Illusion, Relative and Absolute walk into a bar

I was on a first date on the weekend, a drink in a pub as it happens, and of course he asked the question ‘What do you do?’.

‘I run programmes that explore reality and that there is no objective self and other’, I said.

‘Isn’t that a bit woo-woo?’ he asked. (Which actually was an improvement on the ‘Right…’ and tumbleweed of other dates I have had.)

And I launched into a defence of this exploration. Which the grip of tension, offence and resentment in my body clearly showed was nothing to do with defending the exploration and everything to do with defending ME.

In that moment, I had to be right. My work had to be respected. He needed to understand. His view had to be corrected.

In other words, me, my, mine vs. he, him, his – all alive and well in a conversation about there being no self and no other… Let’s face it – that was never going to end well.

One of the biggest (and most valid criticisms) of a ‘spiritual’ approach is that it can lead to denial or bypass of reality. But on the other hand, when that reality looks so real that there is no space to see the greater truth, then that is also confusion.

So what is real? Was there really a Clare and a good-looking man (I’ll preserve his anonymity poor fellow he’s already got enough to deal with with blog posts being written about him after a two hour date) in a pub? For the benefit of me on potential future dates, let’s try to clear this up a bit.

One way to clear it up is through the recognition of:

The Illusory,

The Relative and

The Absolute.

Let’s start (at the very beginning) with the Absolute.

This is what is beyond thought, beyond definition. It is what never changes, that has no limit or edge, that cannot be compared or judged or categorised.

Teachers and authors put words to the Absolute knowing that these are a half way house to describing the indescribable. As Michael Neill said, it is like pointing to a fire with an icicle. The closer we get to it, the less we have to point with.

Nevertheless, the Absolute exists, (indeed is the only thing that exists) and is what gives rise to the experience of life in form.

We might call it ‘life’ or ‘beingness’ or ‘aliveness’ or ‘intelligence’ or ‘consciousness’ or ‘presence’.

All of which are infinite, Absolute and fundamentally what we are. Without this, no us. And, it could be said, without us, no glimpse even of this.

The Absolute is deepest peace because it is the only truth. It is the deepest freedom, because the truth sets us free.

The reality of that evening in the pub is that the Absolute was the only objective, reliable truth. There was consciousness, aliveness, intelligence. Unchanging. Unaffected. Impossible to distort.

And this whole truth and only truth was momentarily obscured in that mini fight for survival of defending my work. My identity was under-threat. When it looks like the identity is us, this is life and death. Stress, tension, conflict.

And all because the Absolute was hidden by the drama of the story of me.

Which opens up the very valid questions ‘But what about Hitler? What about violence and poverty? What about cancer? What about pain? What about grief and death of loved ones?’

Are you saying none of that is real…?

It is time now to move on to the Relative…

The worst that happened to me in that pub was a good looking man saying my work was a bit woo-woo. But what if he had stolen my wallet? Or hit me? Or drugged and kidnapped me?

If we say none of that is real, that it’s all just ‘a story of me’ or a ‘dream’ aren’t we heading into the very dangerous area of hands over the ears, tra-la-la-la spiritual bypass?

Absolutely we are (see what I did there?)

And this is a pivotal point in this exploration: the recognition of the Relative.

This is the world of apparent form. Tables, chairs, mountains, this body, other bodies , lions, ants, iPhones… and so on. The word apparent is important. Because these objects are perceived (unlike the Absolute, which enables perception). And perception, of course, is a distorting tool. Perceptual limits cut off a potential reality which exists but which isn’t available to the perceiving organism. And the experience of the organism subconsciously dictates the appearance, meaning, associations, implications, category, definition, storage of that perception.

So all objects are Relative. They are not Absolute. The material world has to exist in perception. It cannot exist any other way.

And yet it still has an apparent reality to it, the denial of which serves no one.

Problems arise in the human world because of the tremendously powerful, creative spin the mind puts on simple apparent reality. We are not just dealing with the actual real time data available in this moment. We are dealing with all the meanings, associations, memories, imagined futures. None of which are Absolute truth yet the on-going experience of the world appears objectively, independently and concretely real.

These problems aren’t solved by denial (which only makes them more apparently real, just now they are things that can’t be talked about). They are solved or rather dis-solved through presence, openness to reality, enquiry and healing of the projected conditioning and trauma that turns reality into a war zone.

All of this takes us, finally, to the illusory…

The thing that looks more real than anything else, the thing that is at the starring role of all drama, all stories, all experiences, all conflicts, all problems: the self.

How ironic it is that the thing that is unquestioned, that is defended, obsessed about, focused on, promoted, protected doesn’t actually exist.

And by self, what I mean here, is the idea of a separate me. An entity of self-hood that is operating the body, making decisions, doing the actions. A me that is somehow a separate chess piece, its own independent manager of life, consciousness, intelligence.

That’s the me that does not exist. That me is 100% illusory. And yet it is the thing that looks most real of all.

Defending that ‘me’ in the pub was physical emotional and intellectual. It was conscious and sub-conscious. It linked back in that moment to every experience of being dismissed or not taken seriously. It equated survival with approval.

And yet what is that me?

The only truth of us is the Absolute momentarily located in Relative temporary, sensory form.

The collection of hurts, knocks, trauma, resentments, vigilance, defence mechanisms that form the identity has neither an Absolute or a Relative truth. The past exists as a construction of this moment. So does the identity. As understanding shifts, as healing happens, the entirety of that old self disappears. Replaced by a new idea.

This is enlightenment. It is the on-going healing of those shames, fears and insecurities that create the logical, understandable, innocent but ultimately problematic need to control and defend.

So in conclusion…

There was a man and a woman in a pub. Albeit they existed only as a Relative appearance in the experience of anyone or thing that perceived them. The man, was a creation of the women. And vice versa.  The Relative.

The entire experience of self and other was only possible because life was animating the bodies. Intelligence was creating, from visual, auditory and sensory data, images, sounds and perceptions. Consciousness was the awareness of all of this. The Absolute.

And that self identity – the spider in the web which obscures the Absolute and which makes of the Relative a fixed reality that has to be resisted and controlled…? Only ever the Illusion.


Yes of course it is. Spine-tinglingly, hair-on-back-of-neck raising, mind-blowingly so.

And yet this is reality, this is all there is.

As basic, prosaic and every-day as it is possible to get.

Maybe I’ll tell him that on our next date…








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