Most of us have the heard the word Maya, as used in both Hindu mythology and the wider circles of yogis and meditators. It means, loosely, illusion and, in the scripture Devi Mahātmyam one can read about the Goddess Maya covering Vishnu’s eyes with divine sleep. More broadly, maya is said to be a sort of divine hypnosis which it’s the task of the yogi to break free of in order to see the true reality.
Mahayana Buddhism, actually, seems to go into even more detail about this concept of illusion and there are a number of examples in Mahayana scripture referring to magicians, and even the various types of illusion: such as magic, a dream, a bubble, a rainbow, lightning, the moon reflected in water, or a mirage.
Why then were the ancient sages so obsessed with this notion of illusion? What exactly is being obscured and for whom? Why do the Sufis refer so often to the word Kashf (Arabic: كشف), which means ‘unveiling’?
All of these, of course, are riffs on on the core idea at the heart of all mystical practice: the illusion of selfhood. The veil of ignorance drawn over the world by the Goddess Maya is that which convinces us human beings of our actuality and autonomy. Selfish action cannot first happen without the belief in Self, nor can suffering exist without an apparent entity who fears dissolution. Put simply, Maya gives birth to psychological suffering. And as human beings, the extent to which we believe Her into existence mirrors the extent of our own distress.
I’ve been mulling upon this a lot this week. As someone whose suffered a lot over the years from various mental health complaints: anxiety, fearfulness, panic and so forth, as well as experiencing long periods of extraordinary peace, clarity and wakefulness, I’ve come to observe Maya in close up as She exists in my own life. Walking through the morning fields sometimes with our dog, it’s as if I’m waking up from the deepest opium trance to find an object-less world of pure sensory awareness, scudding clouds, the unbearable beauty of things. Every breath fills the lungs with crystalline bursts of oxygen, the light caresses the river, there is no thought of any kind, no self, no world, no time.
Shortly thereafter, Maya clicks her fingers and the Veil descends again. I’m utterly convinced of my own independent existence, the overlay of conceptual thought has clicked securely back into place so that everything I see and do and experience is coloured by ideas and beliefs and self-limiting notions that, paradoxically, also serve to reinforce the appearance of a solid individual, on a time-bound journey, with everything to lose.
Interesting, then, to discover recently that the word Maya comes from the root mā, meaning to measure. (This hit me like a Eureka moment!) When we live from the mind we are living in measurement, living in duality. The mind is a tool only capable of operating in polar opposites: good and bad, hot and cold. It is a measuring tool, a quantifier, a judging machine. If one is living from the mind, one is bound by Maya, ensnared in an impenetrable mesh which cannot help but cause suffering.
Freedom, then, is to dispense with this measuring tool and to experience the world simply as it is. We are trying to reach what the Mahayana Buddhists call dharmadhatu, or ground of being. When I first went to India I could never comprehend the obsession with mantras and prayer beads and chanting, as spiritual practices. Over time, however, i came to see that their value is in gently diverting the focus away from conceptual thought towards one-pointed awareness. When one is chanting one is not thinking. When one is truly engaged in counting the cycle of 108 prayer beads one is not thinking. These ancient practices – found in so many cultures across the world – help to divert power from the mind, and thus promote a sense of peace.
In my own life, then, I’ve come to greatly appreciate those tasks which help encourage connection with this ground of being. I find joy in tending the veg patch, or sweeping leaves, or sharpening the kitchen knives on the old whetstone. By nature, I find discipline difficult and yet the more time I spend focussed on mindful awareness, the closer to peace I feel. The more I find time for regular meditation practice, a simple awareness of breath, and for immediate connection to the concrete world of axe handles and red earth, the more easily quietude finds its way through the cracks.
This is all a heady realisation for someone who forged a life, as a writer, out of conceptual thought. I look at books a little more suspiciously these days – not as problematic in themselves – but as conduits of escape which should be used carefully, and with one eye open.