By Deepak Chopra, MD
In college, a time-honored theme for assigning term papers is to discuss appearance versus reality, which can be applied to questions as diverse as “Is the ghost of Hamlet’s father real?” and “What was actually at stake in the Cold War?” But this intriguing topic doesn’t usually stick, and when students graduate into a world of hard realities, they accept appearances without questioning them. In this way the mystery of appearance versus reality doesn’t get past the classroom.
It’s intriguing that hard, solid objects (the appearance) are constructed from packets of energy and invisible wave-like potentials (the reality), or that the clock on the mantel ticking away seconds, minutes, and hours (the appearance) is founded on a cosmic source where the flow of time is non-existent (the reality). But neither fact is relevant to how we lead our lives, is it?
To believe that is to lose the mystery of personal reality, because the ultimate illusion is to accept physical reality “out there” as a given, a kind of stage machinery that we walk through like actors. Personal reality has very few givens, in fact. It is constructed from dynamic, malleable materials. We exist to create, alter, and combine these materials, because above all, personal reality is participatory. On the other hand, if you renounce your role as creator and participant, you will be a lifelong victim of appearances versus reality.
For clarity’s sake, let’s arrange the elements of personal reality from the most superficial to the deepest and most fundamental. In its simplest form, your personal reality is like a ten-layer club sandwich.
- Surface events that “just happen.” These are the external circumstances that set up everyday situations like going to work, being stuck in traffic, taking an airline flight, etc.
- Personal likes and dislikes. These are ruled chiefly by habit and received opinions. We gravitate toward things we like and avoid those we dislike, thus expressing an individual point of view. But such choices, which go back to infancy, are more or less arbitrary.
- Memories of past traumas. This is the level where pleasure and pain register more deeply. Past wounds have not healed; therefore, they impact the present by warning us to avoid certain situations on fear of being hurt again. Most people have little or no control over their memories but instead are controlled by them.
- Innate predispositions. This is a mysterious region of psychological patterning we seem to be born with. In the East such predispositions are known as Karma, but terminology is irrelevant. There can be no doubt that some children are introvert and others extrovert, some are born with great talent in areas like music and mathematics, some are oriented more toward the physical than mental, and vice versa. Being ignorant of where predispositions come from, we feel mostly helpless to change them.
- Genes. This level contains the physical blueprint for the body, providing a source for the structure and function of every cell. Until very recently, geneticists considered the blueprint more or less fixed and unalterable.
- Collective consciousness. This level contains our shared perception of being human, complete with archetypes, myths, social values, and the ability to be part of an agreed world view. Whether it is known as the collective conscious or unconscious, most people are totally unaware of having their reality dictated by larger, hidden forces.
- Pre-conscious mind. Although “mind” and “consciousness” are used interchangeably, the brain is structured in layers, and the most primitive layer is the lower or reptilian brain. From here we obey primitive drives like fight-or-flight that are shared with animal ancestors. Because the brain is structured to give a privileged pathway to such drives, there is almost zero control over them by the higher, or thinking, brain.
- Interconnectivity. At this level cells function in harmony to produce both mind and body; therefore, this is where conscious events (thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations) are comingled with physical events (breathing, digestion, cardiac function). How this interconnectedness is managed remains totally mysterious.
- Non-locality. At this level all of Nature is orchestrated, beginning with the fine-tuned universe. Many riddles and paradoxes are contained here, but the one that relates to personal reality is very basic. We seem to inhabit a cosmos that is perfectly suited to the rise of human life on Earth, tuned to less than one part in a billion. The fact that this universe happens to be our home seems very far away, but in a sense nonlocality–the binding of all local events into one cosmic event–controls the finest details of every thought and action anyone has ever had.
- No-thing. This is the source, the timeless region of pre-creation that gave rise to the Big Bang. It has been termed “no-thing” instead of “nothing” because this void isn’t empty. It contains the invisible potential for all the matter and energy in existence. From it arise subatomic particles, the physical building blocks of reality, which wink in and out of the void (or quantum vacuum) thousands of times per second. No-thing seems quite abstract, but it is your source, here and now, and there is infinite importance in discovering how a totally unmanifest region of pure potential actually manifests. Reality as we know it is born here.
