Māyā, illusion, and the world of appearances
In some of our past posts on yogic topics, we make passing reference to the notion of ‘māyā,’ often translated as ‘the veil of illusion.’ Coined by different spiritual traditions –you can find references to it both in Hindu and Buddhist texts, for example– māyā is one of the key reasons for the practice of meditation, and teachers often make reference to it to introduce classes with or speak of our inability to properly see things. But do you know why?
We figured it might be worthwhile to spend a few minutes on the topic and explain such a key foundational term so that next time you sit down to meditate you know what you’re up against!
The truth about 'illusion'
The point of departure for any discussion on māyā is ourselves: our mechanism or system of perception and its in-built limitations. Think about this: how do you gain information about the world, other people, objects, your surroundings? Most of us will take a minute to consider the question and (hopefully) conclude that we gain most of our knowledge of these things through one (or several) of our physical senses.
In yoga, our senses connect to the so-called ‘manomaya kosha,’ one of 5 different sheaths or ‘layers of the soul’ deeply intertwined with our chakra system, our three bodies, and the different levels of existence described by this tradition –we’ll deliver individualized entries on each of these items very soon, so don’t worry if all of this still sounds a bit sci-fi or fake to you. In yoga, our souls are not one but many. They have layers like an onion, which accounts for the differences in degree of perception and experience each of us has in daily life. From those experiences that are most surface-like or superficial and that stay at the level of the physical body or the peel of the onion –with its needs and wants– to the deepest and most profound soulful realizations, hunches, understandings, and even cosmic awakenings that touch us at the level of our deepest and innermost spiritual heart. Life has degrees to it, and so do our esoteric bodies.
Anyway, Manomaya Kosha is the sheath most directly involved with the workings of our mind (in particular the ‘manas’ part of our mind), where mind is here to be understood as something encompassing the brain but also going beyond it. Manomaya kosha, then, would be the layer concerned with the interpretation of sensory impressions (sensory input) coming at us from the outer world through the five senses, but also with the interpretation of the emotions derived from (or produced out of) these sensations, and with filtering these according to particular in-built patterns of conduct and behavior (aka, our cultural conditioning).
Ordinarily, then, we can say that we gather information about the world around us to form impressions and make judgements about it through our senses, and thus, through our minds. But, as we’ve mentioned many times before in our entries, one can only know so much this way. Our senses and even our ability to process the information obtained through them have their limitations. Thus the notion of māyā. Because māyā does not merely translate as ‘the veil of illusion’ but rather as ‘that which pertains to the world of appearances’ too. And what is this world of appearances, you may be wondering? Well, you tell us! Because, as science and philosophy have noted from the beginning of human thought: all we know is that we know nothing.
This century-old paradox essentially speaks about the fact that what we inaccurately call ‘reality’ or ‘knowing’ is always, at best, partial knowing, partial reality: an incomplete (mis)construction of something deeper and more profound that we cannot fully grasp through recourse to mere intellectual knowing or language. And this something that transcends the appearance of things in the physical plane is what the notion of māyā hints at; the cause of a great deal of our suffering and the surface bit of something else that we here will call ‘REALITY all caps’ in lack of a better term for it.
Accessing ‘REALITY all caps’
Having established that our in-built mechanisms of perception are limited unto themselves –we only have 5 physical senses, for instance, instead of 9 or 10– we must also recognize that what we choose to pay attention to is also limited most of the time. We’re constantly screening out a great deal of surplus information in order to provide more accurate readings of the things we decide to pay proper attention to. So, we’re specialists on sub-realities, on sub-worlds, and sub-lives if you want. There’s always much more than meets the eye, yet we can only see, hear, smell, taste, or touch so much at a time. Thus the importance of going beyond the limitations of our physical bodies and their mechanisms of exploration to find lasting knowledge, to encounter enduring REALITY. And where can one find ‘REALITY all caps’ before it becomes ‘real’ the way we’re used to knowing it? Inside. Deep, deep inside.
The whole purpose of meditation is to bring us beyond the world of māyā, the world of appearances, and into that of inner REALITY: of REALITY before any filters or additives are added to it to enhance our lived experience and distract us from the inner Truth underlying all things. Because, Kant with his 'thing in itself' thesis had it right all along! The appearances we see, the objects we experience, the realities we encounter in the external world are all but the effects of REALITIES we cannot ‘see’ but that we can nonetheless experience and perceive from within –before words or cognitive understanding are even on the table.
Think of you as an entity. Would you say that you are your body, its thoughts, and feelings? Or would you say that there’s something more to it all? Something deeper that you perhaps cannot fully name with words, let alone frame with thoughts, but that exists nevertheless even before you manage to become aware of it? For yogis, the answers to these questions were clear all along and meditation was but an open door to gaining a subjective understanding of REALITY before thoughts, words, known-world images, and appearances kicked in. True Knowing for yogis is thus knowing beyond the mind and before the mind; beyond manomaya kosha and its limitations and before manomaya kosha and its limitations; beyond the brain and its too literal, too rational, too frameworked bias, and before the brain and its too literal, too rational, too frameworked bias. And so, the method to strive for, the way to transcend māyā and the traps of the world of appearances so as to get to experience ‘REALITY all caps’ is nothing but the practice of self-awareness, self-discovery, and self-inquiry –which for yogis and people of similar traditions happens more easily through committed meditation and Yoga practice.
Hence, whenever you find the time to sit down and meditate, alone at home or at the studio surrounded by other people, you’re actually taking a minute to go beyond māyā and its crafty illusions and find Truth on your own and in your own terms.
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