Plato’s Cave allegory was explained to me in a casual conversation with a
dear friend many years ago. It was one of the most thought provoking
discussions I can remember. I still find myself referring back to it when I
become caught up with life’s illusions. Whenever I think about it, I find
myself delving deeper and deeper into more questions and more
Basically it is about perception, but rather than get into the academic
side of things, I will refer back to my friend’s casual description for those
people who may be unfamiliar with the story.
There are a group of men dwelling in a cave who have been chained
together by their legs and necks since childhood. They have been in the
same spot the entire time and cannot turn their heads: they can only look
forward at the cave wall. They do not seem to have seen anything of
themselves or of the others.
Behind the men is the cave entrance, which lets in light. Between the
cave entrance and the men there is a fire burning, and between the fire
and the prisoners there is a low wall. From behind the wall, there is
another group of men who are free and can move and speak. Their
movement, shapes and images cast shadows on the wall in front of the
prisoners - like puppet show.
The prisoners appear to accept this situation and seem content to accept
the shadows on the wall as the totality of their reality.
When one man breaks free and manages to stand up and turn around,
we are asked to imagine what must have gone through his mind as he
was confronted with what he saw.
We might first wonder at the pain his body would experience in standing
for the first time, and the blinding light’s effect on his vision. Would he
then run towards the men in great excitement, wanting to see and know
more, or would he first turn back and set the other prisoners free.
What would be the response and the reaction of the other prisoners? It is
easy to assume they would be excited and grateful at being liberated but,
would they? We find ourselves asking how we might feel about someone
telling us our entire existence and belief system was nothing more than
The most interesting part of this story, for me, is in considering that not
only does the freed man have to comprehend that his perception of
reality was nothing more than shadows, but he also has to try and
comprehend and accept that the fire, the shapes and the men were the
real reality. Even if he managed to get his head around all of this, we are
then left to imagine how he copes when he sees the cave’s entrance,
and his reaction when he discovers that outside the cave there is yet
If he did manage to get this far, and was able to comprehend everything
outside the cave, we would then have to assume that he would also have
to grasp such things as the sun, moon and stars. We might also
conclude, that if he were able to make sense of his past and his present,
then he would also be compelled to question his future.
Is it possible that the other prisoners would have been so threatened by
these revelations that they may have become hostile or violent; would
they fight to hold on to the security of the world they knew?
Perhaps, they might group together and use peer pressure to convince
the freed prisoner to sit back down and forget what he had discovered. If
this were the case, would they be forever tormented by knowing the truth?
Would the prisoners be left wondering why they had never tried to get
free before, or would they wonder why they had never even thought to
question their reality.
This story leaves us with many questions when we place ourselves in the
position of the liberated prisoner. In today’s world, with all of our
knowledge, technology and sophistication, we still find ourselves
wondering about our perceptions of our reality.
Some people are happy and content to accept things as they appear to
be. Others sense that there is much more and move slowly, safely and
steadily through changes. Of course, there are those who fight to hang
on to their beliefs, while others actively seek greater understanding.
Although the Cave Allegory is much more complex than I have illustrated
here, it should at least serve as a great example of perception of reality
in today’s world. We like to believe that we are far too evolved and
intelligent to be compared with the cave dwellers, but are we?
If we put ourselves in the position of the prisoners, our initial response is
that we would rejoice in being freed. On deeper reflection, we might recall
many times in our lives in which we fiercely resisted change. I’m sure we
have all been involved in petty but passionate arguments in which we
insisted we were right. Haven’t we all stayed in jobs, relationships and
situations which were obviously soul destroying? Often, we sense that we
are more than we understand and that life is greater than our personal
experience. Something is missing and we are vaguely uncomfortable or
perhaps deeply insecure.
We want more; we believe there is more and we long for more. But we do
not want to let go of what is familiar and comfortable. We don’t like big or
sudden changes and we don’t like to accept that we may have been
It might seem quite absurd that people would allow themselves to be tied
up and imprisoned without question or resistance. It’s even more
ridiculous to believe that shadows on a wall would be accepted as reality.
