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The Veils Of Maya

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Reality in many cultures is used as a deceptive illusion.  To know who you are is to understand what we are made of and what we can accomplish.  You must understand and explore your own identity which will help you to better understand the surrounding world.

This piece contains many of the elements that we have examined in previous readings.  Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi explores the question of identity and reality in a very balanced and educated manner.

Czikszentmihalyi follows a simple format for his essay: he begins by explaining how our individual perspectives are unique from one another and how none of them are accurate of true reality.  He then justifies why we need to attempt to move beyond these limitations, and finishes by addressing the chief obstacles that we must overcome to gain a greater appreciation of reality.


His first point, that our perspectives are unique, can easily be met with skepticism.  After examining the issue, however, we see that this is not so far-fetched.  After all, we are all different on a genetic, personal, and cultural level.  That is, our genetic code (which programs us in a very basic way) differs slightly from person to person, while at the same time the combination of our various personal histories and home cultures change our outlook on the world.  It is then evident that we all have unique perspectives on the world.

Czikszentmihalyi moves on to assert that key thoughts have emerged in isolated cultures throughout history.  Specifically, the concept of the Veils of the Maya (the Hindu name for the belief) states that we view life through a series of distorting veils that prevent us from seeing “actual reality”.  This is mirrored in world religions; for instance, Christianity tells believers not to become too obsessed with this perception of reality in order to join “the eternal realm of the spirit”.  This obviously ties in with the point that was previously made regarding the fallibility of human perception and imagination; yet this reading refers to different limitations.

One of these limitations is our culture; our viewpoint is certainly influenced by it, so it is necessary to examine how cultural views are formed.  Czikszentmihalyi examines the revolutions of speech and writing, and asserts their importance in our current cultural habit of allowing information to be exchanged freely between people.  This allows us to control our culture to a much higher degree than before, as people can be more readily influenced.  Another effect of these revolutions is the appearance of religion (people can not share miraculous revelations without communication), which are for the most part static beliefs; that is, they do not change as science may.  The age of religion and the truths it teaches are obviously very important to humanity.

This separation clarified, Czikszentmihalyi tells us that science and religion have become reconciled to a certain extent.  The Veils of the Maya tells us there are aspects to reality that we can not see, and science now confirms this- we can not see individual atoms of infrared light, although they do indeed exist.  These facts of reality are blocked out by our “veils”.

Although the communications revolution has brought us together to share information, cultural gaps are still a prominent aspect of mankind.  Accordingly, different cultures place themselves at the center of the universe and are close minded to other cultural beliefs.  Only when we view humanity as one culture will we truly unite.

The gaps that exist between cultures also exist on a personal level.  Different experiences give people a background that they use to navigate their future.  Since no people have the same background, no two people will look at the future in exactly the same way.  For instance, a person who was nurtured when young will have a confident, unfrightened outlook on the world, whereas an abused child will be shy and fearful.  Likewise, a visual person will view things differently from an auditory person.

Clearly, then, our senses give us a distorted view of reality.  Since every observation we make is a product of our senses, we will never have a perfect view of reality.  Why, then, should we bother?  Czikszentmihalyi answers this question with an explanation similar to the one we have arrived upon previously: if we see the end of our journey as a complete understanding of the universe, we will be disappointed.  Instead, we should try to make our view of the universe more and more accurate with the understanding that it will never be exactly perfect (this is similar to the saying: “strive for perfection, and yet realize this is impossible.”).

How, then, do we achieve this?  We must compare observations to one another to discern the truth and lift the veils before us.  This said, Czikszentmihalyi moves on to describe how to do this with three major sources of “reality distortion”: genetic programming, cultural heritage, and the demands on the self.

The first source, genetic programming, is the first Veil of the Maya.  Czikszentmihalyi states that before we can understand the world about us, we must first comprehend our biases and motives.  On the most primal level, this is determined by our genetic makeup.  Our genes tell us, among many other things, to search for food and propagate the species.  Much of our free time is spent on these topics, time that we might wish to spend on other topics.  In this way our genetic predispositions are our enemies; they are concerned only with continuing the species.  If we can not analyze the difference between our genetic impulses and our personal desires, we will be a slave to our primal heritage.  By reflecting upon our motives for various actions, we can temporarily lift the first Veil of the Maya.

The second Veil of the Maya is due to cultural influence.  Again, Czikszentmihalyi states that by stepping back and analyzing the influence of our culture, we can lift this veil and have a more accurate perspective on reality.  To be more specific: Czikszentmihalyi begins by indirectly quoting a belief of Kant, that every culture believes it is the center of the universe, and also the best.  The individual is imprinted with this as they learn skills that are not genetically encoded: as you learn to read and write, you begin to learn some cultural values (as an example not in the text, catholic schools arose because a grammar primer was written that contained practice sentences that put forth protestant views).  Becoming immersed in one’s culture can blind a person to reality.  Czikszentmihalyi gives three examples: limiting one’s potential (many cultures do not allow women positions of power, for instance), blinding one to other cultures, and blinding one to truths not endorsed by the culture.  Again, by taking a mental step back and observing cultural objectivity, we can lift this veil.

The final veil discussed is the veil of personal ego.  Czikszentmihalyi explains that once people realized they were thinking, they gained the ability to be concerned with themselves; that is, have self-interest.  Once this self-interest is present, it becomes a primary goal to protect their ego.  For these reasons, the pharaohs of Egypt had their pyramids built; they desired their ego to survive their own death.  This obsession with symbols continues to this day, as people define their worth based on material objects such as how expensive their car is, or on ideals such as Christian faith, or perhaps instead on relationships with other people.  This is where our perception becomes distorted: once we define ourselves by symbols, we view everything as it relates to that symbol.  The person with no ego (one who has no ideas, beliefs, objects, or relationships) has no such concerns, but is so far removed from the basis that humanity it is hard to conceive of such a person actually existing.  Czikszentmihalyi’s suggested method for lifting this veil is a stance of moderation: by attempting to have a life of freedom (a job that you enjoy, a schedule that you dictate, etc.) combined with a love for humanity in general, one may lift this final veil.  This seems to be the most difficult of the three, and indeed, it seems that many people will never lift this veil.  The people who make it through the first two veils are few, and fewer still to make it past the third.