The Illusion of Maya (Self) Part 1
These two words, the mere fragment of a statement, and yet an all-encompassing declaration in and of itself, are the most provocative and powerful utterance in our human language. Whatever word we choose to place after this little snippet of a sentence is usually an uninspiring, reductionistic appraisal that we each hold of ourselves and subsequently take into the world every day.
Who we think we are is relative at best because, at the level of our egoic mind, we see ourselves only through the lens of all our social conditioning. The “conditioned” self that we tend to identify so strongly with, is only an accumulation of impressions or beliefs we’ve gathered about ourselves over the course of a lifetime. We see ourselves as separate, detached, isolated, and defined by the boundaries of this physical body we reside in. But, that is only an illusion. We don’t exist in isolation, we are a part of everything that surrounds us. This separation we experience is only one aspect of the illusion of Maya (what we perceive as the “self”).
We’re not living on Earth, as something separate from it . . . we “ARE” the living Earth. We are an extension of it. Made up of a whopping 11 elements (out of the 148 known elements), all of which come from the Earth, we are a scoop of the Earth held together for a brief period of time by our breath. Nothing more. Our bodies are on loan; we borrow them from the Earth and when we depart from the physical plane the Earth will reclaim them. The human body is simply a medium that allows life to pass through it. They are ours, but they are not us. We exist in relation to everything else we come in contact with or experience.
Consider for a moment, the body as a sophisticated technology or machine with an intelligence completely separate from our cognitive awareness of it. Every cell, every organ, and every tissue in our body possesses an intelligence, a software so to speak, that is performing an unimaginable number of very complex processes and activities that we are completely unaware of. We’re not running the machine. Made from the Earth, it takes everything we eat or drink (which is from the Earth) and transforms it into the body that we temporarily inhabit, again, which is made only of the Earth.
Because of the way we’ve structure society, we slowly become invisible to ourselves and oblivious of our connection to everything surrounding us, seeing ourselves in the context of comparison to everyone else.
It’s unfortunate, but only a short period of our life is lived from our authentic self; that part of us that existed before we were taught what to think, what to believe, and how to see things.
From birth till around the age of eight years old we have no self-awareness, no concept of “I” as something separate from everything else, much less the ability to define ourselves as “I am . . . fill in the blank.” There is no “ego” yet. Life during this period is completely experiential, like a dream, where time doesn’t exist. There is no sense of fear, apprehension, expectation, or agenda. Children live immersed in the eternal “present” moment; an ability we lose as adults, where we are rarely present. How little control we have over our mind that often is working against us. We find ourselves drifting effortlessly into the past, ruminating on past experiences, lost in our memories or projecting ourselves into the future with fear and anxiety of the unknown with an overactive imagination that we can’t seem to turn off.
Looking into the eyes of a young child, you’ll see that most often there is no self, only an empty yet expansive presence behind the eyes. “Essence” is all that is contained in the body of a child, and essence has no concept of time, no worries, no fear, no expectations, no script, no ego. For a child, nothing exists beyond the precious bubble of time or temporal experience they are involved in at any given moment. If only that could last forever…
By the age of 6, our indoctrination into society begins. We are placed in schools where we are taught vocabulary, colors, numbers, names of everything, and not only how to think, but what to think. And sadly, most of what we are taught goes unquestioned by our fledgling little minds, that simply trust that what adults are subjecting us to is in our own best interests. Lacking any sense of discernment, our entire focus is outbound. We’re taught that life isn’t something that “is,” it’s something we need to prepare for so we can begin participating in it. So in preparation for our entry into life, everything has been labeled for us, defined, mapped out and explained. As a result, we see ourselves and the world as a series of labels and never see the “essence” of anything ever again.
Ultimately, what we are being taught through our schooling process is how to become “essential” and how to “compete” in the world. We mindlessly recite our allegiance to a country before we even know what the words mean. We quickly learn that the world is divided up into teams, and establish that a “country” is the team we belong to and something separate from every other country. With our clever intellect, we divided reality into a never-ending list of dualistic concepts: right-wrong, good-bad, gains-losses, us-them, etc. We’re taught to compete for good grades, compete for the best attendance, compete in sports, compete for prom court, compete for college placement, compete for jobs, compete for advancement, compete in the marketplace, and to compete against one another for not only survival but an imaginary social status that we think somehow defines us. From this level of thinking our “ego” begins to emerge.
Life is no longer something we are connected to and having a symbiotic relationship with, but rather something to contend with and compete with. We see even the Earth as something to conquer, subdue, exploit, and cannibalize for the marketplace. We become separated and detached from everything, dividing even ourselves into two entities: our essence and our persona or ego.