But is it? Look up now and you might notice a television set in the corner
of your room. It might be interesting to ask yourself how much of your
belief system has come from mass media. Does television influence
reality or does reality influence what is on television.
Our perception of reality is very rarely based on our own thoughts and
experiences. Media is an extremely powerful influence, as are culture,
religion and education. These are not bad things and serve as excellent
foundations, but have we lost our ability to think for ourselves.
Imagine if you came to Earth from some other planet and sat down with a
group of people and asked them what life was like on Earth. Suppose
there were a child and an elder, a Russian, Indian, African, Aborigine and
an Englishman, a movie star, cleaning lady, farmer and a millionaire and
some from the 1920, 1960 and 2010. If you can imagine this
conversation, then you might realize just how varied our perceptions of
reality can be.
To a large degree, our belief system is determined by geographical
location. Social norms are where we find our comparisons, and most of
us mould ourselves to fit our environment. Most people do not choose a
religious belief, nor do many bother to explore religion outside their own
denomination. Often when they do, it is only to arm themselves with an
argument to prove the others wrong. The same can be said about
education, social skills, ethics, food, dress and language. We all like to
believe that we can think for ourselves, but the truth is, that most of us
have been fully programmed before we enter adulthood.
In pondering our own perceptions of ourselves or our experiences, we
can compare ourselves to the prisoner in the cave. Much of our
understanding serves us well, but it’s not until we question our belief
system that we begin to expose the illusions and then the illusions
beyond those illusions.
Some people appear to function very well within their given environment
and may feel no desire or need to question it. Most of us have mastered
the art of looking like we fit. In today’s world, we compare ourselves to
others within our environment, and consider ourselves and our lives to
be normal or successful, based on the status quo.
Many people feel that they don’t measure up and experience great
distress. Some people think they look good but feel that they are faking
it. These days, we seem to hold material issues in very high regard, and
many judgements about a person’s value have little to do with the person
at all, but rather the wealth, fame and career status of the person. We
also seem to be somewhat impressed with celebrities or physically
attractive people. Now, tell me that’s not shadows on the wall!
Life today is materialistic and very, very fast. With so much emphasis on
earning money, we find ourselves running faster and faster, just to stay
in one place. We feel that we are on a treadmill and someone else has
the controls. We are ever conscious of the fact that just one wrong step
and down we’ll go, face down and flung across the room in a heap.
At some point, we must ask ourselves who is controlling our lives, what
exactly is my life, who or what am I, and what does it all mean. Well, I
think that you have just met the puppeteers! You can swallow the
questions and go back to your place in the line, or you can move towards
The Physical Realm
On a practical level, we view ourselves and our lives in terms of
physicality. A great deal of our awareness is focused on our physical
body, its protection and maintenance. Self preservation is our strongest
We view our environment in physical terms and place a great deal of
importance on safety and comfort. Our community is also important to us,
and we strive to be a part of it and to be supported by it. Our physical
reality includes our bodies, homes, relationships, jobs and all things
related to keeping us safe, comfortable, supported and alive. Our
physicality is often the overall view that we hold of ourselves.
Much of our awareness is governed by intellect and emotional
responses. Intelligence seems like a loud voice and a keen eye, a
constant commentary of judgements, comparisons and analysis. Past
experiences are recorded and provide predictable outcomes as
information and skills are stored for easy access and reuse. Intellect is a
great decision maker and problem solver, and emotion is a great
motivator. Intellect and emotion are usually the ways that we view what
we do and how we feel.
Most of the time, we operate from a physical, intellectual or emotional
level. Ideally, we strive to keep these levels in balance, but often we
experience conflict between them. Some believe that these three levels
are the sum total of the human condition.
