4. The Illusion of Reality

All that we see or seem
is but a dream within a dream.

Edgar Allen Poe

The new metaparadigm is based on the premise that consciousness is a primary quality of reality. And it can be considered primary in two distinct ways. The first I have just outlined: the faculty of consciousness, the capacity for experience, is present in all things. The second way in which consciousness is primary is the fact that we never directly experience the world around us. All we ever know are the contents of consciousness, the thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations that appear in the mind. This one fact leads to a radical rethinking of the relationship between consciousness and reality.

The idea that we never experience the physical world directly has intrigued many philosophers. Most notable was the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanual Kant, who drew a clear distinction between the forms that appear in the mind–what he called the phenomenon (a Greek word meaning "that which appears to be")–and the world that gives rise to this perception, which he called the noumenon (meaning "that which is apprehended"). All we know, Kant insisted, is the phenomenon. The noumenon, the "thing-in-itself," remains forever beyond our knowing.

A century earlier, the British philosopher, John Locke, had argued that all knowledge is based on perceptions, caused by external objects acting on the senses. But whereas Locke thought that perception was passive, the mind simply reflecting the images received by the senses, Kant proposed that the mind is an active participant in the process, continually shaping our experience of the world. Reality, he saw, is something we each construct for ourselves.

Unlike some of his predecessors, Kant was not suggesting that this reality is the only reality. The Irish theologian, Bishop Berkeley, had argued that we know only our perceptions, and had then concluded that nothing exists apart from our perceptions, –which led him into the difficult position of having to explain what happened to the world when no one was perceiving it. Kant held that there is an underlying reality, but we never know it directly. All we can ever know is how it appears in our minds.

As to the ultimate things we can know nothing, and only when we admit this do we return to equilibrium.

Carl Jung

The Image In the Mind

Remarkably, Kant came to these conclusions without any of our current scientific knowledge, or any understanding of the physiology of perception. Today we know a lot more about how the brain constructs its picture of reality.

When I look at a tree, light reflected from the tree forms an image of the tree on the retina of my eye. Photo-sensitive cells in the retina discharge electrons, triggering electro-chemical impulses that travel down the optic nerve to the visual cortex of the brain. There the data undergoes a complex processing that detects shapes, patterns, colors and movements. The brain then integrates this information into a coherent whole, creating its own reconstruction of external world. Finally, an image of the tree appears in my consciousness. Just how my neural activity gives rise to a conscious experience is the "hard problem" we touched on earlier. But even though we have no idea how an image appears in the mind, it does happen. I have the conscious experience of seeing a tree.

Similar activities take place with the other senses. A vibrating violin string creates pressure waves in the air. These waves stimulate minute hairs in the inner ear, which send electrical impulses on to the brain. As with vision, the raw data are then analyzed and integrated, culminating in the experience of hearing music.

Chemical molecules emanating from the skin of an apple trigger receptors in the nose, leading to the experience of smelling an apple. And cells in the skin send messages to the brain that lead to experiences of touch, pressure, texture and warmth.

In short, all that I perceive–all that I see, hear, taste, touch and smell–has been reconstructed from sensory data. I think I am perceiving the world around me, but all that I am directly aware of are the colors, shapes, sounds and smells that appear in the mind.

Every man’s world picture is and always remains a construct of his mind, and cannot be proved to have any other existence.

Erwin Schrödinger

Our perception of the world has the very convincing appearance of being "out there" around us, but it is no more "out there" than are our nightly dreams. In our dreams we are aware of sights, sounds and sensations happening around us. We are aware of our bodies. We think and reason. We feel fear, anger, pleasure and love. We experience other people as separate individuals, speaking and interacting with us. The dream appears to be happening "out there" in the world around us. Only when we awaken do we realize that it was all just a dream–a creation in the mind.

When we say "it was all just a dream" we are referring to the fact that the experience was not based on physical reality. It was created from memories, hopes, fears, and other factors. In the waking state, our image of the world is based on sensory information drawn from our physical surroundings. This gives our waking experience a consistency and sense of reality not found in dreams. But the truth is, it is as much a creation of our minds as are our dreams.

I have given everything I see…
all the meaning it has for me.

A Course in Miracles

This, I know, runs totally counter to common sense. Right now you are aware of the pages in front of you, various objects around you, sensations in your own body, and sounds in the air. Even though you may understand it is all a reconstruction of reality, it still appears that you are having a direct perception of the physical world. And I am not suggesting you should try to see it otherwise. What is important for now is the understanding that all experience is an image of reality created in the mind.

