“To have his path made clear for him is the aspiration of every human being
in our beclouded and tempestuous existence.” (Joseph Conrad)
“If the doors of perception were cleansed,
everything will appear to men as it is – Inflnite”
It is difficult, if not impossible, to adequately describe or explain in words, the most profound experiences of life which are ultimately wordless. Who among us has not struggled to describe to others in words, the rare privilege of witnessing the Northern Lights, a beautiful alpine sunset, the birth of a child, or the sublime experience of a war-time tragedy or natural disaster? The words escape us, the language falls flat and never really seems to completely portray these powerful, sublime or transcendent moments. This is where the language of metaphor comes in.
A metaphor is simply a literary tool, a figure of speech, which is used to describe a subject, an experience, by comparing it to an otherwise unrelated subject, object or experience. For instance, when Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage” he obviously did not literally mean that the world is a real stage. He was figuratively describing the world as a stage where “all the men and women merely players….they have their exits and their entrances” (Wikipedia).
When we enter the realm of human conscious experience, particularly the profound and transcendent experiences of “enlightenment“, “transformation” and “awakening“, we are faced with such vague and metaphysical notions that plain language and words simply fall short of adequately describing these experiences. Therefore, many useful and descriptive metaphors of transformation have been used as tools in an attempt to portray the meaning, the experience of these powerful psychological states. Some of these include “dream sleep to awakening”, “separation to oneness, or “from death to rebirth”. But the one which has always resonated for me as a metaphor of transformation, is Illusion to Realization.
The best way for me to try and explain the personal roots and meaning of this perspective, this preferred “metaphor of transformation”, is to describe the personal experiences which have spoken to me through the process of going from illusion to realization, as well as other foundational ideas which appear to support this metaphorical connotation. Before I begin I would also like to try and lay out a physiological foundation to why this metaphor speaks to me.
Everything is Illusory
For the purpose of this post, I will avoid any philosophical discussion on the nature of reality or an attempt to address questions such as “is reality only what we see, feel, and hear or something more”? Although most of us walk around with a naïve and unwavering certainty in the “reality” of what our senses tell us, science tells us a very different story. Every single one of our human sensory systems (vision, hearing, touch, taste or smell), are severely limited in the range of information they are capable of sensing and then transmitting to our brains. We are all familiar with the fact that we can only experience a limited range of light waves and so things like x-rays, gamma rays, infra-red etc., are beyond our capacity to “see” and we must rely on other equipment to show us a more complete reality. Once you consider the similar limits to human hearing, touch, taste, and smell, it becomes difficult to argue that we humans actually “see” any of the True Reality and that as far as our senses go, what we believe we experience of the “real” world, is mostly an illusion due to the limits determined by our physiology and brains.
I also believe that we may have similar limits when it comes to human consciousness and awareness. If you agree that there are also boundaries to human consciousness, then it follows that these limitations may also impact our experience or perception of “reality”, particularly if “reality” also contains transcendent and metaphysical aspects. Much of neuroscience has told us that the human brain receives and processes far, far more information than what we are typically aware of at any given moment. Although I personally have trouble assigning exact figures to the gap between what we are aware of, and what our brains receive and process, a popular figure comes from Dr. Joe Dispenza who claims that “our brain processes 400 billion bits (400 gigabits) of information per second, but we are only aware of 2,000 bits (2 kilobits) of information” – a ratio of 200 million to 1.
If we consider the possibility that this figure is accurate, it suggests that our brains, and the amount of information our minds and consciousness may draw upon when building an image of “reality”, is based on 0.000000005% of all the information being taken in by our sensory systems and brain. To put this into perspective, human consciousness, our minds, are drawing conclusions about “reality” based on a very small sample of information about the size of a sugar-cube, while the True Reality, all of the information which is represented by the sugar cube, is around the size of a large 3 bedroom home sitting hidden under the surface of the sugar cube.
