Here it is. My absolute favorite sentence. It’s wise. It’s profound. It’s deep. It’s practical. It’s spiritual. Best of all, it’s true. Drum roll, please. Pregnant pause for dramatic effect…
A little longer…(don’t peek! don’t look below!)
OK. I can’t stand the waiting, even though I know what I’m about to say.
From Philip K. Dick’s “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later” (1978), ninth paragraph:
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
Here’s the entire paragraph:
It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question “What is reality?”, to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." That's all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven't been able to define reality any more lucidly.
For quite a while my spiritual practice has been founded on that one line. I’ve used it in many talks and writings. I repeat it to myself a lot. I first read it in the “Edge” section of the Portland Oregonian. That’s a humor column. Dick’s quote was in a collection of supposedly weird items found on the Internet.
I didn’t think it was weird at all. I memorized it right away. I’m still trying to fathom the implications of that single sentence. From those thirteen words an entire metaphysics can be constructed. Or, perhaps we might better say, deconstructed.
Out of the corner of my eye I can see a white hold-the-newspaper-down rock on the patio table where my laptop sits. Whether or not I believe in the rock, it’s there. My wife senses it too. So does everyone else who walks onto our deck. The rock is real, no doubt about it.
On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve thought once about God today. Certainly not this evening. I was focused on playing ball with our dog, eating dinner, and then watching a recording of the Oregon State—Boise State football game.
God hasn’t been in evidence, unlike the rock. Ditto for Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Krishna, Holy Spirit, Tao, Big Foot, Godzilla, King Kong, and every other entity that requires a thought to bring it into existence. Beliefs are sustained by thoughts. No thoughts, no beliefs. (Or so I believe; I could be wrong; but even if there is such a thing as a thoughtless belief, I’ll bet that it was born through thought).
My daily meditation now is founded on Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. So are my spiritual beliefs, which is why I don’t have many. I’ve found that when I stop thinking about religion or spirituality, there isn’t much left of what generally passes for divinity.
What remains is either nothing or everything. I mean, during the brief meditative moments when I’m neither aware of the external world or internal thoughts, emotions, and such, there’s just awareness of me being aware of nothing but awareness.
When external sensations and internal cognitions return, everything is present. But all this isn’t present as beliefs. Right now I don’t believe that I’m hearing crickets, feeling the weight of my body on a chair, and thinking what I’m going to write next. These are clear and evident realities.
And that’s what I want: reality. Yes, I want a pleasant, meaningful, satisfying reality. But prior to those adjectives is what they modify: reality. If pleasure, meaning, and satisfaction are merely free-floating abstractions with little or no connection to substantial existence, they’re useless.
So I’m with Philip K. Dick. I’d rather surrender my insubstantial religious beliefs that don’t point to anything concrete, than dilute reality with fantasy. Concerning the times in my life that have meant the most to me, I can say, “Wow, that was real!”
I’ve done a lot of believing. But none of it has been memorable. There’s quite a bit of empty space on my bookshelves now, because I’ve been storing or discarding books that are belief-full and reality-empty. A passage from Thoreau’s “Walden” (which always will be on a shelf) comes to mind:
No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth. This alone wears well. For the most part, we are not where we are, but in a false position. Through an infirmity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out.
In sane moments we regard only the facts, the case that is. Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe. Tom Hyde, the tinker, standing on the gallows, was asked if he had anything to say. “Tell the tailors,” said he, “to remember to make a knot in their thread before they take the first stitch.” His companion’s prayer is forgotten.