A study of the topic of illusion as expounded in A Course in Miracles, Buddhism, Hinduism and other belief systems

By Raveena Nash

CONTENTS

Introduction
Chapter 1 A Course in Miracles – Illusion
Chapter 2 Buddhism – Illusion
Chapter 3 Hinduism – Illusion
Chapter 4 More on Illusion
Chapter 5 The One Mind
Chapter 6 Trapped in Time
Chapter 7 Overcoming the Ego
Chapter 8 It’s All An Illusion – So What?
Chapter 9 Forgiveness
Chapter 10 The Inevitability of Enlightenment

 

Chapter 1: A Course in Miracles – Illusion (Excerpt)

If we switch on the TV news, yet again we are bombarded with all manner of suffering: destitution, famine, disease, disability, violence, war, terrorism, loneliness, cruelty to each other and to animals, destruction of the environment, natural catastrophes – it’s a never-ending list. And furthermore, there seems to be no means of escaping from it all. History seems to be repeating itself over and over again ad infinitum. But how can all these horrific aspects of life on earth be reconciled with a God of love? The simple answer is that they cannot be.

Chatting to an atheist friend one day, I asked him why he was an atheist. “Look around,” he said, “The world is such a cruel and harsh place. How on earth could I believe in God?” And sadly I had to admit that what he said made sense.

But what if God is not responsible for the horrific things we see on our planet? What if He has nothing to do with them at all? What if all these things are not really happening but are only perceived by us to be taking place? What if…?

Well that is exactly the message of A Course in Miracles (ACIM). This meaningless world of ours was not created by God. “God did not create a meaningless world.” ACIM, W23, Lesson 14  God is perfect; God is eternal; God is unchanging; so how could He create a world that is far from perfect, exceedingly transient and forever changing? He could not! Here, at last, is something that does make sense.

A large part of this book will be dealing with the rather radical viewpoint that God did not create this world and all that is in it. In fact, this world is just an illusion. And, although that may seem to be a radical belief to many of us in the West, these teachings are neither new nor radical to those who have studied Buddhism and, to a certain extent, Hinduism….

ACIM teaches us that the physical body (which we believe exists but doesn’t) has only one function in our belief system and that is to be put to use to serve the Holy Spirit and in this way help bring about our salvation and the salvation of others. “The Holy Spirit teaches you to use your body only to reach your brothers, so He can teach His message through you. This will heal them and therefore heal you.” ACIM, T157

An equally important function that we have while we appear to be in our physical bodies is forgiveness. In fact, I see ACIM as being the path of forgiveness because when we realise that everything in the phenomenal world is an illusion, then we realise that all human beings are simply puppets ruled by an illusory, vulnerable and grasping ego. We are therefore not really to blame for our selfish thoughts, words and deeds because we know no better. However, upon awakening and becoming more conscious individuals, we gradually begin to overcome the ego, maybe initially at the subconscious level, but later it will inevitably be at the conscious level too. So we forgive people who are selfish, unkind, cruel, etc., because we recognise all those traits in ourselves and because we know it is not really their divine inner portion (or the “right” portion of their minds) that is acting this way. (We also have to learn how to forgive ourselves.) We don’t condone their deeds but we understand that they stem from the illusory ego and not from the divine spark within….

 

Chapter 3: Hinduism – Illusion (Excerpt)

….As the reader may be aware, there are many branches of yoga, including bhakti yoga, which is the yoga of devotion; karma yoga, the yoga of service; hatha yoga, the yoga that involves the training and purification of the physical body; raja yoga, the yoga that focuses on meditation and the training of the mind; kriya yoga, which involves breathing techniques to promote spiritual development; and Kundalini yoga, which involves awakening the Kundalini energy that lies dormant in the base chakra. There could be other forms of yoga, but for the purposes of this study I would like to stress that it is jnana yoga, above all the others, that deals with the concept of the non-reality of the ego.

…This is the basis of all ignorance that we, the immortal, the ever pure, the perfect Spirit, think that we are little minds, that we are little bodies; it is the mother of all selfishness. As soon as I think that I am a little body, I want to preserve it, to protect it, to keep it nice, at the expense of other bodies; then you and I become separate. As soon as the idea of separation comes, it opens the door to all mischief and leads to all misery.” ( Swami Vivekananda, Jnana Yoga, p. 40, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1993)  This passage could well have been something we could have come across in ACIM. Actually it was written by an Indian sage, Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902), who lived over a hundred years ago and who introduced yoga and the Vedanta (the Hindu spiritual tradition that is concerned with understanding the ultimate nature of reality and thereby achieving enlightenment) to the West. He was an eminent disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and he dealt at length with the topic of illusion or maya in his lectures and discussions.