If we believe these studies from human physiology, neuroscience, and psychology, and we also believe that human consciousness and awareness of “reality” is fundamentally connected to these physiological and biological systems, than we can only conclude that there is far, far more “reality” out there, than what we are typically aware of at any given moment. In other words, we may ALWAYS be in a perpetual and inescapable state of profound ignorance and so any experience which transcends, assimilates or introduces more of this unseen “reality” will likely produce a metaphysical experience of “illumination” – an “aha” moment. The forest may suddenly appear before us through the trees. The True Nature of reality may be exposed, revealed, once the beclouded illusion of human perception has been wiped clear.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed,
everything will appear to men as it is – Inflnite”
My First Introduction to Illusion & Realization
I was first introduced to the potential of the human mind to experience altered or metaphysical states of awareness, through the writings of Carlos Castanenda and his experiences as a shaman-in-training. Although I was fascinated by the descriptions of the profound states of altered consciousness induced through the use of psychedelics such as peyote, mescaline, and datura, I had no first-hand knowledge or experience with these states of mind. However, there is no doubt that these writings laid the foundation for a curiosity into altered states of awareness, contemplations on the differences between what we “see” and what may be “real”, as well as creating a comfort-level for trying psychedelics in the future.
Early Psychedelic Drug Experience
The very first time I personally recognized that what I experienced in my every-day state of waking or sleeping awareness was only a small illusory window into my own consciousness, was when I first tried acid and mushrooms. At first I was very uneasy with the strange visual and auditory experiences which were mixed in with the real world around me, and the almost random manner in which images and scenes changed or evolved. What was most strange was that I always felt like an observer, a rational and normal witness to these colorful, synchronous and usually symmetrical streams of light, color and even textures which emanated from every object.
There was the object itself, say a chair, but it was then radiating other properties which seemed to connect it with everything else in the room. There was the “me” in physical form which I rationally knew was separate from the chair but there were these phenomena which I seemed to be part of as well and which connected “me” to both the chair, my physical body, and the consciousness trying to interpret the whole scene. I felt or “knew” all these things were both separate, yet also connected as one. What was also strange was the sense that there was some other consciousness, a “ghost in the machine” sort of feeling where I was aware of multiple levels or forms of consciousness all at the same time. Even capable of witnessing one aspect alone, yet collectively they were still one consciousness.
At times my thoughts would seem to drift as I would become absorbed into the psychedelic scene and time would become meaningless – no before or after, only now. Then suddenly I would be an observer once again, calmly, rationally witnessing the strange scene before me and trying to put meaning and understanding to what I was witnessing. Although these experiences were very long ago, I also seem to recall that many of the experiences had a revelatory sense to them, as if I were being told something, shown something for a purpose. My notion of God at the time was still very primitive and anthropomorphic, but I do believe that during more than one hallucinatory experience I felt that the “reality” of existence was being shown to me, and that this was somehow here all the time, but I was simply unable to see or experience it. Outside of these experiences I don’t recall thinking too much about them to any great extent, but I do believe I always felt that something had been “revealed” to me and the sense was not intellectual, but emotional. It just felt like I had been witness to something deeply meaningful and profound in some way. That the curtains had been drawn back, my vision clarified, the “illusion” removed and some Truth revealed to me evoking a realization of deep personal significance.
Near Death and Out of Body Experience
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind which experience of my life has had the most profoundly meaningful, revelatory and metaphysical impact whereby my life is divided into the time before, and the time after this event. No experience in my life has “revealed” more to me, has thrown the curtains of “illusion” wide-open to expose the True Nature of human conscious experience and metaphysical transcendence, than a near death (NDE) and out of body experience (OBE) during a long fall while rock climbing around 1987 or 1988.
