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The Master Illusionist

The paradox of an illusion is – it’s only real if you believe it or don’t understand how it works. Every year millions of people are entertained by magicians who orchestrate their masterful craft. Deep inside, most of us know these acts are not real but nonetheless, we love to fall into the mystery of the illusions. Our curiosity runs wild, “Wow, amazing! How do you think he did that?” sparks a conversation as we fantasize all the ways someone could pull off a seemingly impossible feat. The child in me still loves to get lost in the fantasy of magic. However, my dreams of performing magic subsided years ago. Nevertheless, it turns out I am actually a world-class magician whose deception dupes me every day!! Unbeknownst to most of us, we are constantly playing the ultimate “sleight of hand” with ourselves, where the very things we want most in life are concealed from us, by us!

Imagine all the happiness and fulfillment you could ever dream of was right in front of you, but you couldn’t see it, you couldn’t access it. I’d like to offer, this is exactly what is happening for a majority of us. Now come on, how could that be? Most of us are continually in the pursuit of happiness, so if the answer was right in front of us why wouldn’t we find it?

What is the secret trick that makes each of us a masterful magician? Stay with me and I will explain. Our minds are programmed early in life and continue to follow set patterns or ways of thinking based on our own experiences or what others have told us about ourselves. Our mind is the filter we use to interpret everything that is happening around us. In essence, information continually comes into our minds and we perceive it from the lens of our past experiences and knowledge. Then we project our story or perception over top of the situation, circumstances or person(s) involved.

The illusions created by the mind are harder to see because when we believe the thoughts, our mind looks for more evidence to support the idea.

Mostly we cling to our perspectives as true. How often do you think your mind is lying to you? When we are lost in believing our thoughts we are unaware of what actually is. By “what is” I mean, the present moment, without the past or the future layered on top. Most people live their entire lives unaware of the depth of their conditioning and how profoundly it underpins all of their behaviours. We unconsciously see the world through our interpretations and belief systems, which are simply ideas or concepts, but not reality. This is the greatest magic trick of all time!

In Buddhism, they use the analogy of a snake to demonstrate how the illusion of the mind works. Let’s say you were walking in the forest near dusk and saw a snake coiled up at the edge of the trail. If you’re afraid of snakes you would likely have an instant emotional and physical reaction. Perhaps you jump back, as your mind unconsciously recalls a number of reasons you are afraid of snakes. After regaining your composure, you notice the snake hasn’t moved. Upon closer investigation, you realize it is not a snake it’s just an old coil of rope. You have a little laugh and perhaps feel a bit silly, but what really happened? There was a moment when you were lost in an illusion of your mind and it projected the idea of a snake onto the coil of rope. The “snake” seemed so real that you were actually afraid. Your mind couldn’t see reality because it was clouded by scary memories.

“Observe and inquire into reality AS it IS. Normally we see the world as we are, not as it is.” – Daniel Schmidt

One of our greatest illusions is that most of us have been led to believe in some way we are incomplete and that happiness is only found outside of ourselves and usually in the future. Seeking worthiness or validation from others so that we experience feelings of love and belonging is a natural result of these beliefs. As a good friend of mine, Monique, wisely points out, “if we don’t recognize our inherent value, we end up hustling for our worthiness, trying to win the approval and love of others.” Feeling insecure can evoke a need for self-preservation. Many of us ‘armor up’ with defensive behaviors like justification, judgment, or blame. Our past experiences, conditioning, and interpretations create our personal opinions and internal measurement of “right” and “wrong”. When we are filled with personal preferences about how we think things should be, our focus can turn to want the world to be different. When we are attached to thinking things should be different than they are, we fall deeper into the illusion, and will inevitably feel helpless, overwhelmed, or unfairly treated.

The conditioned mind regularly takes things personally and sets us up to suffer by arguing with reality. Our minds are so skilled at this insidious game of smoke and mirrors that it continually fools us into believing our thoughts are real, or accurate. Phantom limb research is a great example of how the mind uses past information and believes it is accurate in the present. Up to 85% of amputees experience pain in the missing limb. This happens because the mind is still running in old neural pathways and, as strange as it sounds, doesn’t realize the limb is gone. The mind is so trapped in the past that it can’t see reality.

