What is reality, really?

The basic premise of “positive thinking” is that “your thoughts create your reality”.

One of the obstacles I’ve encountered is a narrow or limited interpretation of “reality”.

In the beginning I think I intentionally partitioned “the reality shaped by my thoughts” off from “actual reality”, because…well let’s face it: positive thinking material sounds like cringe-worthy new-age rubbish.

But at the same time I knew from philosophy of mind and psychology that our beliefs do shape our mood and our experience, and that our perceptions are highly malleable.

I also knew from personal experience that a change in belief or perception can have results that seem nigh-miraculous.

And because of my broader spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, I don’t have any trouble with the idea of actual miracles either.

But still, I maintained a kind of distinction between the “reality” I was seeking to change, and actual reality; and this distinction is problematic.

It’s problematic because if I can conceive of a reality apart from my all-encompassing experience of reality, then I can have thoughts and beliefs about that “real reality” that contradict or undermine what I’m trying to achieve in changing my thoughts.

So long as I hold on to a distinction between subjective and objective reality, there’s going to be some wriggle room or ambiguity in my work.

It’s the same as my recovery from my auto-immune disease. For a long time I investigated the psychogenic aspect of it, while still refusing to commit to a psychogenic cause. Once I finally accepted that the cause was psychological, only then did I make progress in overcoming the pain.

I only improved once I chose to believe that my physical symptoms were an expression of psychological stress.

So what is reality?

It’s a tautology, but I can’t experience anything beyond my own subjective experience.

Etymologically, “reality” comes from “res” which means “thing”.

Reality is just “all the things”.

We can’t disprove the subjectivist position that things only exist in our own experience of them, nor the skeptical position that we cannot know anything about reality beyond our experience of it, nor even the solipsist position that all reality might well exist only within my own mind.

Philosophers can argue about it, but we aren’t really looking for a philosophical position here.

What we’re looking for is the relationship between our thoughts, our feelings, and “all the things” of our experience.

What we want is to feel better, with the understanding that we have the power to change our feelings by changing our thoughts, and that this in turn will change our experience.

There’s only one “thing”

The testimony of mystics is that “all the things” are really just one thing — the expression and manifestation of a single divine being.

Our suffering and misery as humans comes from the identifying or “reification” of the one into many, and the attribution of independent existence and power to those many things – ourselves included.

Independence and separation give rise to thoughts of abandonment, of harm, of things going wrong. The moment we start thinking that we exist in a world of isolated things, we lose the freedom and grace of the divine spirit within us.

The metaphysical significance or “divine plan” behind delusion, sin, and evil varies between religions, but the important point is that it isn’t real, it doesn’t have independent existence; the divine alone exists.

When we think of reality as something “out there” with independent existence, and maybe (as my previous post explored) malicious or callous or corrosive to our well-being, we suffer.

We suffer just from thinking of it that way, let alone shifting our perception to seek out evidence that it is that way.

If I view “all the things” as existing out there, with their own independent existence and power, and I myself striving and struggling against them, then of course I feel bad.

What are “all the things” really? They are aspects of my experience, objects of my consciousness, forms and ingredients of this mysterious stream of awareness.

Do they really have their own existence, their own power?

Two realities become one

All my negative experiences have in common a kind of deference to external reality and power, a falling-back into the thought of things “out there” that aren’t the way I want them to be.

I view things as having their own existence and power, and therefore I imagine potential negative consequences if I don’t respond to them in the correct way.

Providence, grace, insight, wisdom, there are various names for it in different traditions, but altogether there’s a common understanding that the power of the divine, the one thing that actually exists, transcends and entirely overcomes the flawed sense that I’m an isolated human being struggling in a multifarious universe.

That’s why detachment, recollection, withdrawal from “worldly” concerns is a prominent theme in mysticism. But not for its own sake, only to allow us to come into alignment with the one.

In terms of “positive thinking” that means changing our thoughts to allow for providence or divine help to come to the fore in our experience, filling in all the gaps and drawing us into the flow that has always awaited us.

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6 thoughts on “What is reality, really?

  1. Nice final sentence there. And to become the flow, that “positive thinking” has to be surrendered. Every human thought, even the “positive” type, is a drawing of attention and awareness into a confinement, which is defined by the nature and content of that particular thought. A confinement can never reflect or be reality. So thoughts stand between us and reality (quoting my Yoga teacher). The “flow” is the present. It can never be perceived with the tool of thinking.