Much of our physical, intellectual and emotional awareness are externally
focused. We pay a lot of attention to doing and what is being done. We
like to be intellectually challenged, stimulated and entertained. We seek
emotional highs and avoid emotional lows. We pursue physical comfort
and pleasure. When we are physically, emotionally and intellectually
balanced, we feel content and safe, and most of the time we view
ourselves as happy, successful or complete.
Although we may achieve a perfect balance and attain a sense of well-
being, we find ourselves still sensing or longing for something more. It
may come as a deep sense of being disconnected or a subtle hint of
insecurity. At times, it may present itself as sheer panic, a profound
loneliness or intense anger. More often than not though, it is just a vague
nagging voice and it seems to be saying, “This is not my real home, this
is not the real me and these are not my people.”
At this point, we have nowhere else to go and find ourselves listening to
and then following ‘The Voice’. The voice of course, is the spirit or soul.
A lot of people think of spiritual communication in terms of religion.
Religion can be a great way to explore spirituality and often works very
well. Too often though, people find religion to be controlling, limiting or
threatening. Much is preached about sin and punishment, and on a not
too subtle level we find ourselves viewing life as a thing to be endured.
Life becomes a test and we are all on trial here anticipating, ‘A pass into
heaven or an eternity of hell’. Some believe that this is hell and we are
only here because we owe a debt or need to be punished for past-life
mistakes. In trying to earn our way into the ‘Promised-Land’, we find
ourselves making a choice between living a spiritual life or living a
The great illusion here, is that we are left believing that spirituality is
separate from physicality. We denigrate our lives and struggle to over-
power our physical needs or desires. In a way, we find ourselves at war
with ourselves. Who we are, what we are and how we are require all parts
- the mind, body and spirit are interconnected.
You wouldn’t decide to disregard your body and emotions just so that
you could live your life on a purely intellectual level. Nor would you
consider living emotionally and disregarding your intellect. Yet, many try
to live physically and disconnect themselves from their spirituality and
Probably, the greatest illusion of all, is that we define ourselves and our
world as solid mass moving through lineal time. We tend to measure time
in terms of events, or use time-frames as markers. We have big time-
frames, like infancy, childhood, adulthood and old age.
Rarely do we think of time as a minute to minute evolution. If we did, it
would be easier to comprehend how fluid our lives are. Even our own
bodies are dying and renewing, cell by cell, minute to minute. We are
energy within a sea of energy; everything is changing, and everything is
evolving, and everything is being affected by everything else.
You may notice skin particles and hairs dropping from your body, or
wrinkles forming on your face and muscles sagging with time. You may
not have even considered that every tiny little particle within you is also
changing form on a daily basis, nor may you have considered that every
few years your body has been completely replaced.
Our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, knowledge and perceptions are also
changing. We often notice the change in seasons, and accept that trees
drop leaves, but do we really accept that all of nature is in a constant
state of change.
If we perceive life in big chunks, then we may as well look at it as only
one big chunk, and that is that we are born and we then die –that’s it,
By viewing life as a series of events, we will find it far too easy to become
involved with judgements. We begin to predict future events and judge
them as good or bad. Rather than living in each moment, we find
ourselves fast forwarding our consciousness into what we hope will be a
better event. The greatest problem with this, is that we con ourselves into
believing that when we get there, we will be able to stay there.
Living with this perception is like being caught in rapids, desperately
making our way to the nearest buoy, and believing that once we find our
safety we will never need to let go. We view our families, homes and jobs
as safety nets, and desperately want to believe that when we attain them,
we will be able to maintain them. We all hope that when we get to ‘Our
Happy Place’ we will be able to stay there.
Another great illusion that many of us live by, is the belief that we need to
prove our value. So many people suffer so much anguish by believing
that they must do something great in order to be validated as worthy. Not
only do we judge ourselves by what we do, but we also judge others and
allow others to judge us, value us, or at least label us as worthy, based
on what we do. Almost as ludicrous as this, is the belief that what we
have makes us worthy. More often than not, we marry the ideas of what
we do with what we earn, and as unbelievable as it may sound, we
actually label someone as important or valuable, based on their
occupation and material assets.
