Printed in the Conscious Creation Journal
October 1998, Issue 2
The Politics of Reality
by Mirl Wythe
According to an ancient proverb that seems more relevant today than ever, “Where there is no vision, the people perish….” Look no further than a recent issue of Newsweek, where Warren Beatty is quoted as saying: “The same thing that has stagnated politics has stagnated movies — this incredible ability to evaluate public opinion, to look in the rearview mirror.” No doubt about it. After all, when was the last time that we had a candidate for major office who didn’t rely on polls to plot their campaign? More importantly, would we vote for a candidate with a radically fresh viewpoint, one that we might call visionary? More likely we would brand them a lunatic.
Why do we remain focused on the rearview mirror, endlessly recycling used opinions, searching for solutions to the problems that will follow us into the future by sifting through the past? According to some, our problem is one of perception. “We are all hypnotized from infancy. We do not perceive ourselves and the world about us as they are but as we have been persuaded to see them,” observed the late Dr. Willis Harmon, former member of the Board of Regents of the University of California. In other words, we suffer from a kind of tunnel vision that prevents us from thinking outside the proverbial box. For instance, the widely held assumption that our senses provide us with an accurate mental snapshot of reality has been debunked by every deep thinker since Immanuel Kant. Still the outdated notion of a static, self-evident reality persists, even as spin doctors remake it in their image. Author Walter Anderson claims that “an increasing theatricality of politics, in which events are scripted and stage-managed for mass consumption…is a natural and inevitable feature of our time. It is what happens when a lot of people begin to understand that reality is a social construction.”
For one moment, try to imagine a world where everyone recognized the limits of their own perception. What would happen if we all woke up one morning to read in the newspaper that nobody knows reality? Consider the implications: Suddenly, all the competing worldviews that drive global conflicts would lose their power because most such worldviews hold that reality is a single, verifiable constant. When it becomes universally accepted that each person’s unique perspective is just that, a single viewpoint in a vast universe of possibilities, then no perspective need be defended from behind a barricade of preconceptions. Rather, all viewpoints will be valued solely on the basis of content. For if the true nature of reality is beyond human discernment, then who has a right to claim that their perspective alone is true? Undermined by the loss of any concrete reality, the pillars that support intolerance would topple of their own weight, thereby destroying the foundation which supports so much human misery.
If the idea that reality may be unknowable sounds far-fetched, then you haven’t kept abreast of advances in science over the last century. Since the twin revolutions of relativity and quantum theory, “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine” — this according to noted physicist Sir James Jeans. The laws that govern the universe seem to “exist in the mind of some eternal spirit,” as Sir Arthur Edington suggested. Einstein declared that one of our bedrock beliefs about human nature, the view of ourselves as isolated islands of awareness, was “…an optical delusion of consciousness.”
Since being in touch with reality is commonly considered to be a prerequisite of sound mental health, it would appear that science is at odds not only with popular belief but with our very definition of sanity. “But what if we look to the very hardest of the sciences to determine the nature of this bedrock reality — the reality that we are supposed to be in touch with — and we are rudely told that reality actually exists ‘in the mind of some eternal spirit’?” asks philosopher Ken Wilber, noting that we are faced with a major quandary: “If sanity is the goal, then exactly what reality are we supposed to be in touch with?”
What we have mistakenly called “reality,” it turns out, is largely a mental construct. Our collective view of the cosmos has clearly been distorted by our inability to recognize that we are peering through a tinted telescope. What’s more, how can we verify the process by which our minds filter reality without first knowing the true nature of reality? And conversely, how can we know reality without first knowing the precise nature of the process that we use to filter it? Unable to determine what has been filtered out of the picture, we nevertheless strive to make sense of it all. Faced with a universe that remains largely unknowable, how do we arrive at a consensus on which to base our actions? If nobody knows reality, then aren’t we on shaky ground when it comes to decisions of an ethical or moral nature?
Oddly enough, we aren’t. Down through the ages there has been substantial agreement as to the existence of a deeper level of reality. Historian Arthur Lovejoy referred to this belief as “the dominant official philosophy of the larger part of civilized humankind through most of history.” This consensus of viewpoint as to the ultimate nature of reality has not only withstood the test of time but remains today a beacon to those who find themselves mired in the murky depths of relativism. Termed the “perennial philosophy” because it has blossomed anew for thousands of years, “this stunning unanimity of deep religious belief,” as Wilber characterized it, led Alan Watts to declare: “We are hardly aware of the extreme peculiarity of our position, and find it difficult to realize the plain fact that there has otherwise been a single philosophical consensus of universal extent. It has been held by [men and women] who report the same insights and teach the same essential doctrine whether living today or six thousand years ago, whether from New Mexico in the Far West or from Japan in the Far East.”
Reality is not one-dimensional. That’s the core belief of the perennial philosophy. There are levels of reality that span the spectrum from matter to spirit. Consciousness evolves over time, from one generation to the next. Individuals can transcend a narrowly defined self-concept, thereby developing a wider identity. In other words, spiritual growth is an option. However, when these insights were codified into dogma, what resulted were rules of behavior. The perennial philosophy isn’t about rules, however, it’s about the insights that preceded them. Standards of conduct change over time, but the core beliefs that form the basis for many of our institutions have remained constant for most of recorded history.
This generation isn’t alone in the quest for truth. We stand on the shoulders of giants, peering across vast stretches of time, secure in the knowledge that they have pointed the way. The unsettled territory ahead has already been mapped by those who have gone before. Many of our current laws are derived from their insights. Removing the dogmatic trappings that have obscured the true intent of their message does not mean that we must throw the baby out with the bath water. It does mean taking an unbiased look at the presuppositions that inform our worldview, thereby gaining a new perspective on the underlying cause of the intolerance that creates so much discord — the mistaken belief that our personal reality is founded on a bedrock of certainty.
Since we simply can’t determine how much our perception of reality is a product of our own imagination, it follows that all perspectives are ultimately philosophical. As Joseph Campbell noted, we all create a myth to live by. Not all myths are created equal, however. Sometimes things go horribly wrong. Believing that we had most of the answers, we neglected to notice the deep-seated assumptions that suggest what questions to ask. But it’s not too late to ask the most important one of all: If nobody owns the rights to reality, then don’t we each have the freedom to take responsibility for our own?
After all, isn’t that what the story of human history is about, each generation weaving a tale of its own, enriching the tapestry of experience handed down by previous generations, thereby shedding the cloak of superstition that conceals our illusions? In seeking to share that story with others, we uncover the common threads that connect us to the only perspective that honors all perspectives by privileging none, the one that acknowledges a powerful truth: nobody knows reality.
Because when you think about it, any person or group attempting to define your reality for you has revealed a hidden agenda, a vested interest in the politics of reality. To a certain extent this is unavoidable, a necessary evil, a byproduct of the socialization process. But if each individual, ethnic group, or nation fails to understand that reality is not simply what our senses tell us it is, then forming the necessary consensus to tackle problems that are increasingly global in scope will be impossible. As long as each person believes that their reality, their god, their ideology is the only true one, then we are condemned to a world of violent confrontation.
©1998, Mirl Wythe. Printed in the October 1998 Issue of the Conscious Creation Journal. (Feel free to duplicate this article for personal use – please include this copyright notice.) http://www.consciouscreation.com/
Mirl William Wythe holds a doctorate in Transpersonal Communication from Summit University of Louisiana and an M.A. in Transpersonal Psychology from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, California. The premise for this article was derived from his allegorical novel, ONE HAND CLAPPING, published on-line by fictionshowcase.com (just click on the “showcase” button” — it’s free!). You may contact Mirl by e-mail at [email protected].