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The Great Illusion

We are, each one of us, the victims of the most remarkable, the most extraordinary of misapprehensions. With regard to the task of describing just how remarkable this misapprehension is words become almost entirely useless. This misunderstanding is so huge, so vast, so tremendously all-encompassing that we simply aren’t able to ask the right question in the first place – the question that would get us out of the ridiculous hole that we’re in. Our existence is a riddle that could be unlocked or made clear by the right question but – like all the best riddles – the answer to the riddle posed by existence is so blindingly obvious that we haven’t the slightest chance of getting it, not even if we had a million life-times in which to try to work it out.  The answer couldn’t be more obvious if it came right up to us and poked us in the eye, and this is precisely why we will never get it; we don’t even realize that existence is a riddle even – we are so amazingly, colossally, fantastically dense that we take it to be a mere literal fact!






‘Asking the right question’ is a key theme in many fairy stories and myths. In his book He: Understanding Masculine Psychology (1989) Robert A. Johnson talks about this motif in relation to the myth of the Fisher King –


Our story begins with the Grail castle, which is in serious trouble. The Fisher King, the king of the castle, has been wounded. His wounds are so severe that he cannot live, yet he is incapable of dying. He groans; he cries out; he suffers constantly. The whole land is in desolation, for a land mirrors the condition of its king, inwardly in a mythological dimension, as well as outwardly in the physical world. The cattle do not reproduce; the crops won’t grow; knights are killed; children are orphaned; maidens weep; there is mourning everywhere – all because the Fisher King is wounded.



A few pages further on, Johnson goes into the crucial role of ‘the innocent fool’ –


A true myth teaches us the cure for the dilemma which it portrays. The Grail myth makes a profound statement of the nature of our present day ailment and then prescribes its cure in very strange terms.



The court fool (and every good court has its resident fool) had prophesised long ago that the Fisher King would be healed when a wholly innocent fool arrived in the court and asked a specific question. It is a shock to us that a fool would have to answer to our most painful wound but this solution is well known to tradition. Many legends put our cure in the hands of a fool or someone most unlikely to carry healing power.



In the legend Johnson is talking about here the one who is destined to enter the Grail castle and (not on his first visit but his second) ask the all-important question is Parsifal, whose very name means ‘innocent’ fool. Parsifal doesn’t ask the right question the first time because, innocent thought he is, he has already been slightly contaminated by the curse of common sense, the curse of worldly ‘sophistication’. The most obvious question of all is always the hardest: a child would ask it, but if they did ask the obvious question then everyone else would just be embarrassed at such foolish naivety and laugh it off. The naïve child would however be asking the ‘correct’ question – the question that needs to be asked, the question that would (if listened to) – bring the whole misapprehension, the whole big illusion, tumbling down around our ears.



This is a version of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ where it is only our fear of sounding foolish, our desire to fit in with what everyone else thinks, that keeps us from stating the obvious. We don’t want everyone else to be laughing at us for being a fool, and this is precisely what makes us into fools. In this case, in the case of the ‘riddle which we don’t know to be a riddle’, we could say that it is only our ‘incapacity to ask the right question’ (or our ‘incapacity to connect with our own basic intelligence’) that keeps the illusion going. And yet so reliable is this incapacity that no one needs worry about the stability and durability of the illusion in question (or rather, not in question. This particular ‘colossal misapprehension’ is here to stay.



But what is this great illusion? What is this colossal misapprehension? The simplest, most childishly direct way to answer the question is with another question –


What side of our skin do we think we’re on, the ‘inside’ or the ‘outside’?”



Such a question makes us laugh. We laugh in amazement that such a stupid question could be asked; we all know very well indeed – too well, in fact – that we exist on the inside of our skins, not the outside. I am on the inside of this fragile, easily-compromised epidermal boundary; whilst on the outside is the big, bad world. On the outside is ‘the other’, the ‘not me’. What could be clearer and more obvious than this! Who could possibly be stupid (or deranged) enough to think otherwise?



And here of course is our illusion – right in front of our noses. This is precisely where the ‘tremendous misapprehension’ is to be found. How could it be that I am somehow contained on the inside of this little bag of skin? What am I that I can be physically and spatially contained in such a way? What do I take myself for that I can be kept in a physical container as if I am a sack of flour, a bag of granulated sugar, or a jar of pickles? How ever did I end up thinking such a thing? Is the essence of who I am really some kind of containable, finite substance?



