Really, What’s Really Real in Reality?

Article last modified on 02 May 2012
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You probably know the old Zen koan: If a tree falls in the forest when there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a noise?

The world is full of amazing, awesome, delightful, and wonderful things. Most people, however, never experience most of them, and therefore, for those people, these things don’t really exist. Confused? Yeah, it can be confusing if you approach it from the point of view that the universe as we know it exists, all the time, whether or not anyone is there to experience it.

Here’s an example from my own life-story. My husband has never seen the Grand Canyon. He has seen photos of it and spoken to people who have visited it (including myself). He therefore accepts that the Grand Canyon does, indeed, exist. However, he has never stood on the edge and been inspired to awe by it. He’s never had that experience, or any experience, of anything relating to the Grand Canyon, other than photographs and the descriptions given to him by other people. The experience of it, the essence of it, simply doesn’t exist for him. It’s not “real” to him, in his reality. Therefore, in his experience, in his life-story, there may as well not be a Grand Canyon at all. It’s not real, it doesn’t exist, it’s not part of his story or his reality.

I have never experienced the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I’ve studied it, I’ve seen photos of it, I’m sure I’d recognise it if I did see it in person, but the fact is, it doesn’t exist in my reality. I’ve never stood and looked up at Michelangelo’s famous work. Does it really exist? Not in my DIRECT experience. Nowhere in my life-story is there any record of having seen the Sistine Chapel or its ceiling (nor even visiting the Vatican in any capacity whatsoever). Therefore, it may as well be some wonderful book that someone made up to delight and amaze. Maybe I made it up, who knows? Ultimately, the Sistine Chapel is not real in my reality any direct sense.

Until and unless we experience something directly, it doesn’t really exist for us. Celebrities and politicians might just a well be cartoon characters or characters in a book. I’ve certainly met few to no “famous people”. They do not exist in my reality, except, perhaps in a peripheral and two-dimensional way (I sometimes see them on the cover of magazines in the supermarket, and the magazines do exist, because I sometimes pick them up and flip through them).

The future doesn’t exist. I have no doubt that one day I’ll see the Sistine Chapel with my own eyes and my husband will experience the awe of the Grand Canyon. But right NOW, at this point in linear time and material space, it doesn’t exist. And the things I’ve experienced in the past also don’t exist. The person I once was doesn’t exist. Lots of material things no longer exist (people have no trouble accepting that), but none of the intangible things exist now, either. They’re not real. Were they ever?

Now, just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that things literally cease to exist just because we’re not experiencing them at any given moment. I’m sure that the Grand Canyon is right were I last saw it and that various people who were once part of my life-story are still “out there somewhere” doing stuff (I might even encounter them again at some point, but they won’t be the same, just as I’m not the same; you can never step in the same river twice).

The point I am trying to make is that in MY experience, in MY world, in MY universe, right here and right now, these things don’t exist. And as the only place we really exist and can really experience is right here and right now, well…

If the actual experience of the thing is what makes the thing real for us, then the experience is the important thing here. Whether it is material or it’s spiritual or it’s “imaginary” or it’s some weird combination of those things, it doesn’t make any difference. You experience it, and it is real, for you, in your reality, for that moment in time and space. And when you cease to experience it, it is no longer real, though you may very well retain a memory of it having been.

Thus is the illusion of continuity maintained, and there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as you know it’s just an illusion. What is real for you right now, this very moment? Not things you can’t see, not things you’re not experiencing. Think about it.

And then think about that tree, falling in a forest, making or not making a sound…

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