Is reality real?

What does he really mean?

In the above sentence, the word “really” suggests that beyond the apparent meaning of a statement, there is also an underlying more significant meaning—the real meaning. The word “real” is taken to suggest truth and absoluteness. But as with any word, what we label as real can only be understood against the backdrop of its opposite—in this case, the unreal.

Just as cold makes no sense without hot, and up makes no sense without down, real makes no sense without unreal. The pair come together. Why, then, do wisdom traditions around the world talk about the nature of reality? After all, reality could only be real in comparison to unreality, and such a polar reality would therefore not be all-encompassing, thus negating its very reality to begin with.

It turns out there’s good reason to hammer home the subtle idea of reality. It helps the subtle mind reflect on that which appears as this world. It helps the mind recognize and rest as ever-subtler states. In the tradition of Vedanta, this is described as differentiating the seer (subject) from the seen (object). Through this ever-refining process, the entire world is swallowed into the seer. (This does not imply solipsism since the boundary of individuality is itself swallowed and the very nature of the seer-seen relationship shifts). What remains is the non-polar undifferentiated seer, labeled reality itself. This method is much more than abstraction; it is a transformative experience.

Having gone this far, the scenery changes, and along with it, the rules.

The “ultimate seer” can only be called “reality” as compared to the relative world. If we are to be precise, we would say it is more real—or more absolute and less subject to change—than the relative world, because the very distinguishing of the absolute from the relative disqualifies the absoluteness of reality.

Reality is first a discovery, then a contradiction, then a workhorse that was worth the ride.

Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is board certified in Emergency Medicine and holds a Master’s degree in Management with a focus in Health Leadership. He practices in the Washington, DC metro area, where he also leads meditation gatherings for clinicians. He is the author of Michelangelo’s Medicine and the upcoming book Is This a Dream? He tweets @DrAnoopKumar.