What is reality?
I asked as we sat a small picnic table surrounded
by the dense forest that is northern Thailand.
And why, now more than ever, is it important
to know what reality is?
His vibrant eyes widened and his smile
awoke with satisfaction to the question
Reality is what is in front of you
in the moment that it is in front of you,
he said, his tone slightly mischievous,
knowing full well this answer would not
In Thai language we have several
different words for reality, but in English
we have to use a combination of words in
order to talk about this subject clearly.
He became more serious now, but in a warm
empathetic way. His sincere and gentle nature
implied the words he was about to speak
were of utmost importance. He leaned in
to share them with me like an old friend
would share a secret.
There is a personal reality and a
non-personal reality. The personal reality
is the non-personality reality put through
the filter of conditioning present in every
persons mind. And so when you see
the American flag, you have certain feelings,
certain emotions that are triggered by that
image. Perhaps pride, perhaps disgust. This
is the personal reality. But within the
non-personal reality there is only the flag
with its various shapes and colors,
no connected emotions and no connected ideas.
So a flag is a flag, not a symbol
of an ideology, I added.
Yes, in the non-personal reality
a flag is a flag, but we all know what happens
when a flag is burned and people start getting
anxious. He laughs as if emphasize
the silliness of the average persons
People live in a personal reality
which they truly believe is a non-personal
reality. There is no distinction in their
mind between these two realities and most
people are so attached to their idea of
reality, their personal reality, that they
simply cannot comprehend the fact that a
non-personal reality exists. His smile
remained but was less enthusiastic and more
empathetic than before.
I asked him why seeing this clearly was
of vital importance, now more than ever.
He replied that it has always been of vital
importance to realize the personal and impersonal
in life, but now the very survival of the
human race also depends upon peoples
ability to accept and co-exist with other
personal realities that may not be in line
with their own.
Why do you think people are so attached
to their ideologies? I asked.
When we use this word, it is easy
for people to think of the extreme ideologies
like the Islamic militant movement and the
capitalist democracy movement. These are
very extreme examples of people sticking
to their personal reality, each with equally
extreme consequences if not changed over
time. But there are much smaller examples
that have much larger effects on the average
persons life. Love, for example, is
a personal reality. Whether we are talking
about the romantic love, the friendship
love or the familial love, all forms of
love are a personal reality.
Can you give me an example?
Of course. The man who is broken
hearted, the widow whos life ends
with the death of her husband or the mother
who loses a child, all of these people
cannot see past their personal reality.
They confuse the feeling that they had while
being with the one that they loved with
the actual person. So when the person disappears,
the feeling disappears. What is unfortunate,
is that the grieving person cannot see that
it is the feeling that he or she misses,
not the person. That person may have given
them hope, security, laughter or interest
in life as a whole, but when all of these
feelings are taken away, the person truly
crashes and cannot see the truth in the
fact that they can indeed build a balanced
life without the other.
Many people say that losing a child
is the most difficult experience to go through
in life. I reflected aloud.
It would be to those who cannot see
their attachment to their own feelings.
Which is almost all of us.
We spent the afternoon continuing the conversation
around the idea of personal and non-personal
reality. Much more than just a philosophical
discussion, talking with the teacher at
the Foundation for Balanced Growth in northern
Thailand, taught me how much we humans are
attached to our ideas of about reality,
rather than seeing reality clearly as it
is. To many men, a woman is no longer just
a woman, but an object of his desire and
assurance of love and affection. The man
longs for money because he believes that
with money comes a beautiful wife, a good
job, a nice home, a fashionable car and
exotic travel. He thinks, somehow, that
in the light at the end of this tunnel of
desire there is peace and happiness. To
many women, a better figure, a faithful
husband, loving children and a successful
career will somehow transport them to the
same place the man is wishing to go. In
the ideal world of love, the man and woman
will somehow help each other get to this
heaven together. But if we are
honest with ourselves, what is it that we
are truly looking for? If it is support
and security, if it is pleasure and assurance,
then once we have these things, how much
energy will we need to expend in protecting
them? And when, if ever, is enough truly
Granted this first question of What
is reality? has brought up more questions
than it has answers, but this is a good
thing. Only through our own enquiry into
our own personal reality, can we ever thoroughly
understand the non-personal reality.