety, which can lead to a psychological disorder.
NO: Do you have any parting words that you’d like to leave with the audience?
TG: Yes, most people either don’t see or refuse to see the degree to which they are driven by evolutionary biology. We are self-replicating organisms and our evolution has left as little of that to chance as possible. We are driven by biological processes that we veil with all kinds of cultural and personal narratives. The purpose of such narratives is to delude ourselves into believing that we are free agents rationally choosing our actions in the world. We aren’t necessarily zombies but most of us come pretty close. A few of us take the trouble to understand their true nature and find ways to stand aside from it when appropriate.
NO: Would you say a little more about biological processes?
TG: Sure. I would divide these processes into three basic categories. We all have them, though they vary somewhat by biological sex. The first category is purely biological. These programs regulate basic biological functions such as heartbeat, liver function, kidney function, menstrual cycles and so on. Not many of us think we have any degree of control over these functions other than in marginal ways. For example, you can do things to slow down or speed up your heart but that is mere influence, not control. We do have some influence over our breathing as well but that is not control. If you think you control your breath, just try stopping it for an extended period of time, say five minutes. You’ll feel the force of the biological program.
There are other processes like thought that we have or can develop control over for specific tasks such as solving problems, planning or creating. But, before you conclude that you fully control your thoughts, try to stop them for a significant period of time. You’ll soon be dissuaded of the idea that you are in control. It is true that some meditators can achieve protracted states free of linguistic thought, but thinking continues in more subtle ways.
The second category I think of as bio-social programs. These are programs that have a primary biological component and a secondary social component. Another way of looking at this is that the same biological program may be expressed somewhat differently depending upon the socio-cultural context in which it has been refined. A simple example is hunger. Pretty much everyone feels a biological urge to eat but what we find appealing as food, how it is prepared and consumed is learned through our culture. If you feel erotically attracted to someone, you can be sure that there is a biological program at the root of it. This program too is likely to have a secondary cultural overlay. Further, biological programs are at the root of such phenomena as the impulse to engage in sexual activity, to conceive a child, to bond with a child and so on. These programs too usually have a social overlay that varies by culture. We often think of these things as personal choices and we have narratives that explain why we believe we make the choices we do, but in the final analysis these narratives are just rationales for things we do and don’t really understand.
The third and final category I would call idiosyncratic or personal. These are programs that we learn through our experience. These include many skills that we acquire such as driving a car or solving an equation. Such skills are subject to our control, though even these become automatic with practice. Of course, in a sense, even these are biological in nature. In one sense because we are biological organisms and learning is a capacity built-in to us. In another sense, learning these skills may often be motivated by programs of the other two types, because they indirectly contribute to meeting the purpose of such programs. For example, think of the possible links between an adolescent learning to drive and potential for sexual activity or assertion of independence.
Finally, I’d like to say that in physical terms we are biological animals. To the extent that we identify with our physical body, we are “slaves” to our biological nature. However, the truth is that we are spiritual entities that merely inhabit these physical bodies temporarily. These vehicles provide us with an opportunity to gain experience, learn and grow. Learn to identify with your unconditioned awareness or spiritual nature and you will be able to stand aside from your biological or animal nature when you wish and make choices less driven by biological and social programs.
NO: Well, you have certainly left us with a lot to think about. Thank you sharing your thoughts with us.
TG: It was a pleasure talking with you and your audience.