Devoted To The IllusionPosted: September 20, 2012
In Indian philosophical schools of thought Maya represents the power of the universe to veil the fundamental unity of things. It is this ignorance about the ‘oneness’ underlying the world of the ‘many’ as we perceive it, which is commonly identified in the East as the cause of all existential suffering. To the great Indian sage Sri Ramakrishna Maya, nonetheless was an object of sincere devotion. He was said to be all love and reverence for it. For him Maya was God.
“Hold on”, you might say, “isn’t Maya the enemy, the darkening illusion we are supposed to dispel by virtue of spiritual discipline under the guidance of a Master or Guru?”
My answer is yes and no. Let me explain.
I would like to define Maya which is often synonymously used as the ignorance about ‘oneness’ or the illusion of duality in different terms than usual. For me Maya is the mistaken belief in the inherent reality of pairs of opposites like good or bad, holy or evil, light and shadow etc.
Whatever we experience through our senses is the interplay of the pairs of opposites. If the world was all white or all black, we couldn’t see. It’s the interplay of black and white and all the colors within the visible spectrum of light between these extremes that make it possible to have visual experiences.
With experiences comes the notion of difference between aspects of the sensory input that make up the experience. In other words, black and white, although they represent but different wavelengths of light, are seen as different, two.
This perceptual duality, in turn, leads to the cultivation of preferences, that is, fear and grasping, aversion and attachment. The tension and attraction that arises out of these mind-states is what motivates all sentient beings to act. This ‘elan vital’ is what keeps the wheel of life (Samsara) turning. Much (if not all of) evolution and progress is owed to this ‘force’. And it is what ultimately causes bliss as well as suffering. In that sense, yes, Maya is the sustainer of this game called life. It is what psychologically binds us tightly to its cycle of creation and decay, birth and death. From that perspective, the perspective of duality, Maya is indeed the enemy.
Therefore, it comes by no surprise that Yogis of some Hindu or Buddhist schools strive to transcend Maya and life’s tensions and attractions altogether. In other words, they are trying to renounce what constitutes life. They want to drop out the game. Thus, their spiritual practices aim at diminishing the will to live (Eros) in favor of the wish for annihilation (Thanatos).
Whenever we strive to transcend or cling to certain aspects of life, however, we are still operating within the realm of opposites, of duality. In that sense, trying to transcend duality exposes one’s dualistic outlook. One can never drop out of the game of life by trying to transcend it, because the very effort is what characterizes the game.
What to do?
To really drop out of the game of constant chasing or hiding from the opposites, we have to drop into it completely. The way out is the way in. This is to say that we have to find a way to accept the rules unconditionally. Because as long as we don’t, we are still playing along. Only in not objecting to anything, we transcend the logic of Samsara which is based on the push-pull forces of opposition and attraction. Just as the only way to stop a train from moving is to jump right on it, the only way to stop life from taking us on its roller coaster is to not interfere but to flow with it. In other words, the only way to drop out of the game of life is to give up completely any attempt whatsoever to abandon or master it. In surrendering to life, we claim our liberation from it.
How to surrender, though?
Maya is only a ‘problem’ as long as we are still enthralled by its hallucinatory spell of duality. Once we see through Maya and realize who we truly are, that is, when we call your own bluff of us and the world being something other than what all else is, we are free. The rules of the game still apply but we lose any objection to them as we know that we are the only player playing our own game with our Self (this ‘One’ that we and everything else fundamentally is). There is nothing that can ever be lost or gained in this game, there are no winners or losers, and there is no particular meaning to it other than to play it. We cannot do anything whatsoever to leave it because we can never separate from it, or transcend it, because in fact, we ARE it. It’s all been a cosmic joke, a hoax, as Alan Watts would say. We alone exist. We will never come nor go anywhere, ever. All there is, is no-thing playing some-thing with itself.
When we realize this, our eyes open wide and we discover that Maya is the most precious gift we could ever have made to our Self. Seen from that perspective, the perspective of unity, Maya is the constant invitation to a deep sense of gratitude and awe. When we realize our Self in everything and everything in our Self, we become the biggest admirer of this apparent ‘many’. Maya, after all, is the tremendous and fascinating expression of our own mysterious divinity. IT is we and we are IT.
To touch this unity is to become a devotee of the multiplicity. Thus, many spiritual masters, such as Nisargadatta Maharaj or Ramana Maharshi, had a deeply devotional side (sometimes to the great confusion of their students caught up in ideas of duality being somehow unreal). Because they are so devoted to their Self in disguise, they see no point in trying to “sell” people their insights. They know that all apparent parts of their Self at any time play their roles in this game perfectly well and with immense dedication and commitment. Their deepest admiration and respect goes out to those who are suffering, and it is in this admiration and respect where compassion has its origin. The sages realize that the game is so exquisitely designed by their Self that it is always in perfect harmony. Pleasure and pain, good or evil, one game, one life. It does what it does.
So, finally, that’s the conundrum of spiritual life: to live truly and wisely means to immerse ourselves into the dualistic world of Maya as if it was a serious matter whilst knowing it is fundamentally not. The Bodhisattva, thus, is somebody who, just for the sake of playing it, sincerely participates in an entirely fictional game. (S)he is like an actor wholeheartedly incarnating a role in an improvised plot while never forgetting that in the end of the day it’s all play. That way (s)he remains grounded in the game while not being rooted in it.
“When someone asks me who they are or what God is, I smile inside and whisper to the Light: There you go again pretending.”