When illusion begins to exist it can be, at first, very uplifting. Like a candidate who promises everything for nothing, one of the false messiahs we get through regularly today, or like a glittering celebrity whose sleek success we envy and imaginatively make our own, illusion gives temporary relief from the pain associated with our unmet needs or frustrated desire. But always, in the end, it explodes. The process of disillusionment is painful, according to how long and deeply we have allowed ourselves to be seduced. The bigger the crowd around us buying into the same illusion, the more likely we are to be sucked deep into the destructive vortex.
We strengthen the false existence of illusion by focusing on it and by acting as if it were real. The unreal can then become very powerful in this way and even assume an autonomous life that affects people collectively. Tyrannies begin with the defiant fantasy of alternative facts.
Diadochus says that we resist this growth of illusion, which would eventually swallow all freedom, simply by paying attention to the ‘remembrance of God’. Simone Weil said something similar: in the face of an evil that you cannot defeat pay attention to the good. Of course, when our perception of reality has been so clouded by illusion that we are not sure what is true or false, this is challenging to understand. It means more than thinking about what might (or not) be good. In meditation we pay attention to the good, firstly to our own goodness, by transferring attention from thoughts and images and by dropping all evaluations. By saying the mantra, we pay pure attention – not to anything we think or bring into existence by desire and imagination – but to the silence of being, of what really is. In existence (meaning everything that steps out of being and becomes visible) there is always the danger of falsehood. In being (meaning contemplation) the radical simplicity of pure attention filters the unreal and disposes of it.
Diadochus says we can do this provided that we can ‘persuade our soul not to be distracted by the false glitter of this life.’ Let’s leave the reality-illusion question there for a while. Where would you say, in this first week of Lent, that this false glitter accumulates in your life?