The hugely obvious answer is that we are as much on the outside of our skins as we are on the inside. The skin, the ‘self-containing epidermal boundary’, has nothing whatsoever to do with it! The ancient philosophers, who were not afraid to ask obvious questions, unlike their sophisticated modern counterparts, might have framed the key question slightly differently. They might have asked the question “Am I the microcosm or the Macrocosm?” Am I Homo minimus or Homo maximus? Whichever way we put the question it comes down to the same thing: am I to accept my current, limited perception of myself as being the ‘final statement’ on the matter, and plod on as best I can on this less-then-advantageous basis? Or am I open to possibly revising – possibly even in a radical way – my previously ‘fixed and immutable’ understanding of ‘Who I am’ and ‘What I am about’?






As an aid to understanding how the ‘mix up’ might have occurred – the mix up that lead me to believe I am only what exists on the inside of this precarious little bag of skin, and which caused me to live my whole life on this extraordinarily limited basis – we could use a simple visualization exercise. Suppose that you have an infinitely big sheet of white paper in front of you, a sheet of paper that goes on forever in all directions, a sheet of paper with no edges to it. This sheet of paper is wholly uncontained, it is space itself and space is by its very nature uncontained. Space is the very principle of openness, represented here in this visualization as an infinitely expansive sheet of paper. Although we said to imagine that this infinite sheet of paper is in front of you, the truth of the matter is that it actually is you. You are that infinitely expansive sheet of paper!



At the risk of being confusing, we are going to change tack yet again now: although we have just said that you are the sheet of paper, imagine that you are also somehow outside of it at the same time, and that you are standing there with a pair of paper-scissors in your hand. With these scissors you deftly cut a small hole in that vast sheet of paper – a small hole in the shape of a human figure. Whilst the sheet of paper is infinite and uncontained, the little ‘human-figure’ shape that you have just cut out is of course both finite and contained. It is finite and contained because it is limited (or ‘bounded’) on all sides, and because it isn’t anywhere else than where you have made it to be. This sounds pretty obvious but it is worth repeating all the same – the hole you have just cut out exists only on the inside of the boundary you have made for it and nowhere else.



And now imagine that – in a flash – you somehow ‘switch places’ with the person-shaped hole you have just cut out in the infinite sheet of paper. All of a sudden (and it happens much too fast for you to see it happening, or know how it has happened) that cut-out little ‘hole’ in the infinite white page becomes the totality of who you are. You are now that cut-out little figure of a person, staring out from the page, unable any longer to see anything apart from what you can see from this very limited perspective.






A very strange ‘switch-over’ has just occurred – an inversion in which the infinite and the unbounded has now become the photographic negative of itself, and has somehow ended up being finite, being bounded. You have gone from being infinity to being infinity-to-the-minus-one and the strangest thing of all is that you don’t realize what has happened! You have forgotten that you ever were infinite – and if someone were come up to you and suggest the idea to you then you would probably laugh out loud in their face! It would sound very stupid indeed to you to hear someone say such a ridiculous thing, and you simply wouldn’t have time for such nonsense…



Staying in role for a while as the ‘photographic negative of infinite space’, it is clear that life is going to look very different from this inverted perspective. Life is a whole different kettle of fish from the highly constrained viewpoint of the ‘conditioned self’ or ‘little self’; life from the point of view of the ‘little self’ cannot but appear a highly daunting proposition. It is no wonder that the little self feels so beleaguered, so vulnerable, so fragile; it is no wonder that it is prone to feeling insecure and is all too often wracked with anxiety, beset with worries, or even held hostage to outright fear. We can’t really blame the little self for being insecure and reacting to this insecurity by tending to become all defensive, guarded and generally ‘shut-down’ in its attitude to life – after all, the whole thing seems like such an unequal struggle. To be the little self in a vast, unpredictable and often apparently hostile world is enough to make anyone put up walls. There are a whole rake of disadvantages that ‘come with the territory’, and not so many advantages.






