“Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld.”
-John Archibald Wheeler
American theoretical physicist
What is real? We think we know. But does that mean we really know, just because we “think” we know? Can we trust our thoughts to tell us what is real and what is not?
Most of us will describe our dreams at night as “not real.” For example, I sometimes fly in my dreams. I can easily soar over trees, buildings, mountains and oceans, powered only by my mind’s will, occasionally sweeping low to show off to the Earth-bound humans below. In one dream, this backfired when I was refused life insurance because someone reported my risky flying behavior to my agent. I was bummed. Note to self: Remain humble and keep your flying ability secret.
Recently, I flew higher than I ever had before; all the way up into the outer reaches of our atmosphere and I paused to look down, floating high above our precious world, drinking it all in. It was night and the planet was lit up like Las Vegas. I marveled at the view, breathing it into my eyes and heart before happily screaming back to the surface of the Earth at the speed of thought and light. That was fun. I like to fly. I enjoyed that dream while I was having it and treasured its fading memory after I awoke. But it wasn’t real, was it? People can’t fly, can they?
We think we know what is real and what isn’t, but do we? Each of us – all of us – is/are temporary. There was a time when we did not exist as we are and there will be a time when we will once again cease to exist in our present form. Same with our planet, our solar system and the entire universe. Are we real? Can something that isn’t and then is and then isn’t be real or is this kind of reality more like a dream?
If you ask a quantum physicist, like Donald Hoffman, who was interviewed in The Atlantic last year, he might further confuse us by explaining that reality does not exist in the way we perceive it until we show up to observe it. Reality is what I observe or perceive to be real but it does not exist independent of my observation. Countless experiments have revealed that there are no definite, physical objects in space separate from perceivers.
Hoffman calls it “conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view.” He explains: “As a conscious realist, I am postulating conscious experiences as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world. I’m claiming that experiences are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of everyday life—my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate—that really is the ultimate nature of reality.”
In other words, what we think in our minds is not and never can be real or true. At best, our thoughts about reality are like the icons on our computer’s desktop. They are not the same as the reality they represent but they are useful. A picture of a pizza is not a pizza. Likewise, all our thoughts about reality aren’t real. Only our direct experience is “real.” The rest is more dream than reality. And to the extent, we are living in or through our mental representations of the world, we are living in a dream.
There is a difference between my 18-year-old self and my 60-year-old self. Which is the real me? Sadly (and happily), I cannot be 18 again. Not this time around. But something is shared between my younger and my current self. What is it? What is the essence of me – my basic Dougness – that remains constant and never changes as my body ages? What is it about you and me that is timeless and ageless? Can we accept that that self is “real and true” while everything about us that changes (our bodies, thoughts and emotions) is impermanent and therefore, not the same kind of “real and true”?
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), this changeless part of our identity is called self-as-context. Steve Hayes lists off a few alternative “terms and concepts that allude to this aspect of self: a transcendent sense of self, the observing self, noticing self, continuity of consciousness, pure consciousness, pure awareness, and others.”
This sense of self is very different from what Hayes calls self-as-content, the conceptualized self or the problem-solving mode of the human mind. Too often we identify with this cognitive part that judges, evaluates, advises and blames. But is that who we truly are? Or is it possible that each of us is a unique expression or manifestation of pure awareness that can employ thoughts but is not the same as thoughts? I can think and I can use a hammer but I am not the same as thoughts and hammers. Just as I am not a hammer, I am also not my thoughts.
A hammer is not good or bad. It is a useful tool for hammering nails but not very useful for brushing teeth. Our thinking mind is good for deciding which is better for brushing teeth: a hammer or a toothbrush. But the problem-solving mind cannot solve itself. It will dismally fail at using language to explain what is real or true about our essential identity, our worth or our value. We are literally beyond words.
I can think I am a terrible person. I can think that no one loves me. I can think that the world would be better off without me. None of these thoughts is true or real but I can choose to believe them. I can make them “true” in my mind. And I can behave as if they are true.
We grasp onto and believe thoughts that trigger emotions and motivate behavior, all the while thinking more thoughts that reinforce an idea of ourselves that is not true or real. At one time or another, each of us lives in the world of dreams brought to us by our thinking self, not our pure awareness or observing self.
