xkcd gets a little Buddhist on us. This strip is a wonderful illustration of the concept of “maya,” or the illusion that makes up our subjective world.
Buddhist perspectives on this will vary according to tradition and individuals, of course, but the way I see it, to describe the world as illusory is not to claim that the world doesn’t exist. When we talk about attachment to illusion, what we’re really describing is the way we react to all sensory inputs (including thoughts) as though they were solid, permanent, and inherently meaningful. We grab onto them (or flee) for dear life. We press more buttons!!! It’s important!
But why? Just like the images on our computer screens, our experience is pixellated: reducible to smaller and smaller (or larger and larger) units that alter the meanings we ascribe to familiar phenomena. When we investigate the ultimate nature of these phenomena (including, most importantly and terrifyingly, our “selves”), we see that they are essenceless. There is no core meaning hidden among the quarks. Just impersonal vibrations; lights.
Now, I’m not saying that when somebody’s pointing a gun to my head, all I need to do is remember, “This gun is made of a bunch of atoms,” and all will be well. Apparent, superficial reality does matter, and we can’t escape or control it by intellectualizing it. What we can do is learn to live with reality, as reality — which means remaining awakened to the constant impersonal changes in our lives. Changes that our deep mind is constantly processing, reacting to with craving or aversion, while our proximate mind is busy spinning its own stories, going about the day executing a slightly more complex version of “pressing buttons to make the pattern of lights change however I want.”
When we quiet our mental chatter, gain some insight into the impermanence of phenomena, and train the mind to respond with equanimity, we create more spaciousness and freedom to respond, not react, to lights and pixels. Rather than fearing, hating, craving or ignoring them, we can interact with them with greater patience, wisdom, and skill.
Awakening, graduating from ardent button-pressing, isn’t simple, and it isn’t easy. Far as I can tell, it takes a loooong time, and much diligence. A month from now, I’ll head back down to North Fork, CA for my third 10-day silent Vipassana meditation course, which is the form of practice most useful to me in dealing with the pixel problem. 10-day courses are tough. The hardest work I’ve ever done, by far — and also the most rewarding.
Wishing us all well in developing practices to deal with our metal boxes. I mean lives.
Is this the place you told me where they will allow you to do a free 10-day retreat? I still want to look into that place to see if I can go to one.
Yes! It is totally donation-based like EBMC. You should go! Hell yes! :)