It is not just that the little self is very little and that the world (the other, the ‘not-self’) is very big – that’s not the half of it! The problem, in essence, is that the conditioned or little self has no real basis. It may seem rather mean to say such a thing but it is true, and so we have to say it. The little self is after all a completely arbitrary sort of a thing, which simply means that there is no actual basis to it; it is a house that has been very unwisely built on shifting sands and so how can it feel anything other than insecure? Because it isn’t built on anything secure, the slightest knock could be all that it takes to topple it forever.



It sounds funny to say that the self is only an arbitrary sort of thing; but of course the little self is arbitrary – it is after all the result of nothing more than an arbitrary choice on your part, the purely arbitrary choice to ‘cut it out’ where you did cut it out. Going back to the beginning of this visualization exercise, we can say without any fear of contradiction that this artificially-produced self is the result of your choice to establish, on a whim, a set of boundaries which, once established, went on to become an absolutely real identity for you.



The arbitrarily-established set of boundaries that go on to constitute the little self were not ‘serious’ when they were made, but they become very serious indeed after they have been made. The boundaries in question become the one thing we cannot have a sense of humour about – we might on occasion be playful in other areas, but not in this. We protect and defend them to the hilt and feel the greatest extremes of anguish, desolation and fear if anything ever happens to compromise them; even the thought that there might be something which will happen to threaten their integrity is enough to keep us awake at nights, worrying pointlessly about what we could do to prevent such a dreadful eventuality. This act of ‘identifying with a set of arbitrarily established boundaries’ is what creates the little self, and it is therefore what sets the scene for a whole life-time of worries and ‘boundary-related traumas’. No matter how secure the little self may feel itself to be it is never more than a millimetre away from sheer unreasoning panic, should anything come along to put its boundaries at risk.






Along with all this anxiety-type stuff, the ‘game of the little self’ that you have bought into means that you are now going to be plagued by the curse of ‘insubstantiality’. The small self can never run very far away from the sense that it has of its own insubstantiality, the sense that it has of its own essential ‘nullity’. Not only is it perennially troubled with the feeling of always being at risk, it is also haunted every step of the way by the barely-repressed feeling that it is a fraud, that it is a fake, that it is lacking in any sort of actual authenticity. The small self is pretending to be something it isn’t and there is no getting away from this! The small self isn’t the real self because there real self is the Big Self – the real self is the Self which has no boundaries to worry about or fret over. The Big Self has no boundary issues – or indeed any issues at all – because it is the whole of everything, because it is the Whole Thing!



The ‘experiment’ – if we can call it that – was one of becoming the little self, of putting yourself in the extraordinarily awkward position where you have to somehow ‘make do’ without the infinite resources of the True Self, and manage instead with the non-resources of that flimsy, brittle, insubstantial, forever-beleaguered, make-believe mannequin or toy which is the little self (or ‘ego’). Life lived on the basis that ‘you are the little self’ is not exactly a barrel of laughs; it is essentially a rather miserable and wretched situation because there is something very important that is missing. What is missing is the essence, the content, the actual substance. Without genuine substance you are put in a very difficult situation indeed – a forbiddingly difficult situation. Without substance you are faced with no choice but to ‘fake it’ (or ‘bluff it’) and this is exactly what you do. You put on a damn good show – a show that is so damn good that you get taken in by it yourself…






As a result of this identity-swap experiment with the ‘little self’ (which is the photographic reverse of who you really are) you are obliged to exchange essence for image, content for appearance. You – almost inevitably – get taken in by your own image, your own story, and so you end up thinking that you are something you’re not. This is, as Alan Watts says, a case of ‘mistaken identity’. The trouble with the self-image is that it has to be propped up the whole time – like a bank that is going to go bust unless the central government keeps pumping billions of dollars into it. And even if we spend a whole life-time pumping money and resources into it, the self-image can still ‘deflate’ in an instant – it is still totally liable to ‘pancake’, it is still liable to collapse into a gooey mess on the floor the moment we need it most! It is a bad bet, a bad relationship, an ill-advised affair that was doomed to end in tears from the very beginning.






