There's a sort of modern tale of Plato's cave allegory which I first came across in Jed McKenna's book, "Spiritual Enlightenment, the Damndest Thing". Here's another version of the story. A.D.
A man is sitting in a movie theater but he doesn't know it. He's seated in such a way that all he can see is the screen - no other seats, no other parts of the theater and others in it, just the screen. And he's mentally and emotionally tethered to the belief that what he is watching is not a movie but life, and what he is experiencing is all the pathos that comes along with being in the world. He would never think of questioning if it's possible to break free from what appears to be happening, and look around and see if there was anything else going on, unrelated to what appears to be happening on the screen. His view of reality has been consistently confirmed and reconfirmed by his senses, his emotions and his mind, and so, he exercises no doubts on the subject. And yet he finds himself unsettled, unhappy within himself, wishing and seeking for something else, but he has no idea what that may be and how to go about it. And except for some occasional lapses, he knows that life is what he is experiencing and he knows of no alternatives but death that could ever completely replace this familiar life that is playing out around him.
Then suddenly an illicit idea flashes through his mind, which is to question the truth of this movie he's been watching here his entire life. It's hard to appreciate what a huge departure this is for him, unless you realize that he, as a separate individual in the world, is the only reality he's ever known - which in this story takes the form of sitting here, seeing images on the screen, listening to the soundtrack, and thinking about his needs to deal with the feelings the story brings up for him. But maybe, he thinks, (much surprised to find himself thinking such radical and even insane thoughts), there might be another vision of reality, a parallel vision playing out beyond his perception. Could it be that he has been suspending his disbelief so completely and for so long that he's forgotten to question anything. Instead he has automatically believed that what the world was telling him and has always told him, was real. And this includes what his senses and his mind and his feelings have always told him was real, what all his teachers and parents and friends and even his own experiences and reason have always told him was real.
Of course, suspension of disbelief is the deal we make when we go to a movie. We suspend our disbelief to get into the story and form an emotional bond with the characters. The movie, in return, agrees not to make it too difficult for us to believe the story. But this man doesn't even know that he is in a theater watching a movie. Sitting there, watching the film, completely absorbed and believing that this is all there is to life, he has permanently given up disbelief. Unquestioning, he has believed that the images on the screen were representing reality and what life is.
Now, however, for whatever reason, he has an inner feeling that he's no longer so sure about the veracity of his previous beliefs. His view of reality has been an unchallenged illusion for him up to now, but, for the first time ever, he questions. He dares to stand up and look around. And to his surprise he realizes he’s in a theater and that there are many others in the theater, and all of them, like he just moments earlier, are totally riveted to the goings on on the screen. How strange they appear. Each one believing themselves to be a separate individual although they are unknowingly tied together by their unquestioning belief in the reality of the story that's playing on the screen.
Looking around, it begins to dawn on him that there is another level of reality of which he has always been completely ignorant. And now that makes him wonder about the images on the screen that he had accepted as reality. In this dark theater, he has always watched the light reflecting off the screen, and seeing it not as light but as real beings in a real world. But now, as he looks around, he sees the flickering lights overhead and realizes that this is what is impinging on the screen and makes up the whole world drama playing there. As he traces the flickering light back to its source in the projector, he discovers the one light, the source of all the images he mistook for reality before.
Seeing where the light was coming from and how the movie was just rolling in front of it, he realized that there literally could be any movie playing in front of that projector and the light wouldn't give a damn about the drama unfolding on the screen. The light just illuminates everything on the screen and yet remains totally uninterested and unaffected by the happenings depicted there. So, the movie that he had felt himself so unquestionably part of could just as easily have been replaced by another, and he would have found himself as totally and intimately part of that, just like a puppet, without any choice on his part. Clearly the real energy is not in the drama on the screen, which is just reflected light playing out in the figures and situations depicted there, but in the source of light which has projected all these.
Immediately our guy loses interest in the movie still playing, but keeps exploring the now much larger scene of the theater, the other people, the projector, whatever else is visible or, he infers, is still hidden from view. In this way he continues to inquire deeper and deeper. In the process he is breaking free and discovering the truth, but still only very little. Sure, he now realizes that what he always thought of as reality was just a two-dimensional trick of light and shadows. Having gotten up and looked around and having discovered that he was in a theater and that he had always just been watching a movie, his world view was now vastly bigger than the particular story-world playing on the screen. It took him a moment to realize what an incredible expansion had occurred in his awareness. It was mind-blowing. In discovering the source of light he has discovered the creator-source of all worlds, and he now sees how the whole business of life is arranged to keep the puppets captive and fascinated, believing they have something to say about it all, when in fact they're just being played out. And nothing will really change for them until they start asking the deeper questions, and start getting up and looking around, and seeing how they've been had.
So, our guy is no longer like the rest of the puppets he sees glued to their seats and to their narrow belief system. He now sees how it all works. He's become a freed puppet. But, he realizes, he's still a puppet, he's still subject to the vicissitudes of life, even though, as he now knows, it is all unreal and just a shadow play. Despite his newly discovered knowledge, he still finds himself embedded in the shadow play and not in control of its happenings. He realizes that he has no power to change the illusion that is playing out around him and engaging him. In essence he's still a puppet, and still not satisfied. He must go on and dig further. There must be more than just this theater with its light and the infinite number of stories that could be vitalized by that light and be playing on the screen. There has got to be more to reality than even all the different worlds that can be brought into existence by the infinite number of stories through which the projector light could play. Reality’s got to be beyond all that. And so he continues looking around and keeps wondering what is really real.
Suddenly in the dim reflected light he faintly spots a corridor at the end of the row of seats, which leads to a door. And there he sees a thin sliver of light showing beneath the door. Now this sliver of light is totally unexpected, for the way he had it previously figured out, the projector was the source of light giving rise to all the possible scenes that could be happening; he had concluded that it alone was the god of all happenings, for it not only illuminated all the figures on the screen, and could illuminate and bring to life the whole huge collection of movies contained in its vaults, but it also provided the dim light by which everything in the theater could be seen. Yet here was some faint light coming from another place behind that door which clearly had no connection with his previously discovered source of all worlds, ie., the projector. Does that mean that there are worlds and sources of light even beyond this theater with its all-powerful light and beyond all the possible worlds it can project into appearance. Reality, he now thought, must be much vaster than that all-creative light, that he had previously posited as the one source of everything.
So, the mystery hasn’t been solved after all. Now the overwhelming urge is to go and explore that sliver of light showing beneath the door. No longer afraid, he walks from his seat to the corridor and heads up to the door. The powerful drive that got him here, now urges him to go through the door. But he knows this means leaving behind everything he has known: the movie, the theater, the light and its manifold projections, and everything that previously defined him as a separate individual, namely, a body, a mind, a person, a history, the familiar world. He has no idea what is on the other side, but he's driven forward. He has no choice. And as he is propelled forward he begins to disappear as a separate something. In a flash he drops his identity, he drops his individuality, his history. Every last bit of the idea of a separate 'me' on which his story has centered, dissolves completely as he takes the plunge out of the theater, away from the sphere of influence of that all-powerful projector light.
The door opens, but the energy that blows through it to the other side, is no longer he. He is gone. Wiped away without a trace. Was he ever even there? Did such an individual ever really exist? No one knows. Whatever movie happens to be playing is not telling. What remains is a mystery. But, one thing is for sure…. this particular Truman show is now over.