Whatever You Think as Reality is Actually an Illusion

Learn to spot the illusion and cut through it

Our lives are full of biases — we make assumptions and faulty leaps of logic. We are often so confident we’re right and that others are wrong although there may be little empirical evidence to prove it.

We all strive for unattainable and imaginary standards of perfection in things that matter to us. We fear the worst, and set our own limitations to determine what we can and can’t do.

But the worst part of our predicament is that we don’t know about all this.

When Isaac Lidksy stepped on the stage of TED he was confident, standing upright, making eye contact with the audience, and established himself as a credible speaker in the first ten seconds, at least in my eyes.

As he spoke about the biases and mistakes humans make all the time, he played a little game with the audience. He told them five facts about himself, one of which, he said, was untrue. The audience had to identify the false fact.

Here are the facts:

  • He graduated from Harvard at 19 with an honors degree in mathematics

  • He runs a construction company in Orlando

  • He starred in a Television sitcom

  • He lost his sight to a rare genetic disease

  • He served as a law clerk to two US Supreme Court justices

Pause for a second and think which one could be untrue. Here are my answers and the justifications I came up with:

  • The third fact is untrue. Why? Well, I couldn’t a blind man who graduated from Harvard at 19, and is the CEO of a construction company starring in a sitcom.

  • The fourth fact is untrue. Why? Well, the man practically seems like a multitalented genius which might be difficult to accomplish if he’s blind.

Okay, before you judge me, keep in mind that he told the audience one fact was untrue which is why my mind made all these assumptions.

Even though I knew this was a trick question (people don’t do predictable stuff on the TED stage), I still was pretty confident of the two choices I’d formulated.

And then, Isaac took out his stick and said, “Actually, they’re all true.” (Applause filled the theatre at this point)

Why did I make completely untrue assumptions about Isaac’s life based on four facts, is a question worth asking.

Seeing Is Believing. Or So You’ve Been Told.

Isaac didn’t lose his sight overnight. From the age of 12 to 25, his retinas deteriorated progressively until he saw nothing at all.

As someone whose vision is distorted, Isaac’s reality shifted completely to something he never thought of.

For instance, he could see a picture but his friend had to describe the picture to him for Isaac to fully understand what it was depicting.

He had to use multiple senses like touch and smell to make sense of the reality around him. Piecing together information from multiple senses to do something all of us do so naturally was exhausting for him.

It is then when he realized that what humans see is not the universal truth. Which means, your reality is not objective.

What you see and experience is completely and utterly subjective — it’s a story formed by your brain — a tailor-made, personal, unique, and virtual reality if you will.

When I’d first heard about this idea, I was so fascinated by it that I wrote a book on it.

But before we dive further into what it means and how to make it work for you, not against you, let’s understand why this happens.

The Illusion of Sight

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” — Albert Einstein

The visual cortex makes up to 30% of your brain. But the sense of touch and hearing take only 8% and 2–3% respectively.

Every second, your eyes send the visual cortex two billion pieces of information. But the rest of your body can send only an additional billion. This means sight is one-third of your brain by volume and two-thirds of your brain by processing power.

This is where sight gets its power to turn reality into an illusion. Because sight does not work in isolation. If that were the case, we all would perceive reality in the same way.

To create the experience of sight, your brain references your conceptual understanding of the world, other knowledge, your memories, opinions, emotions, and mental attention.

All of this, along with many other input parameters that are uniquely linked in your brain. They are also more intertwined than we can imagine. For instance, the way you feel affects what you see, and what you see affects the way you feel.

And as you’d know from experience, we don’t consciously do this — it happens subconsciously.

Isaac gave a few examples to show this:

  • A hill appears steeper if you’ve just exercised

  • If you’re asked to estimate the walking speed of a man in a video, your answer will be different if you’re told to think about cheetahs or turtles.

  • A landmark appears farther if you’re wearing a heavy backpack.

And to add from my own experience:

  • Even a small errand seems insurmountable when I’m tired

  • The kindest people can appear evil if I’ve just seen a suspense or crime movie

  • Going through a certain route can seem dangerous if I just read about a robbery/murder there

The point is this — we construct our own reality yet we experience it as a direct representation of the world around us. We not only create our own reality, we believe it and we act according to it. This, in turn, makes it come true and we think we were initially true about what we thought the reality would be.

That’s a vicious cycle.

Dr. David Eagleman mentions in his book [The Brain: The Story of You](https://www.amazon.com/Brain-Story-You-David-Eagleman-ebook/dp/B0104EOGQ0),

“Over seven billion human brains traffic the planet today. Although we typically feel like independent operators, each of our brains operates in a rich web of interaction with one another — so much so that we can plausibly look at the accomplishments of our species as the deeds of a single, shifting, meta-organism.”

