What is Real?
As a child, regardless of the condition of our life, it just seems usual, ordinary. We have nothing to compare it with. It is often only as adults that we can have some perspective. Then we see our life narrative in relationship to what society considers normal and healthy, or dysfunctional and abnormal. For me, growing up in an “abusive alcoholic family” was just what my life was. I had no terminology in which to think about, label, or describe it, and thus didn’t have a judgment about it one way or another. It wasn’t good or bad, it just was life. Though I didn’t like my parents fighting or my dad’s fits of anger, I also didn’t have any conceptual tools in which to think about it. Our parents are instruments of our karma to teach us many things. (I hope you will think about this in your own life.)
Fortunately, it would seem that at a subconscious level (we could say Supersoul’s guidance) I did understand the possible negative effects of living in a tumultuous family environment. Thus, I was guided to use my particular karmic nature to defend myself. My strategy was to withdraw, or detach myself from potentially painful situations. Even though I have spent years learning to be more present, or “in my body,” I still can seem aloof occasionally. It has utility, but isn’t a good way to live in all times and places. Regardless, the aloofness I had in youth protected and helped me from possible emotional harm. Not being present, or having my heart withdrawn, seemed normal and real.
The point in bringing this up is that it is helpful for our peace of mind and happy relationships to deal with our past by understanding how certain conditioning impedes our harmonious interactions. Such endeavor can help us live in a way that is the most favorable for our spiritual life and being a balanced human being. Admittedly, negative habits or perspectives are difficult to overcome especially when they are intertwined with our spiritual foundation. However, by becoming aware through introspection and prayer we can gradually change, over a long time. I have found such work very useful on my journey to Krishna.
It wasn’t until my late teen years after high school that I was able to really examine my life. Out of body, and near-death experiences radically changed how I saw life, and what I thought was real. From my beyond the body perspective, my body looked foreign—dead even—and as I listened to my mind thinking, I felt no identification with it. The universe now seemed unlimitedly vast, while normal worldly perception was like seeing a speck of dust.
I understood that I didn’t see because I had physical eyes, hear because I had ears, or think because I had a material mind. All my bodily senses and my mind were actually limitations imposed on my soul, channeling my spiritual awareness into a tiny spectrum of material vision. I was truly a child of the universe, but only appeared to be a son of particular parents. My physical, temporary identity was unreal in the face of my nature as an eternal conscious spark of Divinity. Due to my new, albeit limited, understanding of a spiritual dimension, my life changed. I couldn’t go back to my dull and one dimensional conditioning, so I began a full time investigation to determine what was real, what was unreal—my spiritual search had begun.
Most of us have asked, “What is real?” at one time or another in varying circumstances, either directly or indirectly, and with different motivation. Although from a spiritual perspective the search for what is real, or permanent, can be the beginning of self-realization, the answer we receive depends on our earnestness to know and how our consciousness is colored or influenced. What type of lens does our pure conscious awareness use to interpret reality? In the ancient Chinese culture they would wonder about the influence of yin/yang upon our world view, or a balance of the two. Personally, I follow the language of Bhagavad Gita, and the bhakti Vedic scriptures.
From this perspective I would frame this question by asking what mode (guna), or quality of nature, are we primarily influenced by? Is it through goodness (purity, knowledge, illumination), passion (hankering for things, reputation, or position), ignorance (laziness, intoxication, or over sleeping), some combination of them, or by spiritual leanings? [See Bhagavad Gita chapter 14] For example, a tiger sees a young girl and feels “love” or attraction for her, but as dinner; a young boy also feels attraction for her, but as a companion and object of enjoyment; and finally a yogi or sage also feels love and attraction for a young girl—or any living being—as part of God who is worthy of his compassionate help.
Life is full of examples of situations that may challenge our belief in what is true or real. If our boy or girl friend, who has been telling us for some time that they “love us,” suddenly announces that they don’t know what love is, our emotions may go into a tailspin. A certain foundation of our life and heart seems to have suddenly changed, we question everything. More tragically, if a loved one suddenly dies without warning, what we thought was substantial, solid, and true, seems like a whimsical will of the wisp—something here today, gone tomorrow. I am sure you can think of many catastrophes—or you may have experienced one or more—when your world comes crashing down due to fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, car accident, or what have you. Such situations challenge us, and may pull us down into despair. We may wonder why there is suffering and if there is a solution to it. Ideally, we could be lead on a spiritual journey in the search for permanence and bliss, and thus contemplation the worlds sacred literature.
Spiritual inquiry has the possibility to be a game changer, bringing us to a transcendent perspective, or creating a favorable mood within us to inquire from a person with great spiritual wisdom. Otherwise, in bodily consciousness, we don’t really see the world, or other people, as they are, but as we are (or more correctly, as we materially think we are). Even if we agree on so-called objective reality—what occurred, and who are the players—we will interpret reality differently according to our prejudices. While we do have free will, our conditioned nature is our primary lens which determines how we see life, and how we react to circumstances.
In Eastern faith traditions it is considered that by spiritual practice (sadhana), informed by sacred texts and guided by experienced teachers, we’re gradually helped to recognize how our conditioning brings us suffering, and that our real identity is beyond the body. In the bhakti, or theistic devotional school, we assimilate the theory while actively engaging our senses and mind in bhakti, and in due course, we begin to realize our soul and its relationship to God, or as Gaudiya Vaishnavas know Him, Krishna and His energies.
Spiritual realization and experience—our personal subjective reality—corroborated by scripture and saints is the real solid foundation in life. Without that we often carried away by difficulties or reverses, and we feel we are going over Niagara Falls, with no possibility of rescue. If we don't have transcendental knowledge what we think is true is actually shaky ground, and sometimes quicksand, pulling us down. However, when we are truly blessed we are lead to search for what is real—even by what some would label as suffering or near-death—and find truth and reality in the eternal life of the soul, and its relationship with the Lord of its heart.