Q: The scriptures tell us that the world is illusory and that pure consciousness—the inner self—alone is real. I am at a loss to understand this because the world seems very real to me.
A: The scriptures are grounded in the understanding that ultimate reality—pure consciousness—is eternal and unchanging. Everything in the manifest world arises from this dynamic and immutable vortex. When they speak of the manifest world as illusory, the scriptures are juxtaposing it with the eternal, all-pervading, unchanging reality that is the stable core of our being. The world is illusory in the sense that everything in the external world—the world we experience through our senses—is constantly changing.
This may seem obvious, yet we do our best to deny it. From early infancy we are constantly telling ourselves that the objects of the world are real, and further, that our happiness and fulfillment depend on acquiring and retaining these ephemeral objects. But there comes a time when we notice that the material possessions we have worked so hard to acquire are changing, disintegrating, or vanishing completely. Although this is disappointing and disheartening, we remain deeply attached to these transitory objects. This is a prescription for pain.
Refusing to acknowledge that everything in the external world is transitory, subject to destruction and decay—including our own body and mind—prevents us from searching within for the eternal, stable core of our existence. When we are young we don’t believe we will become old, even though we see those around us aging. When old age approaches and we see our youth, vigor, and beauty slipping away, we become frightened and demoralized. We attempt to escape by distracting ourselves or by using herbs, medicines, and cosmetics, or by applying various anti-aging elixirs, but nothing can stop the physical decline that comes with age.
Even the non-material aspects of our lives are transitory. This becomes painfully obvious when we consider our relationships. Friends who seem to love us today no longer care for us tomorrow. Our children grow up, marry, and devote themselves to their own children. Our spouse and siblings die, leaving us alone with our own mind, which itself is in constant flux.
The scriptures remind us that in the final analysis the world is illusory because it is impermanent and inherently unstable. They emphasize this fact to inspire us to drop our exclusive focus on the external world and instead direct our attention inward to the center of consciousness, which is pristine, radiant, and immutable. They tell us that every human being—though mortal and subject to death, decay, and destruction—is an abode of divinity. Immortality is our very essence. Our essential self remains unchanged even as it witnesses the changes in everything around us, including our own body and mind.
Once we know this, life’s successes and failures, its losses and gains, are no longer painful, upsetting, or frightening. Instead of seeing destruction in this stream of constant change, we come to recognize it as the eternal dance of inner divinity and embrace it as an opportunity to find the fulfillment and freedom that is our birthright.