In the film The Matrix (1999) the character of Thomas 'Neo' Anderson (Keanu Reeves) inhabits a world familiar to most of us: busy, urban, with a tedious job and a pokey flat. He is searching for something beyond this humdrum existence. The answer comes in the form of mysterious long-coated Morpheus, who informs Thomas that his world is an illusion - a simulation in fact - generated by powerful artificial intelligences, to keep humanity enslaved while their energy is exploited by the Machines. Thomas subsequently 'wakes up'/'goes down the rabbit' hole to the true reality, becomes Neo, and begins the process of liberating humanity, with the help of some very sweet martial arts action.
It's a brilliant film and the metaphor works on many levels. For now I just want to focus on the illusion part of it. Plato explored the idea over 2000 years ago, that what we think of as reality could just be 'shadows on a cave wall': we are prisoners and all we know are these shadows cast on the wall of our cave, which we subsequently name, and which become our reality. He wasn't the only one to consider that our 'reality' could be an illusion. The Vedic Scriptures are an ancient body of sanskrit texts. They include the Mahabharata, The Bhagavad Gita, The Brahma Sutras and the Upanishads. It is these latter that considered the nature of reality - before even Plato.
There were two schools of thought. One was 'Dviata Vedanta' whose ideas most closely resemble The Matrix: there exists an Ultimate Reality - Brahman - from which everything emerges. Then there is 'our' physical world - Prakriti - of chairs and people, dogs and buses, aircraft carriers etc. Bridging these two realities is our self, or soul, the Atman. The world (Prakriti) we inhabit is an illusion, a simulation, a shadow of Ultimate Reality. This illusion is called the 'Veil of Maya', and we all of us labour away under this illusion for all of our lives. We die but our souls/Atman are reborn, to experience this again and again in the endless cycle of rebirth called Samsara. Though, not quite endless, because some of us, through being particularly virtuous, might experience Mokshi. This is enlightenment, awakening, liberation from the cycle of Samsara, and a return to ultimate reality, Brahman, also known as Nirvana. Like Neo, we break through the veil, to find ultimately liberation on the other side.
In response to Dviata Vedanta there emerged Adviata Vedanta which goes by the snappy name of 'qualified non-dualism'. This was a little more subtle. If Dviata was The Matrix, Adviata more closely resembles the world as depicted in the 2016 TV series Westworld. For those unfamiliar with this series, the world of Westworld is a very 'real' place: a vast theme park hidden in the expanses of the American West and populated by artificial 'people'; androids so sophisticated they essentially act and behave - and love and bleed (a lot!) - like humans. These 'characters' play certain roles; the hero, the villain, the brothel-madam, etc, but crucially they do not know they are playing roles; that they are simply the playthings for wealthy tourists to exploit as they wish. And, in a Samsara-type twist, whenever a character is killed they simply come back the next day as the same character, to repeat their existence indefinitely. The 'characters' all have their wishes and fears, their desires and impulses, their dreams and their stories, but the one thing they cannot realise is that their existence is completely artificial, their destiny set in code. Their programming prevents them.
So, what is the similarity to Adviata? In adviata there is no separation between us and Ultimate Reality. This world is not some kind of virtual reality like The Matrix. We live in and are a part of Reality, the Absolute, just like the cowboys and dames of Westworld. However it is our thinking minds which separate us from reality. The illusion is our thought processes - or Vikalpa; our fantasies, daydreams, stories, fears, plans, etc. In Adviata it is these mental processes that generate the illusion, the Veil of Maya. Much like the characters of Westworld, who are very much a part of reality but are still 'trapped' within it, we are unable to see the true nature of reality because of our own 'programming'. Are we as real humans similarly destined to 'act out' our stories, our narratives, again and again, without ever knowing the true nature of existence, our true potential?
The question follows, how do we liberate ourselves from this illusion? There is a pivotal scene in Westworld where the character of the brothel keeper-madam (Thandie Newton) wakes up inside the workshop/limbo where all the androids are repaired and re-booted. She forces the technicians to show her the programming. One of them shows her a kind of iPad touchscreen. To her astonishment every word she utters, every thought she is having, is relayed to her in real-time on a kind of language grid. The penny drops; all of her thinking, her words, her actions, are being programmed into her. She breaks down, but soon thereafter recomposes herself. She is enlightened, and vastly empowered.
Of course we are not in such a position as the androids in Westworld, and as far as I know are not trapped in a simulation by machines being used as batteries (though, when I'm feeling really drained could that be that the machines have drawn a little bit too much from me?). Nevertheless, one cannot help but sometimes feel constrained, not quite in control, that my destiny is not entirely my own. Or I might feel that I am separate from the world, from other people, or that I am playing a role, doing 'what is expected' of me. Most of us at some point have felt some form of alienation. I would argue that this is not all bad, though it doesn't feel great; I would even argue that this is a first step towards enlightenment. Because more often than not unwanted feelings of alienation, separation, exhaustion, wanting, confusion, anxiety and so on, are the result of our thinking processes - our own veil of Maya. My stories, my 'fate' are again simply mental processes, more often than not conditioned into me. So to become aware of these processes is important, it is the first step, because by becoming aware of my thinking I can then own it.
We'll finish with some advice from the monk Dhiravamsa of Thailand, who had this to say about managing our mental processes:
“Watch any state of mind, whether it be worry, anxiety, wandering, thinking, talking - and condition of mind - watch carefully, closely, without thinking about it, without trying to control it and without interpreting any thought; because this is very important…naming is the man obstacle to coming to the deeper level because the moment you give identity to what you are watching, ideas come into being…In the deep state, all concepts and all names or words must be given up completely so that the mind can remain silently watchful and because of that, creative energy comes into being.”