So this is the life of the everyday or little self, which Krishnamurti calls the ‘self-image, whether we like to admit the truth of the situation to ourselves or not. This self-image is the very worst possible thing to depend upon because it because it is based entirely on illusions. And yet depend upon it we do! We’re continually waiting for our horse to come in for us, for our lucky day to come, ignoring past failures in this department, crossing our fingers, breathing a fervent prayer to the patron saint of gamblers. And yet the horse which we are putting all our money on doesn’t even exist…



So far the picture we have painted isn’t exactly rosy. But there is a sunny side all the same and that sunny side has to do with the fact that you aren’t really the poor beleaguered little self at all! That was just a kind of an experiment – an experiment to see what life looks like, so to speak, from this particular limited (or ‘inverted’) perspective. The prognosis for the terminally deluded self-image is not good, there is no hope at all that things could ever work out for it the way it wants and there never was. And yet this ought not to concern us so much really because the self-image is not who we are; the self-image is the appearance not the content, the designation not the reality, the ‘token’ not the thing itself. We don’t actually have to take its dramas as personally and as seriously and as humourlessly as we do in other words. The bottom line is that it is all just a game, it was all just a ‘playful experiment’ in seeing what life would seem like if we were the little self and not the Big Self.






The trouble is however that the way for us to be freed from the illusion that we actually are the little self is to see it for what it is – clearly and without any flattery or fearful shying away. If we can do this, then the illusion will drop away, all by itself. It is as simple as that. But even though the way to be freed from this otherwise highly pernicious illusion is so very remarkably simple, it also at the same time forbiddingly hard. The obstacle is that we are fundamentally averse to seeing anything difficult about ourselves. And if we do see something difficult, something unflattering or frightening, then our habitual reaction is either to blank it out or recriminate against ourselves for it, hate ourselves for it. Either we refuse to see anything crappy about ourselves or else we sink into a bottomless morass of self-blame. But both of these reactions involve ‘taking the self-image seriously’ – the point is not to see the self-image as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but to see it for what it is…



The self-image is neither good nor bad, it is simply illusory – it is a trickster, it is a spinner of intricate fantasies just as a garden spider is a spinner of sticky webs! The essence of this self-image that we have identified ourselves with is that it is not. It is a nullity, like an empty promise, a promise that means nothing. It is bogus – pure pretence, pure ‘appearance’. Of course we shy away from seeing the intrinsically fatuitous nature of the self-image – we shy away from seeing this deep truth because we are so very identified with it, and so we can’t bear the idea that we are fatuous or ‘fundamentally fraudulent’. This is a perception that very often comes out in depression, and rather than seeing it as valuable insight we regard it as ‘pathological’ and seek to repress the awareness with medication or cognitive therapies. Jut as a right-thinking American citizen doesn’t go around saying unpatriotic stuff about the good old US of A, and a good Catholic isn’t supposed to be disparaging of the Pope’s edicts, so we are not supposed to ever say that the conditioned self is fraudulent. This is akin to ‘letting the side down’ – in English terms, it just isn’t cricket.  The degree to which we are identified with the little self or self-image is the degree to which we find all this talk of the Big Self flatly incomprehensible. This is the way it has to be – the degree to which the idea of the Big Self makes sense to us is after all the degree to which we are not taking the little self seriously.



This kind of thing is ‘all or nothing’ – we have to put all our money on the horse or none at all. So in the identified state we put all our trust in what Alan Watts calls the ‘skin-encapsulated ego’, and no trust in the self which is outside of our own skin. If we did have faith in the Self which is in no particular place and which has no particular set of fixed or invariable features then we would not find it such an insurmountable difficulty to let go of the little self. The little self which has nothing at all going for it, other than the fact that it is ‘fixed’ and ‘definite’ (which is what gives us the sense of security that we crave so much). The flimsy and easily-threatened illusion of security is one thing however – the reality is another. The reality – not to put too fine a point on it – is an unmitigated disaster, and there really is no kinder way of putting it than this.






After time is spent in the accurate observation of all the drawbacks of ‘life lived on the basis of the little self’ (which necessarily means ‘life lived in denial of the Big Self’) it is perfectly natural – if not actually inevitable – that the inclination to carry on with the game, to continue with the experiment, will start to lessen. Once the illusion has been seen through then the appeal is gone, because the appeal lay in the illusion, and nowhere else.



