WHAT IS REAL? A Transcribed talk by Christopher. Totnes Meditation Group. 10 November 2021.

This is a 40-minute transcribed, edited and adapted talk given to the Totnes Meditation Group in the Natural Health Centre, Totnes, Devon, UK on Wednesday 10 November 2021. 3000 words.


Last Wednesday (3 November 2021) an important major family issue arose which required my attention. Thank you for kindly inviting me back this week.

This evening talk with you takes the form of a question. The question is What is Real?

I would like to start with speaking about looking at what is false and what is unreal. We will go deeper and touch upon what we think and agree is real and go deeper than that.

As human beings, we are endowed with consciousness, a mind with thought, heart, feelings, perceptions and views. All of this abides under the influence of our history and evolutionary process. Our patterns and perceptions, insights and realisations also help shape our view of the world. But it does not end there. This dynamic going on find its expression so that we interpret what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. We experience the impact and influences of all these impressions. We make contact with the condition of our inner life.

We then face a significant question. Where is the real in all of this? What is real? This is a serious question. As a human being, I am exposed to what is happening within me. This forms the relationship with what is happening outside of myself. I am in a situation of having some influence on what is outside of myself. It does not end there. The world has its impact on me. There is a dynamic, inner to outer and outer to inner, going on in our experience.

We are bold enough to ask the question in all of this: What is Real?

We can experience the deceptive, the false end of things. We’ve probably all had experiences where the imagination has sprung into consciousness. It was under the influence of habits, patterns, fear, anger, blame or confusion. This dynamic brought about a residue of impression. We identified with the residue to the point we imparted it upon our state of mind giving reality to our perceptions impressed upon us. Then we find out our perceptions and impressions were a complete fiction. There was not a scrap of truth, of reality, in our view of the situation.

Those perceptions could be about a new job or about a person we will meet or met and got to know. We could imagine we caught Covid or about our past or future. The dynamic of our mind became so persuasive. We convince ourselves of the reality of it, of the truth of it. Then we find out we deceived ourselves, cheated ourselves, misled ourselves, and sometimes misled others as well. That is not easy for a human being. To be clear requires from us honesty about such deceptions and false views.

Are there situations in my life, which I have built up? What revealed a lot of projections? Has my imagination got the better of me whether looking at the present, future or past? Through a picture story, we have slotted into it a version of ‘reality.’ We gave reality to an event which has an extraordinary potency to affect our daily life.

An Enviro-Mental Life

We live an enviro-mental life. There’s a hyphen in the word. Life is enviro-mental. Obviously, we cannot self-exist, we co-exist with the support of what is around us in a variety of ways. People have gone up to Glasgow for the COP 26 (Corruption of Pollution) conference during the last 10 days. A variety of meetings have taken place including politicians and the corporate world, plus thousands of activists. Beloved friends from Totnes are there as well. Bless them. Spokespersons such as young Greta Thunberg, 18, and elderly citizens, such as David Attenborough, 95, speak in Glasgow.

I wish to make a point here. Politicians make use of a number, the year 2050. I thought to myself how convenient of Prime Ministers and Presidents to refer to 2050 to achieve net zero emissions on this Earth. How convenient to have a number like 2050 for things to complete in the distant future? These influential politicians. and people like me in the white-haired club, will be long gone. 2050 is a projection far beyond the remit of politicians, far ahead of where we are. 2050 is about 30 years away. In these three decades, there is a lot of time for ongoing deceptions. 2050 provides a kind of positive spin with all the associations to promote promises and falsehoods.

The number 2050 serves as an avoidance. Human beings cannot look that far ahead. We have been led to believe we can control global politics year after year. This is a myth, a lie, a falsehood.

We also need to check in with ourselves. What is going on within ourselves? What is our relationship to our life in a small modest way to next week, next month, next year, next decade and the years to come? Can we decide what we will achieve in a decade from now? How do we view the future? The view we have today arises under the influence of our patterns. For some, the view is pessimistic and for others it is optimistic.

The view gains a substantial reality. The view becomes infected with positive feelings or negative feelings. The optimistic view with the pleasant feeling, such as hope, easily carries with it the shadow of disappointment for deceiving ourselves. We become cynical with fearful views soaked with unpleasant feelings. We might construct views about next month, next decade and three decades from now.

Such views are not healthy showing an absence of contact with reality and an indulgence in perceptions. We, the human collective and personally, must take care with our projections and views.

The Buddha and the Future*

Let me put on my Buddha Dharma hat for a moment.

