Let’s be clear about the difference between a hallucination and an illusion. A hallucination is a perception of something that does not exist. If I sit in my Oakville office and see a gorilla sitting across from me, it is a hallucination, because there is no gorilla. My brain made the gorilla up. We can experience hallucinations in all sense modalities, touch, sight, sound, smell and taste, giving rise to tactile, visual, auditory, olfactory and gustatory hallucinations (some are more common than others). By contrast, an illusion is the distorted perception of something that exists and is already there. For example, a straight stick with one end at the bottom of an aquarium diagonally sticking out above the water. Because of the water’s refraction of light the stick will seem like it is broken, even though it is not. Or imagine walking in the dark out in nature and suddenly you jump thinking that you saw a snake, when it is just a branch lying on the ground. Unless we suffer from a mental illness, take mind-altering drugs or experience any other unusual mental state, hallucinations are relatively rare. They won’t concern us here. Illusions however are common. In fact so common that we don’t realize how much of reality as we see it, is illusory. The brain creates many illusions we are utterly unaware of and that can only be discovered through special tests. When spiritual traditions such as the Vedanta mean that the physical world is illusory, they don’t mean it does not exist, but that the way we see it is so distorted as to cause suffering.

Once upon a time, a father of three sons died. In his will he left the following instruction as to how to divide his 17 elephants among his three sons: The eldest son was to receive half of the elephants, the middle son one third, and the youngest son one ninth. Upon reading the will, the three brothers became understandably upset, because in order to divide the elephants that way, the would have had to cut some elephants in half. They did not know how to solve the problem, when one of the king’s ministers happened to ride to town on his elephant and hear about their conundrum. He sought them out and gave them his elephant. With deep gratitude the three brothers proceeded to divide the elephants. The first brother took half of 18, thus 9 elephants. The second brother took a third of 18, thus 6 elephants (that’s 15 so far). The third brother took a ninth of 18, thus 2 elephants, bringing the total to 17. The 18th elephant became redundant and the minister took his elephant back and rode away.

This story is a metaphor for the useful illusion, a process so fundamental on our journey of mindfulness that it lies at the core of wisdom. The useful illusion is the distorted, yet helpful way we perceive reality. As we meditate and learn to look deeply into all elements of experience, we differentiate between perceptions of the world, sensations of the body, and cognitions (thoughts) of the mind. We realize how impermanent they all are, and how the structures we believe to be so solid are in fact nothing but energy flow in space. We look for mountains, but end up seeing perceptual energy flow coming and going. We look for a body, but we end up finding sensory energy flow temporarily organized in a certain way. We look for a mind, but we end up finding cognitive information flow arising and dissolving every split second in front of our observing awareness. We look for a self that endures, but all we end up finding is the non-self elements of perceptual, sensory and cognitive energy flow coalescing and dissolving every moment. By the end of it all, through precise and deep observation we realize that we are left empty-handed. Instead of finding wonderful things, we find energy flow, but even that dissolves upon closer observation into nothing at first. If we don’t stop there, but continue to investigate nothing, we realize that nothing is still something, the thing called nothing, which like all things we thought existed, turns out to be no thing. We have a word for this no-thingness: Emptiness.

Emptiness is reality and awareness itself. It cannot be described or captured in words. It cannot be intellectually or conceptually understood. It is the nameless, timeless and spaceless reality that stares us all in the eyes when we learn how to look. It is therefore not somewhere else or only accessible at another time. Since it transcends both space and time, and we have not been trained to see it, it is hidden in plain view – right here, right now. It is the most fundamental aspect of reality there is; in fact, what I should more accurately say is that it is reality itself – unadorned, direct, immediate, inescapable. Our ancestors discovered that, only when we discover this fundamental truth in the form of direct experience, not just conceptually, our suffering stops.

To come back to the elephants, the beauty of our human condition is that the scaffolding of illusions with which we see the world as we leave our childhood behind, enter adulthood and pay our taxes, is exactly like the 18th elephant – a useful scaffolding affording us the precious opportunity of liberation from the scaffolding itself. Without the bodymind and its illusions about life, we could not solve the challenge of liberation from suffering, the same way the three brothers could not solve the problem of their father’s will without the 18th elephant. But once we see through the nature of illusions and the distorted ways we see our bodymind and the world, the radiant reality of emptiness emerges from the clouds of ignorance, the same way the solution to the puzzle the three brothers were struggling with elegantly emerges with the ephemeral appearing and disappearing of the 18th elephant.

The nice thing is that we don’t need to worry, struggle or go through hoops. All we need to do is embrace our embodied existence fully for the length of our bodies’ existence, pay our taxes, have kids, buy a home, find fulfilling work – and then examine the illusions of this existence deeply. Like Sirens these illusions beckon us to come and explore their indecent nakedness hidden behind their clothing of diverse appearances and distortions. As we engage, they retreat like mirages, shy to reveal their naked essence to the inquiring eye. Once these retreating nudes have nowhere else to retreat to, like mirages, their nakedness reveals itself to be exactly also their insubstantiality, the oasis of emptiness that delights with its refreshing treasures of awareness itself. Then, like the airplane piercing through the cloud blanket into the space above, where the blue sky timelessly reigns, liberation into the timeless truth of the nameless, of God, always present, always available, just not seen, automatically ensues as we systematically shed our multiple layers of ignorance. We don’t have to learn anything new – we only have to unlearn the old learned distortions that cloud our view.

Copyright © 2016 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.