I was climbing with a long-time friend and climbing-partner just below the Grand Wall of the Stawamus Chief in Squamish BC. The Chief is the second highest (610 meters) granite monolith in the world, second only to El Capitan (910 meters) in Yosemite Park California. Climbing routes are graded in difficulty by the crux, which is the hardest portion of the route. On this particular route I was leading, meaning I was out front with the rope below me. I came across a difficult portion which took me three tries and three successive 8-10 foot falls to get past. Once I made it past this spot, which I mistakenly thought was the crux, I then reached the real crux of the route. Unfortunately for me, since I figured the hard stuff was below me, I had been pretty lazy, and sloppy, putting in protection on the way up. I had run-out around 15-20 feet of rope beyond the last piece of protection and so this meant around a 30’-40’ fall, on sloppily placed gear, and already around 500-600’ above the ground. Once I realized I was now at the real crux, how much rope hung below me, how fatigued my body was, and the precarious nature of my position which required both hands in the crack to maintain my position, I knew I would fall the moment I tried to reach for some protection on my sling to place into the crack. I was getting more fatigued as I hung off the rock. The tips of my toes barely maintaining a purchase inside the crack below me with my knees flared outwards so my feet could angle into the crack. My left hand and 3-4 fingers barely inside the crack around belly-height. My right hand slightly above my head also with only 3-4 fingers barely inside and pulling back on the crack with my right elbow pointing off to my right. I knew I had very little time as my legs were starting to “sewing machine” (shake) under the load on my calves. I could also see that the crack above me, where I thought I might be able to place some protection, was off-width and so only a camming device would likely hold and I already used up my only “Friend” (camming device) below. Even before I let go with my right hand to try and grab a chock-stone to jam into the rock, I knew that the moment I let go with one hand, I would not have the strength, or the balance, to remain on the rock. At this precise moment, just before letting go with my right hand, my body was at its physical limits, my mind was exhausted due to the strain of the 3 previous falls and attempts to get to the point I was at now, and the knowledge, the psychological strain and anxiety combined to the realization that I was about to take the longest fall of my life. Compounding the fear was the knowledge that I only had two pieces of sloppily and hastily placed protection around 15-20 feet below me to halt my fall – assuming they stayed in the rock. At this exact moment, around 4-5 seconds before letting go, I suddenly relaxed inside and came to the fearless, non-judgmental realization and resolve that I would die today. But I had no fear, I had no regrets and as I let go with my right hand and my body fell backwards, EVERYTHING CHANGED INSTANTLY.
And now is where human language, words, are going to fail miserably at trying to convey the experience which followed. Poetic and metaphorical language is the ONLY way in which I can attempt to describe the experience. The first thing I believe I was “aware” of, was that “I”, whatever is the “observer” in my head, was no longer in the physical place, or space I was a “moment” ago. I put the word moment in quotations because there was no transition from one point to the next. No passage of one temporal position to another – I was simply THERE and there was no moment-to-moment transition, no passage of time.
The only way I can describe the experience was that it was “cloud-like”; everything seemed to be white and bright, but I could not identify or recognize anything in particular. Yet, and here is the really strange part, I KNEW I WAS EVERY THING. I no longer felt as if I were an individual, I “felt” as if I were everything, everyone, and everywhere. I “felt” or “sensed” all things, all life, all people, all thoughts, and yet, there was no effort to do this, no “thinking” I just “knew” with some type of Universal and Collective “seeing” or “awareness” which transcended thought, transcended time, transcended personal identity.
“The ultimate mystery of being is beyond all thought. As Kant said, the thing in itself is no thing. It transcends thingness, it goes past anything that could be thought. The best things can’t be told because they transcend thought. The second best are misunderstood because those are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which can’t be thought about. The third best are what we talk about. And myth is that field of reference to what is absolutely transcendent.” (Joseph Campbell)
The other aspect of this state was how instantaneously all the physiological, psychological, and emotional aspects of the previous “self” simply dissolved. Although I still had, or appeared to have an “I”, something capable of receiving and experiencing this transcendent moment, what “I” was, was very different from a moment ago. The sensation was also one of calmness, serenity, floating…..as if I were inside of joy. The state was so incredibly pleasurable, so inviting, that had I been given a choice to remain in that state, or return as the most famous, wealthy, handsome, enlightened, or powerful person that ever lived, it would have been impossible to leave that state of mind.
There simply are no words which can adequately describe an experience which defies traditional ways of “seeing” or “experiencing” the world. How can it be possible to see and sense all things, all life, all people, all consciousness and yet still sense this from the perspective of an observer, an “I”? Of course in real time I was rapidly falling to the ground. Once I reached the end of my downward journey, fortunately halted by my friend who had literally been yanked out from his belay station and was now suspended in the air due to the weight of my fall straightening out the rope line between myself and his anchor, I slammed against the rock, broke my ankle and dangled upside down. It took a moment before I realized where I was and what had just happened. My friend was yelling at me “are you ok?”, “are you hurt?” It took a few minutes before I could compose myself, but the pain in my leg and the pounding in my head soon encouraged me to recognize my predicament. Fortunately, my friend was trained in high-mountain rescue and with a simple make-shift splint and some fancy rope-work, we managed to make it back down the rock face, and eventually, to the emergency room for x-rays of my leg.