Cracks in Reality

Our impression that we are perceiving the world directly is mostly very convincing. Occasionally, however, we may come across phenomena that reveal cracks in our construction of reality. Visual illusions are a good example. These usually occur because the brain misinterprets the sensory data and constructs an image of reality that is either misleading or inconsistent.

A simple example, is demonstrated by the illustration below. This drawing of a cube is something we have all seen many times, but is it a cube seen from above, or a cube seen from below?

Most people’s first response is "from above." This is probably because we are used to seeing rectangular corners from above–tables, boxes, TV sets, computers, etc. Less often do we view such objects from below. But if you put your attention on the top line and bring that forward in your mind's eye, you can change your perception and turn it into a cube seen from a different perspective.

The most intriguing aspect of this illustration, however, is not that you can see it in two different ways, but that, whichever way you see it, you see a three-dimensional cube. You are actually seeing twelve lines on a flat sheet of a paper. Yet your experience is of an object with depth. This depth may appear very real, but it is actually an interpretation added by your brain.


There are, therefore, two realities. There is the physical reality–whatever is actually "out there" stimulating our senses–and there is the personal reality that we each experience, the reconstruction of the world that appears in our minds. And both are very real.

Some people claim that our subjective reality is an illusion. But that is misleading. It may all be a creation of the mind, but it is nonetheless very, very real–the only reality we ever know.

The illusion comes when we confuse the reality we experience with the physical reality, the thing-in-itself. The Vedantic philosophers of ancient India spoke of this confusion as maya. Often translated as illusion (a false perception of the world), maya is better interpreted as delusion (a false belief about the world). I suffer a delusion when I believe the images in my mind are the external world. I deceive myself when I think that the tree I see is the tree itself.

Our assumption that we are directly interacting with physical reality has close parallels with the way we respond to the picture on a computer screen. When I move my computer’s mouse, it appears as if I’m moving the cursor around the screen. In actual fact, the mouse is sending a stream of data to the central processor, which calculates a new position for the cursor and then updates the image on the screen. In early computers there was a noticeable delay between issuing a command and seeing the effects on the screen. Today computers are so fast they can recalculate the image on a screen in a fraction of a second, and there is no visible delay between moving the mouse and the cursor moving on the screen. As far as I am concerned, I am moving the cursor across the screen.

Our experience of daily life is similar. When I kick a stone, my intention to move my foot is communicated to my body, and my foot in the physical world moves to meet the physical stone. But I do not experience the interaction directly. The brain receives the information sent back by the eyes and body and updates my image of reality appropriately.

As with a computer, there is a small delay between the event in the physical world and my experience of that event. It takes my brain about a fifth of a second to process the sensory information and construct the corresponding picture of reality. Thus my awareness of reality is about a fifth of a second behind physical reality. But I never notice the lag because the brain cleverly compensates for the delay, leaving me with the impression that I am interacting directly with the physical world.

Things are not what they seem to be,
nor are they otherwise.

Lankavatara Sutra

The Unknowable Reality

If all that we ever know are the images that appear in our minds, how can we be sure there is a physical reality behind our perceptions? Is it not just an assumption? My answer is: Yes, it is an assumption; nevertheless, it seems a most plausible one.

For a start, there are definite constraints on my experience. I cannot, for example, walk through walls. If I try to, there are predictable consequences. Nor can I, when awake, float through the air or walk upon water. Moreover, my experience generally follows well-defined laws and principles. Balls thrown through the air follow precisely defined paths. Cups of coffee cool at similar rates. The sun rises on time. Finally, this predictability is not peculiar to my experience of reality. You report similar patterns in your own experience. The simplest way, by far, of accounting for these constraints and for their consistency is to assume that there is indeed a physical reality. We may not know it directly, but it is there.

To reveal the nature of this underlying reality has been the goal of much scientific endeavor, and over the years, scientists have elucidated many of the laws and principles that govern its behavior. Yet curiously, the more deeply they have delved into its true nature, the more it appears that physical reality is nothing like we imagined it to be.

Actually, this should not be too surprising. If all we can imagine are the forms and qualities that appear in consciousness, then these are unlikely to be appropriate models for describing the underlying physical reality.

