The one element of Eastern or so-called "New Age" thought that is most difficult for the western mind to comprehend is the notion that matter is an illusion. It seems, on the surface at least, absurd to imagine that the physical world in which we live is 'make believe' or unreal. In fact, it seems anything but, forcing most Westerners to dismiss the concept outright as irrational nonsense.

The problem, of course, comes from the word "illusion." Most people tend to take it to mean "imaginary" or, perhaps, "hallucinatory" as though the world around us is a type of dream created from our own imagination.

Yet illusion does not mean imaginary. Illusions are external to ourselves. Illusions can be seen by many people at the same time; they can even be photographed, duplicated, and even planned. They are not "unreal" in the sense that something does not exist in reality; they are an illusion only in the respect that we perceive reality in a way other than what it is. For example, we have all had the illusion of seeing what appeared to be a shimmering pool of water on the horizon only to discover our "pool" to be nothing more than heat reflecting sunlight off a flat surface. Many of us have watched magicians and illusionists make objects—even entire buildings—seemingly disappear before our eyes only to have them reappear a moment later.

These are common, everyday illusions we can understand with our rational mind. We understand how sunlight and heat bouncing off a flat surface can look like water and how the magician has cleverly used mirrors, camera angles, and other tricks of the trade to make buildings seemingly disappear and reappear. We know there is nothing "imaginary" about these things; we are simply being forced to interpret them in an unusual way.

As such, when the Eastern sage talks about the physical world being an "illusion," he is not insinuating that it is imaginary. He is simply saying that we are interpreting something in a way other than it actually is. Like a person who does not realize he or she is part of the illusion, we fail to see what is really happening and instead come away with an entirely different perception. In other words, we are seeing the physical world around us in part and understanding it in part but are trusting our senses that they are perceiving things correctly and that is illusion! That is what is keeping us largely oblivious to our true, spiritual nature, and what must be understood before spiritual enlightenment can be achieved.

In order to explain how this works on a practical level, however, it is first necessary to understand the nature of matter itself. When we see something solid—such as a stone—our first thought is that the stone is inanimate and unmoving. Further, we also perceive that it is made of something quite different from what we are made of. In other words, it's obvious that a rock and a person are made out of very different "stuff" and this is what gives them their unique characteristics and properties.

But are they? Obviously the matter contained within a rock and the matter contained within our own bodies appear to be two very different and, from our perspective at least, they are. Yet if we were to look at them in another way we begin to see that they are in reality very similar things. Indeed, if we break a rock down to its most basic elements—the subatomic particles that it is constructed from—and take a similar sampling from anywhere within our body, we quickly begin to see a remarkable thing. Both the atom taken from the stone and the atom taken from our body are composed of tiny particles of rapidly moving energy. If we take to study them further, we soon notice that these energy "bits" form certain patterns that we identify as atoms and, once they form identifiable macro-patterns, as elements. The difference in these patterns is in the number of energy particles present-the more there are, the denser and heavier the material. One pattern produces a hydrogen atom; another pattern a carbon atom, while still a third produces an oxygen atom. The patterns are different and hence the material they collectively create is different, but reduced to their most basic parts they are all the same "stuff." They are simply manifested in different patterns of energy which defines their characteristics and functions.

In essence then, the physical realm is composed of nothing but tiny particles of rapidly moving energy, which is what produces everything we see and hear and touch and taste. And, further, if we accept the big bang theory of cosmology, at one point in the ancient past all of this material was compacted together by staggering gravitational forces to a point not much larger than the head of a pin. That which we call the "big bang"' then, was simply nature's process of rapidly putting distance between these infinitesimally tiny pieces of energy, creating an ever expanding universe in the process as part of a process that continues to this day. As such, all of what we see around us, regardless of how solid it may appear to us, is really nothing more than empty space, with the distance between the protons and neutrons orbiting the nucleus of an atom comparatively as distant from each other as the stars in our own galaxy are from one another.

I've always found useful metaphors in science fiction, and would like to use one now to further reinforce this point by looking at some examples from the television and movie series Star Trek. (Now for those who have been living under a rock, Star Trek was a television series about the crew of a starship whose job it was to explore the galaxy. Hardly an original premise for a science fiction program, but it was so well done it set the standard by which science fiction series would be measured against for decades.) In any case, this program introduced several very nifty technological devices that have certain applications towards our discussion. The first of these futuristic devices was something called a "transporter," which was basically a machine that moved people and objects from point A to point B by disassembling matter into particle energy, "beaming" it to another point in space, and then promptly reassembling the energy back into its original pattern. This allowed the crew to effortlessly move from one point to another (with all the plot possibilities that entailed) in a matter of seconds, often over thousands of miles of distance, with no more difficulty than our ancestors had in sending a message via a telegraph wire.

