Penetrating the Illusion of Separation

The following article was written six or seven years ago as the afterword to a small book, essentially done but I’ve still been dithering over for years titled Five Key Principles for Better Health and Healthy Living. When I finally finish the vexing chapter on homeopathy, I’ll likely put it out in some form. In an early blog post ( I discussed two of the five principles, all of which are values to be cultivated rather than health practices. When we embrace certain values our choices improve markedly, and thus our health. In the afterword, I’ve gone a step further and decided to share thoughts on what many consider the core state of human distress. This is not about herbs, homeopathy, nutrition. No, here we pass into far deeper territory. As I’ve so often commented to my patients, we are far more defined by who we are rather than what we have, i.e., what ailment we are suffering. 

The Emperor’s New Clothes is a medieval Spanish tale adapted by Hans Christian Andersen, and generally well known. I’m very partial to these old and sometimes ancient stories. For many years, when my daughter was a child, the reading of Russian, Norwegian, and Irish Fairy Tales was a nightly ritual. We soon learned that there were patterns in the stories and that they were rich in meaningful and practical life lessons. This story, more of a fable rather than a fairy tale, came to mind unsought as I was grappling with the seed of an idea that I wanted to share with you. It weaves together aspects of all five key principles we have discussed and takes us a step further.

Let’s start with the story:

“Many years ago there was an Emperor so exceedingly fond of new clothes that he spent all his money on being well dressed.  He cared nothing about reviewing his soldiers, going to the theatre, or going for a ride in his carriage, except to show off his new clothes.  He had a coat for every hour of the day, and instead of saying, as one might, about any other ruler, “The King’s in council,” here they always said. “The Emperor’s in his dressing room.” 

Many strangers came to the capital, “and among them one day came two swindlers.  They let it be known they were weavers, and they said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable.  Not only were their colours and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office or who was unusually stupid.”  Despite this rather intimidating characteristic, their marvellous work would surely fetch a handsome price!

The story goes on that the swindlers began to weave relentlessly, but what they were weaving was nothing though they spoke of it as if it were the most striking work of clothing design, pattern and material ever seen in the kingdom.  However, since no one wanted to appear incompetent in their job or unusually stupid, none of those who had the opportunity to see the empty weave and the non-existent clothing, were willing to admit anything but that they were the most admirable garments in all the kingdom, worthy of the King himself!!   Well, even the King, his counsellors and ministers, and in fact the entire town fell into the game of protecting their own pride, while playing the fool.  

The Emperor’s New Clothes is a medieval Spanish tale adapted by Hans Christian Andersen

The King debuted his wondrous nothings in a great procession and all the  people exclaimed the beauty of his marvelous clothes, despite the fact that all they were seeing were his undergarments! Of course, none of them wanted to be seen as incompetent or stupid either!

Finally, a young child exclaimed, “The Emperor has no clothes!!” There was commotion as the people began to talk amongst themselves and begin to consider the truth.  

“The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, ‘This procession has got to go on!’ So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.”  (See References)

So this is a story about a falsehood that was maintained by common consent and sustained by fear and pride. An amusing story really a telling parable, for a very similar principle is alive and well in our world. It is the source of many of our relationship problems and most of the serious, divisive issues that beset humanity in every age. It could be regarded as the common ground of individual and collective human distress. 

When we are born we see all things with more or less equal openness. The infant does not know of religion, family, race, creed, nationality, gender, status, celebrity, political persuasion, etc. Soon though, the sense of one’s own separate existence takes form. The pure and innocent awareness of the infant now gathers layer after layer of identity: a name, a family, a nationality, a religion and tribe or race. The ego emerges and eventually we invest all of our acquired identities with our sense of self and our pride: “My family, my nationality, my religion.”  

Of course, the growing infant is initially just locating itself within its environment, forming and being provided categories. Over time we absorb the social norms and conventions of our culture, as well as attitudes and opinions both personal and acquired. The identities we wear are natural to our time, place and circumstances. While establishing our own personhood, they highlight our identification with some and our distinction from others.  

However, the principles of the dharma transcend all these identities. The dharma reveals that all life is one, all mankind is one, all forms are inherently precious, and everything is of the same essence: the life principle. The dharma renders the many layers of identity insubstantial, like the sun pouring through very thin cotton cloth.  

Albert Einstein, the great scientist, writes along the same vein: “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”  

It is the act of clinging to our identities that are connected to our ego and pride, that separates person from person, neighbour from neighbour, one racial or religious or national identity from another. It shackles individuals, communities, and entire countries both east and west, with diverse hindrances, such as isolating communal philosophies, institutional misogyny, and oppressive ideologies, often built and sustained by a mountain of falsehoods. Imbued as we are with separative personal, national, racial or religious ego, untold suffering and wars are the predictable result.

Yet from the perspective of dharma, the purest values of the heart, the entire structure of the ego and its identities, like the Emperor’s clothes, has no substantial reality other than that which we confer upon it. We can enjoy and take pride in our identities, but wisdom is in understanding that for the most part they exist for the purpose of psychological and social order, so that we can function in the world and establish ourselves. We are, however, to wear them lightly, to put them on and take them off like clothing. At the end of the day, in the light of the spirit of love and loving kindness towards all beings, the ego melts like butter in the sun, or resists and dies the death of a thousand cuts. Love and compassion trump ego and pride every time.

The term Maya, is a Sanskrit word that refers to the net of illusions that blind the soul to its own nature as pure awareness, keeping our attention bound, separate and enthralled, by everything with which our ego is identified.  Meditation is a useful tool for gaining an experience of awareness free of identities. Penetrating the separative ego, realizing the essential emptiness of the structures we cling too in the light of higher human  values, confers direct physical, emotional and mental benefits.  In fact, there are scientists dedicated to the study of compassion, the sentiment that arises when our heart is open, demonstrating significant benefits to physical health and immunity.

Loosening the tight ropes of egoism, we are able to handle many day to day challenges with less tension and far less anxiety. We become more resilient, more capable of taking responsibility for our results, and slower to take offence. As a result, we are more open to learn and grow. It is easier to make adjustments small and large, with less fuss and noise. Sooner or later, we discover that looking into the world is to look into a mirror, as we are constantly seeing a reflection of ourselves, in all situations and circumstances. When we apprehend the truth of it, we become less reactive and more reflective, which also enhances our capacity to grow so as to feel better about what we see in the mirror.

The pure awareness of the infant suggests that consciousness exists before all of our identities, the latent animating force, with no distinctions of faith and faithless, knowing no infidel, no other.  Our identities wrap around that animating force and take their power from that source, but exist as if in separation. Love and pure awareness are surely related, since love, the unitive principle, similarly transcends all of the distinctions to which the separative Self clings. The five principles are all aspects of love. Therefore, one must attempt to see through the eyes of love, and see as if through the eyes of others so as to develop compassion. This is the higher path of healing for the individual and humanity, regenerative nutrition for the heart and spirit.