No One Owns Reality

Nick Williams
8 min readFeb 4, 2024
Image — artslb.org

Reality isn’t Buddhist, or Christian, or Muslim, or anything like that — reality is simply reality and it has nothing to do with whatever ideas we might have about it (and we always do have lots of ideas about it). Ideas are our stock in trade, ideas are what we’re all about…

Reality hasn’t been copyrighted — although we would copyright it in a flash if we could. It isn’t a property of any organisation or institution, of any religion or sect. No one owns it. It doesn’t come with an instantly recognisable corporate trademark, even though we could almost believe that it could do, in some dystopian future society! Some corporate entity would take ownership of it in a heartbeat - if only they could - and then charge us for the use of it.

We might be inclined to say that this is obvious, that of course reality isn’t Christian or Buddhist or whatever, but — obvious as it might seem when we look into it — we nevertheless always do assume that our own particular way of understanding things (which we acquired purely by accident) has a validity that other views just don’t possess. Absurd as this is, we are all guilty of it, we all go around the place fondly imagining that our viewpoint is the ‘one and only right one’. If we didn’t do this then we wouldn’t be so damn sure of ourselves the whole time. We wouldn’t be so dreadfully smug, so frighteningly ‘switched off’…

You couldn’t talk us out of this proprietary attitude of ours — we’re notorious for never reflecting on the absurdity of the assumption that we (or the group which we belong to) has a special relationship with the truth, a relationship that no one else does. All the violence and carnage history stems from this ludicrous assumption — it all comes from one group of people thinking that they are ‘special’ in this way. All religions (or at least all the patriarchal ones) claim to have a special relationship with the truth, and we never stop to consider that this fact in itself should be enough to allow us to see that we are being utterly ridiculous here. We’re too busy arguing about the pointing finger to raise our heads and look at the moon.

No matter what religion I belong to (no matter what encultured view of things I might subscribe to, religious or non-religious) I am always going to be convinced that there is an actual bona fide correspondence between the picture of things that my viewpoint says is true and the way they really are. We don’t stop to consider that this might not be the way things are at all — whoever stops what they’re doing in order to wonder about the relevance of their own personal belief system, after all? This might happen every now and again, but this is generally only because of some major ‘shock to the system’ that has come our way. We can be jolted out of our suffocating complacency, but it takes a pretty big jolt to do this and the chances are very much that we will revert to our habitual viewpoint just as soon as we get over the shock.

From the point of view of religion belief there clearly has to be ‘an assumption of relevance’, without this assumed relevance no system of belief can continue — it’s no good ‘on its own’, after all. Standardized beliefs are always literal in nature — if they weren’t then we couldn’t all believe in them in the uniform way that we do. We can take orthodox Christianity as an example, we are informed (in no uncertain terms) that its basis is literal or concrete, rather than metaphorical; furthermore, we are told that our own personal understanding of the core teachings is not good enough and that we have to fall in line with everyone else.

Belief — by its very nature — always has to be a standardised sort of a thing, and This is why personal interpretation was outlawed very early on in the history of the Christian religion. To quote Elaine Pagels (2003. P 177) in Beyond Belief

Although Athanasius intended the “canon of truth,” now enshrined in the Nicene Creed, to safeguard “orthodox” interpretation of Scripture, his experience of Christians who disagreed with him showed that these “heretics” could still read the “canonical Scriptures” in ways he considered unorthodox. To prevent such readings, he insists that anyone who reads the Scriptures must do so through dianoia — the capacity to discern the meaning or intention implicit in each text. Above all, he warns believers to shun epinoia. What others revere as spiritual intuition Athanasius declares is a deceptive, all-too-human capacity to think subjectively, according to one’s preconceptions. Epinoia leads only to error — a view that the “catholic church” endorsed then and holds to this day.

