by Anjali A. Sarkar, PhD

What does not stand up to scrutiny cannot be real. ‘What is real?’ is a question worth asking again and again. Not because reality changes. In fact, what is real never changes.

It is important to keep asking what is real because it reveals what is not. One day we might conclude thing A is real. We are convinced it is. Ten years later we look at thing A again and find it has transformed into thing A2.0. It is not unrecognizable. You can still see that A2.0 came from A but you cannot ignore the differences. In situations such as these, what you had thought of as real was an error. You can either choose to discard your notion of the reality of the thing A or you can choose to be irrational. If you adopt the first alternative, you again have two options. You can either give up and prematurely, and most likely erroneously, conclude nothing is real, or you can go about your search again, with a beginner’s open mind.

I used to think knowledge was real. I have devoted a substantial portion of my life acquiring, storing, cultivating, curating, classifying and nurturing knowledge, for myself and others such as students or employers. But taking a close scrutinizing look at knowledge shows you it’s malleable nature.

Then again what I may mean as knowledge is only partial knowledge. Partial in two senses. First in the sense that my perception of knowledge is only limited to a fraction of all the knowledge that exists. And second, in the sense that all knowledge that is knowable and communicable by the tools at our disposal, such as symbols, are only a limited fraction of the totality of knowledge.

So, I might choose to move forward in the hope that although this fragmented notion of knowledge that currently flows though the circuits in my brain is not real, absolute knowledge.

Here I titter on the thin ledge between science and faith, between rationality and irrationality, because the very idea of absolute knowledge is questionable. It cannot be proven or disproven. Yet we idealize all the time — both in science and faith.

But aren’t we supposed to always opt for the rational alternative? Why then invent an idealistic concept, such as absolute knowledge, when it is untestable, unproveable, and arguably irrational?

Perhaps the answer lies in the human nature to need to hold on to an answer until a better one comes along. Our questioning minds, like Nature, abhors vacuums. We fill our minds with stories not because we enjoy falsehoods, or derive some sadistic pleasure from it, or are convinced that these stories are true, but because they provide temporary answers to our questions.

This reminds me of an incident where a saint from India was asked why Hinduism subscribes to worshiping a million idols of gods and goddesses. The saint had said that idols are a stepping-stone for minds that are not ready yet for the real thing.

How does one prepare oneself to grasp reality? To my mind, iterative questioning, continuous scrutiny, and an appreciation of intermediates for their pros and cons, provides a sound strategy.

It is a difficult notion to grasp that what you are aiming for, what you truly want is not beyond the divide of time and space but could possibly be right here and now. If we choose to believe something it does not mean that the alternative is not true. You can choose to look through a glass window onto the landscape outside or you can choose to look at your own reflection in the glass.

It is difficult to do both at the same time. Even when you imagine you are doing both simultaneously, you are doing precisely that — imagining. You are imagining option B, holding it in your mind’s eye like a painter holds a still life he is painting, when you are actually seeing option A.

Grasping reality involves inhabiting the past and the future in the present. The moment you start thinking of preparing for the future or ruminating about the past, you’ve lost your grasp on reality.

Grasping reality involves balancing at the fulcrum between satisfaction and striving. This can be an apparent clash of concepts, but it need not be so. Contentment is seeing what you are, acknowledging what you are, appreciating what you are, knowing what you are. Contentment is not clinging to what you are. The act of being content can include the acts of effort, study, practice and improvement, as part of what you are. Not with goals of moving away from what you are. In fact, not with any goals in mind whatsoever. Striving is the expression of latent qualities. It need not be undertaken to get somewhere but to be what you are, more completely. Striving need not be accompanied by discontent in what you are. In fact, it is does, it’s worth considering the option of giving up striving altogether.

Distractions of any kind, whether in churning memories of the past or managing future events, whether contemplating abstractions of contentment versus effort, are hindrances in grasping reality. The distracted mind is unhappy. Only the focused mind can be happy and in fine balance. Focusing on a thing or a thought clarifies it. Sometimes it can clarify a thing or a thought to such an extent that it disappears. Then you know the thing or the thought wasn’t real and you go about focusing on another thing or thought that you consider worth exploring.

Emptiness cannot be the goal of meditation just as hunger cannot be the goal of a diet regimen. The paradox of meditation is that unlike any other activity, you cannot strive for it. That is because we are unable to strive without a goal. Yet, meditation is not effortless either. And that is the paradox. To be able to exert effort without envisioning an end. The difficultly of this can be easily understood by considering the seemingly impossible action of thinking of a word without seeing it in your mind’s eye. The moment you think of the word ‘boat’ you can’t help but see a boat.

How then can we exert effort without envisioning an end? One way to do this easily is to dedicate your effort to something else. This involves thinking of yourself as a conduit, as many artists do. You can dedicate all your efforts to a rock, a friend, a deity, the world, the Universe. Anything. In dedicating your efforts, you can take yourself out of the equation. This seemingly simple strategy works well in attaining a meditative state.

Originally published by Anjali A. Sarker, PhD on


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