The word hope does not qualify as one of my favorite words in my vocabulary. It is not easy to find such a word in the teachings of the Buddha which includes10,000 discourses. In my view, these discourses reveal the most thorough exploration of the human experience via analysis, meditative reflection and inquiry. Yet, it is not easy to find the word hope in the text. The Pali language uses a different concept. We don’t have a word for it in English. The Pali word reminds us not to be certain or hold to expectations about the future.  “I wish this to happen. But it may not.” That is honest. That concept feels authentic to me. “I wish this to happen. But I know it may not “

That shows a realistic relationship to the future.

We engage. We do what we can. Beloved Totnes has offered programmes around Covid this week. People have held meetings and posted fliers. The town has a soul to it. The town takes action and engages with issues. There is a wish to make changes to environ-mental life for our children, grandchildren, for our species, for other species and to preserve our natural resources. We know too we may not succeed and must remain completely honest about it. This honesty places us close to the real rather than living in the fiction of hope and fear.

In this extraordinary situation, we look at circumstance’s problematic for us. The state of mind is often problematic. Dharma engages in the exploration of the mind. The real is important. Certain desires, namely the wanting of more and more success, destroys our peace of mind due to our dependence on getting what we want. That might include a noble cause. Identification with a noble cause, whatever that might be, can bring about projections and suffering.

The potency of wanting, striving and pressure lends itself to burnout. These demands upon others and ourselves are not sustainable. We can push ourselves hard, either for personal success or a noble cause or both, or something else. We do not realise the consequence of investing so much reality into a situation until it generates such a pressure and stress. Our well-being becomes dependent on achievement, on the goal, on success. When that does not happen, disappointment arises. We are hurt, betrayed and wondering what we are doing with our life. Are we left feeling cynical?

We think our actions are pointless. What can you do? There is an epidemic of these voices in our society. What is it we have projected onto ourselves, others and situations? Why have we placed so much reality onto our priorities that make us suffer?

Why do so many human beings get caught up in wanting, aggression, blame, boredom, indifference, agitation and anxiety? These are frequent themes of the Buddha as they arise alongside fears and doubts. What is it going on with us? Why have we planted and projected so much reality into these states of mind? This is a jackpot question. There is some sense of reality, but it’s landed in the mind to make a problematic life. What do we do to take the reality out of these problematic desires, out of aggression, boredom, anxiety and fears?

If we take the reality out of such states of mind, the suffering must stop. The ending of the suffering might be gradual or sudden. Once I see through the mind, I see the end of putting reality into it. Look at the cost of misplaced reality.

The deep question includes asking where our sense of reality comes from? If resolved, we have woken up, to use the Buddha’s words, in realising the answer to such a question. We have said to ourselves. “I put so much reality into suffering of the mind. I lied, I cheated myself, I cheated others. It wasn’t worth it.”

It does not mean I don’t have and cannot know a sense of reality. I can know. I am human. But our sense of reality has gone in the wrong direction. And when it has, we know it because we suffer. That’s the confirmation of a misplaced sense of reality.

If life has any worthwhile function, purpose or deep significance, it is surely to find ways to keep alive in the human being the question of the talk: What is Real?

We cannot convince ourselves suffering is unreal. I can say that until the cows come home. That will not make any difference to the suffering. Sharing, discussing, inquiring and meditating upon these issues matter. We bring a mindful inquiry into exploration of what is real. Our collective resources and investigation contribute to the dissolution of the problematic life. The dissolution naturally, organically, starts to give us a sense of what the real is. Let us not narrow it down and restrict it to problematic states of mind.

The Real of the Poem

Here is a point from a couple of weeks ago. This is a slight diversion, but you will get the point. I am a meditation teacher. It is my day and night job. I haven’t had the opportunity to go overseas for a year due to Covid. There is a whole variety of discussions going on about the pandemic with the polarization of viewpoints, etc. Some of us do our homework on Covid. For myself, I find the most important duty is being a servant of the Dharma, of having the opportunity, like this evening, to meet with people and speak on essential issues.

I had two vaccinations to get access to go to Germany to teach the Dharma. While the retreat took place at the Waldhaus Buddhist Zentrum, an hour from Bonn, Germany, a participant walked into my room for his inter-view with me with a book in his hand. I do not see many meditators walking into the teacher’s room with a book as I ban reading on retreats except for the timetable and inter-view times. He had book of poetry of Fernando Pessoa (1887-1935), a Portuguese poet.**

I love poets but never heard of him. I asked the retreatant, a performing artist resident in Berlin: “What’s your favorite poem in the book.

He did not need to find the page since he had memorised the untitled poem on page 76.

 “I’m not in a hurry. In a hurry to do what!

The sun and the moon aren’t in a hurry: there right.

Being in a hurry means we believe we can get ahead of our legs,

Or, that with one leap, we can jump over our own shadow,

No, I don’t know how to hurry.

If I reach out one arm I can reach exactly as far as my arm can reach –

Not a centimetre further.