With reference to the non-existence of the physical world, he explained, “It means that it (the world) has no absolute existence. It exists only in relation to my mind, to your mind, and to the mind of everyone else….; it has no unchangeable, immovable, infinite existence. Nor can it be called non-existence, seeing that it exists, and we have to work in and through it. It is a mixture of existence and non-existence.” Ibid., pp. 51-52. This may seem to differ somewhat from the teachings of ACIM but the Course does say that, although our world is unreal, it does appear to be real to those of us who are actually trapped in time and space and, therefore, it cannot be denied in that sense.

On the topic of maya or illusion, Vivekananda explained that those of us trapped in the veil of illusion are forced to experience good and bad, happiness and sorrow, laughter and tears, etc., “Both the forces of good and evil will keep our universe alive for us, until we awake from our dreams and give up this building of mud pies. That lesson we shall have to learn and it will take a long, long time to learn it.” Ibid., p. 63. So he too refers to life on earth as a “dream.” He points out that eventually we will tire of this world of illusions and, “There comes a time when the mind awakens from this long and dreary dream – the child gives up its play and wants to go back to its mother.” Explaining that satisfying desires only stokes the fire and actually increases them, he said, “This is true of all sense-enjoyments, of all intellectual enjoyments, and of all the enjoyments of which the human mind is capable. They are nothing; they are within Maya, within this network beyond which we cannot go….

…. Of all the Hindu sages that I have explored I think it is true to say that the teachings of Adi Sankara (788 – 820 AD) approximate the closest to the teachings of ACIM. Sankara (also known as Shankara or Sankaracharya) was an Indian philosopher who consolidated the teachings of the Advaita Vedanta. He preached pure non-duality and believed that there is only one Creator, Brahman, and nothing else has any reality. Sankara wrote commentaries on the Upanishads, on the Brahma Sutras and on the Bhagavad Gita. In one of his works, the Crest-Jewel of Discrimination (also known as The Crest-Jewel of Wisdom), he made it quite clear that the body is what stands between the individual soul and liberation. Speaking of the gross body he said, “Compounded of skin, blood, flesh, fat, marrow, excreta, and urine, it is most filthy…cease also to associate the Self in any way with the body of skin, flesh, and bones. Make every effort to root out this error and holding fast to the knowledge of reality as the absolute Brahman, destroy the mind and obtain supreme peace. Then you will have no more births. Even a learned scholar who perfectly understands the meaning of Vedanta has no hope of liberation if, owing to delusion, he cannot give up the idea of the non-existent body as the Self.” (Ramana Maharshi and Shankara, Ramana, Shankara and the Forty Verses, The Essential Teachings of Advaita, pp. 32-33, Watkins Publishing, London, 2002) So we see that knowledge of the scriptures will not help unless one is able to discriminate between the unreal and the real, i.e., the unreal physical or gross body and real self or spirit that was created by God or Brahman and is one with Him….

 

Chapter 7: Overcoming the Ego (Excerpt)

….ACIM points out that the ego produces so much conflict, confusion and chaos in our lives that the only reason we would not want to overcome it, is that we are unaware of exactly how destructive it is. That is why I think it is so important to learn all about it and to realise that both the ego and the physical world are just illusions.

I think it was a strong awareness of the impermanent nature of our world that helped me to instantly recognise the Truth in the Course’s teachings. As soon as I started studying ACIM I felt drawn to its message. Maybe this was because I have often pondered upon the meaning or meaninglessness of our existence. Losing a loved one highlights the impermanent nature of our lives. If one has always had a pet, as I have, then one is even more acutely conscious of how we are always ultimately deprived of all the things we love. I think this is because animals have such a short life span. Nothing is eternal. I should rephrase that. Nothing is eternal in the illusory world of the ego. But the ego tries to hide this from us by keeping us otherwise occupied. “Eternalness is the one function the ego has tried to develop, but has systematically failed to achieve.” So it tries to keep our mind off this issue by its “characteristic busyness with nonessentials…. Preoccupations with problems set up to be incapable of solution are favourite ego devices for impeding learning progress.ACIM, T66 & 67

….Yet another way of releasing ourselves from the ego’s clutches is to think only loving thoughts about others, and this, too, takes a lot of practice. But the Course tells us that if others attack us, it really is a cry for help because everything is based on either love or fear. “Fear and love are the only emotions of which you are capable.ACIM, T217 Therefore anything unloving is based on fear. We can see this in ourselves when we attack others and we can see it in others when they attack us. But what we have to do in both cases is to react in a loving way and seek the help of the Holy Spirit in this. “Fear is a symptom of your own deep sense of loss. If when you perceive it in others you learn to supply the loss (i.e., react in a loving manner), the basic cause of fear is removed. Thereby you teach yourself that fear does not exist in you. The means for removing it is in yourself, and you have demonstrated this by giving it.” ACIM, T217

Forgiveness comes into the process of overcoming the ego because it is through forgiveness that we overlook anything that happened in the past and also because being forgiving is a loving reaction that helps eradicate fear. Furthermore, if we are forgiving, it means we have embraced the Holy Spirit’s “holy instant,” which is the foremost weapon to use against the ego….

