Is the World an Illusion?
A question that is often asked regards the illusory nature of the world. In lieu of a traditional essay, I’ll share my answer to the reservation raised by many course students.
Question: The course teaches that the world is an illusion. Is that so, and if so, what about me? Do I not exist?
As with nearly every question regarding the course, it can be helpful to remember that the book is written on two levels. One is that of Truth, or Reality, which is an abstract "state" of infinite oneness. I put the word state in quotes because it isn’t actually a condition or province or any other such perceivable construct. It is beyond description. As the course says, "words are but symbols of symbols … they are thus twice removed from reality." (M-21.1)
And so we assiduously wield words, attempting to grasp their symbolic representations in this ethereal realm of which the course speaks. It relatedly uses many other synonyms for this state of oneness, including Heaven, Love, God, and Peace. This is the only reality. "We say 'God is,' and then we cease to speak." (W-pI.169.5)
If this were the only level the course described, it wouldn’t be very helpful for all who believe that their life and experiences are real. And so we have the metaphysics of illusion. In the course mythology, as we read, "into eternity, where all is one, there crept a tiny, mad, idea of separation." (T-27.VIII.6). A desire for distinction, a wish for self-hood. A bit like a petulant child wanting acknowledgement.
But an idea is just that, an idea. On its own it has no substance or effect. Unless it is invested with belief. Taking the preposterous "tiny, mad idea" seriously is what leads to the conviction that oneness has been supplanted by duality. Not in reality, but in the mind of the misperceiver. Which leads to the seeming self-fulfilling sense of identity. A me.
Born from the idea of separation, this self must experience lack and disconnectedness. Which of course we all experience in the multitudinous forms of suffering and the endless search for solace. Until we learn there is another way, toward which all great teachings point. Meeting us right where we believe we are, in the condition we believe we are in, guiding awareness beyond all pain, back to the eternal realm of perfect peace.
So, within that theoretical framework, what does the course mean by "the world is an illusion"? That statement is meaningless on the level of bodies. Of course we exist. And we interact with many other beings who similarly exist. We achieve, fail, and everything in between - doing our best to survive. Slowly coming to the realization that nothing really works, and certainly not for long. Which is often the opening to the idea that there must be another way. A different reality.
The illusory nature of the universe is a metaphysical concept that can only be grasped by transcending the self. The sphere of somnolence provides a helpful metaphor. If a character joined your dream at night and said to you, "This is all made up," you’d look at them as if they were deranged. Yet lucid dreamers know this for certain.
Rising above the sureness of self leads to an escape from all bounds of form. Pain instantly transformed into peace. This is the goal toward which the course’s teachings lead, beginning with our current beliefs in selfhood and reality.
So to answer the question, yes indeed, you very much exist. The course is not refuting our experience of life, relationships, and beingness. Nor is it suggesting we deny beliefs, shun responsibility, and throw our hands up in a defeated "what does it matter … it’s all an illusion anyway?" mindset.
But what it is recommending is that, while we are doing whatever we feel can help lessen the pain of existence, that we practice the course’s lessons. And in so doing, the sense of self gently transforms into a stateless reflection of infinite love. This is the miracle of "deep peace and tremendous release" for which the course is titled.
We’ll further discuss these concepts of existence, illusion, and transcendence in this week’s class. If you’d like to join, I look forward to seeing you then.