Maya: Perception is Reality
The Sanskrit word “maya” is often translated as illusion, but this makes it seem that maya has some sort of false or misleading quality. Rather, maya refers to how our reality is built on perception. Seen from another angle, perception is reality. Maya relates to words like ma, mama, magic, and is an expression of the divine feminine. It relates to Shakti in the sense of being involved in creating the world around us. Our individual perceptions create our illusion of reality, which is very real to us.
Maya is an expression of the wiliness of the feminine, creative spirit. Hendrick Vroom explains, “The term Maya has been translated as ‘illusion,’ but then it does not concern normal illusion. Here ‘illusion’ does not mean that the world is not real and simply a figment of the human imagination. Maya means that the world is not as it seems; the world that one experiences is misleading as far as its true nature is concerned.”
So let’s just say that the world is real and that it exists in its own right with its own boundaries and has its own unquestionable, absolute standards of truth. But at the same time, we can only see the world how we perceive it (maya), and that perception is as much reality to us as the actual world is to itself.
So is the world real or illusion?
vastusāmye citta-bhedāt-tayorvibhaktaḥ panthāḥ
PYS 4:15 “Each Individual perceives the same object in a different way according to the state of mind of their own perceptions. Everything is empty from its own side and appears according to how you see it.”
I first encountered this sutra and practice from a meditation retreat with Nicole Vigna. She demonstrates this idea with a pencil. To a person, we see a pencil and we may think “writing tool” or something similar. Then a dog enters and sees the pencil; they may think “chew toy.” So who is correct? The dog or the human? The answer is both. Objects take on their own meaning depending on who is viewing them. The world around us is the largest object of all. Some people wonder if we existed in perspective before the renaissance of art or if the earth was not round until someone dared to go around it. Either way, it was the shifting of perceptions and knowledge that then shifted reality.
“Imagination is shaped by our entire life experience, our socialization, the concepts we are exposed to, where we fall in the global hierarchies of society” –Adrienne Marie Brown, Emergent Strategy. While our perceptions influence and create our own reality, others’ perceptions also affect our reality. As someone with piercings and tattoos I am frequently perceived as irresponsible, unintelligent, or wild. Only one of those is a little true.
It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with the label of fat. I don’t see it as a negative word but as a state of being. I’m technically classified as obese by my doctor, and having grown through disordered eating, I think self-identifying as fat is an important part of that process. For me, it’s being comfortable with myself. I recognize that a lot of our community is so loving, inclusive, and varied that we tend to not see people the way that the rest of society sees them, but even within my family, I’m the fat one and that has framed how I move through the world. As someone who’s fat, I can be perceived as lazy or gluttonous. Imagine if these perceptions were about my race or religion, things not easily changed. Through maya, perception is reality: a reality where I can either conform to these perceptions or challenge them. However, either of these options can be exhausting.
To create my own reality, I must work on perceiving those around me without judgment so that I may also not receive it. This is a basic tenant of Karma: whatever I seek to receive, I must first offer it. Surrounding myself with people who approach the world with an open mind and creating a more inclusive reality means centering those perceptions that are frequently marginalized. Some people believe that shifting focus to this then lessens the value of another, but we can have it all. For example, centering fatness as attractive or normal is then lauded as trying to promote unhealthy lifestyles. When really, it’s just bringing attention to the idea that every body is worthy of life and love. What a reality we could live in if we perceived all those around us as valuable just as they are!
When I first entered high school, I struggled with self-esteem and feelings of depression. Through the support of art class and my art teacher at the time, I was able to learn that my opinion and perception was valid, that the way that I perceived the world was important. Art in its own way is a form of maya. We take images from the world around us and rework them into a reflection of it. Many art theorists ponder if art can actually shape and change reality, or if art is shaped by reality. The answer, again, is “Yes. Both.”
Through art and media, our perceptions can change. As an artist, our job is to hold up a mirror to society and ask if the reflection is what we want to see. Exposure to ideas and people from different walks of life gives us new information that shifts our perceptions and thus our reality. Because we are living within maya from each of our own perceptions, the more open we are, the more reality can change around us. Perception is not distinct from self-existing reality; perception is reality. In art critiques, we would discuss often how the time period of a piece influences its place in history. This means that certain pieces expressing old perceptions that have changed had a different influence on reality in the past and now may no longer be relevant. This happens as reality shifts throughout history.
