When it comes to Vedantic teachings, there is a great misconception about two words: illusion and ignorance.
These words have a negative connotation attached to them. If you call someone ignorant, they are not going to like it. Isn’t it?
The English word ignorance implies that there is something (knowledge) lacking in “me.” Therefore I am not complete or whole.
If I say, “you are ignorant,” you’re not going to like it for sure. You’ll feel offended. That is because the word ignorance is an idea in your mind associated with something negative.
However, when the sages say that you are ignorant, their implication is entirely different.
Let’s understand this with the classic Vedantic example. Say you’re walking through a dark alley and find a snake in the corner.
Just when you are about to run back, a lamppost above lights up, and you discover that what you actually thought was a snake is a piece of coiled rope.
The ignorance vanished there and then. What removed ignorance was knowledge.
Your mind was mistaking the rope for snake created fear. For that short duration, the fear was real. Only when the light dispelled misunderstanding, there was no more fear.
Just as the image of a snake gets superimposed on the rope and produces fear, the appearance of a restricted and time-limited mind-body complex gets superimposed on the infinite reality.
Another example is when you dream, does the entity in the dream know that it is dreaming? It does not.
Now, hypothetically speaking, I enter your dream and tell you that you are ignorant of your real nature.
You may get offended in the dream, but you get to know the reality when you wake up.
All that is required for you is to wake up and see that you were dreaming.
Ignorance comes from illusion which is a superimposition on reality.
It is a deliberate design of the creater consciousness. For without it, the waking dream or life as we know it would not be possible.
Therefore ignorance is not something evil or undesirable. Believing yourself to be the finite individual living in separation is not a problem.
The problem is believing that that is the only reality. It continually perpetuates the fear of non-existence. And that is what the ego fears.
The ego thinking that it is ignorant does not like it. Not knowing that ignorance is its own nature.
Did you come first or the universe? You may say that, obviously, the universe happened first, and then I came.
But notice that the universe happened in your consciousness. Even the idea of time exists in your consciousness.
Your non-existence also exists in your consciousness. Being born into the world was an event in the space-time dimension within your consciousness.
The essence of all Vedantic teachings is that ignorance is believing the unreal to be real.
When the reality is known, the unreal does not magically disappear.
The unreal is “seen” as a temporary manifestation shining in the light of eternal consciousness.
There is an abrupt shift in perception (spiritual awakening), and the identification with the unreal is reduced significantly.
The idea that you did not exist before conception is usually a thought that comes from memory.
And memory is an unreliable tool. You cannot recall what you ate three days back, so how can you know that you did not exist prior to being born?
Let’s understand what is meant by illusion. The word used in the traditional texts is Mithya which has been wrongly translated into English as the illusion.
The word Mithya does not have an English equivalent. It means a form that is composed of lower forms.
For example, say I purchase a new car. Now the material reality of the car is that it is nothing more than an arrangement of metallic structures.
However, what makes the car valuable is the concept that I have superimposed on this gross entity.
My desire creates a projection onto this metallic object whose acquisition, I believe, will make me feel enough or complete in some way.
Thus, I create an emotional attachment with the car in my mind. So, the mind superimposes different layers of reality using psychological concepts and emotions.
And when I believe I am the mind and emotions, it obscures the reality that lies beyond.
One scratch to the car is enough to get an unpleasant reaction out of me. There’s a huge difference between: “My car got scratched” and “the car got a scratch.”
When the object is seen for what it is, the individual can still enjoy it without creating deep attachments.
When we believe in the illusion, we create deeply unconscious attachments that come from our fears and insecurities, not from the place of love and compassion – the heart.
Such attachments create pain not only for oneself but also for others. We become needy. Obsessive. Clingy.
What we look for in other people is a way to soothe our insecurities and not share our joyous presence with them.
In relationships, we see how people should or should not be rather than what they are. Identification with such a limited perspective creates conflicts.
When the mind is troubled, we run to psychologists, psychotherapists, and spiritual gurus for a solution.
While these things are highly beneficial, they do not help break down the illusion. Till the illusion sustains, the individual suffers incessantly.
Being in the illusion, we are trying to solve the problems that are created by the illusory mind.
As I mentioned, you get to know that you were dreaming only when you wake up. In the dream, you’re always convinced that it is real.
Anything you consider to be the reality, ideas, beliefs, or dogmas, brings about suffering.
Clinging on to any concept or idea is bound to create suffering.
Think of an idea or thought that you are firmly attached to. It may be related to your profession, religion, organization, nationalism, philosophy, or anything else.
Does it not trap you in a vicious cycle of pain and pleasure?
And it is mostly pain When you derive your identifications from thoughts.