I touch only what I touch, not what I think.

I can only sit where I am.

And like all absolutely true truths, this makes me laugh,

But what really makes me laugh is us always thinking about something else,

And living like truants from our own reality.

And being always outside reality because we’re here.”

My finger can’t go further than where it is.

If I reach out one arm, I can reach exactly as far as my arm can reach – not a centimetre further.

On page 71, Pessoa writes further direct lines in his untitled poem:

If science wants to be true,

What truer science is there than that of things without science?

I closed my eyes and the hard earth on which I lie as such a real reality that even my back feels it.

I don’t need reason when I have shoulder blades.

Scientists have their view about reality. They have become persuasive in the world we live. Meditators engage in a lot of reclining posture. Fernando says he lies on his back and feels the Earth under his body. Under his body, he experiences the reality. He then asked a bold question. Is Science True?

Why do I need science? To know reality, you know you are right on the button. We do not need science to tell us reality. Recognising the benefits and the limits of science, the teachings and practices explore what goes on for us.

The Dharma reminds us we can forget our authority as a human being to know reality. We have also transferred reality over to others as well as into states of mind. Science has persuaded us that we don’t know what reality is. The poet says: “I don’t need scientists. I have shoulder blades.”

The False and the Ego

In a gradual exploration, you are invited and encouraged to look at what is false. The false expose itself to us. We see the emptiness of the false, the fictionalized idea and deceptive imagination. Fiction can show in the positive and negative ideas. Such a fiction shows a bubble in the consciousness, which never goes anywhere. We know a fictionalized life never goes anywhere. The true reality never had the opportunity to express itself.

We have a sense of touching upon something deeper. True reality does not seem confined, restricted and limited to our states of mind, our views and opinions, nor the views of others. We find a subtle depth at this point.

The teachings expose expressions of the ego. The Sanskrit word for ego is aham kara. Aham means ‘I” and kara (similar to karma) means making activity. Ego is an I-making activity, an I, me and my activity building up the ego. The I builds up a self-image as well as other images. The building up of the image can focus on the body. “I don’t like this about myself, I don’t like that about myself, I’m old, I’m tall, I’m fat. I’m thin, etc. The impact of the image reduces our sense of self-worth.

The same self-image goes to the mind. “I’m not good enough, I never succeed in anything.” Sometimes we see through the self-image getting in touch with the body, as we did with the meditation before the talk. We get closer to it. The image dissolves in the time of experiencing the body in a direct way. We feel the connection, the reality of the experience of the body, different from the self-image.

In the connection with the reality of the experience of the body, we also listen to the body. Our capacity to listen to the body affects our diet and way we use the body including our posture. and exercise. We have a relationship with the body because we connect with it. We come out of the false, namely the self-image to the actual, to the real. This enables consciousness to get closer to the reality.

Authentic reality cannot have a limitation to it. Greed, hate and delusion, three poisons of the mind, limit our sense or reality to states of mind. Dissolving such states of mind are major steps to knowing a reality free from the contracted mind.

Our practice brings a sense of being closer to the reality of the situation. For example, we come out of the projections onto 2050, and projections onto three decades of unknowns. There emerges a closeness to the reality of the situation. We get closer to the reality of things rather than live in the spell of the image. Getting closer to the reality of things is not enough. It still has with it a perception or a viewpoint, of becoming closer to reality. Some might say: “Being in the here and now, I am closer to reality.” The here and now is a small reality Getting closer to it is important and precious, but it is still a small world, a small reality.

The path of exploration and the inquiry gets closer to things. We may have whispers or even a shout of realisation (seeing the real) of the reality without limits, without borders. We cannot confine reality to the mind, body or the here and now. It can’t be confined to connection with things or to the present moment. Reality has no confinement to it. Knowing of reality liberates us from any confinement. The whisper of it is not far away. The sky above and Earth below, the night sky and more show an intimacy with reality.

 A Perspective

My daughter told me her experience of sickness and intense pain week after week gave her a perspective on what matters. Such experiences can change the whole way of looking. Any contraction seems small, trivial because one has a sense of something much bigger.

To repeat: an authentic reality has no limitations to it, no confinement. This is our exploration. Knowing this puts everyday matters into perspective. This brings peace of mind, happiness and energy.

Thank you.


A Selection of Poems. 
Fernando Pessoa.
Penguin Books. 436 pages
ISBN 978-0-14-303953-6
Words of poem added to text for readers.

1 thought on “WHAT IS REAL? A Transcribed talk by Christopher. Totnes Meditation Group. 10 November 2021.”

  1. Sarah van den Berge

    Thank you for this Christopher. I have been ill for a time and can relate to the sentiments of this discourse.

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