A concept common to both Eastern and Western religions is the idea that we can’t perceive reality completely and accurately because a “veil” obscures our view. In the West, the veil has a more literal meaning: it is something that prevents us from seeing God and the angels and demons around us. In the East, the “veil of Maya” has a more symbolic meaning: it represents the ignorance and illusion that prevents us from seeing reality and truth as they really are.
This “veil” concept is not exclusive to religion; philosophers have embraced similar ideas. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” illustrates the idea that we do not see reality directly, but that we see only shadows of it. Modern science has confirmed this idea as well—though, as usual, not entirely and exactly in the same sense in which the ancients articulated it.
We can now recognize there are many “veils”—many layers of ignorance and illusion—through which we view the world. The funny thing about these veils is that we usually don’t notice they’re even there. Next time you’re inside your home or car looking at something outside, try to make a mental note of how long it takes you to notice the glass window that you’re looking through. The same is true of the many veils through which we perceive and interpret reality: we usually don’t even notice they’re there. To see them, we have to stop looking through them and consciously pause to look at them.
Once we start looking for the veils that filter, shape, color, and cloud our view, we can spot them everywhere. Just a few examples:
Sensory Limitations. For starters, we know that none of us directly perceives the external, physical world. Rather, all of our perception is filtered through various mediums and bodily sense organs. As a result, we don’t technically see or hear the external world; we only see and hear impressions of it that exist within us. For example, when you look at a tree, light reflecting off the tree enters your eyeball through a transparent layer of tissue called the cornea, which bends the light through the pupil, and the adjusted light then passes through the lens of the eye, which automatically adjusts the path of the light and brings it into sharp focus onto the receiving area at the back of the eye (the retina), which then converts the light rays into electrical impulses, which then travel through the optic nerve to the brain, where an image is finally perceived. By the way, the image is originally upside down, so our brains have to turn it right-side up to make sense of it. So when you look at a tree outside, what you’re actually seeing is a photo image created and present inside you. None of us has directly seen the outside world; we’ve only seen our internal photo images of it.
We also know that animals and insects see much differently than we do. For example, some have night vision, and others can see infra-red or ultra-violet light. They perceive the world through a different biological veil than we do, so reality appears different to them.
Emotions. We are increasingly coming to understand the role that certain hormones and neurotransmitters play in creating our emotions. A chronic deficiency in someone’s level of serotonin, for example, will cause him to chronically feel depressed. And our emotional state colors our perception of reality. To a depressed person, the world is going to seem a depressing place. Our emotions are another veil—another layer of illusion—through which we experience and interpret reality.
Language. One of the blessings and curses of being human is our capacity for abstract thought and complex language. Unlike animals and insects, we can communicate with each other about billions of topics, and we can conceive of ideals like justice or concepts like democracy that help us live and work cooperatively. But words, ideals, and concepts also create confusion and misunderstanding because they do not have clear, universal meanings. For example, if I say the word “God” to a hundred people, that word will be understood a hundred different ways. Similarly, we can all agree we want a “just society”, but we have very different ideas about what that means exactly. As a result, we often misunderstand each other even when we’re speaking the same language. The inherent ambiguities of language are another veil that clouds our view.
Speculation and “Mind Reading”. Another veil is our natural tendency to speculate about things we don’t know or understand. Like nature, the mind abhors a vacuum, and if we’re ignorant about something, our mind immediately starts speculating and making assumptions about it. That seems to be a natural human tendency, and the problem with it, of course, is that our speculations and assumptions are just that–they are not truth or reality. One particularly problematic tendency we have is to speculate about the thoughts, feelings, desires, motives, and intentions of other people. We cannot directly see any of those things, so our minds gather what little information there is (a facial expression, for example) and then our minds instinctively go to work speculating about its significance. “Oh my God, did you see that look on her face? What was that supposed to mean? She must be jealous!”. Our speculation and mind-reading is another veil, another layer of illusion.
Our “Monkey Mind”. Our “monkey mind” is that chatterbox in our head that fills our minds with a constant stream of verbal thoughts, creating a continuous inner dialogue with ourselves. Our monkey mind constantly distracts us, preventing us from being fully present and aware in the moment. We can be sitting at lunch with friends, but our mind is still back at the office. We can pull up in the driveway, and realize we don’t remember any of the drive home because we were so caught up in the discussion in our head. Hindu and Buddhist writers sometimes use the words “hypnotized” or “unconscious” to refer to that state of mind. We’re so caught up in our imaginary world of word-thoughts that we miss the present reality sitting right under our noses. The monkey mind is another veil between us and reality.
Very briefly, here are a few more veils—layers of illusion—that filter, shape, color, and cloud our view:
- Our ego’s self-centered bias
- Our family culture: the particular perspective and values our parents imparted to us
- Our church/religious culture: e.g., the idea that ours alone is the “one true church” or that “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His prophet”
- The culture of the time and place in which we were raised and in which we now live
- Our formal education/miseducation
- Political ideologies, parties, and politicians: dividing humanity into “us” and “them”, and limiting our paradigms to a few simplistic categories like “liberal” or “conservative”)
- News media: the selective reporting of news from which we glean our view of the world
- Advertisements: constantly telling us we need to buy something or have a certain appearance or status to be happy or successful
Considering all the veils that obscure and distort our vision, it’s no wonder an Apostle of Jesus said “we see through a glass darkly”, and that the greatest thinkers in history acknowledged that the more they learned, the more they realized how much they don’t know.
It’s humbling to realize that our view of “reality” and “truth” is inevitably tainted with ignorance and illusion, and is therefore at best only a crude approximation of reality. This fact has several ethical implications:
- We should be humble and skeptical about our thoughts and beliefs, because there is so much room for error
- We should be skeptical of dualistic paradigms that put everyone and everything in one of two simple categories: righteous or wicked, true or false, good or bad, right or wrong, etc.–we should expect to see complexity
- We should seek and consider as many different perspectives as we practically can
- We should continually challenge, test, and critically analyze our thoughts and beliefs
- We should think of our beliefs as scientific hypotheses, and be ever-willing to adjust them as we obtain new evidence and information
- We should expect to be wrong often, and be willing to recognize where we’re wrong
- We should resist the impulse to make snap judgments and decisions, and instead patiently gather information before reaching conclusions
- We should be cautious and reluctant to judge, label, find fault, criticize, condemn, exclude, punish, or harm anyone
- We should give each other the benefit of the doubt, be gentle in our disagreements, and be open-minded in our conversations
Because as much as we all want to believe we see the light and are in the right, the reality is that we’re all clumsily stumbling around in life, just trying to make sense of the dim shadows of truth and reality we see through the veils.