For two thousand years it was believed that atoms were tiny solid balls–a model clearly drawn from everyday experience. Then, as physicists discovered that atoms were composed of more elementary, sub-atomic particles (electrons, protons, neutrons and suchlike) the model shifted to one of a central nucleus surrounded by orbiting electrons–again a model based on experience.

An atom may be small, a mere billionth of an inch across, but these sub-atomic particles are a hundred thousand times smaller still. Imagine the nucleus of an atom magnified to the size of a grain of rice. The whole atom would then be the size of a football stadium, and the electrons would be other grains of rice flying round the stands. As the early twentieth-century British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington put it, "matter is mostly ghostly empty space"–99.9999999% empty space, to be a little more precise.

Matter is not made of matter.

Hans-Peter Dürr

With the development of quantum theory, physicists have found that even subatomic particles are far from solid. In fact, they are not much like matter at all–at least nothing like matter as we know it. They can’t be pinned down and measured precisely. Much of the time they seem more like waves than particles. They are like fuzzy clouds of potential existence, with no definite location. Whatever matter is, it has little, if any, substance.

Seeing What Isn’t There

The image of the world that appears in the mind is very different from the actual physical world, and in two complimentary ways.

On the one hand, our image of reality is more than physical reality in so far as it contains many qualities not present in the latter. Take my experience of the color green, for example. There may be light of various frequencies, but the light itself is not green. Nor are the electrical impulses that are transmitted from the eye to the brain. There is no color there. The green I see is a quality created in consciousness. It exists only as a subjective experience in the mind.

The same is true of sound. When Bishop Berkeley argued that only that which is perceived actually exists, a vigorous debate ensued as to whether a falling tree made a sound if no one was there to hear it. At that time nothing was known of how sound was transmitted through the air, or of how the ear and brain functioned. Today we know much more about the processes involved, and the answer is clearly "No." There is no sound in the physical reality; pressure waves in the air, perhaps, but no sound. Sound exists only as an experience in the mind of a perceiver–whether that perceiver is a human being, a deer, a bird, or an ant.

On the other hand, our image of reality is less than physical reality in so far as there are many aspects of the external world that we never experience.

Our eyes, for example, are sensitive only to light in the narrow frequency range from 430,000 to 750,000 gigahertz (a gigahertz is a billion cycles per second). At lower frequencies are infrared (below red) radiation, and lower still are microwaves and radio waves. At higher frequencies we find ultraviolet (above violet) rays, and beyond them X-rays and gamma-rays. Our eyes detect none of these other frequencies, and our image of reality represents but a tiny fraction of what is there.

The same holds true of the other senses. What we hear, smell and taste is but a limited sample of the physical reality. Furthermore, there are aspects of the physical world, such as magnetic fields and electric charge, that have very little, if any, impact on our experience.

We know that there is not one space and one time only, but that there are as many spaces and times as there are subjects.

Jacob von Uexkull

Human beings may not be able to sense these other facets of reality, but some creatures can. Dogs, for example, detect much higher frequencies of sound than we do, and their noses are estimated to be a million times more sensitive than ours. If we could put ourselves in a dog's mind we would find ourselves in a different world. Imagine what it might be like to be able to detect the scent of a person hours after they have passed by, and to be able to follow that scent, distinguishing it from hundreds of others, for many miles.

We can fairly easily imagine the reality of a dog, since its sensory perception is an extension of ours. But the reality of a dolphin is much harder to picture. With their highly developed echo-location abilities, dolphins experience qualities of which most of us know nothing. When a dolphin perceives me with its sonar, it does not perceive a solid body. Its sonar image is more like the ultrasound scans used to monitor the fetus during pregnancy. A dolphin can sense the shapes and movements of my internal organs. The beating of my heart, the churning of my stomach and the state of my muscles are all visible to the dolphin mind. It sees my inner reactions as clearly as I see the frown on a person's face.

Other species experience qualities of which we know nothing. Most snakes have organs sensitive to the infrared range of the electro-magnetic spectrum, and so "see" the heat emitted by their prey. Bees see in the ultra-violet range, and are sensitive to the polarization of light. Sharks, eels and other fish can detect minute changes in electrical fields. The realities that they construct contain qualities totally unknown to human experience.

There is no creature who perceives all of what is and what happens.

Judith and Herbert Kohl

Ultimately, there are as many different ways of perceiving the world as there are species of life in the universe. What we take to be reality is just the particular way the human mind sees and interprets the physical world.

