Dec 4 / Justin Rogers

The Illusion of Reality

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I’ll always remember that night, staring up at the stars, with my older brother. I was nine years old. It was late (later than I was used to) and there was a calm silence embracing us as we gazed up at the crystal clear expanse.

There are lots of firsts around this age: First kiss. Seeing a parent cry for the first time. The Birds and the Bees talk…

That night, staring up at the sky, I had a different kind of first. “What do you think is out there?” I asked.
(Yes. That talk.)
“Aliens.” “Time.” “Space.” “The nature of reality.”

The full force of my brother’s creative mind was unleashed on me as we theorised about what might be really going on. My mind. Was. Blown.

My favourite was his Ant in a Masterpiece theory where he hypothesised that we might all be in an intergalactic zoo. Or a game. Or some virtual universe created by sentient beings in a far-off world.

“But that can’t be true!” 
“How do you know?!” he shot back.
I couldn’t answer. To prove his theory was any more or less plausible than the 'reality' I knew, was impossible for me.
Boy looking up at night sky
[Photo by Julian Paul on Unsplash]

What is real?

I’m pretty sure that conversation was a catalyst for my later love of magic, and my obsession with acting. Playing with reality has long been part of how I interact with the world — how I see the world.

So I got to thinking: if we really were ants in a masterpiece, how would that change the way I live my life? If certain my existence was a simulated game, controlled by a teenage martian, would that change my feelings about whether to get my groceries today — or to pursue my biggest dreams?

Then I tracked that line of thinking to another playground conversation: “Is your green the same as my green?”
Put another way:

Do you see the world in the same way that I do?

Maybe not with the omnipotence of a pubescent alien, instead in subtler and perhaps more affecting ways...?

Map-making Tools

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) speaks to the ‘maps’ we develop in order to make sense of the infinite stimuli coming into our senses from all directions — maps developed from the time we are infants right through to now as you read the words on this page. These maps dictate how we see the world and, therefore, our behaviour and feelings about the world. However, NLP proposes the map is not the territory.

Think of the territory as being the ‘real’ world —stone cold ‘reality’. The raw information that comes into our senses. The objective experience of the world. I think of meditation here: a way to bear witness to the raw data, hold it at arm's-length and simply observe it, over there and separate from you.

Now, think of the map as being your interpretation of that. Your beliefs about what things mean and how you should interact with them.

Imagine trying to turn a screw with a barstool or brush your teeth with a potato. You can scrub all you want but chances are your dentist still won’t be happy with you.

Just like being map-in-hand in a foreign city, our maps help us navigate the world around us. From infancy, we are constantly making distinctions and decisions about what’s safe, what causes pain, what causes pleasure, what our limits are, what to be afraid of, what makes us feel rejected, what behaviour we engage in that makes us accepted by the humans around us.

This is our map.

We’ve all had different life experiences that construct our individual maps and this explains why two people can have such different experiences of the exact same thing.


I have a friend who loves to bungy-jump. “It’s life-affirming! It’s a rush! The feeling I get the moment the before I jump is one of ultimate control. To know that I’m defying what should be physically possible… We’re not supposed to dive off high things and live. Yet, I can… I feel all that adrenaline and I’m still walking around after it!”.

And a family member who represents their reality of a bungy-jump in a very different way. “I literally couldn’t think of anything worse. My hands are sweating just at the thought of it. I don’t understand how anyone could be so stupid. Nope. No thanks. I’ll quite happy live my life NEVER doing that!”

In my acting work, I’m reminded of greeting audience members after a performance where they share how they would never in a million years perform on stage. Yet, I love it.

Very different maps.

Efficiency Computers

Our minds are efficiency machines. They prioritise speed over accuracy when it comes to constructing our map. The brain is constantly generalising, distorting and deleting information in order to make sense — and to do it quickly.

A curious example of this occurs is in the passage below:
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It deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm.
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Whilst that passage itself isn't always true, you could most likely make sense of it, yes? So what's happening here? The territory is distorted and most of these groups of letters aren’t words at all, so we shouldn’t be able to read it. Yet our brains still manage to distort and generalise in order to make sense.

The Map Makers

The point of all this isn’t that there is a 'correct' map of the world, or that there is one reality or truth we should all adhere to. Instead, for us to be liberated and to ask the question:

What are the generalisations, deletions and distortions I’ve made that might not be serving me?

I’m not a sporty person
I’m bad at accents
I can’t learn a second language
I’m not good in social situations
I freeze up when I see a camera in my face

Is this truly the territory or is this just your map? By accepting that these things are made-up anyway, you can now ask the far more exciting question:

Do I want to change it?

After all, we may be just a speck in a snow globe on an alien’s shelf. So we may as well make our own personal map one that works for us. One that lets us gaze up at the night sky with awe and with utter expectation. Infinite possibility.

That’s a map I’d like to have.
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