Maya series: Part 1: How reality is conning you & why that’s a good thing!
This is the first part of a 4-part series. You can find the other parts here:
Part 1: An introduction to maya
A short primer on Maya
For those unfamiliar with mystical/experiential traditions in spirituality — an often recurring theme is one of “maya”. Having nothing to do with the Mayan civilization, this term instead refers to an illusionary veil that hides ultimate spiritual truths from seekers. Maya is said to include the physical world we see around us & all the subjective attributes this world seems to possess.
Similar claims are seen to be made by mystics across different cultures & religions including South American & African shamans, Jewish mystics, Sufis etc. And collections of psychedelic and breathwork experiences often mention similar themes (see Stanislav Grof’s book The Cosmic Game for a series of such accounts). If nothing else, it is quite intriguing how often & recurrently this concept comes up.
The concept resonates with me –having had similar experiences through meditation, psychedelics and even focussed thinking, maya feels undeniably real to me.
While my experiences seem to match literature in their description, there are big differences in the way maya is interpreted. Specifically, there are two dominant narratives around maya that seem to be overly simplified or even inaccurate to me.
This article is an attempt at providing an alternate narrative for maya — one that I believe is a more accurate representation of true reality (with lesser internal inconsistencies) compared to the narratives we usually encounter. Furthermore, an alternative inspiration could serve to empower people much more than the current dominant narratives.
The two narratives
The first narrative is usually espoused by people with very strong rational/scientific tendencies who still retain a belief in some deeper purpose of the universe — even if it is not readily observable. Philosophers might be a good term for them. I consider myself to be a member of this tribe.
Most people in this tribe prefer data over opinions & have limited sympathy for traditional faith based religions.
To this sub-group, the entire concept of maya (when they first come across it) has an obvious metaphorical quality to it. The concept of an illusion or there being a deeper truth to life seems to be a poetic way of talking, instead of something that is real & literal.
The second narrative is usually spoken of by the true believers with unflinching faith. Usually, this type is also obsessed with reaching the end of their spiritual journeys — one that culminates in the attainment of self-actualization. To them, this self-actualization is seen as the only worthwhile goal to pursue. At a certain part in my youth, I used to be a member of this tribe.
To many of these folk, maya is something abhorrent. Something that must be escaped as it prevents humanity from reaching its full potential. It is also holding them back from attaining the one obviously worthwhile goal of self-actualization.
Having been a member of these two tribes at some point in my life, I understand how these views can emerge. Having said that, in the face of certain observations — both narratives seem to have obvious defects.
We’ll dig into these defects in detail in the upcoming parts, but first let’s set the stage for our investigations.
Before going into details, it would be good to understand the reality around us in a bit of a structured manner. This can then help us answer questions about maya in a more focussed manner.
A useful way to think about reality is through the following diagram:
Three components of reality emerge.
First we have the physical reality forms the foundation of the universe that we occupy — it is the world of physics, chemistry & natural laws.
Above physical reality is the realm of biological beings that can perceive the physical world — this world of perception is referred to as perceptual reality.
Finally, I like to think of both physical & perceptual realities as existing in a metaphysical womb. This is “womb” is what makes the physical and perceptual emerge. A defining factor of this womb is duality — i.e., presence of multiple things instead of only one thing.
Observations on Narrative 1: The metaphorical maya
My main contention with this narrative is that maya is not just a metaphorical concept. As the hard sciences have made discoveries over the last two centuries, we see an increasing amount of evidence that hint at an obfuscation of the whole truth.
And this happens at every layer of reality.
I believe that there is nothing metaphorical about maya at each of these levels of reality. There is an observable obfuscation of the entire truth happening.
The other parts of the series will deal with each layer of the reality & highlight the specific rational or measurable obfuscation of truth.
Observations on Narrative 2: The vilified maya
This narrative is quite seductive to someone in pursuit of something. A hero often needs a villain to define himself. To a spiritual seeker who considers themselves the hero of their story, maya becomes a convenient villain.
It is often demonized as an inherent falsehood preventing humans from self-actualization. To me this is absurd. A dichotomy between maya and the truth seems to be created by seekers of the truth, but this seems more to be a narrative device, rather than the truth.
Maya is not falsehood — it is simply an aspect of the truth.
Demolishing maya & moving to a maya-less world is not only unnecessary but also ill-advised.
Demonizing it is like saying gravity is evil because it prevents you from leaping off buildings and flying. Yes, it is indeed bad in that context, but a world without gravity is likely to have many other complications that might make your falling to the ground seem like a good problem to have.
The other side of maya is not “ultimate or full truth”. It is at best — the other side of the whole truth
In the following parts, we will also hint at the purpose this half-truth (maya) serves at each level of reality mentioned above (physical, perceptual & metaphysical).
So …whats the alternative narrative?
We’ve talked a lot about what maya is not, perhaps it’s time to mention how to think of maya.
Maya can be defined as the overarching term for those aspects of the truth that punch above their weight and shape reality.
Why do I believe this over-achieving part-of-the-truth to be something to be celebrated & recognized?
Because it is very important to the purpose of the universe — a purpose that has the least number of internal inconsistencies that I’ve come across.
A semi-thorough examination of the purpose of universe is dealt with here. To summarize, an internally consistent theory / hypothesis for the “purpose of the universe” seems to be to maximize the number (width) & nature/quality of (depth) of interactions/experiences possible between different boundaries.
A boundary here can refer to an atom, a cell, a living being and even an eco-system. Some inherent (if vague) way that the world results in a multitude of things vs an unending infinity of one single thing.
This simple raison d’etre can even help us contextualize why many of the physical laws in our universe are the way they are. While it may not sound uplifting to some, to me it sounds like a wonderful reason.
Within this context, maya should be celebrated as it is the mechanism that prioritizes certain aspects of the truth to push the universe into a goldilocks zone of stability.
This goldilocks zone is extremely important in the context of the universe’s purpose (of increase width & depth of interactions between different boundaries) as:
- Too much stability could lead to stagnation. Hence impacting the number of new interactions possible (i.e., the width),
- Too little stability can lead to chaos. Hence impacting the nature/quality of interactions possible (i.e., the depth)
Maya is the goldilocks zone that helps regulate stability to maximize the width & optimize the depth of interactions and experiences possible.
In part two we’ll see what this means for the physical world.
Read about physical maya here.
Or maybe you want to skip to perceptual maya here
Or maybe even straight to metaphysical maya here, you daredevil.
P.S. Maya & you — why an individual should care
While our talk till now has been theoretical, there are also real-world implications for exploring this topic. This much has been evidenced by my own life experiences.
While one is flowing along the rivers of maya, you (the individual) are following the path that optimizes for the whole (the universe), but not necessarily the individual. I.e., Maya is exceptionally good at solving the problem the universe wants to solve — but not necessarily your problems
This pattern is not unique to maya. In fact, some evolutionary tendencies such as volatile emotions (anger, jealousy, FOMO) are all evolutionary useful for the survival of the species while also being happiness-destroying for the individual.
But just remembering that there’s more to things than what may appear (in a literal and visceral way) can help open up choices for the individual., This is especially true in daily living that operates under the perceptual & metaphysical realities. This includes giving us options of how we could perceive the reality or not limit our choices to only the options that fit the maya-aligned reality.
Perhaps an analogy more apt for the 21st century is needed — if maya is a great operating system, the ability to discern it gives us the optionality to become hackers.
To use our knowledge and get the things we want, even if it means hacking maya. To me, any optionality is an obviously good thing. Given the way optionality has a premium in financial transactions, I’m not alone in thinking this.