De Mello: “You must drop it all. Not physical renunciation, you understand; that’s easy. When your illusions drop, you’re in touch with reality at last, and believe me, you will never again be lonely, never again. Loneliness is not cured by human company. Loneliness is cured by contact with reality. Contact with reality, dropping one’s illusions, making contact with the real. Whatever it is, it has no name. We can only know it by dropping what is unreal.”
Awakening is used across the wisdom traditions of the world as a metaphor for salvation – which, of course, is still another metaphor. Many metaphors in this class have to do with being set free from something that is pulling us down and holding us back, as our dreams at night hold us captive to scenarios conjured up from the subconscious imagination. While asleep, the experience we’re having isn’t real, as compared to the physical world of the bed in the room in the house that Jack built.
And then there are dream episodes where you are running from danger or falling in love, which at least one part of your brain can’t distinguish from the peripheral sensations of your bedroom. Your heart races as stress hormones are released into your bloodstream. You thrash about and may start weeping in the middle of your dream. Awakening to the real world involves getting out of the predicament in your dream (the particular scenario that has you so worked up), then getting out of the dream itself, and finally waking up from sleep to become aware again of the real world around you.
But let’s not stop there. After all, what is this so-called “real world” you have awakened to? A comfortable bed in a room designed for sleeping (and other stuff), as part of a house in a neighborhood of a city in a state of the country where you are a citizen. Your country has a language and a history that are rooted in a still-larger culture, going back many generations and centuries. You and your fellow citizens live together inside a system of law, politics, morality, commerce and other basic values that constitute a more or less coherent worldview.
Keep going. This worldview – we might say, by definition – is only a view on the world, and not the world itself. Everything, from the bed you dream in to the canopy of tribal mythology that holds everything in place, is a cultural artifact. A worldview is constructed much as furniture is made, but out of words, values and meanings rather than wood, metal and fabric. Even the bed isn’t “just” a material thing, but an object built by design for a specific purpose. It, too, is “made up.”
And then there’s the world – the thing that your worldview is only a view of. What is the world? From the root-word wer-ald, literally “man age,” world refers to the envelop of significance that human beings pull around themselves for security, identity and purpose. Your wer-ald co-exists with you as long as you’re alive, for the length of your age.
So even the so-called real world is meaningful only in reference to human beings. It’s also an artifact, a kind of boundary term that allows your made-up world to gradually and imperceptibly merge with reality. You have a world, I have a world, and we share a good part of a cultural world – although our local tribes may espouse very different, even conflicting beliefs about what it all means.
As a metaphor, then, awakening is a process of liberation from illusion. On this definition, not only is the dream scenario an illusion – or a play of imaginary representations, constructs of the mind – but so is the dream. And so are the many layers of cultural artifacts, from the bed you wake up in, to the role-play of your life in society, to the character and history of your people, and even to the mythological god who validates and supervises the whole thing. Illusions all.
One level “up,” so to speak, might seem more real than the one(s) farther down, but it’s still only a representation – a re-presentation, a secondary presentation, a mental construct, a mere image standing in for the real thing (or so we believe). So what we have is a nested stack of representations: dream scenarios inside of dream states inside of role plays inside of tribal dreams inside of cultural dream states inside the real world that god built.
Just so we can draw a boundary around all this illusion, let’s say that everything on the far side of representation is “metaphysics” or “revelation,” and leave that to the prophets and crack-pots who claim to speak for god.
I suppose it’s up to each of us to decide how much illusion we are willing to accept as truth. You’ve got to get on with your life somehow, right? We might expect a fully awakened human being, one who is entirely free of illusions, to be a world-renouncing party-pooper. Pretty much good for nothing when it comes to what the rest of us are so worked up about.
But renouncing the conventional world for one that is supernatural, metaphysical, or monastic is merely swapping out one illusion for another. Just because you switch from a functional language about garage doors to a liturgical language about god almighty doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any closer to reality.
So what De Mello means by “dropping illusions” must be something else besides turning your back on this world for the sake of a heavenly reward elsewhere and later on. Maybe it’s not even possible for our minds to apprehend reality, since the moment they grab hold and slap a label on it, the construction of meaning is already well underway.
Maybe the best we can do is try to live in full acknowledgement of our nature as meaning-makers, storytellers, spin-masters and illusionists. Perhaps dropping illusions is not about renouncing them, as it is stepping through them with a waking awareness to the real presence of mystery.