The menu is not the meal; the map is not the territory.

Renowned Indian gurus of the Advaita Vedanta (non-duality) approach to spiritual enquiry tell us that there is only one true reality, the Self (sometimes referred to as the Absolute or the Ultimate Reality), and that the outer world of appearances is merely a dream or an illusion. This teaching holds true in terms of the Self being the only thing which is unchanging and that everything in the outer world is subject to impermanence, but when you are heavily identified with your life, your mind, your body, your relationships and your fortunes, being told that it’s all one big illusion will probably not help you a great deal to find peace and wholeness.

The fact is, we do have physical bodies and to deny the existence of the physical world carries the risk of leading people towards irresponsible behaviour. The challenge, instead of retreating from the physical world, is to learn how to be spiritual beings in a physical world.

Furthermore, in saying that the inner world of the Absolute is the only true reality, these teachers often give the impression that the so-called objective physical world, which most people take to be real, is nothing more than a figment of our imagination. This serves only to create further division, between those who believe in the world of physicality and form, and those who believe in the world of transcendence and formlessness.

The problem here, I believe, is one of communication. What these spiritual teachers appear to be saying is that the physical world around us does not exist, but what they are actually trying to communicate is this: there is a physical world around us, but our experience of that world is created by our minds and is shaped by our judgements and beliefs. As such we do not experience reality as it is, but as we believe it to be. Therefore the world which we take to be real is not real at all. The important clarification here is this: it is not the physical, objective world which is unreal but our experience of that world. Our experience of the world, so long as it is based on a mind interpretation, has no reality beyond our own experience. It may seem real to us and we can indeed claim that it is real as far as we are concerned, but it has no objective reality.

Taking more care over the way in which we discuss such spiritual topics can lead to greater clarity. Instead of claiming that there is only one true reality and that all else is merely an illusion, I believe it is more helpful to say that there are essentially two aspects to reality: the inner aspect and the outer aspect. The inner is “life in essence”. The outer is “life in expression”. Who we are has two aspects: who we are in essence and who we are in expression. By aligning our consciousness with who we are in essence we can make our lives an expression of that inner reality. In so doing we can bring the light of the transcendent reality into the world of expression and help to en-light-en the world around us.

What do we mean by the inner?

We are all familiar with the outer world of physicality and expression. The inner world, however, remains more of an unknown quantity to many people. So what do we mean when we refer to the inner?

The outer world can be seen, heard, touched and tasted. It is very tangible and easy to verify because most people can sense it with a high degree of certainty. The inner world is more like the wind. We can’t see it but we can detect its presence.

When we look outside we see what is often referred to as the three dimensional world. The inner world is like a different dimension altogether. We come to know it, not through the physical senses, but through intuition and subtle senses which eventually lead to an inner knowing. We explore the inner world, not by moving the physical body around, but by stilling the mind and focusing the lens of awareness on the silence and the empty spaces.

When we first turn our attention inwards, we are met by our thoughts and feelings, many of which can seem at first to be quite uncomfortable. This can lead us to want to return our focus to the outer world. But to do so would mean to ignore who we really are. It is not our thoughts and feelings which define who we are – they are no more who we are than our physical body is – to find the essence of who we really are we need to venture beyond those thoughts and feelings. To do this requires practice and discipline. Most of this book is focused on helping you on that journey, from being outwardly focused on relative truth, to finding the absolute truth of who you are within.

The outer world is the manifested world of form. The inner is the formless and beyond all expression. In the outer world we find relative truth where everything is only true in relation to something else. In the inner we find Absolute Truth, although this truth cannot be put into words and whatever we try to say about it can never be what it really is. Therefore, no one can tell you what the inner reality is, they can only guide you in the right direction so that the truth may reveal itself to you.

Inner Outer
Unmanifested Manifested
Formless Form
Essence Expression
World of origins World of appearances
Absolute truth Relative truth

Inner essence, outer expression

The Absolute expresses itself in myriad ways and that expression is what we call Life. Every particle, every plant, every stone, every grain of sand and every living being can be said to be an expression of the Absolute. Yet no single expression can contain the entirety of what the Absolute really is. Each expression can only express one or more aspects of this Ultimate Truth.