“I am a lover of what is, not because I’m a spiritual person, but because it hurts when I argue with reality.” – Byron Katie

Thoughts, in and of themselves, are neutral, they are not good or bad. When thoughts carry an emotional charge we become invested in them, which adds to the strength of our belief. It’s the attachment to thoughts that creates one of the problems. We unknowingly adopted many of our beliefs as children. In our early development, we were like “feeling sponges” with little to no discerning skills. In emotionally charged moments, many children misinterpret what is going on and unfortunately, end up locking painful emotions and memories deep in their nervous system. Thoughts are regurgitated memories, echoes of your past, replaying in your mind as an image or internal dialogue. Based on our past experiences we develop personal preferences, beliefs and fears that consciously and mostly unconsciously guide our life. The mind perceives the present moment through these distorted lenses, usually believing our thoughts about what’s happening over what is actually happening. Yogic master Sadhguru puts it this way. “Thought and emotion are a psychological reality, not an existential reality”.

The mind hates being seen. So the mind hides reality from us by justifying, denying, or blaming. All of these divert attention away from ourselves and the deeper truth. Have you ever experienced someone lecturing their partner or child with a stern tone of voice and when it was pointed out to them, they quickly denied it? Or perhaps you remember a time when someone pointed out your action and you denied it. I know I’ve caught myself in this ego trap. There’s a natural tendency for us to hide or defend our conditioning and unfavorable behaviours. The mind is such a masterful illusionist that usually we don’t even realize we are arguing for our limitations. We’re not doing it on purpose; the mind is designed to protect us from what it deems as threats.

“Humans are masters of self-deception. We fool ourselves into believing things that are false and we refuse to believe things that are true.” – Cortney Warren

I’m not suggesting that we turn against the mind. It is not evil or out to get you. It’s extremely important for us to acknowledge the cunning brilliance of the mind and its dedication to doing its job, which is to keep you safe. It wants you to survive so it uses all the information you’ve gathered as a guide. All the experiences you liked and disliked, the beliefs you’ve created and the things you identify with become the foundation for the mind’s decision-making. So it scans for comfort, familiarity, convenience and pleasure. Through the lens of your past, the mind projects its story onto the present moment. This projection is an illusion, albeit doesn’t seem like it is. Voila, the perfect deception! Making the trick even harder to see is the fact that most of our unpleasant past experiences are locked deep in our nervous system, creating automatic reactions without needing to consciously think about the past. An example of this could be people who habitually say yes when they really don’t want to. Most likely they have childhood experiences that told them asking for what they want is rude, bossy, or selfish. Incorporated in those early experiences is the message, “You and what you want are not that important”. As adults they unconsciously jump to pleasing behaviours, usually unaware it’s underpinned by insecurity or a fear of rejection.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

When you believe something is real you are willing to invest in it, take it seriously, defend it, and protect it. Once you can see and understand an illusion, it loses its grip. After all, part of you is unwilling to be invested in something you know isn’t real. So, how do we break the spell the mind has over us? Daniel Schmidt, founder of Awaken the World says, “to see reality as it is we have to change the instrument we use to investigate, which is ourselves.” My own experience has taught me that if I want to see reality as it is, I must start by looking at myself and discovering how my mind interprets the world. Deep self-inquiry brings greater levels of awareness and understanding of how the mind works and why it creates stories. Our blindspots can be nearly impossible to see on our own so it’s best to get support from others who are skilled at understanding behaviour, conditioning, and belief systems. Although I have taken many great programs over the years and I’ve found the fastest most direct path to profound growth is with the guidance of a skilled coach.

Awareness is always the first step, as it helps us see what we are not seeing. The second step is understanding how your conditioning and beliefs are driving your behavior. Quite simply, we are playing out our early programming perfectly. This awareness brings the insight that we are all doing the best we can with the information and skills we possess at any given moment. Making sense of why you do what you do opens the door to self-compassion and the third step, taking ownership of how you are showing up.

