In 1927 Freud wrote “The future of an illusion” wondering how long religion would last in a new secular age; the implication was that we would all outgrow it. By 2006 Richard Dawkins, frustrated with the persistence of spirituality when sceptics thought it should have disappeared in puff of logic, wrote his angrier work, “The God delusion”.
Both men, in their way, were dancing with the goddess Maya whose name in Sanskrit literally means “illusion”. She is the divine archetypal representation of the weaving and seeing through of our illusions. In the Vedic scriptures it was Maya who enabled the gods to manifest as avatars and appear in the world. It was also she who enabled the creation of the phenomenal world. So Jung, who unlike his mentor knew too well the power of his own illusions to dismiss their role in the human psyche wrote:
From Shakti comes Maya, the building material of all individual things; she is, in consequence, the creatrix of the real world. This is thought of as illusion, as being and not-being. It is, and yet remains dissolved in Shiva. Creation therefore begins with an act of division of the opposites that are united in the deity. From their splitting arises, in a gigantic explosion of energy, the multiplicity of the world. CW 9.632
The shadow side of Maya is encountered when our illusions become delusions. That is when we fail to recognise the personas that we weave for ourselves are just that, they are not who we really are, they are personal myths. Illusion becomes delusion when we believe that the external world is a dead passive lump of matter instead of an evolving, unfolding stream of energy and information that we help shape. When we fail to acknowledge our illusions as illusions, the dark side of the goddess rules and our lives become literal, cold, uncreative and violent as we are imprisoned in our own false realism.
As we spin the myth of our own lives we can choose whether it will be a mystery replete with wonder, a ballad with enigma or cold hard prose lacking imagination. In the Buddhist tradition, Maya was the name of the Buddha’s mother, and the progenitor of enlightenment.
The Christmas story that we will hear again this season is full of virgin births, singing angels, portending stars and wise men travelling from the east. Yes, full of illusions in the best sense. This myth will facilitate Mother Mary (like Maya) giving creative birth to the Christ child. It is a universal myth that releases magic and joy into the collective psyche. Yes Christmas can have its shadow side in the delusion of materialism or in a kind of religious exclusivism. But we can also, with Maya’s help, weave the collective story into our own – seeing our family as the holy family and saying yes to the birth of the divine in us. This the gift of Maya and she is manifest in the shining eyes of every child who sees Santa this season.
At Numinous on Tuesday 12th December we will have the opportunity to explore in discussion and practice the sacred task of weaving illusion into our own lives.