It is only if the meaning of our statements about reality are ‘set in stone’ that we can all be sure that what we understand by them is also what is understood by everyone else in the group. Otherwise — if there isn’t this accord — the group is no longer a group. The problem here however is that whilst our view of things might be standardized, reality itself is not. There’s absolutely no reason why reality has to play ball with our arbitrarily made agreements, and it doesn’t. Reality is not bound by our conventions, hugely important though these conventions might seem to us. It’s not actually anything to do with us at all, and if we can understand this then we know what our ‘right place’ is in all of this. We can’t ‘partake in the glory’, much as we’d like to…

An alternative way of putting this would be to say that reality isn’t a regularity — it can’t be brought down to some standard formula. Whilst our thinking always is always literal in nature (i.e., whilst the meaning that our thoughts hold for us is concrete rather than ironic) what we are supposedly thinking about is in no way regular, is in no way predictable, is in no way concrete. Our descriptions of reality are dull, opaque and clunky and what we are attempting to describe can no more be captured by them than a tired snail can be expected to outrun a high-speed train. This isn’t to say that we can’t have a relationship with ‘reality as it is in itself’, only that we cannot relate to it with our crudely concrete thought processes. We can’t fit it into our generic scheme of things any more than a square peg can be made to fit into a round hole. If I am to pierce the misleading opacity of my concrete ideas about the world then I have to drop all approaches, all angles, and see what happens when I put myself out there unencumbered by any prosaic assumptions. I have to ‘go beyond the merely literal’.

To go beyond the literal is to stop relying on any framework of interpretation and as soon as we do this we find ourselves in a world that is endlessly multifaceted and always changing. Nothing can be pinned down and yet this in no way limits us — on the contrary, when nothing is pinned down then the diversity of the natural world starts to show itself; our experience is enriched rather than impoverished — we’re getting closer to what is real rather than further away. This is the ‘unexpected’ direction to move in, it’s unexpected because we didn’t even know that it was there. The default direction (the equilibrium-seeking direction) to move in is the direction of increasing ‘narrowness and frozenness’, as Herbert Guenther and Chogyam Trungpa (1975, p15–17) put it in The Dawn of Tantra

The process of transformation which we have described is one of growing narrowness and frozenness. We are somehow tied down to our senses, to the ordinary mode of perception. We dimly feel that something else might have been possible. If we try to express this situation in traditional religious terms, we might say that man is a fallen being. But here he has not fallen because he has sinned or transgressed some commandment coming from outside him, but by the very fact that he has moved in a certain direction. This is technically know in Buddhism as bhranti in Sanskrit and ‘Khrul-pa in Tibetan, and is usually translated as “error”. But error implies, in Western thinking, culpability; and there is absolutely no culpability involved. We might tend to feel that we could have done otherwise, but this attitude simply does not apply here. The process is a kind of going astray which just happens. The idea of sin is irrelevant.

The nature of reality — we might say — is that it is free, and what it is free from are our stupid thoughts, our ridiculous opinions, our ignorant and crude beliefs about it! We go about our lives fondly imagining that we have a valid angle on things — an ‘ownership of the real’, so to speak — and the only way for us to escape this deadly trap as if we relinquish the pernicious illusion of ownership, the pernicious illusion that we have a ‘special place’ in it. It’s only when the penny finally drops and we realise that reality has nothing to do with the stupid games that we like to play (or the crude categories of thought that we insist on trying to fit it into) that we stand a chance of seeing the truth of things. A risk has to be taken, in other words, and thought can’t help us here because thought is all about avoiding risk. Religion exists to protect us from God, Jung tells us, not to create a connection — “One of the main functions of organized religion is to protect people against a direct experience of God.”

‘God is not nice, God is an earthquake’, warns the Yiddish proverb. To discover that reality has nothing whatsoever to do with our comfortable assumptions about it (and that our assumptions are in fact a form of madness) is the biggest shock that it is possible to have and for this reason we generally do our utmost to avoid it. Avoiding reality becomes our life’s work, only we ‘turn this around’ so that we feel we’re doing something great, something entirely commendable. We like the idea of God, but we’re not so keen to have the ‘direct experience’, since — as we read in Hebrews 10:31– ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’.

In order to encounter what is real we first have to drop all of our viewpoints, all our beliefs, all of our cherished opinions, and that doesn’t happen to be something we’re in any hurry to do. We’re in no hurry to do this because to ‘give up our viewpoint’ is also to give up the view we have of ourselves since our idea of ourselves is a function of this viewpoint. To give up our comfortable habitual way of looking at things is also to give up ourselves. ‘When God is, I am not’, and so, no matter how much we might talk about ‘God’ (and try to convert others to our understanding of Him) it is really ourselves that we are cherishing. As Krishnamurti points out, were we to look into our ‘worshipping of God’ we would discover that it’s ‘our idea of God’ we’re worshipping and that to worship our idea of God is worship ourselves. We’ve confused two things that we really shouldn’t — we’ve confused ‘being devout’ with ‘being narcissistic’!

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