Transformational and Metaphysical Experience
Although I had always been a very introspective person, comfortable with, and intrigued by, my own thoughts and inner experience, as well as having a respect for and sense of connection with the natural world, indigenous people and their traditions, the OBE and NDE seemed to create a sense of reverence for life. It seemed to confirm within me a profound interconnectedness, simplicity and beauty of a single, still but focused moment in time suspended high above the ground, where my entire Universe was the small section of rock in front of me. Nothing else mattered, there was nothing else, everything that there ever was or ever could be, could be realized in every single moment of awakened consciousness, particularly while climbing. The fall seemed to have “revealed” something much more than anything I had experienced before. Although I don’t believe I spent too much time discussing or trying to understand what had happened to me, I am certain that the experience opened up within me a realization, a confirmation, a certainty of an unseen reality of life and human consciousness that was always there… just below the “illusory” surface of our dull, mundane and beclouded perception of day-to-day existence. And as quoted by the novelist Joseph Conrad and the character Major Briggs in the David Lynch series Twin Peaks:
“To have his path made clear for him is the aspiration of every human being in our beclouded and tempestuous existence.” (Joseph Conrad)
From that day forward back in the mid 80’s, my life, my perception and understanding of what is “real” and what is “illusory”, became solidified. I may not know exactly the “whatness” of this “reality”, or if there is a deeper meaning, purpose, or ethic behind such a state of awareness, but what I do know with certainty – to the very depth of my being – is that there is very little “realness” to what we see and experience in our everyday “illusory” existence. Just below the surface, and given the right circumstances and mental state, the True Nature of consciousness can be revealed to a mind receptive to such metaphysical and transcendent “realizations”. Once experienced, once “realized”, once “awakened”, one’s sense of self and existence are forever changed.
What “Illusion to Realization” Means to Me
I suppose the principle meaning I take away from these “realizations” of consciousness and the “illusory” nature of everyday existence, is that we are all capable drawing back the blinds which hide or disguise what is just under the surface. Although most of my own illuminating moments have come either through chemical changes to my brain, or extreme physical and psychological moments, I have also had hints, teasers into my own capacity to experience these states without having to ingest psychotropic drugs or fall off a mountain. I also know from many years of reading about, and loosely practicing, a spiritual life, meditation, and other contemplative activities, that one can reach these states of awareness, of “realization”, through mental discipline and training.
Another way that I look at these events collectively, sequentially, is that the early readings into shamanistic life and the use of psychotropic drugs in ritual practice planted the seed, the knowledge that metaphysical and transcendent states of mind are possible. My own early use of hallucinogens psychologically and experientially proved to me that yes, strange and “illuminating” states of mind are possible given the right chemicals, the right settings and a receptive mindset. However, the true confirmation, the proof that metaphysical, transcendent awareness of an underlying “reality” of human consciousness or existence is ALWAYS within us, without external chemical inducements, came during the fall and OBE/NDE experience. No drugs, no external factors, simply my own mind placed into a very unique set of circumstances which served as the trigger, the catalyst, for a metaphysical and transcendent state of epiphanous awareness and illumination.
Collectively, and cumulatively, these experiences have gradually built up from a conceptual curiosity, to psychological awareness, then first-hand knowledge and experience leading to certainty, and now the incentive to pursue, understand, expand, explore, and share this privileged wisdom of spiritual awakening, enlightenment and illumination, with the world.
“…everyday consciousness is a shadow play of illusions and images, and that the transformation of consciousness involves the transcending or dissolving of this web of illusions.” (Metzer)
“The most complete transformation of consciousness occurs when self-perception is altered from illusory self-images and concepts to “self-realization.” Self is then seen and experienced as the source and center of our total experience, our total world. This would seem to be the core of the Buddhist doctrine of non-self: to recognize the illusoriness of our images and concepts of self.” (Metzer)
“There are things known and there are things unknown,
and in between are the doors of perception” (Aldous Huxley)