Is Reality Just a Figment of Our Imagination?

Is Reality Just a Figment of Our Imagination?
The Reality of Reality

On June 11, 1963, Thích Quảng Đức slowly burned himself to death.

Đức was a Vietnamese Monk, and the act was a form of protest motivated by the unequal treatment of the Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government at the time.

While what went down that day came as a shock to everyone, the day before the event, there were actually whispers that something important was going to occur outside of the Cambodian embassy in Saigon, Vietnam. Most reporters ignored the message.

One of the people who didn’t, however, was David Halberstam. He was a journalist for the New York Times, and he watched it all go down.

He later recounted:

I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think… As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.

The picture of Đức on fire is one of the most famous photographs in history. It captured the whole world’s attention at the time, and in the months following, more protests were carried out. Eventually, the leaders of the South Vietnamese government were overthrown.

What’s particularly interesting to me, however, isn’t the politics of it, even though there are a lot of important questions to ask and answer in that regard. It’s understanding how it was possible for Đức to react as he did.

What is real?Đức’s lack of response provoked much thought on what we believe to be real.

What laws of nature do you have to defy so to not feel yourself burning to death?

The Objective and the Subjective Overlap

The first explanation for his reaction is more scientific in nature.

When such extreme heat interacts with the body, it essentially destroys the human nervous system. This means that the nerves that are usually responsible for sending the information to our pain receptors get severely damaged before they are able to react.

This explanation, however, doesn’t account for the fact that even in the first few seconds of Đức burning, there seemed to be not so much as a flinch. Surely, something would have to give.

Evolutionary psychologist, Robert Wright, provides a slightly different explanation in his book Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.

While we often think of the reality we observe as being objective, the truth is actually that the objective and the subjective very much overlap in how we view things and how we feel about them. Everything that you call reality is something you have developed a subjective emotional response to.

When you look at a piece of clothing or a computer or food, you’re not just seeing what’s there. Your judgment of your observation is also being influenced by the feelings you’ve developed towards them over time.

Our reality is our emotional responseOur ‘reality’ is based on our subjective emotional response to things.

According to Wright, what meditation does as far as we currently know, especially in long-term practitioners like Đức, is that it severs the link between what is happening to us and our habitual reaction to that occurrence.

For someone like Đức, the association of physical pain and his subjective response to it was likely so weakened that even the instinctive reflexes that many of us have to discomfort were under his observable control.

He could feel pain, like the rest of us, but he didn’t impulsively respond to it.

If this sounds a little abstract to you, let’s look at it from another angle.

We’re Programmed for Survival, Not Truth

One of the things that we all take for granted is the general definition of truth.

We associate truth with the daily cause and effect relationships that we observe in our lives. In a sense, many of them are true. Without diving too deep into philosophy, there is such a thing as a contextual truth.

If you watched Bobby steal something from the store, and he gets caught and sent to jail for it, then it’s true that he was convicted of a crime.

That said, when it comes to seeing reality for what it really is, beyond specific contexts confined by the language we use to interact with each other, then it’s fairly evident that we don’t—at least currently—see the world as it really is, which is why the objective and the subjective overlap.

The power of meditationMeditation can sever the link between what’s happening & our habitual reaction to it.

Humans are not programmed for truth. They are programmed for survival.

There are smells around that we physically can’t smell, there are sights to witness beyond the wavelength that our eyes operate in, and there are sounds to be heard that we will never fully hear.

The reason for this is that these things aren’t required to be passed on through our genes. The environments that we’ve adapted to don’t need us to be able to see like a snake does or to smell to the extent that a dog can.

Everything we take for granted as reality is, in fact, an illusion of sorts. There may be an objective component to what we see, but much of that objectivity is limited. Further yet, a lot of it is clouded by our subjective judgments.

We’re each shaped by our own interactions with reality, and that’s why something that you see as extended suffering would not have evoked the same reaction from Thích Quảng Đức, and it didn’t.

He had literally conditioned himself to experience a different world.

Rejecting the Illusion Leads to Freedom

Everything we experience is a product of both mind and matter.

While there is merit in using part of this understanding to make a strong case for meditation to lessen personal suffering, as Wright does in his book, the implications of this go even further than all of that.

Reality is real and imaginedReality is as much real as it is a figment of our imagination.

The stimuli that the external reality imposes on you gain power just as much from how you think about them as they do from any sort of physical effect that they create in your body. Ponder that for a moment.

The grip of discomfort, the benign indifference of the world, and the challenge of uncertainty are real, yes, and the experiences aren’t always pleasant, indeed, but these things don’t always have to be accepted as such.

In the words of Albert Camus:

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.

You can condition yourself to reject a big part of an unfavorable reality by amalgamating it with a more favorable perception. In the process of doing so, you gain complete power and control over your world.

For Thích Quảng Đức, this meant not flinching in the face of death to do what he thought was right. For you, it might mean refusing to succumb to the unreasonableness of a world that fights to put you down.

Reality is as much real as it is a figment of our imagination. There is nothing you have to fear if you know that it can be rebelled against. You are not your circumstances, just like you are not your past.

That, to me, is the most liberating fact of existence.

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2 years ago

Maybe we are programmed for survival because something does not want us to know the truth about everything and want us to live a bittersweet lie

4 years ago

Each subsequent, the RNG adjustments the pair of amounts to get
a thousand instances randomly.

5 years ago

Interesting article in general and a pleasure to read.
While i support most of it about the capability of man to control his mind 100% and also the reactions to different circumstances i dont agree that only when you reach that total control you are free.
And using that reached freedom only to go away from the living and killing yourself is totally something no one with a reasonable mind would do.

Even total freedom as the article says does not exist neither, because what would total freedom be?

