What is Reality?

September 27, 2017

According to the Oxford Dictionary, “reality” is defined as “the state of things as they actually exist”. An additional definition provided is “the state or quality of having substance”. We see the world around us as real. The ups and downs we experience in life are felt to be very real as well. When we lose somebody, the pain is very real. At the same time, when we gain somebody like a new baby in the family, the happiness is very real. These emotional ups and downs are perceived within the confines of the reality that is the world around us. Let’s push that definition of reality a little bit more and confirm we still feel the same way.


This reality as we know it, is perceived in the waking state when we are able to interact and transact with the world and people around us. The obvious definition of reality that comes to our minds is based on these interactions while we are awake and moving about, because that is when we adhere to the Oxford definition of reality, which is about transacting with things “as they actually exist”. Now let’s explore the same notion of reality when we are in other states of living. When we are asleep and have a dream, we experience a different reality. Let’s say we’re asleep and in our dream we’re on a safari in Kenya. Imagine how beautiful everything around you is, as a part of that dream and how happy you feel. That dream feels very real. Now imagine that suddenly in that dream you’ve strayed away from your friends/family and find yourself alone and you suddenly see a lion walking towards you…you are now petrified in that same dream and it feels as real to you as anything else. That dream state that you experienced feels as “real” as what you experience when you are wide awake. The fact that you experienced this in your sleep means it technically doesn’t actually “exist”, but yet it feels like an alternate reality and somewhat violates the overly simplistic definition outlined in the Oxford dictionary. Now let’s take another state, when you are in a deep sleep and have no dreams…the entire world around you is non-existent and you can’t feel or see anything. You are still alive in this state, so this must also be another state of reality…a state of reality though where the entire world around us, as we know it, doesn’t exist. Think about that one...alive because you're breathing but not in a world as you know it...in fact in a state where this world doesn't exist. 


The Vedanta philosophy has a perspective on this. This philosophy, which I’ve discussed in an earlier article, is the genesis of most if not all eastern spiritual thinking, across religions, and with an undetermined origination date. According to this philosophy, everything is consciousness…a notion that has gained tremendous support with theoretical physicists from a quantum physics standpoint. The philosophy also says that the notion of reality being a singular one is incorrect and that there are really four states of consciousness:

  • the “waking state”, when we are awake and transact with the world around us;

  • the “dreaming state”, when we are asleep and dreaming, and continue to transact with the world as we know it…albeit differently;

  • the “dreamless sleep” state, when the entire world around us resolves and ceases to exist;

  • and finally, a fourth state of “Self-consciousness”, where we are one with God in a state of the utmost purity, completely devoid of egoism, delusion or materialism.

The greatest spiritual figures and prophets (across religions including the originators) learned to live their everyday lives in that fourth state of Self-consciousness and understood that taking what we see around us as the singular version of the “truth” or “reality” is incorrect. This depth of Self-realization and living in a perpetual state of Self-consciousness was/is the driver of their equanimity and godliness. They focused on the Self within, a.k.a. God and our only anchor in the midst of all the impermanence around us. The upper-case S is used to differentiate between the self as the physical body and the Self as the soul or God. This notion that there is a singular version of reality is what makes us overthink and overreact to all the suboptimal things that happen to us in our lives. This isn’t an issue clearly when the going is good. When our inner attitude is strong and we take the perspective that nothing can get to us or bring us down because it’s not real anyway, we start feeling a sense of calm and inner peace. 


The concern with this might be that if we treat the world around us as unreal, are we being fatalistic? What are we in control of? This isn't about fatalism or losing control, because we barely have any control anyway. We only control our present actions based on our free will. We don't control the past or the future. Even the present that has presented itself to us is not in our control...all we control is our response to the present situation. Our current response to the situation presented to us prepares our future from a karmic standpoint. I'll go into the law of karma in a different article since it is a highly involved concept that completely negates any considerations of fatalism. 


I realize this is a complex concept to understand and embrace, especially since we orient our version of reality and our sense of individuality based on the world we see around us. I would request though that you read this article a couple of times, find yourself some quiet time and really think deeply about what was shared here. Dissect it…challenge it…and then finally embrace it. If you’re not already into meditation, this could be the beginning of something beautiful…a budding relationship with the only version of reality that should matter…your Self (a.k.a. God). 

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