    • A lot of mysticism identifies the thinking mind as an obstacle to truth or reality. That was my interpretation previously. But nonetheless thought exists, and “positive” feels much better than “negative”.
      Much easier for a mentally sound and balanced person to practice Yoga than for someone with mental or physical illnesses, isn’t it?

      • Oh definitely. Constructive thoughts are better than destructive thoughts. Positive thinking could be a preparation for yoga. But yoga, in its true sense (i.e, technique to achieve the union with the divine), starts at the moment you leave your thoughts behind.
        I am assuming you don’t mean some kind of auto-suggestion when you say “positive thinking”. I think the problem with auto-suggestion, is that when the effort that is required to sustain it recedes (and it must at some point) then one can fall back into a previous state or even worse, (like a spring recoiling). On the other hand, if positive thinking is not artificially induced, but the result of a real inspiration, for example due to real and significant developements in ones life, spiritual or worldly, within or without, then it may have real value.

        “But nonetheless thought exists” – Does it, I wonder? I am pretty sure it does not have to! At least not always. My perception is that there is something illusory and limiting about thought. I believe it is confinement. Though, as you say, thought can be useful, sometimes maybe necessary.

        I do believe that, if the goal is to be in the “flow”, then this can can only be achieved from a thought free state of mind. If you cannot close your eyes and stop thinking for at least 10 seconds, I think you may be missing out on something big. If you ever feel like it, you might want to try to learn it. It shouldn’t be forced. It may not be right for you. I am just a beginner myself. There are various scientific papers on “mental silence” “internalized attention” “meditative state” “thoughtless awareness” “mindfulness meditation” and similar, that show that freedom from thought, as a meditative state, is a result of a unique but natural brain activity. The technique I learnt to experience thoughtless awareness is known as Sahaja Yoga. There are various scientific papers that suggest it is a valid, functioning technique. Another way is to to connect with nature for a long period of time and step by step reduce the activity of ones mind and sympathetic nervous sytem. But that is laborious. I believe Zen meditation techniques achieve the same goal.

        Can he who does not yet know the so called fourth state of conciousness, i.e. samahdi or thoughtless awareness be a knowledgable philosopher, I wonder? (friendly provocative question, rhetorical if you wish). I became a better musician (violin, piano) after achieving the ability to remain in thoughtless awareness for at least for short periods of time.

        • Thanks for your reply Martin.
          Different religions contain very similar descriptions of mystical states like Samahdi, which are usually interpreted as the individual being somehow closer to, or less distracted from, the divine. The thinking mind and worldly desires are typically regarded as an obstacle or distraction from the goal of union with the divine (whether that is understood as actually achieving a union, or realising a pre-existing union like the “Atman is Brahman” principle).

          In the past I tried to reach that state. I had some success, but the problem was my broader context of beliefs, thoughts, and emotions, and how to reconcile them with the positive unitive experiences.

          Because of my beliefs at the time, I interpreted mysticism in very binary terms: the thinking mind was “the problem” and so freedom from thought was “the solution”. At present I think I’ve found a solution in the “positive thinking” material, where there’s more a gradation of union or “alignment”, which includes both thoughts and meditative states.

          It turned out that I had a lot of “work” to do, not so much on meditation but on cleaning up my beliefs and thoughts about various aspects of life.

          As a Yoga student, how does Yoga inform other aspects of your life? For example, how does it influence your approach to money, family, relationships, and so on?

  2. Very impressive piece! I like how you relate your own experiences to the more abstract philosophical concepts that might help give them academic significance. You seem very well read on these ideas, but if you have not read “The Kyballion”, I recommend it! It is public domain and you can download it free from iBooks.

    • Thanks Alex. I hadn’t read The Kybalion. Thanks for the recommendation.
      I got into philosophy looking for answers to personal questions of suffering and a desire for meaning. But I don’t think academic philosophy has the kinds of answers I was looking for. Nonetheless it gave me a good sense of what can and cannot be proven, a taste for real acuity in reasoning, and an appreciation for how a change in perspective can change one’s whole world.
      It’s definitely personal meaning and happiness that motivate me, but I still value my philosophical training and knowledge for both the skills and intellectual context it provided.

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