What I found especially interesting about this was that the transporter disassembled not only human flesh, but the clothing the crewmen were wearing and even the computers, communicators, lasers and other equipment they were carrying on their person. In effect, the transporter reduced everything—both animate and inanimate—into particles of energy without discriminating between the two, and then reassembled it on the other end in precise and perfect order. The cool thing is that while all this was being beamed across the cosmos, for a few seconds all of it was together in one bit of particle energy, thus demonstrating that everything is basically composed of the same "stuff." It was this fact alone that made the device feasible for if we and inanimate objects around us were not one in the same, we would be unable to travel through the energy beam side-by-side. Instead, we would need separate transports for each different material; a ponderous and unworkable solution that would make near instantaneous space teleportation nearly impossible.

Another similar device Star Trek introduced to its audience was something called a "replicator." This was basically a device that produced food and other smaller, inanimate objects from a stockpile of raw material that it used to compose the different atoms required to create whatever was requested. As such, using the same pool of raw material, it could produce an ice cream cone as easily as a six-string guitar, all in just a few seconds and to precise specifications. This machine also was capable of doing the opposite; taking discarded material and breaking it back down into energy bits which would go back into the material pool to be used for some future object. Like the transporter, this too was a useful construct for understanding how everything is made of the same material, be it a wooden instrument or a ceramic vase. The trick was all in how it was "put together."

While obviously these devices are only works of fiction and may never be realized in reality, the scientific principles behind them—much like Star Trek's legendary "warp drive" engines—are based on solid science. Even if such machines are impossible in reality, the principles they demonstrate help us grasp the basic premise that everything in the physical realm is composed exclusively of the same basic material, and once we understand that, it has profound implications for our perception of reality. It also has implications about how matter might be manipulated, shaped, and used to create whatever it is we desire, for it implies that if everything is basically nothing more than tiny particles of energy contained within a particular format, it should be possible-at least in theory anyway-to affect this matter. Eastern thought and, by extension, the New Age movement, generally believes the mechanism behind this ability resides within the brain. In essence, we should be, both individually and collectively, capable of changing matter and, with it, the physical world around us through the power of thought alone. This may sound unlikely and even impossible, but no more so than the concept of television and radio-human voices and images being beamed invisibly through the air from around the world-would have sounded just a century ago. And yet today even the least scientifically literate among us understand how both work on some level and accept them as a part of our daily existence. Might we not, then, perhaps a few centuries from now, be able to unlock the secrets of matter and energy to the point of being able to alter our physical world with the mere power of our mind alone? Not in turning trees into stones, perhaps, but in defining the parameters of our own reality and shaping it to conform to our present level of spiritual development.

As an example of what I'm getting at here, I return once more to Star Trek's treasury of technological magic. In a sequel to the original series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, produced another wonderful device that was to serve as a centerpiece for many a plot line throughout the series. Known as a "holodeck," it was basically a cube-shaped room that served as a kind of virtual reality theater for the crew's relaxation. Basically a huge holographic imaging center, it also enhanced its illusory effects by introducing replicated approximations of people and objects with which the crew could interact with. For example, if one wanted to program the holodeck to recreate nineteenth century London, the computer would not only create the appropriate holographic visuals required but populate it with very solid people and houses and even the proper climate. In effect, it would faithfully reproduce nineteenth century London right down to the crowds on the sidewalks and the cobblestone in the street, all within the confines of a 1000 cubic meter environment. Further, the people it replicated were extremely realistic and essentially indistinguishable from "real" people that might be using the holodeck at the time. This permitted the crewmen any number of possibilities and could, under certain circumstances, make it almost impossible to distinguish fantasy from reality. (In fact, a number of episodes dealt specifically with the problem of the holodecks being "taken over" by their own creations, making for some peculiar and even bizarre story lines.)

The point of this is not that the world around us is a holographic image, but that just as the crewmen in Gene Roddenberry's fantasy frequently had difficulty distinguishing reality from illusion, so too do we suffer the same fate in this world. It's not that the things in our reality are not real; it's just that they are both misinterpreted for what they are and even shaped in some ways by our individual and collective consciousnesses. This is why Eastern masters teach that all matter is illusory and that we should try and see it as such.

In the end, it's enough to understand that matter is just a tool the spirit uses to teach spiritual lessons and should never be allowed to define ourselves. We shape the physical realm, not the other way around, and no real spiritual awareness is possible until we understand this. Enjoy the illusion and allow it to teach you its lessons, but never mistake it for the absolute reality. Only consciousness is absolutely real; everything else is props on a stage set up for our benefit.