Seeing the illusion means ‘seeing through the game’ and seeing through the game means that the appeal is lost. This doesn’t mean that we ‘take against’ the game and relate to it in the same way that a ‘recovering’ alcoholic might ‘take against’ the drink, and adopt a rigid, moralistic and condemnatory attitude to the whole business of drink and drinking. That is simply denying oneself something that one still very much wants; what is happening when we take up an unyielding moral stance and say that something or other is ‘a very bad thing’, ‘a great failing’, ‘a reprehensible vice’, and so on, is that we are playing the game of denying ourselves something that we secretly love very much. We won’t ever admit that we love it so much of course but the truth is that we absolutely idolize it – we place it on a pedestal, we worship it, we obsess about it.



Disidentifying with the false self is not like this; it does not involve becoming either a saint or a guilt-stricken sinner; it does not involve becoming a dreadful moralist or a ‘dry drunk’ – it is on the contrary a process which happens quite naturally, quite by itself, and which is quintessentially light and playful and full of humour.



One way to describe the process of disidentification, which is where we ‘flip back’ from the ‘photographic inverse’ of who we are back to who we really are is to say that we spend more and more time on the other side of the enclosing epidermal boundary. We spend more and more time looking in at that ‘cut-out’ inverted little self with gentle compassion as it goes through its compulsive dramas, as it worries and frets and pines and obsesses about its perennial issues. Alternatively, we could say that we spend less and less time getting caught up in it all. Instead of being squeezed the whole time into the dreadfully claustrophobic little compartment of the conditioned self, where everything is pressure and stress, we get moments when we are marvellously free and unconstrained – we even get moments like this when the drama is in full swing. There are now two elements in life – freedom and constraint, spontaneity and repetitive game-playing, and it is natural to gravitate away from the dark claustrophobic suffering back into the light.



This ‘flipping back again’ represents such an astonishingly unexpected change of perspective on life. It is quite without precedent – we never saw it coming, we simply never could have imagined it. All of our dreams and hopes were based on the wretchedly narrow little container we were dragging around with us wherever we went. When we dreamt we dreamt of freedom for the conditioned self, freedom for the conditioned self to ‘obey its conditioning’. We would never have been bold enough in our thinking to imagine the possibility of freedom from this anxiety-laden and security-obsessed little self. Despite being such a radically different orientation, however, this new way of being ‘wholly and completely free of the conditioned self’ is also perfectly natural – it’s not something we have to think about at all. It just happens – if we let it.



Looking at life from the perspective of the Big Self rather than the little self is such an extraordinary thing. Rather than being based on insecurity and the burning need to ‘shut-down’ in some way to compensate for this insecurity, the unattached way of being in the world is completely open and completely fearless. There is no small self to worry about any more – the small self’s worries were all quite in vain, as well as being entirely ‘to no avail’. In contrast to the little self, the Big Self is infinitely light and humorous and yet infinitely compassionate at the same time. It doesn’t take the issues that the small self constantly gets caught up in with any seriousness at all, not even the tiniest bit of seriousness, and yet it never runs out of patience.






Why – we might quite reasonably ask at this point – would we want to enter into the experiment in the first place if there is so little advantage to be had in the conditioned (and therefore ‘falsely imagined’) life of the little self? One answer that is sometimes offered is that it is only through enduring the horrors of absolute constraint that we can learn to appreciate the infinite blessing that is freedom. The one cannot be known without the other. It is as if a song-bird had been kept captive in a narrow dirty cage for year after year after year without ever being allowed out – a cage so dreadfully narrow that it hasn’t even the space to stretch its wings, never mind fly. And then one day, the owner of the cage forgets to close the door to the cage properly after cleaning it. The song-bird, after taking a few faltering steps towards freedom, gathers courage and takes flight. It flies around the room a few times and then departs from an open window into the spectacular welcoming openness of the unobstructed sky above…






And yet even speaking of the Big Self as ‘The Big Self’ is a misnomer – talking in this way is a ‘misapprehension in the making’. There is no Big Self looking in at the beleaguered little self – there is only ‘a looking in’. There is only a looking in at the contained situation, an accurate observation of the strange situation in which there is nobody trapped and nobody contained, but where there is – nevertheless – the pernicious illusion of there being somebody who is trapped, the persistent misapprehension of there being somebody who is contained.



This is not a case of a long-suffering prisoner who is finally freed from his prison. There never was a prisoner who needed to be freed. It is not the situation of ‘a prisoner being freed’ we are talking about here so much as a realization – the realization that there never was a prison and there never was a prisoner, and that in addition there never was anyone to have this realization…










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