Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

Playing with illusion.

This story is one of a number to challenge assumptions about ourselves and reality. Each is inspired by a real-world scientific or spiritual genius (Einstein, LaoTzu, Ramana Maharshi…), and is presented as a visit to a game world in which that thinker’s message is re-imagined in unconventional form.

Welcome to 1ila and Maya’s World, where we recognize the hypnosis and illusion that constitutes our sense of separateness. Here, we discover that the “meaning of life” has nothing to do with purpose or reason but is all about effortless spontaneity and play!

The inspirations for this world are not humans; instead, they are two concepts from Hindu mythology. Maya is the metaphor for the illusion that presents an eternal, undivided reality to us as a temporally flowing jumble of phenomena. The same illusion leads us to mistake our egos for ourselves. Lila is an analogy for explaining the events of life on Earth — however serious they may seem to us — as the outcomes of God’s (or the gods’) frivolous play.

Lila and Maya are best friends forever — inseparable. Yes, they’re naughty, but they’re not problems. They just wanna have fun!


You jump in and find yourself on the roof of the world, atop a snowy peak, surrounded by, as far as you can see, other white-capped mountains. A brilliant sun lights a clear, blue sky, but a biting wind warns the weather may change. As you breathe, the chill air catches in your throat. In the sharp cold, your heart races, and your breath shortens. Luckily, you’re standing still, not trying to climb to this privileged spot.

Then, with a “clang,” the panorama disappears, replaced by a white dome above and around you. At its center, plastic snow and synthetic rocks lie at your feet. Three nearby fans account for the warning breeze. The speakers that gave the wind its voice fall silent, leaving only the hum of cooling units and vacuum pumps in the background. The entire experience was a projection, a mirage, a trick.

“Who should I thank for taking me to new heights?” you ask the emptiness.

A woman steps from behind a curtain, smiles, and says, “That’s me, Maya!”

“Seems a lot of effort to create a lie.”

“What lie?”

“This isn’t a mountain. It’s not real.”

“But your experience was real, wasn’t it? Didn’t you have the feeling of being on a mountain in brilliant sunlight, in thin air and biting wind?”

“Yes, but it wasn’t really that.”

“Wasn’t what?”

“Wasn’t all those things.”

“Forget about the things. It’s the experience that counts. Anyway, you assume this little scene differed from the rest of your life, but it didn’t. Well, only a bit. Has your life’s experience up to now been consistent with what you learned in Lao2’s and 3ckhart’s worlds?”

“Hmmm. No. Lao2’s World revealed an unbroken whole, but I’ve always encountered the world as a multitude of distinct, often durable, things. I’ve also always viewed myself as independent from the other things; 3ckhart’s World showed me that was my ego.”

“That’s right. Reality is tricky. It includes aspects that make it seem other than it is. I personify that.” Maya continues:

I am illusion, but a pervasive, absolutely real one that dominates existence. Although I’m genuine, the feeling I impart is one of separateness — an isolation that doesn’t exist.

I’m not just the tricks in this 4D dome cinema. All of manifestation is under my spell. I am the everyday mirage, for instance, of trees as separate, individual things. Trees are exactly as real as inches, hours, and lines of latitude. Ultimately, a tree or any separate “thing” is a conceptual category or measuring unit. As a conceptual aspect of experience, it’s “there,” but just as there are no inches or hours lying or floating around “out there,” no lines of latitude we need to take care not to trip over, trees are not truly separate but are arbitrary metrical concepts in an unbroken experience.

You sort of get it, but you ask, “Why all the trouble, then? Why are things like this? What’s its meaning?”

“Whoa, there! I’m the answer to questions about what is going on. If you want to get into the why, you need my best friend, Lila.”

A girl cartwheels into the room. For a moment, she seems poised to announce herself, but she loses interest. Instead, she kicks the speakers and twists their dials to see what they are and how they break. Maya coughs.

Lila looks up, remembers her line, strides to the center of the dome, assumes a Shakespearean stance, and declares, “That’s me! (Tee hee).” Two insects chase each other, and she follows to see who wins. Maya hums and gives you a meek smile.

Lila reengages, displays a momentary look of concentration and adds, “I’m play — as in the opposite of work or purpose.” Then she dances, twirling as she expounds:

Reality, the universe, life: these don’t exist for anything, for any reason. Life’s purpose, like a beguiling song or sculpture, like a captivating dance, is simply to express itself. Reality serves no master. Through a religious lens, you might best think of existence as what happens when God plays, not as an outcome of God’s work.

She hugs Maya, “That’s why we go so well together. I help explain why it’s no problem that Maya holds the power she does.” As Lila executes a handstand, Maya’s illusion resumes, returning them to the world’s highest peak and making Lila’s red slippers the acme of life.


Thanking them, you step out. At the railing of the observation deck, looking from 1ila & Maya’s World onto your own, you wonder, “Are Lila and Maya’s explanatory powers just as great at home as they are here?”

In your logbook, you note:

Is there no purpose to enlightenment? Does recognizing Maya, Lila, God, my true nature, and reality not serve a greater aim?

Is living in illusion, whether you recognize it or not, how the universe “expresses” itself? Is it God playing hide and seek with himself?

Speaking of which, you’re ready, so you say, “Let’s play.”


The incomparable Alan Watts addresses this in Chapter Five of The Book. Ramesh Balsekar discusses what he calls “Divine Hypnosis” in The Final Truth.

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