At each of these levels appearance must be sorted from reality, and quite often that’s a daunting challenge. In genetics, for example, the fixity of genes turned out to be an appearance, because in reality, as the new genetics is quickly discovering, genes are fluid and dynamic, responding to everyday events in thousands of ways. Therefore, if you take your personal reality seriously, you will see yourself in constant conversation with your own DNA as well as the teeming genetic populations of the microorganisms the inhabit your body (known collectively as the microbiome).
Science can be a huge help in areas like genetics and medicine, but for the most part, the challenge of personal reality is individual; it is met one person at a time. Again for the sake of clarity, here is how we are challenged by reality at each level.
- Surface events that “just happen.” The challenge is how to survive and thrive in the face of constant demands for your time. Sorting out what is most important, urgent, and relevant is part of becoming a mature adult who makes room for the life he or she wants to live.
- Personal likes and dislikes. The challenge here is to become open-minded and non-judgmental. Otherwise, our likes and dislikes turn into stubborn prejudices, judgments, and uncontrollable habits.
- Memories of past traumas. The challenge here is therapeutic, learning how to heal the past in order to be more present and free of old wounds and traumas.
- Innate predispositions. The simplest way to understand this challenge is that “bad” karma needs to be minimized and “good” karma expanded. In other words, through self-reflection you negotiate with the positive and negative sides of your personality and inner drives, aiming to bring the positive side to fruition. Participation in the human potential movement begins at this level of self-awareness.
- Genes. The challenge here is to achieve a level of well-being founded on beneficial genetic activity. Looking at the wide array of positive lifestyle choices that potentially affect your genes, you prioritize which ones will elevate your health and happiness. This involves diet, exercise, meditation, and stress management, to name some things that everyone’s wellbeing is strongly impacted by.
- Collective consciousness. The challenge is to free yourself from collective destiny in order to become a completely independent individual. Such a person strikes out to write their own life story and to explore every unanswered question instead of accepting the pre-programmed answers provided by the social matrix.
- Pre-conscious mind. The challenge here is two-fold. First, you must stop identifying with the voice of fear, anger, aggression, and other primitive drives, putting them back in their proper place as defenses that rarely need to be called upon. Second, you must delve into the very source of consciousness, to discover if primitive drives mask a deeper reality, the actual source of consciousness. Spiritual quests begin by crossing over into the domain of silent awareness.
- Interconnectivity. As the name implies, the challenge here is to connect, which in human terms means bonding through love, empathy, compassion, and self-awareness. The human project, so to speak, begins here, because all relationships are grounded on the possibility of connecting. Beyond personal relationships lie connections with even subtler domains of consciousness referred to using words like spirit, soul, and God.
- Non-locality. The challenge here is surrender, giving up your personal stake in the world in order to accept reality as it actually is–a unified whole that is capable of meeting any challenge effortlessly. The usual term for such acceptance is unity consciousness, a state where dualism and separation end, where observer and observed become one.
- No-thing. The finale challenge is beyond words, even beyond thought. It consists of merging to totally with existence that even the separate activity of knowing about yourself has vanished. You witness the unfolding of nature as awakening consciousness coming into manifestation. The transformation of no-thing into something captures your attention entirely.
Once you break personal reality down in this way–not that it is the only way, since there are untold maps of reality in every culture–it becomes clear that participation is everything. At each level there is a choice between the given (appearance) and the hidden (reality). The start of transformation is to discern this difference, because in a topsy-turvy world, the given is accepted as real while the hidden is never confronted. One cannot say if human beings will ever succeed in exchanging appearance for reality, but it is certain that we were designed for this very project and can accomplish it, one person at a time, however long that takes.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are Super Genes co-authored with Rudolph Tanzi, PhD and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. www.deepakchopra.com