From the Faculty: Jeffery D. Long

The contemplative traditions are relatively unanimous on the status of “illusion” as an obstacle to contemplative insight. What is the source of illusion, insofar as you understand it?

My understanding of illusion is that we are its source.  It is our own ignorance, interacting with the reality of existence, that gives rise to illusion.  So, to use the great metaphor from Advaita Vedānta, we see a rope.  The rope is real, and is really there, having certain characteristics.  But due to poor lighting (our ignorance) we perceive not a rope, but a snake.  The rope is the reality.  The snake is the illusion.  The poor lighting is our ignorance which makes the rope appear to us as a snake.  The illusion is not entirely false.  Its character is shaped in part by the reality that we are perceiving.  But it is distorted by our ignorance.  We need to awaken, first to the fact that our perceptions are not adequate to reality, and then get on a path that enables us to correct our perceptions and see reality as it truly is: as infinite bliss, infinite joy, and infinite wisdom.

What are the effects of a world pervaded by illusion?

According to Advaita Vedānta, the world itself–if, by world, we mean something independent from the divine reality, a mass of indifferent matter–is an effect of illusion.  But the world is also truly beautiful, because we are in fact perceiving the divine reality, albeit through a distorted lens of ignorance.  The effects of illusion that make it urgent for us to awaken from the illusion are those that arise from our distorted lens: pain (both physical and emotional), suffering of all kinds, mortality, loss, fear, hatred.  All of these negative experiences alert us to the fact that something is amiss and that we need to make a profound change in our lives.

According to your perspective, how does one pierce through illusion?

Through sādhana, or spiritual practice, as recommended by the masters of all the great traditions.  This can take many forms, based on our personality type and our cultural and religious background and philosophical bent.  I am most drawn to the path of jñāna yoga, in which we constantly remind ourselves that the divine alone is real, and that all else is impermanent.  But this can be supplemented with devotion, meditation, and selfless service for the good of all beings.  Even dedicating oneself single-mindedly to one’s work, even one is not a ‘spiritual’ person, so long as that work is something beneficial and not destructive, can be a path to freedom from illusion.

What is the truth beyond illusion? What is the nature of this truth?

As I understand it, it is that reality is anantaram sat-chit-ānandam: infinite being, consciousness, and bliss.  Reality is wonderful and beautiful and can be a source of constant joy and celebration.  It is a matter of perceiving it in its true nature and, as the previous question asked, piercing through the illusion.

If illusion is understood as the passive state of non-knowledge about the truth, then we might conceive of the “virtual” as the flipside of illusion, actively cultivating imagination to aid in the process of insight? What does your tradition/speciality say about this notion of the virtual?

Yes, I think this is a very profound truth.  My tradition tends to emphasize simply turning our backs on the illusion and cultivating awareness of truth.  But this is a hard path, as the Bhagavad Gītā says.  Using our imaginations to cultivate insight–using the illusion to go beyond the illusion–can be a very powerful thing, so long as we do not miss the forest for the trees, so to speak, and keep our central purpose ever in mind.  I have personally always been strongly drawn to science fiction and fantasy stories, and the great epic myths of all cultures.  Even though a ‘myth’ is technically something that is not true–an illusion–it can point to deep truths beyond itself.  I find this use of the imagination to be extremely powerful and to have been highly beneficial in my own spiritual path, preparing me and getting me ready for the point where I can take up the more difficult method of jñāna yoga.

What are some contemplative tools that are designed to cultivate non-illusory states of awareness?

Very simple things like focusing our attention on the breath, in tandem with a mantra and visualizing of an ideal reflected in the mantra, are very powerful as long as they are practiced with regularity.  One does not even need to meditate like this for hours at a time.  Just a few minutes a day, but every day, faithfully can have profound effects.  There is also the practice, even during one’s regular, waking life, of recalling that all that one experiences is a mirror of one’s own consciousness.  When we come into conflict with others, we need to ask ourselves, “What aspect of myself is being reflected back to me in this person with whom I am in conflict?  How do I overcome this conflict within myself?”  Also, remembering that life is akin to a movie or a play.  We each have a role to play, and we need to play it well, but we are not that role.  Nothing can truly harm or destroy us on the fundamental level.  All of these are affirmations that are useful in cultivating insight.

Please describe the practice of utilizing one of these tools or techniques.

I recently broke my ankle.  During my recovery–and indeed, from the moment it happened–I saw an opportunity to cultivate insight.  I reminded myself that I am not this physical body.  The pain was real, but I was not the pain.  I practiced gazing at the pain as though from a great distance, as if it was something happening on a planet circling a distant star.  This made it very easy for me to control my pain, and I did not have as great a need for pain killing medication.  I also focused on maintaining a cheerful attitude.  Our thoughts create our experience.  It would have been easy to slip into self-pity, feeling badly about the things I was missing out on while I could not walk, or being anxious about not being able to fulfill professional commitments.  (I had the accident at the very start of a conference, which I missed in its entirety, and my body’s healing process required me to sleep a great deal in the succeeding weeks.)  Knowing that these negative thoughts would do nothing to improve the situation, I simply dismissed them, and tried to find as much joy and humor as I could in the situation.  I believe whatever meditation or spiritual practice I did in the years before this made it possible for me to approach this situation in the way that I did.  And I of course reminded myself that even something as bad as this was nothing compared to the much greater suffering that many other people experience.  Finally, I also practiced compassion toward my foot which was in pain.  We are not the body, but the body is also a living thing that deserves compassion.  When I was tempted to be angry at my foot for not working, I reminded myself to be compassionate, and I actually apologized to my foot that my lack of mindfulness was what caused me to fall and break it in the first place!

From where does consciousness arise? (Does it exist immaterially, outside of the body?)

My understanding is that consciousness is fundamental to the nature of being.  It is the chit in sat-chit-ānandam.  So our way of thinking about these things in the West is actually backwards.  It is not that the body is primary, and then consciousness somehow evolves or arises.  Consciousness was already always there and then at some point began it manifesting itself as a material world, made up of countless bodies.  Our individualized consciousness identifies with one of these bodies (or rather, a collective of such bodies, for each cell is a living organism).  It is not so much that consciousness either ‘enters’ or ‘arises from’ the body as that it pre-exists and at a certain point identifies itself with a body.  This continues until the body ceases to function, and can even last beyond that, so long as we remain attached to the self-image that arises from identification with that body.  (So, in our afterlife state, we might “look” to ourselves the way we looked when we were still alive, at least until we begin to identify with a new body, which is the process of rebirth.)  Consciousness is infinite and all pervasive.  Swami Vivekananda described our consciousness as an infinite circle, whose center is the body.  Once we cease to identify with the body–once we remove that central point–consciousness is simply infinite.