The Absolute may be referred to as a world of light or a level of consciousness – such descriptions are not literally true but these words are often the best approximations we can find to say anything about this “beyondness”. This “world” of light is the world of origins. It is the hidden inner Source of all consciousness. Accustomed as we are to looking outwards, we pay very little attention to this inner world from which life springs forth.

Because we believe in the reality of the world outside of us, we experience a world of fragmentation, division and separation. But by aligning our outer expression with our inner light it is possible to create experiences of connectedness, unity and Oneness. The light within – the light within each of us and within every moment of every day – is the key to transformation.

The western perspective

Western culture is predominantly biased towards being outwardly focused. We believe and are taught that everything we need exists outside of us and that those needs must be met by other people, usually by seeking their approval or playing by their rules. Even religion leads us mostly towards an outer focus as the emphasis is placed on appearances, outer ritual and doing rather than on any form of inner transformation.

To live in a balanced way we could see physical existence as a lens which can be focused in two ways: inwardly or outwardly. When we focus the lens outwardly we see that doing in the outer world is usually the way to meet our physical needs, whereas meeting our spiritual needs is a case of focusing the lens inwardly. The sad fact is that western culture is so biased towards the outer world that most people don’t know what is meant by the inner, and for those who don’t know what is meant, satisfactory explanations can prove to be rather elusive.

There is no denying that the acquisition of new things can bring more comfort, pleasure and convenience in our physical lives. Comfort, pleasure and convenience can feel very good which can make us believe that they are good for us spiritually, but there is a danger of becoming overly reliant on the outer world to provide the needs of the inner. If we feel a sense of something missing inside of us, no amount of acquisition of new things in the outer is going to heal that wound.

Giving outer form to the formless inner essence

As humans we are drawn towards knowledge. It is in our nature to seek out greater degrees of understanding. This inevitably leads us into describing our perceptions of the Absolute in an attempt at furthering our knowledge. Such attempts at describing, mapping and modelling the Absolute are necessary and aid us in a number of ways.

The importance of definition

If Absolute Truth is beyond all expression why bother to attempt to describe it at all? If whatever we can say about the Absolute will never adequately express what the Absolute really is, why should we expend any energy on defining what it is? Why is definition important?

In the world of origins (the world of the Absolute) there is no form. There is simply Beingness. But in the world of expressions everything is form and definition. Imagine a tree without definition. Imagine a horse without definition. Trees and horses without shape and defining edges would not be trees and horses. They would just be. It is by definition that the mind comes to know what things are in the outer world of expressions. We know a horse is a horse because it looks like a horse and has a horse shape. Everything in the outer world of expressions depends on definition. Without definition nobody would have a name. Nothing would have a label. Without definition we would have no way of communicating with each other about anything to do with the outer world.

On the flip side, if we rely too heavily on definitions and form, we can come to mistake the form for the reality. The form is simply the outer expression of the reality. It is just one side of the coin. The other side is the inner, formless reality which we could call the essence. When we look at a horse what we see is the two-fold reality: the outer expression of the horse shape and the inner essence.

The process of attempting to define the Absolute can be seen by some as a way of limiting it, but it can also be a way of providing liberation. As we seek to refine our descriptions we sharpen the mind and deepen our understanding which enables us to further refine our descriptions. Sharing our descriptions can lead to fresh insights for us and others. Such sharing and refining can also be said to add to the collective consciousness, enabling others who we have not met in the outer world to also benefit from our efforts.

By forming descriptions to portray that which is essentially formless, however, we must be cautious not to fall into the trap of confusing the map with the territory or the menu with the meal. By entering the realm of words to describe the Absolute, we are simply pointing the way towards the Ultimate Truth. The words themselves are not the Truth itself but rather an expression of it.

The reader is encouraged, therefore, to remember that this writing and the words contained within do not claim to BE the Truth but rather a few of the many expressions of that Truth.

Definition leads to identity

The fact that the outer world of expressions relies so heavily on definition leads to the formation of identities. On a personal level identity becomes both a blessing and a curse. Without an individual identity we would not be able to function in the world as we know it today, but over-identification leads to attachment and illusion.