What might all of this look like? Let me give you an example. As an adult, when Mom asks me something like, “Don’t you think you should wear some socks?” or “Have you eaten today?” I can quickly become frustrated or annoyed. My conditioned mind thinks, “What? I know how to dress myself”, “Ugh! Of course, I’ve eaten, as if I need to be told to eat”. The reality is Mom simply asked me a question, so why am I triggered? Because of the trickery of my mind. In those moments I am not seeing reality, I’m seeing the mind’s projections from the past.

While I was growing up my Mom had a tendency to worry about and fuss over me. Like most Mothers, she cared a lot and wanted to keep me safe and make me happy. She would double-check to ensure I had everything I needed and she would try to protect me from physical and emotional discomfort. I know she was doing the best she knew at the time to show her love and nurture me. However, as a child, I didn’t understand that and misinterpreted the situations to mean “I’m unable”, “not smart enough” or “inadequate” in some way. My childhood experiences conditioned me to be on alert around people I think are ‘managing me’ or ‘suggesting I’m not competent enough’.

Nowadays, I slow down and acknowledge the little child in me whose misinterpretations and wounds are still in the process of healing. Understanding my conditioning and taking self-responsibility for how my mind can make distorted meanings of the present moment breaks me free from the illusion. When I’m feeling smothered and thinking the person is suggesting I’m incompetent, it offers me the opportunity to pause, return to “what is” and self-evaluate. They say the truth will set you free, and I agree. So, the truth is when I’m “triggered” it’s not about the other person or the circumstances, it’s simply my mind’s projection based on my misinterpretations from childhood experiences. Understanding my conditioning, and knowing I can be over-sensitive to these situations, allows me to pull back the curtain and consciously choose to show up differently.

“A miracle is a change in perception.” – A Course in Miracles

With so much of our conditioning running, it can be so easy to get lost in the stories our minds create that we forget some of the most basic and beautiful things about life itself. Years ago I spent time in Cambodia and the local people quickly won my heart. They showed me something I’d previously thought was impossible. Altho they were living in total poverty, they were the most joyful and welcoming people I’d ever met. I couldn’t believe it! My conditioned mind had fed me a story that happiness, self-worth and freedom came from building a successful life with status, money and material goods. So how could the impoverished Cambodians be happier than a majority of North Americans living in affluence? In North America, we often feel entitled to our comforts and conveniences. The fact we are alive is usually taken for granted, as we slip into complaining about how we think our lives should be better.

Our fast-paced lifestyles have us rushing, multitasking, chasing the dream, and missing the natural beauty all around us. Whether it’s from our culture’s focus on productivity, accumulating more money, status or our individual ‘hustling for our worthiness’, any ordinary day can become a hurdle – an obstacle to our happiness. Our society has been trained to focus on the future, believing that’s where our happiness will be found. Often the mind sells us the story, “If I only had…, or when I get…. then I will be happy.” When we think that way we delude and blind ourselves from the deep contentment the current moment holds. Not only do we diminish the present moment, and relegate it to a nuisance or a block between us and our future fulfillment, but we also give away power and the opportunity the moment offers.

The fearful conditioned mind has lost sight of how precious being alive really is. Many people are caught in the “rat race” chasing the almighty dollar and rarely make the time to really honor the miracle each moment holds, the divine beauty woven into life itself. The happiness and freedom we are seeking requires existential truth. The Cambodians learned how to cherish relationships with each other and nature. They were incredibly good at living in the present moment. Combining “present moment awareness” with “seeing reality as it is” creates a solid foundation built on truth, where the tricks of the mind become weak and even laughable. Perhaps your mind will balk at this, but ALL of the happiness and fulfillment you seek is right here, right now. Everyday, we are alive is a gift filled with adversity that offers learning, adventure, curiosity, a sense of freedom, and love, reminding us that we matter and have innate value. If you’re not seeing life this way, on a somewhat regular basis, I invite you to inquire into what your mind is telling you. Being able to realize, understand and break identification with the illusions of your mind is the ultimate debunking of the magic trick.

Jeff Brown


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