Great spiritual teachers often speak of the inexplicable wonder of maya, the divine play of illusion. Maya is that which is not. It does not exist and never has existed. Being unreal it cannot be the cause of anything. And yet, despite being nothing at all, it seems to achieve the impossible; it makes that which is real and forever existent appear to be non-existent and unreal, and it makes that which is never existent and never real appear to truly exist and be real. The age-old example that reveals both the wonder and the preposterousness of this trick of maya is that of the rope and the snake. The phenomenon happens when it is neither light of day when we can see well nor dark of night when we can see nothing; it is dusk or twilight, when the light is low and our seeing is impaired. There is a piece of rope lying on our path; we mistake it as a snake and immediately become frightened.
It is the ego mind, the instrument of maya, which concocts this scene by hiding the truth of the rope, and from its imagination, based on past memory, projects the untruth of the snake onto the rope that it cannot discern. Then it spins out a catastrophic expectation of being attacked and killed by the snake, and under its direction we, the individual, are flooded with panic as we become obsessed with the non-existent hobgoblin of fear.
From the point of view of true knowledge, the whole ridiculous scene is unreal and non-existent. To be taken in by it and to believe it to be real is totally insane. Yet, such is the very nature of maya. When truly seen, it is nothing, an absurd illusion with no substance. But when it is not seen, it becomes the impregnable power of imagination spinning out a totally believable nightmare that holds us in its grip. This then, in its insanity, is the make-up of the serial dream that we so tenaciously cling to as our reality. That we take it so seriously and assert it to be real, is not only insane but inexplicable. Maya and its hand-maiden, the mind, cannot be understood.
Maya has no beginning, it has no logical cause. We can only say that it has come, inexplicably. Somehow, it manages to obscure the eternal now with memories of the past, from which it projects a future and thereby totally hides the present. Having created time, it simultaneously creates space, or so it seems, putting forth the insane notion that the consciousness can be limited to be present at one place and not at another. But consciousness has no form and it has no boundaries; it cannot be contained.
All the powers of maya are derived from our imagination. It seems to exist and to be real only because we believe in it. Only because we have fallen asleep. The unchanging eternal truth of our being is unaffected. What we have made up and come to believe to be our reality, has in no way changed our true reality. We are, as we have always been, the pure unchanging field of pristine consciousness, the ground on which all dreams seem to have come and gone, and seem for an instant to have held us in their grip. In truth, nothing ever happened. It was just an illusion.
Looking at maya a little more closely, we see that it is made up of two very powerful shaktis or powers, a veiling power and a projecting power. The veiling power hides the truth and the projecting power projects an untruth, which is then mistaken to be truth. In the example of the nonexistent snake seen in the twilight, the rope is hidden by the veiling power and the snake is concocted by the projecting power. Both in the day-time serial dream and in the night-time ephemeral dream, these two powers of maya are active. As soon as they hold sway, the individual I-thought appears and takes over. Instantly, time and space and a whole world of objects, individualized thoughts, desires and repulsions, feelings of mine and thine, love and hate, and a host of other polar opposites and distinctions seem to arise. As a result, the consciousness appears to be transformed into impure unconsciousness.
The forms of the two types of dreams, the serial-dream and the ephemeral dream, are different, the spatial and time frames are different, and the intensity of the illusion appears to be different, but in essence these two types of dreams are exactly the same. The rope is always just the rope and nothing else. It is just that these two shaktis of maya seem to have come and obscured it, projecting some unreal scenes onto it.
Consider for a moment when in the night-time dream, the dream character fantasizes a scene in his mind. Clearly he knows that he is concocting this scene in his imagination, and thus he would not consider it to be real. Therefore, even in the dream, the dream character would recognize what was obviously made-up in his mind, and would not take it seriously. But when that same mind of the dream character sees a scene in the world (his dream world), which he experiences to be outside of himself, he considers this to be real. He does not even think of questioning his perception. Later, however, when this dream is rmembered in the day-time serial-dream, it is realized that all of the night-time dream, whether it was perceived to be internal or external by the dream character, was illusory. It was all made up by the mind and superimposed onto the reality, the screen of pure consciousness.
In the same way, in the serial day-time dream which we now perceive ourselves to be in, when we fantasize a scene in the mind, we know it to be imagined and, therefore, not real. But when the mind appears to see a scene outside of itself we believe it to be real. Yet this is exactly the same as the experience just spoken of with respect to the night-time dream. Whether the activity is perceived ‘inside’ in the imagination or ‘outside’ in a seeming world, all of it is nothing but imagination, a story made up by the mind and projected onto the one reality, the pure screen of consciousness. All illusion, whatever changing forms it appears to take, is unreal, but always rests on the basis of unchanging reality.
The two shaktis are active in both dream states. But this is not the case in the dreamless state that we previously referred to as deep sleep. Here only the veiling power remains; the projecting power has disappeared. Here the consciousness is no longer impure but it still appears to be unconscious of itself. Without the impurity of the mind or the individual I-thought or the distractions of the world and the needs of the body, we experience this state as one of deep inner peace and contentment, unburdened by any activity of the mind. But this is an indirect experience felt only after the dreamless state has passed and the mind resumes its activities and we have returned to the familiar serial-dream consciouness. While we are in the dreamless state, there is no conscious experience at all, since there is neither an individualized I in the form of mind, nor a concept of time in which to frame an experince. (And I must always add, ‘or so it seems’. In truth, consciousness can never become unconscious. It is, of course, unchanging and unaffected by any of these states that we may define from our limited purview in the serial dream.)