The mind is not the problem

Another favourite component of some spiritual teachings is to say that the mind is the cause of all ignorance and that the mind needs to be relinquished. This leads to a great deal of confusion and consternation because most people are unable to conceive of life without a mind. They are unable to imagine how they could possibly function in the world without mind.

Once again I believe the problem is one of communication. The mind itself is not the problem. The cause of our suffering is our identification with the mind. We come to believe that we are our minds. Furthermore, instead of serving us, our minds tend to take over. It is the dominance of the mind and our over-identification with it, rather than the existence of the mind, which gives rise to our suffering. The mind can be very useful and serve us well. The key is to spiritualise or enlighten the mind so that it serves a greater purpose. When we surrender the mind to the light we find that the mind is capable of serving us in quite magical ways. When we relinquish the control of the thinking mind we allow inspiration, insight and creativity to arise from a much deeper part of our being.

Some people describe this process as giving up the mind, others say we are surrendering one mind and using another, whilst others say we are using higher mind instead of lower mind. This can all become very confusing which is why it is important to at least attempt to clarify matters. The mind that most of us have come to know is one that likes to think and chatter. It is always making some kind of internal noise. It seems to work all by itself. As such it often does not serve us very well. Confusion and anxiety often result from this kind of mind activity. But if we can stop the mind from thinking and chattering, and if we can dig deeper and get in touch with the light within us, that light can shine through the mind, at which point the mind becomes a wonderful ally. Instead of trying to be the captain of our lives, the mind, illumined by the light from within, becomes a fantastic well-spring of creativity which acts as a bridge between the inner and outer aspects of reality.

Speculating beyond the data

As a general rule I try to be mindful of not “speculating beyond the data” and jumping to conclusions about the nature of existence. For example, the central theme of this book is that within each of us is the same spiritual light which I sometimes refer to as the Source. Many things in life can be described as having their origins “within” – for example, a plant grows from a seed. All the necessary instructions for the plant to grow are contained within the seed. All that the seed requires is the right external conditions for it to become a plant. We could even say it is almost as if the idea of the plant exists within the seed. Similarly everything that is man-made began with thought and this thought can be described as having originated within the human mind. But because we can adequately describe something in a particular way does not mean that IS what is happening. One day we might discover that the nature of the human mind, for example, is much different to what we previously imagined. Also, just because it appears that plants and everything man-made grew from ‘inside out’ as it were, this does not mean that we have adequate data to conclude that everything in the universe follows the same principles. It may appear that the universe is expanding like a gradually inflating balloon and we may also liken the idea of the Big Bang to the way a seed grows from within (albeit in a rather super-charged way) but to extrapolate that everything in the universe grows from inside out would, to my mind, be tantamount to shutting our minds to any new possibilities.

In order to live in the world we have to make assumptions at some point and attempt to draw conclusions about life so we can actually live it, but personally I find it very useful to remind myself that whatever conclusions I draw on any given day are drawn on the basis that “this is what seems to be true today and it seems to work, but I am open to discovering newer and better ways of describing the truth at any moment”.

I sincerely hope that something in this book resonates with you and you find it of some use. If for any reason you find that something within the book does not resonate with you I encourage you to simply let it go without judgement. It is rare for any book on spiritual development to satisfy us completely so if something doesn’t ring true for you please feel free to pass over it.

This book has not been written to convince you that one way of looking at life is any better than another. It is simply intended to be one expression. It is life as I see it. This writing exists because something inside of me wanted to express itself. I know of no other purpose for this writing than that expression. Something sought expression and I allowed it expression. It is not intended to be anything more than that. It is not intended to be a doctrine. Inevitably, when we speak or write with conviction, it can sound or appear like closed-mindedness or dogma, but this is not the intention. In the pages that follow I do use phrases in which I say “such and such IS such and such” – I encourage you to remember that each time I say this, what I am saying is “as far as I can tell right now, this is the closest approximation I can make”. I trust that the reader will understand why I chose not to prefix every sentence with the words “to the best of my current understanding it would appear that…”

Next Chapter: The Light Within >>

*** This chapter is taken from my book The Light Within ***