To call something an “illusion” commonly assumes that it was somehow designed to deceive or mislead us into believing what isn’t true. To believe an illusion is to live in delusion, and no one wants that. What we want is the pure and simple meaning of things, without any spin or labels or partisan agendas.
The problem is that meaning itself is a spin, a narrative tapestry that our mind weaves together and drapes over the present mystery of reality.
The ultimate reality of things always stands just on the other side of our veils, essentially transcendent to whatever we may think it is or believe about it. Our veils of meaning are more or less transparent – but never completely transparent – to the present mystery of reality, separating us to some degree from the way things really are. This separation creates the necessary distance our mind needs in order to label, define, classify, and assign signficance to what’s there.
All the time and moment by moment, we are immersed in experience – in “the experience of being alive,” which Joseph Campbell insisted is ultimately what we are all, each of us, looking for. Not meaning, at least not at our core. Meaning is what we spin around our experience and the mystery of being alive, serving as context to a mystery too deep for words. By speaking of it metaphorically – as ground, source, womb, or spirit (literally the breath of life) – we can carry allusions and reminders of this ineffable experience into our construction of the world.
When we were infants and before language began to structure and organize our thoughts, the experience of being alive was all we knew, although our knowledge was intuitive and not schematic as it would increasingly become. Very soon, however, we began to construct meaning by hearing stories and telling our own. As we weaved together multiple storylines and all those veils fell into place, our world took shape. Questions of meaning and the quest for meaning soon became our preoccupation.
That’s what we mean in calling our world a “construction,” referring to a sophisticated arrangement of veils that works as a theater-in-the-round or a stained-glass cathedral, closing us inside and making life meaningful.
Storylines are illusions in the way they build assumptions and generate expectations, conjuring up the sense of a past and future. (In reality, which is always and only here-and-now, the past and future do not exist.) As the progression threshold upon which the significant action takes place, the true present of every story is where the storyline opens downward and inward by the “optic nerve” of our creative imagination and engages with our experience in the moment.
In the moving images on its veil, a story pulls consciousness out of the eternal now (i.e., the ever-present) and onto its horizontal timeline. To be so taken up into a storyline’s construction of meaning, however, we must leave the grounding mystery of our present experience. We might call this trick of good storytelling “narrative rapture”: the sensation of being taken up into the imaginal realm of story.
This paradoxical up-and-down and back-and-forth movement of consciousness between mystery and meaning, ground and world, present experience and temporal storylines reveals the topography of our spiritual adventure as human beings.
We can appreciate the great myths of religion as cultural storylines that once provided our ancestors with vast cosmic and legendary illusions (and allusions) of meaning by which they could orient their lives in time. In its function of “linking back” (Latin religare) this complex of stories (i.e., its mythology) to the present mystery of reality, religion historically was responsible for maintaining a narrative superstructure of meaning for entire societies and generations of people.
In ritual settings they recited stories, observed and handled sacred symbols that linked them to mythic time, and thereby were able to participate in both local and larger spheres of meaning while remaining grounded in (or mindfully coming back to) the present mystery of reality. They could time travel to the Beginning or End of history, to the founding events of their race and tribe, into the celestial heavens or nether regions of Earth – always coming back at the close of a ritual ceremony to their life together, somewhere at the center of it all.
The process of becoming aware, of not just becoming conscious but waking up to the deeper reality and higher significance of our lives, requires an ability to both play along the complicated storylines of life’s meaning and periodically drop back down into the grounding mystery of being.
In all of this it is essential to remember our way back to the present moment, for it is only here that we can touch reality and fully engage with the experience of being alive. As long as we remain properly grounded and centered, our veils of meaning can make life meaningful without trapping us in illusion. (I would argue that much of religion today is so trapped, due not only to a loss of presence and a failure of imagination, but even more to a mistaken and tragic insistence on the literal truth of its stories.)
The particular skills, techniques, and practices for grounding and centering ourselves in the present mystery are an integral part of the wisdom tradition that flows through yet transcends our diverse cultural zones. From time to time our veils need to be pulled aside for us to realize where we really are, that reality is indescribably perfect and perfectly meaningless, just as it is.