When I was younger, a group of us used to hang out together and the
boys in the group decided to learn to play musical instruments. They
used to practice at my sister’s house and they were not very good. I used
to write lyrics and the boys would try to work them into songs. We all
thought that they were as great as any pop stars around at the time.
The girls used to shop for old lady’s dresses at the op-shop (long before
it became trendy) and we would chop the dresses into minis, add beads
or lace, and turn out some pretty amazing originals. On Saturday
afternoons, the boys also played Rugby League at the local oval, and
most mornings they went for early morning surf. Life was good, healthy
and a lot of fun. We laughed a lot and we were all very close to each
Back then, we did what we did for fun, we did not think of ourselves as
designers, fashion models, rock stars or athletes. No one thought about
becoming rich and famous. We created and we did things because it was
in us to do so.
These days, everything is about being a celebrity, gaining fame, looking
good, earning money and acting like ‘We are Someone’. Really, showing
a bit of tit and running computerized sounds through a mixer hardly
qualifies anyone as a musician, and being paid millions of dollars to kick
a ball around is a rather shabby measure of human worth.
If we were to measure worth on doing, then my personal votes would go
to mothers, farmers, carers and nurses. Doctors and lawyers are often
esteemed, but I would rate them average and variable. However, this is
not about joining the ‘Value by Occupation League’, it is about exposing
it for what it is - just another illusion.
Being of value is not about what you do, what you have, or what and who
All these things are transient and only small fragments of your overall
experience. None of this is who you are, and your life’s value should be
based on the simple fact that you exist. The consciousness or energy
that you are is as vital to the mix as anyone else’s. An ocean is not made
of a few select drops of water, and the Universe does not exist the way it
is meant to exist, if your energy is not included.
They say that as you get older time appears to speed up. Christmas
takes forever when you are a child, and yet as an adult it seems like we
have Christmas every six months. Perhaps it is my age, but I really don’t
think so. I acknowledge that clock and calendar time may well read the
same, but I do not agree that my experience of time has not changed. As
a kid, I used to wonder what being an adult would be like, and now as a
middle-aged woman, I still wonder what adulthood would be like. I often
feel like I am still waiting for my real life to begin.
Time is fast and we are busier than ever. Kids know their alphabet and
how to count before they even begin school, and many parents have
them booked into college before they are ten. The average woman has
children, runs a home, goes to gym, and an evening class and works at
least a forty hour week. Many men are working sixty hours a week and
are under pressure to gain further education. We need to move fast and
talk fast, we are so structured and organized that we rarely have more
than thirty minutes a day to ourselves. We are bombarded with
information and noise.
We refer to the Internet as the Information Super Highway, and in many
ways it is probably one of the most wonderful inventions in history.
Despite all of the advantages of gaining super-fast information, we really
need to wonder just how much is enough. Many of our kids are being
drugged and sedated; we label them hyperactive, attention deficient,
obsessive-compulsive and defiant.
Many kids are placed in day care centres before they are one or two
years of age. In many ways, this is a good thing for the child and a
necessary thing for the parent. The problem is, that kids are being so
stimulated from such an early age, that by the time they are ten years old
they have only one speed – full throttle.
A child at day care has constant attention, stimulation and entertainment.
After day- care, the child is further stimulated by the family’s attention
and busy-ness. In addition to all of this, they also have television, radio
and computer games.
My school report cards typically stated, “Sonya has great potential, but
does not apply herself.” It’s quite common now for assessments to
include behavioural problems as well as academic observations. Children
as young as five or six are being labelled as disruptive, lacking empathy
and social skills, defiant and aggressive.
I believe that the future generations will be extremely knowledgeable. My
guess is that they will know more in the first twenty years of their lives
than we will ever know in our lifetime.
This brings me to my next observation of illusion – Knowledge vs.
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Illusions - Are we thinking our own thoughts?
Plato - cave allegory
(Part 1 of 2) ~sonya green
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