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The Elusive and Persistent Illusion

Why is the illusion of inherent existence, and independent self in particular, so strong and difficult to overcome to most of us?


The first, and most superficial (because it is in itself an effect of underlying mechanisms) obstacle that presents itself in seeing the truth of dependent arising is culture. From the earliest days of childhood we’re presented with constant labels attached to ever changing phenomena. Mumdad and subsequently our first names are all such labels which in a subtle way misguide us about the nature of the phenomena they stand for. Those labels have a constant quality to them and as we enter the world force upon us a particular interpretation of the phenomena they denote. Furthermore as we persist within a society the illusion is reinforced through apparent affinity to others. Familiarity and similarity to others confirms our attitude. That is, we become convinced of the truth of the illusion, via a logically erroneous yet evolutionarily valid and useful method – we make the fallacious generalization that ‘since most people seem to think that way, therefore it must be true’.


The school of psychology Gestalt has identified perceptual tendencies which indicate hard wired perception optimization processes which tend to group complex phenomena. Examples of grouping are pattern recognition, immediate identification of symmetry etc. Those grouping tendencies facilitate the choice of the most likely interpretations of sensory stimuli, and hence environment at large – certainly an advantageous ability when navigating through the world. Similarly to the way nature guaranteed stability of species propagation through endowing procreative acts with high sensory pleasure, so it has guaranteed the stability and cohesion of the individual through providing a lucid illusion of identity with both the body and mind’s content.

More recent computational neuroscience models of those processes confirm Gestalt’s observations and give more detailed descriptions of the underlying mechanisms.

In sum, those processes take an ensemble of phenomena we perceive and interpret it as one entity. This process extends to include grouping the totality of sensory experiences into a one whole singular experience of lucid awareness. This occurs despite the truth which meditation reveals – that we’re dealing with a multitude of thoughts, emotions and sensations. In addition a singular perceptual perspective in a healthy individual, and likewise a singular inner thought narrative – even when entertaining alternatives reinforce the illusion of an independent entity.


It may very well be the case that this persistent illusion of inherent existence is a unique condition/process of the human species. It would seem then that the privilege of possessing the human form is being endowed with great potential – but a potential which can only be fully realized once the illusion of independent self has been skilfully transcended.

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