What is your favourite illusion? (And why do you cling to it?)


We all have illusions. Sometimes it is the little dream that you are up and about while really you are still snuggled in bed. The bigger illusions are those that keep us hooked on feelings of neediness. Fantasies around them prop up our sense of self or our sense of being OK in the world. 

Whose illusion?

An example:  A few years ago, I was giving a Learn to Meditate program, and I must have made one of my unthinking quips, forgetting that not too many learners have done any deep work before.  I said “No thoughts, no aims  – just give up hope”.  Afterwards, two of the attendees were waiting for me outside.  One was very angry with me, and one was pleased. The angry person said, “I”ve got cancer, and you’re telling me to give up hope?”

Of course I assured her that I wished her all the best for a full remission, and to this day I am sorry that I challenged her feelings of vulnerability so glibly.   But consider the other side of the coin.

The other one waiting for me said, “That’s the best thing anyone has ever said to me.  I had an abusive mother, and I used to hope that she would start loving me.  Then I married an abusive husband (of course!) and I used to hope that he would stop beating me.  So many years of misery.  If only someone had said what you said while I was still a child, I wouldn’t have hoped for what they couldn’t give me. I could have been ok.”

 llusions hook us

A problem with illusions is that they seem so reasonable.  They invite us into a dance that we can’t rest from till we are weary and bloodied by the engagement with them, because their “reasonableness” stops us from seeing the cause of the pain. Don’t you wonder what it would be like to be free of them? We can go deep, or shallow, but if we’re on the hook, it will hurt till we finally figure out what it is.

A basic illusion will generate a fantasy. Getting off the fantasy is hard enough, because it reflects our view of the world.  Finding the illusion that supports the fantasy is more difficult, because the illusion supports our view of what our self is.  You might suppose fantasies and illusions are weird, and you would never have any.  But they are shockingly normal and part of everyday life – until you become aware of them. Here are a couple of examples:

Example – The motherhood myth

 A young married woman can’t wait to have a baby. She loves the very idea of it, sets up the nursery, plans the child’s schooling and dreams about the holidays the family will have.  Eventually, yes, she is pregnant, and ecstatically happy.

Three months after the baby arrives, the marriage is over.  From day three, the babe spends most of the time with Grandma, and the young mother is shocked by the demands of looking after an infant. The perfect husband turns out to be unhelpful and criticises her for the mess now engulfing them. The dream turns to a nightmare.

Example – The empty nest

A mother whose child has grown up and moved away dreams that he would soon marry and come back to their district to settle, so that she could be near him and his children. Of course, the fantasy would include his having an amenable wife who would be perfectly happy and complicit in the arrangement, for the mother-in-law to be a close part of their lives.

Example – The freedom myth

 A woman in her 40s decides that she had had enough of  her husband and walks out.  OK, good for her – if she could do it without fantasies.  The fantasy?  Many fantasies. Telling tales about how villainous he is, when the truth is that he is just an average joe, with nothing worse about him than anyone else in the stress of a relationship that is breaking down.   Let him have the house and the savings, she didn’t want anything from him? So she does little in negotiating  her share of their considerable assets.  The fantasy of herself as heroine costs her hugely. Then she doesn’t not see that in middle age, she is not the prize she might have been at 18, and so goes to dances, where she finds faux romance from the neediest of men at dance halls. The possibilities that were part of the excitement of youthful dances just aren’t there.   After shifting from one cheap rental to another for years, surely her ex in-laws will provide a house for her?

Now in her middle 60s, real old age is staring her in the face, and it is looking pretty grim.  Her ex-husband lives in style in the house they both owned, while she has nowhere secure to live. She has had the freedom she wanted… or has she?

It is only incidental that these are all sad fantasies of women. The thing they have in common with each other  is that, at the time, each person was convinced that their life story was true, and could not look past their entanglement with  fantasy to work with the reality that is as plain as the nose on one’s face .And often, even to acknowledge the fantasy is soooo painful that as one fantasy fails, another is woven seamlessly to replace it.

How to notice when your mind expresses fantasy

Every-day fantasies have a certain ring to them… “I  have a problem with my boss”; “I’m an easy-going sort of person”; “He would never hurt a fly”; “My life will be perfect when…”; “I’d be ok if it were not for the fact that….”; “He would never be unfaithful to me”; “Our love will last forever”; ‘Everyone likes me”; “I know what’s fair”; “It’s all your fault.” Can you hear the clank of a shonky hold on reality? It is an assertion of something that makes you seem perfectly right.  You have an ego investment in the assertion.  It is loaded!

And fantasy can hook you easily. Anyone who points out your fantasy is in dangerous territory, because pointing it out challenges your ego’s position – it provokes much angry huffing and puffing and blaming, so as to avoid the pain of letting it go.  But wouldn’t you wonder why fantasy, for most of us, is so preferable to simple reality?

For the rare person who can manage the extraordinary feat of getting off the hook of a fantasy, there might be a new discovery: the feeling that something else is hooked even deeper into us. What could that be, and how to get to it?

The Illusion of what self is

Underlying everyday fantasy is a much deeper illusion, much harder for the mind to get at, and harder than all to unhook from.  “I’m your Mum” seems so so so reasonable. “I want to be free” seems so reasonable… and yet there is illusion in it.

I’m your mum; I should be free; I’m someone with a problematic boss; I’m suffering because of you; I’m an idealist… What is the common thread here?

Don’t you get the sense of what the basic illusion is?  The real question, when the mind bumps harshly against reality, is WHO AM I?  The fantasies start when we add something on after “I am”. Whatever is added on has to be validated, elaborated, defended at all costs.  And the costs can be devastating.

The illusion is that the mind’s idea of itself has an existence and identity somehow outside the existence of the mind and body. It acts as though it is outside the body looking back at it (my body, my mind, my ego). The mind then comes up with an external reference to validate that self-idea. You can be sure there is something uncomfortable deep within us, if that attribution has to be defended.

Easefulness with self – the alternative

So how can you recognise the way we put a label on ourself (ie, self-attribution, self-fantasy)? Deep ease comes from recognising the processes that build both the mind’s idea of itself (“This is me, you know!”) and the fantasies that support it.

Well  you could take each of them and look unflinchingly at them to realise what their real aim is.  Eventually you might realise that the very first one starts when you are little, when you accept the story of yourself, and of how life is, that the big people around you taught.  And then you  have the super-big question: If that was just a bundle of labels and ideas about myself, what am I really?  Which might take you to fundamental issues of…. just being

Just being sits superbly well with reality. No projecting, constructing of “the sort of self that I am”.  Then we have the eyes to see reality for what it is.

No investment in fantasy.  How to get to that state, though?  Still-mind meditation is a reliable route! – but it does take time, practice, and accompanying contemplation.


If you have found this thought-provoking in any way, you might like to consider booking in to learn Still-mind Meditation and Mindfulness with me. The next program starts on Wednesday 13th January, online, at 11.00 am or 7.00 pm.

Or come to the Still-mind Retreat at Bendigo on the weekend of Friday 12th February to Sunday 14th (Friday… room access is after 3.00 and program starts at 5, but arrive when you can)
Call Robert at 9833 4050 to book.



About Mataji

I have been practising still-mind meditation since 1982, teaching still-mind meditation since 1989, and training teachers since 1999. The greatest life change for me has been a steady easefulness with its ups and downs, and an ability to love the difficult folks as well as the easy ones. The more profound changes aren't so easy to put into words.
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