What is Real?

This week’s question comes from the heart of yoga and meditation:  what is real?  The 8 limbs of yoga begin with the moral precepts, the yamas and niyamas, of which the first two are non-harming (ahimsa) and truthfulness (satya).  Truthfulness could be called reality, and is a guiding principle for a better life, yet truthfulness feels quite personal.  We often forget that our subjective reality is so specific to our own filters, our life experiences, and our sensitivities.  I have been on many a car ride, when the person wearing twelve sweaters will exclaim, “God, it’s so hot in here!”, and roll down their window.  One moment later the person in the tank top (me) shivers, “It’s freezing!  Put that window back up and I’ll turn on the heat!”.

Again, what is real?  Is the 65-degree temperature in the car hot or freezing?  Is the temperature good or bad?  Does it need to be changed?  It can be helpful to simply name your “reality” experiences as you own, “I am cold.”  or “I am hot.”.  We might also express our “reality” preferences, (“I would love it if you’d roll up that window.”) or offer to support someone else’s “reality” preference, even if we still prefer things our own way (“Can I offer you some of my twelve sweaters?”).

Moving beyond our desire to be comfortable, to have things our own way, we can look to ancient teachings for more sustainable support on questions about reality.  The meditation practice I love includes a preliminary prayer addressing the nature of reality, offering relief from everything I see, hear and think.  The invitation starts like this, “Whatever appears as it does as visible objects to the eyes, rest without taking it to be real.”


I get to rest from the mind’s continuous habit of deciding whether something I see is good or bad.  I get to rest from my desire to try to get more of those things I like and relief from my impulse to push away things I do not like.  It is freedom!  I don’t have to analyze any further, judge or discover how anything came to be.  I just get to rest, without taking anything to be real in the way that I ordinarily would.  It sounds so good, this resting, so why is it so hard?

Such ideas from Tibetan Buddhism are also put forth by the scientific community, delving into the nature of reality.  Many things are not what they appear to be.  Matter cannot be destroyed or created, only transformed, so why get attached to any of its forms?  If everything is made of atoms, is there a way to experience the world on this level, like the pixilations on a screen, with billions of variations of these tiny dots?  Further, could we relax our reactivity to the various ways these tiny dots come together, to look like a tree or a chair or a baby?

Things heard

The meditation practice I mentioned addresses things that are seen, then it refers to those sounds I hear.  Things get more subtle here, through the idea that there is a “union of sound and emptiness”.  I get to explore through my faculty of hearing, to listen for that union of sound and emptiness.  What is this emptiness?  It isn’t silence.  It isn’t nothingness.  It is sound, empty of my projections.  There is a purity there, a simplicity, another invitation to rest and simply be with sound or vibration.  We could say that the sound is real but that my ideas about sound are unique to me.  I like the sound of the birds, I don’t like the sound of the refrigerator motor.  When both are understood to be empty, I can relax more, free from longing for birdsong, no longer waiting for that fridge noise to shut off.


The third piece of this meditation is built upon those first two parts.  By relaxing my beliefs about what I see and hear, then I can apply that same “not knowing” to my thoughts.  The verse says, “Whatever arises as it does as objects in the imagination, regardless of what thoughts arise from the five emotional poisons, do not allow your mind to anticipate, follow after, or indulge in them.  By allowing this movement to rest in its own ground, you are free…”.

We could be free, but we usually get confused about what is real when it comes to thoughts.  It is possible to relax the mind and notice that objects simply arise.  It’s happening constantly.  Some meditation practices envision thoughts or objects like boats on a river, and you try to stay on the shore, letting the boats go on their way.  Should you step onto a boat, or jump aboard a thought, it could take you far away from here and now.

In the practice I do, we also strive to stay steady, and witness objects as they arise, maybe like clouds forming as the air moves over a high mountain.  The objects have no meaning of their own, but the mind could decide to get busy applying “emotional poisons” and give them more power.  These poisons include envy, pride, attachment and anger.  These are like those boats that could take you far away from the present.  We don’t try to stop thoughts or objects, but we allow them to relax down, to rest in their own ground, or dissolve back into their previous form.  If they were clouds, they could return to the water vapor they once were.  This allowing thoughts to drop down is skillful work, because emotions are very seductive, and we easily follow them because they can feel so real.

Emotions feel real, thoughts feel real, things I see and hear feel so real, yet none of them are lasting.  All of them are temporary, impermanent.  If I get excited about any of these things, either wanting them to last or wanting them to go away, I suffer. When I open to the nature of their real-ness, I can let all of this rest.  My mind can relax and my body can let down.  I can enjoy life, whether the day has rain or sunshine.

One last idea to ponder about reality:  in Tibetan Buddhism and in the yoga sutras, there is said to be some quality in all of us that is real, beyond impermanence, sometimes called the true nature of the mind.  Some call this enlightenment and sometimes we get glimpses of this during meditation.  It is often associated with light, and sometimes called God or The Universe.  You might experience it in other ways, during sex or in nature.  Some have touched this quality with hallucinogens.  Maybe this is the only thing that’s really real.

I hope you will keep asking questions about reality.  Enlightenment is said to be the release of cherished thoughts, so don’t get to stuck on your findings!

I’ve uploaded a recording of a mantra or prayer (Asatoma on the Practice Recordings page).  The meaning in English is:

Lead us from the unreal to the real,
From darkness to light,
From the finite to the infinite.
Peace, peace, peace