The Grand Illusion

The Grand IllusionOne of the greatest wonders of the spiritual path is the way it helps see through the misperceptions we hold about our lives. It is a joy to find when we start to penetrate them, they begin to lose their hold on us. The interfaith journey deepens this experience to reveal the extent to which all faiths point at the same illusions and all make the same observations about how they affect our lives and our happiness. We are all just people, and for the most part we are living in a shared world of shared misperceptions. I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about our big misperceptions, which I believe are:

Time A basic spiritual truth written about over the millenia (including famously by Christian father Saint Augustine, Muslim poet Rumi, and Buddhist leader Dogen) is that the only time we have is now. All of our efforts to “save time” and “make time” are nothing but distractions from “real time,” which exists in what we are doing right now. Our culture conditions kids at school to focus on getting the grades for a good college, undergraduates to qualify for good jobs…and so it goes on throughout our lives. Now is never enough. We learn from the earliest age that we should never settle, but instead drive into the future; we are conditioned to feel guilty or unfulfilled in the present moment.

Convenience Our misunderstanding of time drives us to seek convenience in everything. We seek to speed through what is beneath and what we really want not to be doing. We outsource the activities that used to connect people to each other and to the world we live in: preparing food, cleaning the home, laundry, even childcare. The move away from our basic grounding in ordinary life is impoverishing us, not enriching us: we are disconnecting from what our lives are naturally about and replacing our sense of belonging with the illusion that happiness is out there somewhere, if we can just move far enough away from the mundane.

In losing sight of the extent of our disconnection, we are also failing to see the consequences of our convenience – consequences which will eventually come back to us, whether in this generation or the next. We do not see the implications of the vast amounts of trash created by fast food, packaging, and simple excess; of the emissions of our industrial-consumer-society; of the poisons we pour into our fields, into our houses, into the air we breathe. Walking, washing dishes, and doing the laundry are opportunities to connect with the world end with other people. They are opportunities to find safety.

Safety Our cultural misunderstanding of safety is perhaps the misperception I find saddest. Our culture seems to believe we can create safety by building gated communities to keep the “bad guys” out; by building personal fortresses inside these communities with fences and locks and burglar alarms; and by accreting arsenals within our fortresses. But all this does is secure our private loneliness – and in a society with a growing wealth gap, it also fosters resentment, hatred, and an increase in tensions and the pressure towards crime. True safety can only exist when we have no enemies. True safety occurs when not just our neighbors, but complete strangers help us in our time of need. I don’t pretend for a moment that this utopia can happen overnight, but surely, if we are striving for safety, we should be working towards tearing down barriers and connecting with others in love. Surely we should recognize that a world with an “inside” and an “outside” is one in which the “have’s” on the inside can ultimately only protect their property by exercising superior force against the “have-nots” on the outside. This is not safety – this is a fragile defining of “self” by possessions.

Possessions One of my recent realizations, as I have continued to give away property and to downsize, is that I do not own my “stuff” but rather it owns me. Giving things away was hard at first, but the rewards are enormous. I feel lighter, freer. I am amazed at the extent to which I am happier with less stuff.

Poisons I mentioned poisons earlier and want to come back to the point. Our use of antibacterial soaps, insecticides and goodness knows what toxic cleaning chemicals around the home surely has far more significant health consequences than any amount of pesticides used in farming on our vegetables. We are blindly pouring poisons onto our floors and our kitchen counters, surrounding ourselves with carcinogens and other toxic chemicals, not reading the labels and trusting Dow Chemical and its like. There is a growing public movement to “greener” foods and lifestyles, but for some reason this does not embrace the impact of domestic poisons on our lives. If a chemical kept under the sink can kill a child, then surely we should think twice about the traces it leaves when we use it on the floor?

These, as I see it right now, the big misperceptions, the big illusions in our culture, but there are likely more that I have not yet seen. Wherever religion takes us, it should surely allow us to see our lives more clearly and focus on what is important, and it for a nation that holds its religion so dear, surely this is a description of a surprisingly confused culture. We have allowed ourselves to get consumed by consumerism and a veil has fallen over our world so we can no longer see clearly. Surely a truly religious society would want to wake up to the misperceptions and to reconnect with the lives we have lost.

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Gareth Young


  • Well and truly said, my friend! We are trading our lives for a pile of illusions! Interested to hear more of your downsizing… that’s a profound step. Hope your new year goes well!

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