Have you ever witnessed a small child get really truly freaked out by someone else’s Halloween costume? Dad’s wearing a mask or Grandma has her face painted, and the kid is spooked. The kid doesn’t yet have the ability to see the difference between the illusion the adult has created and what the reality actually is.
We’re no longer toddlers, but this happens to us all the time, our seeing a thing as something other than what it is. This is sometimes called “The Great Mistake”, and it often occurs in ways we don’t recognize. We believe our thoughts frequently and blindly, even when there is evidence to the contrary, and because of this, we suffer. We experience things in a way that is real but not true.
Imagine this: It’s dusk, and you’ve walked into your yard to throw the compost into the bin, when suddenly, you see a slithering creature in the grass. You freeze, your heart pounds, and your palms get sweaty. You lean in just a smidge to get a closer look at the snake when you realized, Doh! It’s just the garden hose.
Real but not true: The experience you had of seeing the snake in the grass is real; your sweaty palms and racing pulse actually happened. But it’s not true that there was a snake in the grass. Though your experience of it was real, there was never a snake in the grass.
Everything is not always as it seems.
For another example: You sit at the coffee shop waiting for your friend to arrive. The appointed time arrives and passes, and the friend never materializes. First you feel angry that your friend disrespected you in this way. How could they be so careless with your time? That line of thinking spirals down to all the other times when people in your world have let you down. Before you know it, you’ve spent most of the afternoon feeling shitty and unloveable. Hours later you look at your calendar to realize your coffee date is actually tomorrow.
Your experience of your friend standing you up is real. You felt anger and rejection and sorrow. But your friend didn’t stand you up.
It’s real but not true.
In the same way, yoga teaches us not to mistake our thoughts for reality. We mistake the masked monster for our father, the illusion for reality, and this makes us suffer. Even though the thoughts are convincing, you don’t have to believe them!
Yoga gives us tools to stay present in the moment, so we’re not constantly swayed by the ever persuasive thoughts. Following the breath, focusing on our posture, sitting in meditation, we start to see things clearly. Instead of being caught up in the real but not true, we begin to experience more fully that which is both real and true.
P.S. I first learned about this concept from the teachings of Tara Brach. More here.