If we could see and understand how illusion starts we would have a great advantage in the campaign for reality. It is, in some ways, like an election campaign, a long process of persuasion, with ups and downs in the polls, many misleading arguments and some dirty tricks; finally, our last encounter with mortality is the day of the election when the chips fall and we are what we have become.
Diadochus of Photike was a fifth-century Greek monk who had sat long enough in the work of silence, and also watched his mind in daily life for long enough, to see how illusion arises. However different our conditions of life today and the way they shape modern consciousness, the mind itself works in the same basic way. He speaks to us. His great work is called ‘On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination: One Hundred Texts’. The texts are short paragraphs, wisdom insights distilled into gems of truth that need to be savoured through many re-readings. (You don’t read a book, you re-read it). With each reading the flavor, enjoyment and nutritional value grow stronger. Diadochus begins by affirming the irreducible goodness of reality including the human realm, because God makes nothing that is not good. So what goes wrong? Why isn’t everything always good? Where does the serpent creep into the Garden of Eden?
Through the side-door of fantasy.
When in the desire of his heart someone conceives and gives form to what in reality has no existence, then what he desires begins to exist. (3)
It begins with desire. And desire arises from the awareness of something lacking, in the endless human longing for something more. This is a gift because it allows for evolution and change, for a raising of consciousness, but it has a concomitant danger. However well we have been loved and raised, we still feel that there is something more we need. Imagine how much more complex our needs and the desires they generate if we are thrown out of our home in Aleppo, abused on our long trek westwards, rejected as scum at the borders where we arrive to beg for a peaceful home and a new start, and hope turns to despair as the illusion is shattered. Desire is always linked to need. In the best of scenarios, desire mirrors need. We don’t desire what we don’t think we need but we often desire what it is impossible to achieve.
Imagination makes the need known to the conscious mind. We form an image that we pursue as a desire, hope, ambition or goal. Augustine thought that the spiritual journey is all about holy desire. John of the Cross thought we need to let go of all desire even our desire for God. Both are right, depending on how we understand desire in relation to need and fantasy.
Imagination is bound to desire. For good if desire is directly linked to what we need. For ill if it spins out of control and develops a virtual life of its own. This easily happens where there is severe pain and especially when we have suffered alone without the ministry of human love to console our loneliness. Fantasy arises in the dungeon of lonely suffering. It differs from creative imagination because what it ‘sees’ is not a real potential that can be made to happen. Instead, it experiences a phantom pregnancy. The symptoms are there but the actual new life is not.
Prayer is necessary. It exists, not to tell God how divine He is, nor to give us a platform for dramatising our desires. It exists to help us see this vital distinction between need and desire, reality and illusion. On the clarity of that seeing our life depends.