Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Veil of Perception

At the height of the Renaissance, as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Da Vinci were crafting their masterpieces, the prevailing theory of perception was that light emanated from the eyes, not the other way around. We can laugh now about their error. But then you wonder – what beliefs do we cling to today that will one day appear as folly?
            Many of us walk around assuming that our eyes are cameras faithfully recording a real world of objects. Um, you better sit down. You aren’t going to like this.
            Turns out perception is not a passive act of apprehending objective reality – instead, it’s a highly interpretative act that transmutes raw data into recognizable shapes formed largely within our own imagination.
            There’s a word for this phenomenon in Sanskrit – maya. In their philosophical investigations the ancient Hindus realized that the perceptual field – the world as presented to us by our five senses – was maya, an ephemeral realm of thought-forms one step removed from the energy field that generated them. In other words, what you and I call “the world” or “reality” is a creative, collaborative act built on a delicate dance between perceived and perceiver.
            In the end, the world of maya – all of these shapes, colors, sounds, sensations and the ideas we build upon them – acts as a veil that ultimately hides true reality from us. And what is that true reality? It is Brahman, the sacred formless ground of being from which all forms emerge and to which all forms return. In a word, God.
            For example, let’s examine the so-called solidity of the material world. My senses tell me that I live in a world of solid, relatively stable objects. This desk is just as it was yesterday, as is this room, and this house. But at the atomic level, so-called solid matter is 99.99999% empty space. I don’t know about you, but when I see five nines after a decimal point, I round up. It turns out that the allegedly solid world is 100% empty space, a fact my sensory apparatus are too crude to perceive.
            As Einstein and others showed us in the last century, at the atomic level, the old Newtonian duality between energy and matter disappears – there is only energy. What you and I call matter is energy. All of this is only Brahman. My body, this coffee mug, the Empire State Building, everything, is a vibrational apparition. The mistaken belief that there actually is a substantive world of distinct objects is called by Deepak Chopra “the superstition of materialism.”
            Every wisdom tradition reminds us of the transitory nature of all forms. This heartbreakingly beautiful world is a shifting cloud. But behind the veil of maya lies an immutable realm beyond perception and beyond thought. We can’t touch it, see it, or understand it. But we can experience it. 
             Spiritual teachings offer maps and methods for this shift. Study, prayer, sacred service, and meditation are the most common. But it might even be simpler than that. Embrace the method of no-method. Take a walk through your neighborhood. Watch the sky. Listen to the sounds of the city. Hear the songs of birds. Feel your own heart beating. Let go. Slip beneath the thought-stream, a shift not so much achieved as allowed. If everything is Brahman, not one of your steps leads away from it. How can you seek what was never lost? How can you become what you already are?

[This piece first appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the September/October 2018 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is very interesting. It is as if everything is as thin and subtle as the smoke.
The smoke changes it's form too quickly for our eyes, then it vanishes from our perception. The world is exactly like that, vanishing little by little, too slow for our human eyes to perceive. We just need to look back to appreciate how much we have changed, how much everything has changed.
Eventually all our surroundings will disappear, including us. What is real then?. This Brahman is all that remains.