Eventually, Neo finds Morpheus, and is then told that reality is actually very different from what he, and most other people, perceives it to be.
Morpheus tells Neo that human existence is merely a facade. In reality, humans are being ‘farmed’ as a source of energy by a race of sentient, malevolent machines. People actually live their entire lives in pods, wtih their brains being fed sensory stimuli which give them the illusion of leading ‘ordinary’ lives. Morpheus explains that, up until then, the “reality” perceived by Neo is actually “a computer-generated dreamworld…a neural interactive simulation” called the matrix.
This notion that the everyday world, which seems so real to us, actually is a shadow, maya, illusion, a reflection of some higher reality, lies at the core of almost all religions and mystical philosophies.
It's older than Plato, though his Allegory of the Cave described this concept in a fashion that influenced a lot of thinkers who followed him. We don't see the Sun of Reality directly, only illusory shadows cast on a wall. Those who discern the truth aren't believed; that bright sun is too uncomfortable for people used to living in caves.
Spirituality is a search for something more real than the world of our bodily perceptions.
This is akin to the goal of science, but with an important twist: religions, spiritual practices, and mystical faiths generally believe that the illusion of the physical world can't be seen through by looking more deeply into it, by understanding more fully how materiality is put together and functions.
Rather, a cosmic illusion is assumed akin to the philosophy of "The Matrix."
There are forces afoot that are dedicated to keeping us immersed in unreality. Penetrating the illusion is difficult, if not impossible, unaided. We need a guide, a guru, a master, a savior, someone who can simultaneously communicate with us at our deluded human level while also being privy to secrets that transcend everyday understanding.
But what if the biggest illusion is the idea of a cosmic illusion? What if fear of death, yearning for perfect happiness, and other human cognitive propensities are how a higher reality has come to be imagined?
Zen speaks of how first there is a mountain, then there isn't, and then there is. Similarly, perhaps what enlightenment truly consists of is first believing in the reality of the physical world, then doubting this, and then embracing this world again -- albeit from an enriched perspective.
By "enriched," I mean this: most people take this world for granted. They either don't ponder their place in it very deeply, or assume that Earth is a temporary stepping-off place for an eternity in heaven, paradise, nirvana, the lap of God, or such.
However, discarding the illusion of an illusion after believing strongly in it brings us back to everyday life with a fresh perspective. Now we look upon everyday life with new eyes. We aren't trying to look past or through this world.
We're content to look at it. To be an integral part of it, no longer feeling like a stranger in a strange land who belongs elsewhere.
One of my favorite churchless affirmations is:
I'm flawed and fucked-up, just like the world is.
We belong to each other, the world and me.
Straining for personal perfection is exhausting. Seeking to know a perfect reality is senseless. If you find it, good for you. Be sure to tell me all about it. But when you do, it'll be while you're here in this flawed and fucked-up world, along with me.