….When you understand the extent of the grip that the ego has on human beings it becomes much easier to understand human behaviour. You realise that, for instance, when one person lashes out at another or puts down another, this is merely his ego projecting its fears, guilt and inadequacies onto others so that he can feel better about himself. A person who seems to be very controlling is simple being ruled by an ego that is fighting for power to ensure its own survival. This is because the ego has created a finite and limited world and it therefore believes there is not enough of everything to go around. So it tries to grab as much as possible for itself. This could be money, power, possessions, the attention of another, etc. Actually, all the rivalry that we see in the world stems from the ego, i.e., sibling rivalry, jealousy between school children, competitiveness between sportsmen and rivalry at the work place and at the national and international levels. So ACIM can be seen as being a course on both spirituality and psychology because it gives us a very good insight into the whys and wherefores of all human behaviour. And if we remember that we are motivated either by love or by fear, then we realise that the majority of human actions and reactions are based on fear. A quick glance at a newspaper would be enough to prove that they are not usually based on love….

 

Chapter 8: It’s All An Illusion – So What? (Excerpt)

I imagine some readers by now may feel like asking, “OK, we understand that it’s all an illusion, but why don’t we just get on and enjoy our lives anyway?” That is a very valid question, and the answer depends on what you think the purpose of your life is. I have spent a large portion of my life just living it and enjoying it, but for many years I have felt that I have a loftier life purpose. We all have. So whilst there’s nothing wrong with living life and enjoying it, one may find that one’s goals in life change over time. Personally speaking, my own goals have changed quite dramatically in the past few years. Now all that really matters to me is salvation, enlightenment, or liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, whatever you want to call it. In order to achieve that, I have to awaken from the dream. I have to really know that it’s all an illusion so that I can do something about it; otherwise I will be trapped here forever and that is one thing I am determined not to be. Imagine reaching the end of your lifetime, looking back at all you did and realising that you had wasted it on trivialities and that actually you are no further forward than you were when you were born. What a horrible thought!

Freedom from illusions lies only in not believing them,” ACIM, T154 we are taught in ACIM. So in order to not believe in them, we have first to be aware of them. Hence the importance of studying this topic, and this is one of the reasons for the writing of this book. We need to know about the illusions if we are to succeed in overcoming them. “No one can escape from illusions unless he looks at them, for not looking is the way they are protected….” ACIM, T202

…. Indian author K.R. Paramahamsa also dwells on the importance of the investigation into the nature of the Self, in his book Tat Sat, although his beliefs differ somewhat from the teachings of ACIM as he places emphasis on consciousness, which the Course does not. However, there are some similarities. He said the Lord/the Self is the intelligence that dwells in the human body. This Self is pure intelligence or Cosmic Intelligence in which there is no distinction between subject and object. “He is the void in which the universe appears to exist. Only if one is firmly established in the unreality of the universe, like the blueness of the sky, can the Lord be realized. Dualism presupposes unity; non-dualism suggests dualism. Only when the creation is known to be utterly non-existent is the Lord realized.” (K. R. Paramahamsa, Tat Sat, p. 34, Total Recall Publications, Inc. Texas, 2007) So here an analogy can be made with ACIM. But then Paramahamsa explains that the Self is consciousness and is not unreal, but rather it is the “self of all” that dwells within human beings and has no beginning and no end. Nevertheless, we see some similarity with the Course on page 71 of Tat Sat, “The materiality of the creation is like the castle in the air, an illusory projection of one’s mind – imaginary.

I think it is important to bear in mind that although Hindu and Buddhist teachings differ in some aspects from the teachings of the Course, all three belief systems emphasize the need for introspection, contemplation and enquiry into the nature of the self. It is only in this way that one can come to a realisation of what is real and what is unreal and then, hopefully, overcome the unreal.

