Recently I contemplated the zen teaching that reality is an illusion. What I see and experience appear to be true, but there are as many ways to see anything as there are people to see them. How do we get to the state where we identify anything in any moment to be something else, rather than what it is? Why do we choose to view almost every experience or encounter that occurs as being good, bad, or this, or that, or some other? We get there by our ability to create our personal realities according to our own experiences - even when we don’t have all the facts. For instance, I held up my hand then asked an associate, “What do you see?” “Five fingers,” he said. He had identified my complete hand. Another time I held up my hand to a Buddhist and asked the same question. She said “nothing.” Although my hand was present before her, she was able to see through to the essence of material creation.
When I look through to find myself, I see that which I think of as me is also an illusion. All of our experiences from birth up until this point have led us to create our sense of self and to accept it as something that is real. Has our mind been programmed? Once our mind fixes an identity on any object, experience, and our sense of self, we have placed a limitation on our ability to discern the many ways to see that object, experience, and personal identity. It’s this limited sight that causes one to suffer emotional and psychological pain. We may experience strong episodes of anger and overwhelming stress that can be disabling. This limits the range of our conscious awareness and blinds us to reality.
So how do we awaken from this self-induced nightmare? The word “buddha” means “awakened one,” so as fellow humans we can hold the possibility that we and others can awaken to the true nature of reality. One way to do this is to study the ways in which we personally have changed over time. Whereas once we might have self-identified as an angry or volatile person, we may notice that we have become more patient and forgiving with the passage of time. When we ask ourselves “Who am I?” we realize we are not that person who first became incarcerated. But this study of ourselves may also reveal areas of our life where we need improvement. Then that becomes our challenge. When the “Who am I?” is a primary concern, we may realize that we are forever renewing, being, and transcending in ways that we may not understand, but nevertheless feel real. Think about this: our experiences or moments in life seem to occur to help us realize that we are much more than we think we are. I have found that if we can be completely open to the mysteries of life as we witness their unfolding, that positive change can happen.