I have often seen people talk and write about various levels of reality. Typically, they talk of the level of the absolute and the level of the relative. On the level of the absolute, everything is one, so they say. Whereas on the relative level, the level of being a person different rules apply. On the relative level differentiation exists, we talk to each other, we love one another, we get annoyed and irritated, we buy fast-food from time to time, and yet ultimately, at the highest and truest level we are told this is all oneness.
Well let me start off by saying that I reject the notion of levels of reality. I think reality has various aspects, but not levels per se. Now this may seem like a minor difference, a play of semantics if you will, but let me explain the difference.
Talking about the same thing in different ways
When I say reality has various aspects, all I really mean is that there are various ways you can talk about reality – actually there are various ways you can talk about anything. That doesn’t mean there are different levels of reality.
Lets take a simple example: lets take a human body. You can talk about a human body in different ways. You can talk about it in terms of its size: you can say it is big, small, medium. You can talk about its age: is it a young or older body. You can talk about it in terms of organ systems such as the cardiovascular system or digestive system and how they function and describe the body that way, or you can talk about its anatomy and how various parts of it fit together. You can talk about the body’s name and culture – eg. maybe it is called John and it comes from the United Kingdom, you can talk about its occupation. You could talk about its fashion sense, its muscularity…
…ok ok, hopefully you get the idea: there are different ways you can talk about things. There are different conceptual frameworks from where we can view the body. And this is true for anything. We can talk about a pebble in terms of its age, size, geology or how good it would be to skim on a lake’s surface. We can talk about a lake in terms of its scenic beauty, how choppy its water are, its phosphorus content, or remark how it is all made up (mainly) of water.
Now, how many levels does a body or a pebble have? It doesn’t actually have any levels at all – there is only one body or stone (in the above examples) – it’s just that we can talk about them in various ways. In the same way there are no levels in reality, just different ways of talking about it.
No particular conceptual framework is intrinsically higher than another
Also note that no particular way of talking about the body or a pebble is intrinsically better that any other way. It just depends on what you want the conceptual framework to achieve. For example, if you want to skim a stone on the surface of a lake, then it’s less useful to talk about the geology of the stone, and more useful to look at it in terms of its shape and size with respect to achieving your goal (skimming it across the lake). You can’t legitimately claim that one way of viewing something is intrinsically higher and another way is lower, which is something you often hear when talking about ‘ultimate reality’ or the ‘highest level’. It just depends on how well the way you are conceptualising and viewing the object(s) in question fits in with your goal.
It depends on what you want to achieve
Similarly, it is not necessarily better to talk about the body in terms on physiology or organ systems compared to it’s occupation or fashion sense. As previously stated, it just depends on what you want to achieve. If the body has a disease, then understanding the physiology and how to correct any imbalance or defect in this is useful. Conversely if you are going out on a first date, then perhaps a degree of fashion sense would be useful.
No paradoxes, no contradictions
Also there in no contradiction in talking about a single object in different ways depending on the context. There is no paradox that a stone has both an age and a shape, or that a river is a single system made up of a variety of different things, all of which are in motion. There is a consistent underlying reality that underpins the various ways we talk about it. No contradiction or paradox at all.
Different ways of talking about the same experience
Remember, what we are talking about here is our experience of reality. Our reality is our experience – that’s all we know. We can talk about how everything we perceive is non-different to our consciousness, and we can also talk of how things interact within this consciousness, and the rules and consequences thereof. These are just different ways of talking about our experience and our experiences. No particular way is higher or lower, and there are no actual ‘levels’ that exist apart from our conceptualisations.
The description is not the described
We can chose how to conceptually carve up and talk about our experiential reality in order to achieve certain specific aims. To that end these conceptual maps are useful and often necessary. However we must not mistake any particular conceptual map of (our experience of) reality for reality, just as no particular way of describing the body is the body itself.