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How to Master the Cosmic Illusion


By Chad Foreman / The Way of Meditation

Everyday life, the time between sitting calmly on your cushion, is an important time for a meditator, in Tibetan Buddhism it is called the post meditation period and is seen as just as important as formal meditation, if not more important. After all the time spent on your cushion is only a fraction of the time you spend in every day life.

A powerful method for keeping an enlightened meditative composure throughout the day is to be mindful that everything experienced is dreamlike and illusory. Masters of illusions are people who can move through the world while staying detached and still keeping their compassion for all the dream-like characters that they meet. Or as Meditation Master Milarepa says:

“Know that the world of appearances are illusory, and have compassion for those who don’t understand.”

To remain in the ‘Unborn’ was Zen Master Bankei’s advice for avoiding straying into the illusory nature of the world – dwelling in that which does not arise and does not die as a personal experience of enlightened naturalness. Nothing else needs to be practiced, he would say. No need to follow the dream-like appearances, simply remain in unborn awareness which was his way of pointing to that permanent presence at the heart of all experience. Another great meditation master Arjahn Chah hints at the same thing when he said:

“Just this is the aim of all this difficult practice we put ourselves through; is to discover the natural purity of our mind and not get lost in sense impressions.”

Getting caught up in our sense impression is getting caught up in judgement about them, getting caught in the never ending matrix of comparisons and desire and looking for completion in the ever unfolding relative world. That is the very cause of suffering, trying to be complete in what by nature is incomplete and constantly changing. How can we find satisfaction in things that never stay still?

A master of illusions is a meditator who can remain in awareness and ‘dream’ lucidly during waking hours; continuing through normal everyday life but with a distinct impression of events being ephemeral and dream-like. This enables practitioners to navigate the world while keeping connection with the natural presence of awareness and simultaneously experiencing the ebb and flow of constantly changing events.

This is closer to the actual reality of things than our normal impression of things being fixed and objective. Buddha himself described the reality of things with several metaphors and warned that things do not exist the way they appear and therefore he said reality is like:

“A mirage, a cloud castle, a dream, an apparition, without essence, but with qualities that can be seen.”

So who is the deceiver that tricks us, is it the Buddhist demon Mara, is it the temptations of the Christian Devil or is it the Hindu idea of the great trickster ‘Maya‘ ? Well they could all be symbols of what seems to be just the limited apparatus of the human mechanism.

We are not designed to witness the totality of reality, it’s just too enormous, our brains are designed to filter out most of reality so what is left is the bare essentials to survive in our limited dimension. It’s ourselves that conjure up illusory appearances with our own minds and then believe them. Or put more crudely people tend to make shit up and then believe it to be true.

When a person gets drawn into the seemingly real dramas of life, the sense of a dream-like existence fades into the background and the predominant experience becomes one of being contracted, serious and confused. We get drawn into an illusory dream to find love and security and forgetting it is not substantial we pursue unattainable goals and therefore get frustrated time and time again.

Like the Christian analogy of being lost is the shadows of the valley of death; or like Plato’s allegory of the cave where prisoners in a cave mistake shadows on the wall for people and start to name them until one brave person stands up to go outside for the first time and discover the truth of the illusion, ironical he has a tough time convincing the people still in the cave that the shadows are not the whole picture.

Within Buddhist ways of thinking our nature is already pure and complete but there are six dimensions people get drawn into by forgetting appearances are illusory. Briefly, the six realms of distraction that move people off the indestructible throne of Being and into suffering and frustration are 1) hedonism 2) egoic pride 3) anger 4) jealousy 5) confusion and 6) addiction. All of these realms have a slightly different feel and type of suffering but they all arise from the primary mistake of grasping at things to be real and substantial and therefore can all be avoided by remembering ‘this is just a dream’ appearances are not substantially real and not taking things too seriously.

To be committed to seeing life as a dream is to see all things equally. Everything that happens is equally a dream event, nothing is more or less important than anything else, and this allows a sense of equanimity to be present and makes it easier to relax into a natural state of being. Or like a popular psychotherapist Richard Carlson says “don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff” I would like to tweak this slightly and remind people:

“Don’t sweat the dream stuff, and it’s all dream stuff.”

The practice of viewing life in a dream-like way also undermines our usual selfishness and egoic pursuits that usually lead to harming ourselves and others. By viewing life in a dream-like way it illuminates the moment with a light-hearted presence which helps to be easy-going, relaxed and not take things so seriously. This is more than just relaxation though; if letting go is complete, the enlightened ground of our being is touched and activated.

Letting go from controlling the dream and surrendering to just being brings with it an immense freedom and a flood of good qualities. There is no where else to get to, the infinite is not an experience neither is enlightenment, all experiences are conditioned and come and go in the flux of the dream. You can only ever realise the truth of being human and no longer be distracted by fear or desire for a dream like world; the natural awakened qualities of love, wisdom and joy can shine through unhindered. Being a master of illusion is detaching from believing in the dream and connecting with the pure energy of an eternal wakefulness. What’s left to do but to plunge right in and enjoy the show?

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