This time of year is always one of reflection for me. I think it has to do with the whole ‘new beginnings’ thing that comes with the start of a new school year. This is the fourth September that I won’t be heading back to the classroom- either as a student or a professor- after manymanyMANY years of it being the norm.
But I still find that the self-analysis and evaluation happens more at this time of year (and on Christmas Eve as well- pagan that I am) than at any other.
Heavy thoughts, sometimes, as the summer winds down and the last days of warm weather and relative quiet in the neighbourhood persist.
The other night I got to thinking about illusions- those we hold dear and those that we suddenly seem to discover either have been or are in desperate need of being shattered. Not just quietly set aside, but blown out of the water completely.
Illusions can be interesting and very personal things, and there are all kinds of meanings that the word conjures up
They can be tricks our senses may play on us- based in the way that our brain reacts to perceptions. Sensory illusions distort reality but are a commonality that most humans experience in the same way.
Practitioners of stage magic are called illusionists. Harry Houdini, arguably the greatest of them all, used this human propensity to perceive the distortion of reality to entertain and amaze audiences for years.
In addition to using illusion to fool patrons into engaging with the stunts and magic tricks he performed, Houdini spent the latter part of his career debunking ‘spiritualists’- self-described psychics and mediums. A Scientific American committee, which included Houdini, offered cash prizes to any medium who could successfully demonstrate true supernatural abilities- money that was never claimed.
Harry Houdini used illusion- well aware of its principles and mysteries and effects on human perception- in his stage act, and then worked to shatter the illusions that putative psychics wove around themselves as a means of bilking their unsuspecting marks.
In Sanskrit and Pali literature, Maya has many meanings, but it has come to be associated with the many concepts of illusion. In Vedic tradition, Maya is associated with Varuna- originally the god of water and the celestial ocean. In the later Rig Vedic phase, Varuna lost some of his ascendancy and became connected with death and the ‘chief of the evil spirits’ (asuras).
These evil spirits practiced a form of black magics to tempt and harass the gods. The concept of illusion became associated with dark magics that sat in opposition to the existing Truth. These magics were inferior, deceptive and illusory.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the concept of illusion illustrates the ways in which people misunderstand their realities- and themselves- believing that things and people exist aside from their underlying conditions and causes. Really, alone, they are empty- like the illusions the magician performs for our entertainment.
Mara, the devil-like figure who tempted the Buddha with visions of beautiful women, likewise distracts humanity from spiritual paths by making the mundane seem attractive.
In Sikhism Maya is connected with both snakes and money- and in some myths is the ‘grand illusion’ of materialism. This primary illusion begets all others, but by understanding this foundational concept, a believer can begin to approach true spirituality.
I seem to be all about transitions lately. Feeling a little trapped between things- reality and illusion, one state and another… Thresholds. Hammering at misconceptions and changing of realities. That’s where my head is at.
Styx, that groovy prog-rock band of the 70’s and 80’s, took their name from river that marked the boundary between Earth and the Underworld, Hades, in Greek mythological tradition. In later Greek and Roman sources, Charon (who I talked about a while ago- post won’t link- AAARGH!) ferried the souls of the dead between the worlds. It was a place of liminality- like the Crossroads I talked about the other day.
In many legendary traditions, the Devil (yes, him again) is a Trickster figure prone to casting illusions upon unsuspecting humans as a means of outwitting and messing with them. For little other purpose than because it’s what he does.
This connection (and ALL is connected) brings us back to both our Trickster figures at the Crossroads, and the vilification of the Devil as the externalized personification of evil, rather than as an exemplar that warns us to be wary of the traps of the illusory nature of the materiality and superficiality of life that get in the way as we pursue higher wisdom.
It would probably be most appropriate to end this post with the title song from The Grand Illusion, but it really is one of my least favourite Styx songs (I know- it’s kind of scary that I actually rank Styx songs). So instead, I offer up, for your consideration and enjoyment, my very favourite Styx song, from the same album.
It’s still about illusions- and expectations- and overcoming both. And it’s about sailing- which I love. And angels turning out to be aliens (another illusion shattered)- which is pretty cool.