Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reifying Illusion

“Reifying”—A fancy but important word. It means to be confused about the nature of something which is fundamentally not real but we believe that it is. Imagine that you go to see a movie. When you enter the theater you have no doubts about the nature of the film you are there to see. You know that what appears on the screen is pure illusion. The movie might be quite involving to the point that you actually get swept up and affected but never do you think that you are actually in the movie. If you are not able to distinguish the unreality of the movie from your normal reality you would be called delusional and would be guilty of reification.

Our normal understanding of reality is that we are not “in the movies” and we are thus able to compare this “normal” condition against other states of consciousness to say whether or not they are real. It never occurs to us that the conditions we perceive are no better than what we see on the theater screen, yet in fact there is very little difference between the two. The only difference is where the movie screen is located. The real movie screen is actually in our brain. Even the movie screen in the theater is only perceivable in our brain—we are seeing two movies: One which we assume is in the theater and the other which is a projection in our brain.

What we have learned through modern neurology is the same as what the Buddha said 2,500 years ago—That what we take for granted as real, is actually an illusion. It is not possible to perceive anything without a brain and our sense of objectivity is the result of images projected in our brains. Not knowing this we then reify these images: Believing that the abstractions are real. If that is not bad enough we then assume that what is actually real (our true Self) is nothing more than a perceivable object and label it a self-image (ego).

Our entire sense of reality is upside down. It turns out that what we have understood as being real is actually nothing more than illusions and what we have thought was unreal (our true nature) is actually the only reality that exists. Our perceptions have fooled us and left us with a genuine mess. The result of this glitch is that we end up clinging to vapor and then suffering as it slides through our fingers. Little did we know that Gautama has been right all along.
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