The New Copernican Revolution

Immanuel Kant believed his insights into the nature of perception, and the distinction between physical reality and the reality we each experience, would be the basis for "a Copernican Revolution in philosophy." Now, two hundred years later, it seems he may have been close to the mark. In the Copernican Revolution, the key insight was the realization that the earth was spinning through space. Kant’s distinction between the two realities is likewise the key insight which opens the door to a new metaparadigm.

In both cases the key insight defied common sense. In Copernicus’ time it seemed absolutely obvious that the Earth was still. Today it seems equally obvious that we are perceiving the physical world directly. Even when we intellectually accept the fact that our entire world of experience is a construction within the mind, as eventually we must, we still see this world "out there," around us.

It may be that we will always see it this way. Even now, five centuries after Copernicus, we still see the sun going down, even though we know that it is really the earth spinning round.

In this instance, however, it is possible to see it the other way. All you need do is go somewhere where you have a good view of the horizon. Then, rather than thinking of yourself as stationary, see yourself standing on this huge ball of rock we call Earth, which is slowly turning in space from West to East. As it turns new parts of the sky come into view in the East while others disappear from view in the West. Now, instead of seeing the sun setting, you see the horizon moving up and hiding it. In a similar way, the full moon "rises" as the opposite horizon moves down opening up new vistas. Changing your perception in this way, the Copernican shift becomes an experienced reality.

It is much more difficult, however, to do a similar exercise with our perception of the world around us. Try as I may, I cannot experience the fact that it is all an image within my mind. But this doesn’t mean it is impossible to see things differently. Some spiritual adepts who have made deep personal investigations into the nature of consciousness, and witnessed the arising of experience, claim to have achieved this new perception.

Perhaps one the most succinct and clearest descriptions of this alternative mode of consciousness comes from the contemporary Indian teacher Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, who, describing his own spiritual awakening, said:

You realize beyond all trace of doubt that the world is in you, and not you in the world.

Swami Muktananda, another contemporary sage, said:

You are the entire universe.
You are in all, and all is in you.
Sun, moon, and stars revolve within you.

And the Ashtavakra Gita, a highly venerated Indian text, states:

The Universe produced phenomenally in me, is pervaded by me…
From me the world is born, in me it exists, in me it dissolves.

These people appear to have awoken from the dream of maya–the delusion that we are directly perceiving the physical world. They know as a direct personal experience, not just as some theoretical idea, that their entire world is a manifestation within the mind. These are the ones–the enlightened ones, we sometimes call them–who have personally made the shift to a new metaparadigm.

Turning Reality Inside Out

In much the same way as Copernicus’ insight turned our model of the cosmos inside out, the distinction between the physical world and our experience of the world turns the relationship of consciousness and the material world inside out. In the current metaparadigm, consciousness is assumed to emerge from the world of space, time and matter. In the new metaparadigm, everything we know, including space, time and matter, manifests from consciousness.

We think the world we see around us is composed of matter–that the stuff of the world is, for the want of a better word, matterstuff. As far as the actual physical reality is concerned, this may be so–uncertain though we may be as to the ultimate nature of this matterstuff. But the world we see around us is not the physical world. The world we actually know, is the world that takes form in our mind. And this world is not made of matterstuff, but mindstuff. Everything we know, perceive, and imagine, every color, sound, sensation, thought, and feeling, is a form that consciousness has taken on. As far as this world is concerned, everything is structured in consciousness.

Matter is derived from mind or consciousness, and not mind or consciousness from matter.

Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation

Kant argued that this was even true of space and time. To us, the reality of space and time seems undeniable. They appear to be fundamental dimensions of the physical world, entirely independent of my or your consciousness. This, said Kant, is because we cannot see the world in any other way. The human mind is so constituted that it is forced to construct its experience within the framework of space and time. Space and time are not, however, fundamental dimensions of the underlying reality. They are fundamental dimensions of consciousness.

It was an astonishing claim at the time–and probably still seems astonishing to many of us today–but contemporary physics now lends weight to this extraordinary idea.

This pure Mind, the source of everything,

Shines forever and on all with the brilliance of its own perfection.

But the people of the world do not awake to it,

Regarding only that which sees, hears, feels and knows as mind,

Blinded by their own sight, hearing, feeling and knowing,

of all substance.

Zen Teachings of Huang Po

Chapter Five or Continue with Abridged Version

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