We humans want to make more of reality than is actually there. We believe that things have more substance, more independence, and more of an unchanging essence than is justified.
This is the message of my previous post about the relative nature of the quantum world. And as I noted in that post, it fits with a core tenet of Buddhism -- emptiness.
Buddhism emptiness doesn't mean a void, or nothingness.
It refers to the fact that nothing has inherent existence. Nothing has an unchanging essence. Nothing stands alone, complete in and by itself.
In the book I've been writing about recently, "Why Buddhism is True," Robert Wright, the author, says that essence is closely linked to emptiness.
Essence, as we've seen, is central to the Buddhist concept of emptiness. At least its absence is central to the concept of emptiness. The idea of emptiness is that, while the things we perceive out there in the world do in some sense exist, they lack this thing called "essence."
Essence appears in quite a few of the neuroscience books I've read. Often the example used is of, say, someone being told that they could have a nice used sweater at no cost.
The person is delighted.
Then they're told that the sweater belonged to a murderer who killed his victims in a grisly fashion. Learning that, often the sweater offer is refused, because somehow the essence of the murderer is felt to be part of it.
More positively, Wright cites the true example of someone who paid $48,875 for a tape measure owned by John F. Kennedy, "apparently motivated by a sense that it was imbued with some sort of presidential 'essence.'"
He then wonders what would have happened if the successful bidder was told that a mistake was made, and the tape measure actually belonged to a plumber.
The bidder's altered facial expression would leave no doubt that there had been an alteration of feeling. A tape measure that moments ago inspired awe and adoration would now inspire nothing of the kind. A precious relic had turned into a mere object, emptied of the essence it possessed only moments before.
What this points to is another subject discussed by Wright, how perceptions and feelings are intimately related. In fact, they are virtually inseparable.
Meaning, how we look upon something or someone is deeply affected by our prior experience and emotional attitude.
I've talked about this sort of thing in reference to how devotees of a guru typically view his qualities in absolute terms, whereas actually they're relative.
I had personal experience of this when my wife went with me to see the guru who led the religious organization I belonged to at the time, Radha Soami Satsang Beas.
Well, actually my wife went to Palm Springs for shopping and sightseeing. But she was able to see the guru, Gurinder Singh Dhillon, at a small group session where she got to sit in the front row.
She wasn't at all impressed. To her, Dhillon just seemed like a regular guy.
But to his devotees, the guru was imbued with marvelous qualities: love, wisdom, charm, and so on. This shows something obvious: beauty, or any other quality, is in the eye of the beholder, not anywhere outside.
Essence also is tied into stories, as Wright describes.
The stories we are told about things, and the stories we tell ourselves about things, influence how we feel about those things and, presumably, thus shape the essence that we sense in them.
If the story behind a tape measure is that it belonged to JFK, that implies a different feeling -- and a different essence -- than the story that the tape measure belongs to a plumber.
If we think of ourselves as having a successful marriage and wonderful, thriving children, then the sight of our home probably gives off more positive vibes than if we think of ourselves as trapped in an obsessive marriage that has bred ne'er-do-well kids. And so on.
...But that's just one example of a more general illusion: that the "essences" we sense in things really exist, that they inhabit the things we perceive, when in fact they are constructions of our minds, with no necessary correspondence to reality.
Things come with stories, and the stories, whether true or false, shape how we feel about the things and thus shape the things themselves, giving them the full form we perceive.