Hayes writes, “The problem with problem-solving is that it is a mode of mind that does not know when to stop. It easily becomes overextended. It may crowd out intuition, inspiration, dispassionate description and observation, engagement, appreciation, wonder, emotional intelligence, or any other form of knowing and experiencing that is not temporal or comparative.”
We easily believe our lying minds but struggle to understand this when it is pointed out. Hayes explains that the depressed person who believes that no one will ever love them has concocted a dream world that they actively confirm and maintain with their ongoing thoughts, feelings and behaviors. They believe their thoughts are true “because they correspond with reality: ‘In some essential material sense, I am a terrible person, and thus I need to avoid developing relationships with others even though doing so does not lead to a vital life.’”
ACT asks us to understand the difference between our observing self and our limited, thought-derived, fear-based, conceptualized self; the person we “think” or imagine ourselves to be. Instead of viewing ourselves as an immense collection of ideas, concepts or problems to be solved, ACT challenges us go beyond these narrow, rigid constraints.
Hayes tells us that in ACT, “what is true is what works.” This is called workability. What works? In ACT Made Simple, Russ Harris writes, “…in ACT we don’t focus on whether a thought is true or false, but whether it is workable. In other words, we want to know if a thought helps a client move toward a richer, fuller and more meaningful life.”
What works for all of us is to stop judging, evaluating, criticizing and blaming ourselves. What works is for us to approach ourselves with noticing. We can notice what we think, feel and do without judging it good or bad. Does it work? Is it helpful? Is it useful?
What happens when we accept ourselves exactly as we are? What happens when we hold ourselves kindly and allow compassion and tenderness to flow in?
The goal is not to get rid of thoughts about the self but as Adyashanti writes in Emptiness Dancing, “…it is more helpful to see through thoughts and to recognize that a thought is just a thought, a belief, a memory.” Once we wake up to who we really are, “…we can stop binding consciousness or spirit to our thoughts and mental states.”
There seems to be a difference between what is spiritual and material. The material universe of stars, planets, mountains, trees, armadillos, kittens and people is nothing more than atoms and molecules arranged in patterns that temporarily take a particular form. Once I am done with this body, it will disintegrate and its Lego-like building blocks will be used to construct something else. It just will. It’s been doing this for billions of years and will continue.
But while the forms change, the essence remains and never changes. Life continues. Beyond time and place, awareness is. I am essentially invisible awareness, as are you; temporarily clothed in the skin and bones of the human animal and temporarily identified with a particular person. What does your consciousness silently whisper to you about your true self? Are you listening? Are you willing to consider that you are more than your thought-based ego can imagine? What if the only way to connect to reality was through our silent, wordless spirit?
Adyashanti writes, “It is paradoxical that the more this spirit or consciousness starts to taste itself, not as a thought or idea or belief, but as just a simple presence of awakeness, the more this awakeness is reflected everywhere. The more we wake up out of bodies and minds and identities, the more we see that bodies and minds are actually just manifestations of that same spirit, that same presence. The more we realize that who we are is totally outside of time, outside of the world, and outside of everything that happens, the more we realize that this same presence is the world – all that is happening and all that exists. It is like two sides of a coin.”
Of course, these are just words that, like thoughts, are not true in themselves. However, if they point us to an awareness of reality, they help. Thinking about truth is a beginning but only worthwhile if it leads us to the direct experience of that reality.
Adyashanti writes that waking up to our reality “…is as if you are sitting on the couch telling your story, and you are still a mess – haven’t gotten very far. Then all of a sudden you realize this is a dream, this isn’t real, you’re making it up.”
Our minds are dreaming to the extent we are entranced and entertained by our own thoughts and stories about our identities, worth and value. Adyashanti explains that the mind “…tells itself stories and wants to know if you’re progressing. When you shift into wakefulness, you realize, ‘Wait, it’s a dream. The mind is creating an altered state of reality, a virtual reality, but it’s not true – it’s just a thought.’”
According to Adyashanti, “Thought can tell a million stories inside of awareness, and it’s not going to change awareness one bit. The only thing that’s going to change is the way the body feels. If you tell yourself a sad story, the body reacts to that. And if you tell yourself a self-aggrandizing story, the body feels puffed up, confident. But when you realize it’s all stories, there can be a vast waking up out of the mind, out of the dream. You don’t awaken; what has eternally been awake realizes itself. That which is eternally awake is what you are.”