Common sense has us believe that our five senses pick up all the input which forms our reality objectively. Which is why we believe reality to ‘just be’ rather than something we create.

But as you see in the quote above, it’s more complex than we can grasp.

Human senses are fallible. What people think they perceive is actually filtered and processed by the brain to construct a useful view of the world. Normally, this filtering is helpful, allowing people to sort out important information from the barrage of data that comes in every minute from their environment. But sometimes it can be quite deceiving, letting us to the conclusion of perceiving something that is not true.

The truth is that our perception of reality is less to do with what’s out in the world and more to do with what’s inside our minds.

With the advent of quantum physics, one of the many things we’ve realized is this — observing a process actually influences the processes taking place.

It’s thus very safe to say that there’s much more going on than we know about.

Albert Einstein, one of the most influential thinkers spent a large portion of his life trying to figure out a ‘unified field theory’ — he wanted to express God in an equation. But his quest for this theory often contradicted his own belief that the quest would be vain — for doing something like this would be like describing Mozart’s music in the form of sound waves. You could potentially do it, but would you really grasp the spirit and the meaning of the music?

What he tried to say was this — if you try to solve the riddle of the universe using only intellect, you’ll spin your head 360 degrees in every freaking direction. If you want to try, there are many books and studies you can explore on this. A year, later, I’d not be surprised if you’re back where you started.

Because though scientific theories, proofs, and conclusions provide a somewhat useful explanation, the Truth in its entirety could not be grasped. The ‘Infinite Truth’ cannot be brought to a logical understanding of a rational mind.

The Greatest Illusion of All

Maya is a concept that pops up in every other conversation about yoga and spirituality, at least for me.

Maya is a web of illusion.

Did you see “Spiderman Far From Home”? The villain puts Peter Parker through a virtual reality illusion every time — that’s the kind of illusion we’re talking about — one that is filled with ups and downs and emotional roller coasters.

Why is it so hard to break out of the illusion? Godel’s Theorum can explain.

It states that it is not possible to know everything about a situation if you’re in that situation. Meaning you must step out of the game to spot what’s really going on.

You can’t get the shortest way out of a maze if you’re inside it. But looking from above, it’s quite easy.

Imagine you’re inside a building on a cliff. Now the building is about to fall. Can you realize that when you’re inside? Not really. But if you’re standing outside, it’s clear.

The same is the case with Maya. We’re a part of it and we can never really understand its true nature. Saints and sages who’ve freed themselves from this illusion and attained enlightenment can live themselves above the maze and can see how this all works.

Can’t the saints tell us what it’s like? Well, first, it’s difficult to understand with our intellect, and second, we crucify those who try to do so.

Anyway, we all live in our own personal illusions that we have to do our best to break out of. How?

Let’s see

Breaking Out

Before I say anything else, if I’d have been enlightened then you should’ve taken these words as gospel. But since I’m not, I can only try with the help of my experience and those like Isaac, to take a step in the right direction.

When Isaac was blinded he was convinced that his best days were past him. He was convinced that he’d live alone and his disease was the end of achievement for him. He feared living an unremarkable life.

But he confronted his reality which enabled him to do so much with his life. And he ended up far better than being alone — with a wife and their triplets.

He was able to, in a way, bend this illusion to his will. Because, if the illusion is formed by your own brain, then you can form a better one and make your own reality.

The only way to do that is to be aware of it. And in my experience, there are two ways to be aware of it.

The first is to be aware of your own mental barriers and misconceptions. Half the battle is to spot them. Once you spot them, you’ll have an easier time defeating them.

The second is meditation. I know you’ve read a lot about meditation coming from me. But I sincerely believe that all thought experiments are in vain if we as individuals and as a planet don’t uplift our consciousness.

As we talked about a few paragraphs ago, it is difficult to break out of the illusion with the intellect if you’re still inside it. The only way to rise above is to raise your consciousness. And that does not happen by only asking questions and keeping yourself accountable for your beliefs.

Both ways have to go in tandem.

If you’re still on the edge of starting meditation, here are some benefits that would urge you to. And once you’re convinced, here’s a technique you can try.

The Takeaway

In your work, relationships, and spiritual life, spot all barriers and lies that you’ve been telling yourself.

You can write your own fiction. You really do have the power to create the life you want.

Everything that’s stopping you is inside your head. With constant introspection and meditation, you can come out of it, or at least go far on that journey.

Don’t disregard the harm that your false believes do to you — they lead to hundreds of missed opportunities, unrealized potential, and finally, regret.

For Isaac, going blind was a profound blessing. And I hope we all can see what he has been able to see.

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Written on November 7, 2020