Real, But Not True


The other day a friend of mine sent an email describing a gift he’d received for Christmas. He alleged it was a storied intoxicant, a well-known topic of experimentation, poetry and discourse, effective in small measures but dangerous in larger doses. He proceeded to tell a story of a dream he had under the influence of this intoxicant, which may or may not have produced some unconscious writing in a language that he did (or did not) not previously know. In the morning he observed the result and recounted sending it off to be translated by someone with fluency. It turned out to be an ecstatic poem that lost nothing in the translation.

His description of this entire episode was so ethereal, so facile and convincing that I could easily have believed it, or at least in his own certainty of its reality. I wanted it to be true, at the same time thinking it could not possibly be so. But then I realised it might well have been true. Suddenly it didn’t matter, because however the story is told, the imagination is aroused. Reality shifts according to the subtle play of belief, experience, desire or aversion. No possibility is dismissed outright. The rational process can be overridden, even if only temporarily.

From that moment onward, as I engaged the plans and tasks for my day, including this writing, the difference between truth and fantasy became thoroughly muddied. The boundary between the two is at times so flimsy as to be chimeric – what passes for truth and falsehood change costumes so quickly, inferences flicker like shadows playing in firelight, that it no longer matters which costume I wish to wear. I can entertain polar realities as if both are equally true even as one version may dominate in any given moment. Even the idea that one particular version must ever be true to the complete exclusion of the other, such as believing there is only one god, for example, or that I might ever really care about Twitter (ten years later), becomes absurd, a laughable proposition.

But as I dwell more deeply in what is apparently real, that too becomes a mere shifting boundary between alternative material realities, none of which are convincing. Yes, I could be hit by a bus tomorrow. That would be convincingly real. But would all the consequences be entirely true? Or might there be an illusory quality to the shifting way I could respond to those consequences?

We all operate as if we know the difference between what is real and what is true or as if there is no difference. We are anchored in beliefs that rely on their material nature to greater or lesser degrees. What happens when we have an experience that undermines the firm and reliable boundary that we have constructed to make the many decisions that arise in a given day? What do we believe about ourselves and others that amounts to nothing more than transient decisions about circumstances that are shifting much faster than we are ever likely to notice or acknowledge?

I might conjecture that in a parallel universe, every interpretation of reality is true. And why not? Each option is only sustained by consensus anyway. A stone and a dream are both real, though not necessarily equally true according to the dominant paradigm of rationality. But under analysis, even the stone, as a temporary arrangement of molecules whose essential nature is pure energy, light itself, the apparent material differences melt away.

This is not to say that hunger isn’t real, or that disease or war or exploitation or crimes against nature aren’t real. They are just as real, yet not morally equivalent to a fundamentally altruistic human nature. And even that is a matter of choice. Especially that. Absent the inconceivable complexity of such interlocking interdependent decisions, stripped of all the imputations of human consciousness imposed upon them, all phenomena at their essence lack any quality whatsoever that might categorise them or predict our individual responses to them. Hence, all are equal in nature to each other. This is the non-dual view of Dzogchen. It is our choices that navigate amongst possible futures, creating the mosaic of our lives and influence the lives of those we contact.

All phenomena, either apprehended by the five senses or not, however real they may appear to be, according to this day’s events, reside in a dynamic zone of potentiality in which instantaneous decisions determine the reality we are believing at any given moment, whether the dosage and balance of our preferred intoxicants are helping us write the poetry of our dreams, satisfying as it may be, or helping us see through the dream to the essential chimeric (empty) nature of all realities. I believe both versions of my friend’s story. They may not be equally real. But they are both true.

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