One lesson above all in the Course is particularly appealing to me. It is Lesson 199 in the Workbook: “I am not a body. I am free.” This lesson explains that as long as we identify with our physical bodies we will never be free. The ego clings onto the belief that it is a body because this ensures its survival. “Freedom must be impossible, as long as you perceive a body as yourself. The body is a limit…The mind can be made free when it no longer sees itself as in a body….The ego holds the body dear because it dwells in it, and lives united with the home that it has made. It is a part of the illusion that has sheltered it from being found illusory itself.” ACIM, W 382, Lesson 199 It is precisely because the physical form, with its five senses, feels and appears to be so real that it is difficult to believe otherwise. Yet we have no option but to overcome this illusion if we are to be liberated and achieve enlightenment….

 

Chapter 10: The Inevitability of Enlightenment (Excerpt)

….Enlightenment will eventually involve leaving the world of the ego completely behind and moving on without it. This inevitably must appear to be very threatening and frightening to the ego, because extinction is not a pleasant thought. I think this is why my ego often resists the process. Sometimes a sudden flash of fear engulfs my mind, usually last thing at night or at the unearthly hour of 3 or 4 a.m. I awaken almost trembling with fear, and at first I could not understand it. Then one day I realised that it was the doings of the ego, yet again. Insisting on clinging on and fearful for its own survival, it breeds anxiety and even panic in my mind. When this happens I call upon the Holy Spirit for help and ask Him to turn my thoughts to right-mindedness. If that doesn’t work I get up and make myself a hot herbal drink!

We are told that enlightenment does not involve extinction of anything but the ego. If we look at the term nirvana, it stands for liberation or spiritual perfection. But it does not involve annihilation. In an online encyclopaedia of religion I came across the following: “There is a wrong interpretation of the term Nirvana – as one’s disappearance in the emptiness (void). No: it is one’s lower self that disappears in the emptiness, but one’s Higher Self merges into the Ocean of the Universal Primordial Consciousness, enriching It by this.” (www.encyclopedia-of-religion.org/nirvana.html)

ACIM states something similar. With reference to the time when all egos have become one and the physical world is no more, it says, “The end of the world is not its destruction, but its translation into Heaven….” ACIM, T211

….That great thinker Wei Wu Wei dealt with topic of the non-existence of the self in a number of his books. With reference to the issue of how a person can be expected to believe that he does not exist, he explained that there is no such identity as that person in the first place. But what he can do is to become aware that he is not what he appears to be phenomenally. In other words, we need to change our awareness or perception of the phenomenal world, including ourselves. This is tantamount to what was said in the previous paragraph, i.e., we need to have true knowledge of the nature of things as they really are and of the non-existence of the self, or in the terminology of ACIM, we need to awaken from the dream….

….Although ACIM states that long periods of meditation are not necessary, several lessons refer to the need to remain still and quiet so as to hear the Holy Spirit. In fact, if one is busy rushing around all the time, I don’t think it is possible to ignore the activities of the body and welcome in the Holy Spirit. Lesson 106 says, “Let me be still and listen to the truth.” ACIM, W190, Lesson 106 We are urged to be quiet and listen to the Voice for God – the Holy Spirit, whose function is to bring about our salvation. “Listen, and hear your Father speak to you through His appointed Voice, which silences the thunder of the meaningless, and shows the way to peace to those who cannot see. Be still today and listen to the truth.” Other lessons in the Workbook also deal with stillness: Lesson 273, “The stillness of the peace of God is mine“; Lesson 125, “In quiet I receive God’s Word today“; Lesson 254, “Let every voice but God’s be still in me“; and Lesson 255, “This day I choose to spend in perfect peace.

Actually, the following passage is, in a way, suggesting that one should meditate. “In stillness we will hear God’s Voice today without intrusion of our petty thoughts, without our personal desires, and without all judgment of His holy Word…Today we will not listen to the world, but wait in silence for the Word of God.ACIM, W225, Lesson 125 And this is what meditation is – being still and listening to God. I don’t think it makes much difference if we use a mantra or not. Personally, when I meditate I start off with a lesson from the Workbook, which I repeat over and over in my mind and then I switch to the mantra Om. Despite my difficulty with meditation, I have received some guidance while meditating. Occasionally a few words or a phrase will penetrate my mind. One such example is the following phrase, “Life becomes a spiritual practice.” As soon as I came out of my meditation I wrote it down. It was obviously good advice. “Where there is fear, there is no love or light” was another message I once received during meditation. Yet another recent meditation in particular stands out in my mind. I heard a sudden bang and then saw a flash of light, like the flash on a camera. Then I clearly heard the words, “I am everywhere.” I came out of the meditation rather annoyed because I thought it was the ego talking to me. Then, after some thought, I realised it was more likely to be a message from my higher self or the Holy Spirit and the message made sense. If we are all one and are all part of God, God is everywhere….

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