Our ego is an illusion, a mask, a persona or personality that evolves over the course of a lifetime by comparing ourselves to everyone we’ve ever met. We grow into this mask we wear over our consciousness. This external image we project to the world whether as a professional persona in the world of business or the personality we develop for our personal endeavors and relationships, creates a focus that only distorts the perception of who and what we really are . . . our authentic self. We are encouraged to wear these masks so long and so often that we forget the “essence” of who we are beneath it. As a result, living a life of casting shadows, we are provided with only a few brief glimpses of our “real self,” our “essence,” that lies beneath the veil of our ego; beyond that which we identify with as “self,” beyond name, beyond form, and beyond thinking.
Our ego is like shards of glass in a shattered mirror where each shard represents different roles we play in different environments with different people to secure something for ourselves. It might be for friendship, sex, social status, entertainment, a job, self-preservation, or a whole host of other reasons. We tend to place people in our lives in the way that is most self-serving for us and meets our own self-interests. Those we call “friends” are those whose beliefs systems match ours the most.
We delude ourselves with our ego because it creates a false image of ourselves by fragmenting us into countless categories of comparison with everyone else. From the perspective of our ego, we never see ourselves as “whole” but instead, always see ourselves as lacking something that always makes us less than whole and inadequate.
So why is it important to really understand who we are?
How we see ourselves is ultimately how we see the world we navigate through day after day. It colors our interpretation of everything and therefore contributes to the world we collectively create together as we interact with one another and every living thing on this beautiful planet of ours. We either see ourselves as separate from the whole of existence or a beautiful expression of it and intimately woven both into and out of it. If we see ourselves as the latter then everything we do is viewed with a sense of inclusion, not exclusion. It’s what creates a sense of community; not just a community of people, a community of all living things. Why do I believe that latter statement is so important?
“Everything we do affects the whole of existence.” There is no such thing as a benign act. This is very important to understand, because the more we connect with and understand ourselves, the more we understand our connection to others, the environment, the planet as a whole, and the world we live in. The world as it is is only a reflection of how we see ourselves as individuals and collectively as a community.
The delicate “web of life” that sustains all of us is such that there is an extraordinary “inter-connectedness” to everything. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so as a consequence of its flawless design, nothing in nature is “independent!” Instead, every thread in the fabric of nature is “interdependent” with each and every living and non-living thing relying on the other for its continued existence. Every living thing is contributing to your existence so that you may live.
Something to keep in mind when one considers the world that we’ve divided up into countries, states, politics, social strata, class distinction, race, religion, ethnicity, and so on. All these distinctions leave us feeling disconnected and cut off from one another.
So then, why can’t we feel this connection to EVERYTHING?
It’s our identification with everything material that leads us to believe there is nothing beyond what we can perceive with our five senses, and even if there is, we don’t have time to think about all that nonsense.
It’s fascinating to me that we live in a world where we are surrounded by science and technology that can detect all kinds of things that lie beyond what can be perceived by our senses, and yet we still continue to hold the belief that we are our bodies and there is no deeper reality than what we experience on the most superficial level with our five senses. Everything we perceive as real is only perceived as “real” because it is vibrating at a frequency that is commensurate with our five senses. But our five senses deceive us, as they perceive less than one percent of all the vibratory frequencies that we know exist. So it beckons the question, what is real and what is reality?
Religion, in a very futile sense, tries to bridge the gap between the ethereal realms and the “here and now,” but, religion is insufficient at soothing our fears of the unknown and what lies beyond because one doesn’t practice religion. Its entire focus is outbound, dividing creation from its creator, when in fact the two are completely indivisible. It’s predicated on a dogma that is archaic and non-sensical. Its ritualized, rehearsed, redundant mental conjecture, which requires very little to no thought or self-discovery, nor does it require a peering into the abyss because the answers are all provided in advance. It doesn’t advocate an inward journey but rather an external projection to connect with a divine entity, “out there” beyond the physical realm.
Before the age of technology and all the countless diversions from one’s self that come with it, men had accessed a much deeper reality. The ancient wisdom of countless sages who penetrated the veil of this physical reality by going beyond “mind” and “thought” has been almost entirely forgotten and replaced by an epidemic of amnesia, an unknowing of who and what we truly are. We in the western world, as opposed to those in the eastern world, have chosen an institutionalized, somewhat spoon fed way of thinking (or lack thereof) and seeing ourselves and the world, over a much deeper and profound knowledge discovered by Buddha and other masters, that lies beyond the wellspring of thoughts that are constantly bubbling up inside us. We have divided ourselves into our essence and our persona by dissociating with our essence and replacing it with a surface personality, with an ego, and countless societal distractions and technology.
Buddha said, in the Kalama Sutra, “in order to ascertain the truth, one must doubt ALL traditions, scriptures, teachings, and all the content of one’s mind and senses.”
Truth and essence lie beyond our persona, beyond thinking, beyond the mind. In stillness, we find ourselves by discovering there is no “self.” That may be bothersome to some, but I for one take comfort in knowing I’m connected to everything, that I have no beginning and no end, that I’m part of a whole, that I’m limitless, eternal, and exist both within and without.