Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Many contemporary westerners are caught up in eastern philosophies. These folks often express a disdain for organized religion, preferring to be called spiritual. One area of fascination for these seekers is that of the eastern emphasis on the distinction between illusion and reality. They are keen on referring to the material world and mental thoughts as mere illusions. They say they are in pursuit of Reality, as if there were a clear cut demarcation between Reality and illusion. The idea seems to be that we are currently living in a world of illusion, but there exists a world of Reality to be discovered, somewhere. The goal is to meditate, find the right set of teachings, sit with an enlightened instructor and find the Realm of Reality. Etymologically the word Realm contains the root word real, implying that such an actual place of Reality literally exists. Once this elusive Reality is discovered, all worries disappear, fear subsides and one lives in perpetual peace, love and happiness. Ironically, this search for a literal Realm of Reality is little different than the traditional Christian view of a literal heaven, which most Realm seekers view with contempt. I don't think eastern religions are teaching what most westerners are seeking. I think we westerners have turned a powerful spiritual concept into a childish panacea.

It is more likely that the eastern philosophies are trying to teach that reality is an illusion, and illusion is reality. It is a soul-making idea. The ever expanding ego-self is constantly moving out of old realities and into new realities, into an infinitely expanding awareness of 'realities'. There is no literal Realm of Reality, but infinite layers of 'realities'. My current reality is the way my current ego-self sees the world around me. Soul-making suggests that old realities, like December snowmen, eventually melt into illusions under the Spring warming. Sunny new experiences always arrive to remove the old reality, bringing a different perspective to the growing ego-self. As the soul expands, former realities shift to illusions, exposing us to new realizations. Each emerging 'reality' contains the next illusion, and that illusion opens the door to a newer reality, which is destined to become the next illusion, ad infinitum. The goal is not to find the Realm of Reality, but to be present in the process of shifting from ego-self to ego-self as each new reality fades into an illusion.

I call it the move from illusionization to realization. There is no such thing as Self-Realization without Self-illusionization. There is no destination called the Realm of Reality once we shed the illusion. Those who actually think that one day they will arrive in a place called Reality will live in chronic spiritual agony, thinking that if they just try harder they will enter into the Eternal Rest Area, park their cars and relax for eternity. We are always learning, expanding, finding new 'realities' which always become illusions. The material world, human heart and mind are always shifting from event to event, person to person, thought to thought, feeling to feeling. These shifts are often tragically painful. It is difficult to see what I once thought to be secure, stable and certain fade away – moving from a reality to an illusion. Those who think they are making decisions based on yesterday's perceptions are fighting the soul-making process. There is no certainty or security from moment to moment, only the dissolution of perceived realities into the next reality.

This process is illustrated in a story told by presidential candidate Joe Biden, long time senator from Delaware, in his book Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics. Let me reproduce Biden's words about losing his wife and daughter in a car accident:

"Joe Biden was in Washington preparing to interview staff when he learned his wife Neilia and their young daughter Naomi had been killed in a car crash. Thankfully, his two sons, Beau and Hunter, who had also been in the accident, had survived. The incident was a devastating blow that plunged Biden into a depression. He understood firsthand how people could feel like ending their lives, but he knew he had no choice but to fight to stay alive for his sons. Biden didn’t believe he would be able to serve as senator, but his colleagues encouraged him to carry on. Ultimately, Biden felt he owed it to Neilia, who had worked so hard to help him get elected, to serve.

“Losing Neilia and Naomi had taken all the joy out of being a United States senator; it had taken all the joy out of life.” But Biden came to realize how lucky he was to work in a place where so many of his colleagues showed him small acts of kindness and would look out after him. There was far less partisanship back in those days and senators socialized more frequently and easily with members of the other party.

Biden tried to keep his despair at bay by keeping busy. Ultimately, however, he began to make peace with himself and God. He came to see the rage he had felt at his loss as an 'unbecoming form of egoism.' Bad things happen to people all the time, Biden realized, and it was time to get up and start living. "

Realized is a key word here. Before his realization, he had illusionized. This is a necessary step in making a soul. Biden had neither seen nor accepted the real world of soul-making which includes tragedy. His conception of reality had been an immature projection of his view of how life ought to be. The perceived reality of security, certainty and expected outcomes had to fade away. He had to fully experience the illusion of his old reality in order to move to the realization - the new reality.

I am not approaching this topic heartlessly or trivially. These deeply traumatic experiences of loss often bring thoughts of suicide, as Biden mentioned. Something in us cries out to die. But as James Hillman says in his book, Suicide and the Soul:

"A thorough crisis is a death experience; we cannot have the one without the other. From this we are led to conclude that the experience of death is requisite for psychic life. This implies that the suicidal crisis, because it is one of the ways of experiencing death, must also be considered necessary to the life of the soul…Without a dying to the world of the old order, there is no place for renewal…"

In other words, thoughts of physical suicide are not rare during such transitions through old realities into illusions, toward a new reality. The problem arises when a person mistakes the death of the external body for the death of the old internal psychic ego-self. Biden eventually awoke to see that the death he was craving was not the extermination of his physical body, but the death of his old reality. With lots of time, unimaginable agony, sleepless nights, a thousand rants at God, questions of 'what if', love from friends, and all of the normal and necessary birth pangs of soul-making, Senator Biden "came to see the rage he had felt at his loss as an 'unbecoming form of egoism.' Bad things happen to people all the time, Biden realized, and it was time to get up and start living."

Notice, he 'came to see.' In this phrase, we see the gradual emergence of the new reality. Biden's old reality of a picture-perfect family was illusionized in a car accident. Eventually, he discovered a new reality beyond the older one. Death was required, the death of the old reality. But we must remember that every reality, even the fresh new realities which emerge with supple wings from the chrysalis, will one day become a wormy illusion to make way for a newer reality and larger psychic self.

Soul-making requires disappointments, accidents and betrayals. Old realities will not become illusions containing the next reality without our 'appointments' and 'trusts' being broken. There is nothing in this world which guarantees an expected outcome. Earthly life, including all material forms and mental thoughts contain built-in obsolescence. They are innately made to dissolve and disappear.

This process of moving from illusionization to realization is retold every Easter as Jesus faces his crucifixion. He predicted that even his friends, family and followers would betray and deny him. He was not taken by surprise. People often seem puzzled when they read that Jesus predicted Judas' betrayal, Peter's denials, his arrest, trial and execution. Jesus understood the nature of life on earth. This is true positive thinking, seeing that life is rife with troubles and disappointments. The reason Jesus could go to the cross and forgive his enemies was that he knew he was primarily here to make a soul, not win friends and influence people.

Someone might read this and conclude that I am advocating some old Christian notion of forsaking wealth, health and sensual pleasure in this world. I am not. That is as much an error as saying we are here just to be healthy, wealthy and have sensual pleasure. Clearly, we are here to strive for whatever desires fill our hearts – to make money, find security, be healthy, enjoy friends and family, eat food and have sex, etc. However, these are the means to the end which is soul-making. Jesus knew that. He was accused of being a friend of drunks, went to a wedding, had an expensive seamless robe, healed people of all kinds of diseases and allowed a woman to anoint his feet with perfume that cost a years wages. He was no recluse or world hater. But he knew that every sensual moment was one blink away from dissolving into an illusion. Go live life large! Set huge goals, strive for success, marry your sweetheart, have children, become a senator – but don't forget that we are here to make souls. Never forget that a soul-making universe requires that our reality appointments be dissed (dis-appointment). Illusionization is the twin sister of Realization. Both are necessary in this world.

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