What Is Real?
Lately I’ve struggled with what I perceive to be reality. This struggle has, at times, given me pause to even question my own sanity (which can be quite frightening). As I dove into the feeling of this, it put me on a path of thinking about how I perceive reality in my own life as well as the lives of others.
There seems to be a couple ways to learn about what is real in your life, and one of them is through experience. For most people, we think the things we can perceive with our senses (sight, sound, touch, etc) makes them real. The other way to learn is by being taught what is real. If there are things we can’t verify with our senses, then there must be accepted scientific or mathematical ways to test and verify something is real as proof. Another seemingly acceptable way to view something as real is to hear someone else tell us that it is (friends, family, media, etc). But what if you have experiences that cannot easily be verified in any way, nonetheless you had the experience and it was very “real” to you?
Have you ever had the experience of driving in your car and you come to a stop light in the midst of several other cars and you are stopped for a length of time? While sitting there, you kind of lose focus on things as you look at the cars beside you, and suddenly you get the sensation that somehow your car is moving backward, like you are rolling back for some reason? Then in a short panic you press on the break harder to stop, but you don’t and then you snap out of it only to realize that you are not moving, but the car(s) next you are moving forward? In that moment you thought you were rolling backward, you thought that was really happening right?
Another example of a perceived reality happened several months ago where I was driving home after a long day on a very familiar road. As I was driving, I had a sense of where I was and the direction I was going and what I was expecting to see next, but all of the sudden I came upon a stop light that should not have existed. For a second I was completely disoriented and I could feel the world around me spin slightly when I realized that I was on a completely different road and hadn’t driven as far as I thought I had. In the moments leading up to my realization, I thought where I was, what I was doing, seeing and experiencing to be very real. These kinds of “re-orientating to reality” moments have happened to me several times over the years and each time it was quite disturbing. It usually takes me several minutes to come back into alignment with the reality I’m perceiving in that moment. Was what I experienced real or not?
About eight years ago, I was driving to work in my 1996 Geo Prism on a very cold and snowy winter morning. I was heading for downtown Minneapolis at the intersection of Hwy 55 and Hwy 100 going east. The roads that morning were snowy and a bit icy. As I was stopped at the light with no other cars around me, I looked in my rear view mirror to see a large black pickup truck driving straight toward the back of my car. What I perceived was that this truck was going way too fast for the road conditions and was invariably going to crash into me. Well, if you know anything about a Geo Prism, it does not have any getup and go, but instinctively, I stepped on the gas and floored it (even though I was a a stoplight) and I braced for impact. What happened next, was nothing at all! No impact. As a matter of fact, when I looked in my mirrors, there was no truck at all, nothing! I even slowed so much I physically looked out all my windows and there was no truck or any other vehicle around me at all in any direction. In those few seconds there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be rear-ended by that black pickup truck. So, was what I saw and experienced real or not?
In the Summer of 2010 I was taking a nap in the front room (we called it the parlor) of my home in Buffalo, MN. I was in that kind of pre-awake state where I could sense that I was awake, but my eyes were not open yet. As I laid there on the couch, I felt very relaxed as I could feel the summer sun coming through the windows warming me. I was enjoying that feeling and sense of peace when quite faintly I could hear a kind of buzzing or fluttering sound in the room. Initially I was thinking it was a fly in the window, but the sound didn’t quite match with my memory because the sound was much deeper and fuller. I continued to keep myself in the space of “not awake” with my eyes closed and I could hear the fluttering sound circling the room getting near as it circled. Then it came very close to my face and I could hear the deep fluttering sound of wings and even a slight movement in the air around me. In my mind’s eye, I started to get a sense for what the being or creature looked like. I then opened my eyes only to have the sound and feeling of what I thought was there with me to instantly dissipate. What did I experience? Was it real or not?
I think perhaps the most significant experience I’ve had around perceiving what is real is my own thoughts around how I believe something will turn out or how someone will react or respond to my actions. There have been many times that I’ve held back from sharing myself with others (especially family). When I’ve thought about sharing something important or possibly controversial with them, I would often think I knew how they would respond and usually the thought was not favorable. I would often spend weeks, months or even years with anxiety, afraid that if I did tell them, they would reject me or they might possibly stop loving me or talking to me. This fear would infect my life and relationships with others and get to a point where I knew I needed to come clean. The interesting thing is that in every instance when I finally confessed, they never responded the way I had predicted. It was a total lie. Every time, they were thoughtful about my issue and very accepting of me. Each time this happened to me, I would not only be relieved but I would reprimand myself for having spent so much time believing this spell of fear. What I assumed to be so very real was not real at all.
Most recently I’ve been going through what feels like a large shift or transformation in my life. This shift is a culmination of many factors including career, marriage, aging, and the ever present ebb and flow of the Universe. I find myself having a powerful drive to seek more fulfillment in my life, in how I spend my time and who I spend that time with. I feel as if I am in an in-between place moving from the role of raising kids, building a career (which was created from necessity and not from my heart), divorce and re-marriage, and an ever evolving change in physical health. I’m now moving toward a deep calling from the bowels of the Universe within me to finally allow myself to bring forth the full possibility of what I have to offer this world. This in-between place feels like my own primordial soup of possibilities. What I can create for myself in the next phase of my life? It has been so intense at times I find myself having out of body experiences with my “Self” being the observer of my body and the interactions of it and the world around. It has been at times very frightening because I feel if I were to just let go a bit more, I would never be able to reconnect myself with this world and physical reality I am in. I also have the dual experience of being intrigued with the experience because there is a great sense of peace, wonder and interest from the Observer’s perspective. The Observer is not invested or involved with the interactions of the body, ego or even the physical reality of the experience, it just sees or senses. So is what I’m experiencing real or not?
As I think about what I’ve written, I feel a common theme has appeared. Reality is based on whatever I chose to focus my attention on at any point in time. This “attention” is really perspective on any given situation. I find this fascinating. I’ve often thought about how each of us perceive things and if someone else sees the same things or not. For example, when I look at the color red, is what I perceive as red the same for you as it is for me? This perspective is also described in a story I wrote in my blog the-more.com a few years ago called “The Reality of Fog”. I was on a trip to Peru with a friend, when we found ourselves slightly lost in the airport as we tried to figure out where to go for our next flight. We each had a perspective on what we thought were the right direction through an airport, only to find out we each were looking at the same signs in a slightly different way. Another good example is found in a TEDx Talk titled “Dying to be me” where a woman named Anita Moorjani describes her experience with cancer, her death and coming back to life. Her message on her awareness of the world was strikingly similar to what I described above in my “Observer” story. I highly recommend you watch!
I’ve experienced many profound things during my journey from within, and from the world around me. Each of these experiences has allowed me to grow more and more into who I truly am as a person. This tangible and palpable experience of the Observer has been challenging, but I truly believe it is all a part of another transformation the Universe is providing for me to grow. The challenging part of all of this is the intensity of the feeling and how overwhelming transformation can be. The one thing that allows the process to flow, is in the sharing of the moments, and connecting with others in their own similar experiences. How are you perceiving the world around you, and allowing the experiences to change your life?
– Dwight Raatz