Rosemary Fernandes
5 years ago

I’ve always struggled with existentialism! I’m more of a naturalist! I’m going to have to read this article several times!

Joan Elizabeth Smith
5 years ago

When we meditate we often leave our bodies and are in a different state of consciousness. He had a very strong practice so I am guessing that is was not an issue of not succumbing to pain. He was simply not in his body.

5 years ago

In our process of observation, dualism enslaves us to identify and thus attach and then mind intellectually evaluates,formulating beliefs,from past sensory experiences. The maintenance of consensus creativity through enforced programming, solidifies our reality as objective and appearing real, as human drama operates dysfunctionally fragmented from it’s subjective truth.
In this state of division within mind,interpretation is completely represented by belief, with no light of awareness to expand perception. Our knowing through trusted feeling disabled by Egos interference, and unable to see further then what we believe…can words really define Truth of action of another?

Le Nhan Nghia
5 years ago

What does Buddhism say about committing suicide?
Causes produce effects.
Murder of yourself is still murder.

“One is not called noble who harms living beings. By not harming living beings one is called noble.” The Buddha.

If the Buddha is there, he will protect anyone since this ugly concept of jihad being misused! When they develop some sort of negative emotions toward anyone or any community, then please think of the face of Buddha. Any jihad should be a fight to ‘combat our inner destructive emotions’. We should have instead, condemned mindless violence in the name of religion, saying the concept of jihad was being misused and misinterpreted by extremists in this kind of political fightings

Buddha almost killed himself but found out that it was wrong, decided to stay alive and that’s when he realized the middle way and shortly thereafter become enlightened.

After he become enlightened he teaches people to choose life and not to kill any living beings.

Here we clearly see what Buddha teaches; appreciate life and not killing oneself at any time before or after enlightenment.

Before Buddha was enlightened he was in extreme indulgence being the prince living in a very prosperous Kingdom. Then after he discovered the existence of old age, sickness and death, he practiced extreme self-suffering in attempt to contemplate and end that. He almost killed himself doing that. Only after he decided to take the middle way, practicing neither extreme, he become enlightened.

After he become enlightened he realized Dukkha (unsatisfactory condition of life caused by impermanence nature of sadness, happiness and everything else in life) and teaches people the way out of Dukkha. This way out is commonly known as Noble Eightfold Path.

The spiritual people can show the world that it can be a happy family [despite] the different faiths. Killing in the name of faith is unacceptable, killing people in the name of religion is really religious violence. Burning someone to death is a crime! Very sad, unthinkable, very sad.

It is so true that dialogue and reconciliation are the only ways to avoid any further bloodshed!

This is a genuine Buddha quote. It’s from the Dhammapada, verse 129:”All tremble at violence; all fear death.
Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.”


In English, it is commonly translated as ‘Refrain from harming and killing all beings or taking the precept to give up killing’. And that, my fellow human beings, include not killing oneself.

Stay alive (don’t commit suicide regardless it is as a response to suffering or not) because:

1. It develops loving kindness and compassion toward all beings, especially oneself.
2. It is a gratitude toward life. Being born as human being is a very rare event in all levels of existence of all beings.
3. Furthermore, talking about enlightenment, you are not enlightened yet (If you were, you will already know the the answer to the question). And staying alive is the way to enlightenment as  Buddha has demonstrated. The enlightened guru such as Buddha himself obviously teaches you to refrain from harming any and all beings. You will obviously not practicing that teaching (commonly known as Buddhism) if you kill yourself.

Have a great day!

JJ Lehde
5 years ago

Inspiringy true that simply existing is a rebellion to fears.

5 years ago

Great article. Love every word of it and believe/agree 100%.
I broke my arms and hands a couple of years ago and tried to convince myself that pain is just an illusion. I did not succeed. All the same – I believe it.
Morale: in spite of every day chores etc, I must work harder to get there.
Thanks for a great article which I shall share.

6 years ago


Thomas Corydon
6 years ago

Beyond contextual reality there is ABSOLUTE REALITY – the goal of life which we all long for conciously or not. Dear Zat Rana – your personal conclusion that we are not slaves of our past is not quite true:
According to eastern filosofi and yoga we are programmed by our past samskaras – impressions bad AND GOOD – a hindrance for us to be really free here and now, and not the least to attain liberation/enlightenment/realisation. How to get rid of these samskaras ?
I found a spiritual Master, Babuji Maharaj (left this world 1983) and He has taken them out bit by bit – purging/cleaning with help of transmission (hindi: Pranahuti)The process of undergoing samskaras is also called bhoga in hindi. Excuse me for this diversion (?)
Mr. Zat Rana – your contribution is excellent
What Albert Camus says is the same as my Master: to really be free is to be free of the world
warm brother/sisterly greetings
thomas corydon

Jeff @
6 years ago

Our reality is a purely perceptual experience of consciousness — albeit are very convincing one. The experiences are “real” but the props are imaginary. But your choices and actions within the illusion should very much matter to you because they are defining who you are. But of course, ultimately no one who participates is harmed because we are pure consciousness. — Jeff @

Peaches Land
6 years ago

“Our ‘reality’ is based on our subjective emotional response to things”
This whole article is challenging to comprehend from limitation of mind.
However, when you begin to awaken to the truth of this article, by re-reading it and meditating upon it’s discourse … it may support you to be released of the limitation, fear, doubt etc. of mind and what our experiences have done to cripple our inherent wisdom. We can awaken to Consciousness … I use Alchymeically imbued devices to support me and they are working 🙂

Frank C
6 years ago

Most people don’t comment on this because, really, what can you say? You can believe this 100% and you still have to wash the dishes and take out the garbage… in no version of reality are there not dirty dishes in the sink after you cook a meal. And that, when you think about it, is really kind of comforting.

6 years ago

This is an amazingly insightful article. Much appreciated.

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