Your thoughts are not your continuous experience. There are no thoughts in deep sleep. So how can they be the final truth?
What we perceive as real is a multi-layered abstraction superimposed on one unchanging reality.
The only way to break the illusion is to see the identifications for what they are.
In the movie of life, you don’t have to kill the main character to be free from the suffering of illusion.
You just have to “see” the character for what it is.
It’s just like when we’re watching a movie and are completely absorbed; we experience emotions.
To relax, all that is required is the awareness that we’re watching the movie.
Once “seen,” the dense energy associated with the identifications becomes subtle, and that itself removes the illusion and hence, the suffering.
I remember you asked me once. If the reality is so obvious, why don’t we see it?
And the answer is that between reasoning and emotions, it’s always the emotions that win.
When the identification with underlying emotions is strong, it is impossible to see beyond them.
While intellect can do wonders, It also has a dubious quality of complicating things.
It can also cause significant damage when it becomes a slave of the identifications. It makes the mind restless.
The ego does not want the truth. It wants emotional comfort or soothing of some kind that it can use or justify to escape What-Is.
The ego fancies the idea of arriving at the truth through personal efforts. Because all our life we’re conditioned that way.
Deep down, we believe ourselves to be unworthy, so the idea of achievement through personal effort is appealing.
The effort will only give you “what you are not,” and never “what you are” you can achieve through it.
Samadhi is the cessation of all effort because, in that state, there is no personal self pursuing any idea or a goal.
Therefore, what we call an illusion is a relative reality on the substratum of pure consciousness. It is not a denial of the world.
A problem born out of ignorance will be solved only with a solution that comes from the same. But the solution will further create more problems. That’s duality.
People seek freedom from wars, violence, corruption, malice, jealousy, hatred, and more, but they’re unwilling to explore the reality behind them.
They remain fixated on “fixing” the world and making it a better place, carrying their personal idea of what is “better” or “what should be.” Ramesh Balsekar called such people the “do-gooders.”
How do I know if I’m capable of knowing what’s good for the world?
I am not even capable of knowing what’s good for me, so what makes me qualified to “do good?”
Practically every startup in Silicon Valley uses this cliché phrase, “we aim to make the world a better place.”
On one hand, we unapologetically destroy nature; on the other hand, we claim to make the world a better place.
We do exactly the opposite of what we say, and we say precisely the opposite of what we think we want. Hence, the conflict!
Blindly chasing the pursuit of wealth and power, we become insensitive and unempathetic towards nature and life.
We want to be the crusader of goodness and impose our beliefs on others without examining how these beliefs came about.
We hate violence, but we’re unwilling to see the violence that resides within our own shadows. I’m eager to “fix” others, but I’m reluctant to see what ails me within.
Ignorance is the blindness or unconsciousness of one’s own true nature.
What about the reality of the physical world?
If you see yourself at a subatomic scale, you will be unable to find a boundary where you end and where “not you” begins.
The physical limitations you typically observe are not present at the subatomic scale. What gives shape to different body parts is the geometrical arrangement of the atoms.
Scientists have not been able to figure out what a subatomic particle is. They know what constitutes it and how it works, but they don’t know what it is.
The matter composed of atoms is mostly empty space (more than 99.99999%).
Some scientists recently have claimed that what we perceive as empty space has quantum fields fluctuating randomly.
But then, what constitutes such fields? On what basis do they fluctuate and interact, and how do they impact our perception (not just physical but also psychological).
At this time, we don’t have answers to such questions. I may be wrong about this, but I feel that we keep finding new realities simply because we are looking.
The consciousness produces an object based on what the subject desires. And the mind concludes, “Now I know!”
From research in quantum mechanics, it is clear that the three states of matter (solid, liquid, and gas) we perceive typically are abstractions created by fluctuating quantum fields.
The fields themselves are impermanent. The perception of a subatomic particle, like an electron, happens when such fields interact to create ripples.
According to this article, an electron has a life of 66,000 yottayears which is for quintillion times the current age of the universe.
The age of the particle may not be entirely accurate, but it has an end for sure (decaying into other particles)! It is not something permanent. Hence, it cannot be the ultimate reality.
The reason for our suffering is not unreal, but the belief that the unreal is the only reality. Do you know of anything that exists outside your consciousness? Consciousness is the substratum of all phenomena.
The sages say that suffering comes from the ego-mind, mistaking the illusion to be the reality and the impermanent to be permanent. That belief creates a desire to latch on to transitory things.
The illusion, by itself, is not the problem. Spiritual awakening is waking up from the illusion, and the final deliverance is living (complete embodiment) with the awareness of the reality that lies beyond the illusion.