At the height of the Renaissance, as Michelangelo,
Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci were crafting their
masterpieces, the prevailing theory of perception was
that light emanated from the eyes, not the other way
around. We can laugh now about the error, but then you
wonder: What beliefs do we cling to today that will one
day appear as folly?
Many of us walk around assuming that our eyes are
cameras faithfully recording a real world of objects. You
might want to sit down for this next part because you
aren’t going to like it.
Turns out perception is not a passive act of
apprehending objective reality. It is instead a highly
interpretative act that transmutes raw data into
recognizable shapes formed largely within our own
There’s a word for this phenomenon in Sanskrit:
maya. In their philosophical investigations, the ancient
Hindus realized that the perceptual field—the world
as presented to us by our five senses—was maya, an
ephemeral realm of thought-forms one step removed
from the energy field that generated them. In other
words, what you and I call “the world” or “reality” is
a creative, collaborative act built on a delicate dance
between perceived and perceiver.
The world of maya—all of these shapes, colors, sounds,
sensations, and the ideas we build upon them—acts as
a veil that ultimately hides true reality from us. And
what is that true reality? It is Brahman, the sacred and
formless ground of being from which all forms emerge
and to which all forms return. In a word, God.
For example, my senses tell me that I live in a world
of solid, relatively stable objects. My desk is just as it was
yesterday, as is my office and my house. But at the atomic
level, so-called solid matter is 99.99999 percent empty
space. I don’t know about you, but when I see five nines
after a decimal point, I round up. It turns out that the
allegedly solid world is 100 percent empty space—a fact
my sensory apparatus is too crude to perceive.
As Einstein and others showed us in the past century,
at the atomic level, the old Newtonian duality between
energy and matter disappears. There is only energy.
What you and I call matter is energy. All of this is only
Brahman. My body, my coffee mug, the Empire State
Building, everything is a vibrational apparition. Medical
pioneer Deepak Chopra calls the mistaken belief that
there actually is a substantive world of distinct objects
“the superstition of materialism.”
Every wisdom tradition reminds us of the transitory
nature of all forms. This heartbreakingly beautiful
world is a shifting cloud, but behind the veil of maya
lies an immutable realm beyond perception and beyond
thought. We can’t touch it, see it, or understand it, but we
can experience it.
Spiritual teachings offer maps and methods for this
shift. Study, prayer, sacred service, and meditation are the
most common. But it might even be simpler than that.
Embrace the method of no method. Take a walk. Watch
the sky. Listen to the sounds of the city. Hear the songs of
birds. Feel your own heart beating. Let go. Slip beneath
the thought-stream, a shift not so much achieved as
allowed. If everything is Brahman, not one of your steps
leads away from it. How can you seek what was never
lost? How can you become what you already are?
Spirituality, philosophy, and mythology from the world’s wisdom traditions
PETER BOLLAND, CHAIR OF THE
HUMANITIES DEPARTMENT AT
SOUTHWESTERN COLLEGE IN CHULA VISTA,
CALIFORNIA, ATTENDS THE UNITY CENTER
IN SAN DIEGO, WHERE HE TEACHES
CLASSES ON WORLD SPIRITUALITY. VISIT
The Veil of Perception
A TO ZEN