At different points in time, different perceptions have ruled our reality. This can change from culture to culture, which is how maya works. Maya acts as an elusive thread of our existence. It acts as a form of creation, but one that we are in control of and are shaping constantly. I come from a family that I don’t always fit into and through art I was able to freely express myself. My art teacher never censored us and always let us explore our perceptions however we needed to. I frequently got in trouble with the administration for some of my art pieces, and she always defended me. It’s funny to look back on it and realize that so much of what I was trying to say is still something within our reality that could be shifted to be more inclusive. I felt really alone with my own thoughts as a teenager, but through art I was able to feel more connected to the world. I could see that all these others artists were also trying to change perceptions throughout history and the world. As alone as I felt at that time in my life, I’ve had others from that time period tell me that I helped them feel more comfortable to be themselves. Isn’t that what we all want? For our perceptions of reality to be validated?
For me, learning through art critiques was a big part of learning how to explore the world around me. We would discuss if an art piece was an effective portrayal of its idea, if everyone’s perception of the piece matched the creator’s. If it wasn’t effective, how could it be better? Was others’ perception of the work valid? I’ve always been blown away by modern art. Some people may perceive it as just blocks of color; that anyone can do it. I love that it’s about your perception of it, your experience with the piece. That each person’s perception of the piece, good or bad, is a valid part of its reality. While I don’t frequently work abstractly, my own takeaway from modern art is the viewer’s interaction with it. To break down this sort of barrier between artist, art, and viewer, I like to make interactive art pieces. This interaction between the viewer and the art is as much a part of the art as the piece itself.
This month, play around in your asana practices. Build a little maya into your practice by imagining yourself as the label you are portraying. For example, create cobra pose by imagining your legs have become your tail, cover it with scales and allow those to spread over your body; as you lift your heart and open your throat, your cobra hood opens around the ears. Use these types of visualizations throughout class to connect yourself more to the poses. Practice visualization meditations throughout the month to shift your perception of self and your connection to the world around you. Consider how either your body or your perception of it has changed throughout your asana practice. How did a pose feel the first time you approached it? And now? If you’ve experienced parts of your practice that have shifted from natural body changes or injuries, how do both of those perceptions exist as a part of your practice?
Written by Sara Bonar
The Vedas cannot show you Brahman, you are That already. They can only help to take away the veil that hides truth from our eyes. The cessation of ignorance can only come when I know that God and I are one; in other words, identify yourself with Atman, not with human limitations. The idea that we are bound is only an illusion [Maya]. Freedom is inseparable from the nature of the Atman. This is ever pure, ever perfect, ever unchangeable.
— Adi Shankara’s commentary on Fourth Vyasa Sutra, Swami Vivekananda
“In the Bhagavata philosophy, Maya has been described as ‘that which appears even when there is no object like silver in a shell and which does not appear in the atman’; with maya described as the power that creates, maintains and destroys the universe.”
Mayan book Popul Vuh
“Niguma’s Song of Illusion:
If you practice illusion-like meditation
On illusion-like phenomena,
Illusion-like Buddhahood will arise
Through the power of your devotion.”
“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? / Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality”
-Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
“If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world?
There’s nothing to it”
-Willy Wonka Pure Imagination
“If you don’t change your beliefs, your life will be like this forever. Is that good news?”-William Somerset Maugham
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
“There are things known and there are things unknown and in between are the doors of perception” –Aldous Huxley
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” –Maya Angelou
“There are no accidents in this business. To the ego, it looks like there are miracle and accidents, but there are no real miracles, no accidents. It’s just your vantage point that you’re sort of stuck in.” Ram Dass
Chapters 5-7 of Wheels of Life by Anodea Judith
Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Marie Brown
Asato Maa Sad-Gamaya
Tamaso Maa Jyotir-Gamaya
Mrtyor-Maa Amrtam Gamaya
Om Mani Padme Hum
Nassangatve nirmo hatvam
Nirmohatve nishcala tattva
Bhaja govindam bhaja govindam
Bhaja govindham mudha-mate
Bodhi rupam bodhi-sattvam
Bodhi gamyan anamayam
Bhajamana ma ma ma ma
Ananda mayi ma ma
Ananda rupa ma ma
Focus on the upper 3 chakras: throat, third eye, and Crown. The 7th chakra receives information from the atman, the 6th builds visualization, imagination, and perception, the 5th expresses these to others building reality.
Get creative with sequencing! Try new stuff out or connect poses differently than you typically do to keep people in the moment.
Practice visualizations during poses. Imagine being a tree or a cobra as you posture.
M.I.A (real name Maya)
any artists that use sampling or change tempo mid song (hip hop and electropop artists like The Hood Internet, Mos Def, and Le Tigre)
songs about dreams and magic
Don’t Dream it Be it -the Rocky Horror Show
Hey now (don’t dream it’s over) – Lolo
Bohemian Rhapsody- Queen
Pure Imagination- Willy Wonka soundtrack
The Execution of All Things- Rilo Kiley
Head Under Water-Jenny Lewis