#5: Reality, really?

The Question

Dear Shaun,

Sometimes I experience a zen-like moment wherein I think, “Wow, nothing exists. I don’t exist, this room doesn’t exist, and the world definitely does not exist.” Everything seems very clear. However, I don’t know whether I should trust those brief seconds of clarity, especially when the rest of the time, my bills, Judeo-Christian values, and the trials of dating occupy all my attention and manifest themselves in an extremely real fashion.

My question is: What is reality, Shaun?


Alicia, Cambridge, MA

Comment by Alicia — 9/22/2004 @ 4:21 pm

The Answer


There is no spoon.

Also, let’s examine a work of literature that I believe contains many answers to life’s most difficult questions: Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol”. In this passage, Scrooge is confronting the ghost of Jacob Marley. I quote:

“What evidence would you have of my reality, beyond that of your senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

What I’m trying to say is that you have no evidence of reality beyond that which your senses provides. And we all know that our senses are inadequate when trying to discover the true nature of things (especially if they are affected by mustard). My belief (and this is not truly YOUR answer, only an opinion) is that the human spirit can transcend the mundane and drink in the true nature of things. Picture your mind as a camera with a focus knob. When you have these moments, perhaps the focus has been opened all the way – and because the focus is so wide, you can’t see the solid things you usually can.

Perhaps when you have these moments of unreality, you are sensing the fact that most of what we consider “real life” is made up of atoms, which are made up of mostly empty space. Since everything is really more empty space than solid, maybe that is what you are getting. Additionally, perhaps by disentangling your consciousness from the narrow focus that life forces on us, you are feeling a bit dwarfed by the vast expanses of space and time that surround us. Honestly, the numbers that represent the size and age of the universe cannot really be processed by our brains – and that could enhance your sense of unreality. Then, life crowds back in (in the forms you mentioned), and your focus narrows.

I suppose this doesn’t provide an empirical answer for you, but I would recommend enjoying those moments. I hope this answer satisfies you – and I would be more than happy to continue the debate it doesn’t. Good one!

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