If you asked someone, “Do things exist?” the response would probably be, “Of course things exist! The world is full of things. Everyone knows that there is physical stuff out there—that reality is tangible and real!”

But what allows any thinga hand, a chair, or any other object—to exist? One way to discover the answer is to imagine a specific thing—say, your hand—expanding and expanding until there is nothing in the universe except the hand. What would happen to it? …  Really, just take a moment and try this.  You’ll be amazed at your experience … You wouldn’t see the hand anymore, would you? Why? … It would disappear because there would be nothing in the universe that was not the hand. This is a very basic concept about reality: In order for any thing to exist, there must also be not that thing.

Consider this for a moment. Can you see that any physical object is bounded by “not that object”? If an object did not have any borders—that is, if it wasn’t surrounded by “not that object”—it couldn’t be distinguished from everything else. In other words, it wouldn’t exist.

The same principle applies to nonmaterial concepts. Love and hate, peace and war, strong and weak, beautiful and ugly—these only exist and have unique attributes because they have been distinguished from each other. For example, the state of war is distinguished from peace by the presence of armed conflict. When there is no armed conflict there is peace. But if peace existed throughout the world all the time, and if the alternative (war) was unimaginable, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish peace. Peace, as a condition distinct from war, couldn’t exist.

A Universe Without Distinctions

Now imagine everything in the universe without any distinctions. It’s all just an undifferentiated whole. Can you see that there is nothing? That’s because in order for anything to exist, it must be distinguished from everything else. If no distinction is made between a specific thing and everything else, there is only an undifferentiated everything—which is another way of saying nothing.

Everything, without any distinctions, is the same as nothing. Take a moment and think about that. Until consciousness has made a distinction, nothing can possibly exist.

Therefore, the world really isn’t the way you perceive it. In fact, it isn’t any way until you perceive it that way—that is, until you distinguish it that way. You don’t even sense what’s “out there” because there’s nothing out there to be sensed. (Nothing, as we’ve seen, however, is the potential for everything before anyTHING is distinguished.) In making distinctions, we use our sensory apparatus (the five senses) as well as our perceptual framework (language, culture, and individual beliefs).

An excellent example of this point comes from a Time magazine cover story on human consciousness.

“A baby born with cataracts—an unusual but not unheard-of condition—and left untreated for as little as six months becomes permanently and irrevocably blind. If a sixty-year-old develops cataracts, an operation can restore full sight. The distinctions most of us make unconsciously and at a glance—foreground vs. background, moving vs. stationary, vertical vs. horizontal, and dozens more—are concepts that the brain has learned. It literally has to wire itself, with neurons growing out to touch and communicate with one another in an ever more sophisticated network of connections. And if those connections are not repeatedly stimulated in the first few months of life, when the brain is still in its formative period, they atrophy and die.”  (Emphasis added.)

In other words, moving and stationary or vertical and horizontal are not things “out there.” Rather they are “concepts that the brain has learned” (or distinguished) as a result of having a specific sensory apparatus (and brain), without which they couldn’t be distinguished. That means they literally wouldn’t exist.

In other words, if everyone was born with cataracts (which would be normal if everyone had that condition), our reality would not possess moving and stationary, vertical and horizontal, etc.—despite the fact that we are convinced that these are inherent attributes of reality.

Is There AnyTHING Out There?

Here’s another thought exercise that will help make it clear that what we think is “out there” is largely a function of our perceptual apparatus.  Imagine that beings from another galaxy arrived on earth.  Imagine further that instead of human eyes they had a different “viewing sense, namely, the equivalent of an electron microscope.”  When they viewed our world they might not see the solid objects we see; instead they might see atoms: electrons spinning around protons and neutrons.  They might notice that almost all of what they were viewing (the atom) was empty space.  So if these creatures were the inhabitants of earth, they might not even have a concept of solid matter.

Imagine further that instead of human ears, these visitors from space had a sense that picked up radio waves but did not hear “sounds” made in their presence.

And finally imagine that they had a sensory mechanism like dolphins, who “see” the echo of sound vibrations they send out.

These aliens would experience and describe a totally different universe than the physical universe we would swear exists all around us.

Our role in creating our reality can be seen in another area.  Apart from our perceptual apparatus, our most important tool in making distinctions and creating our reality is language.
As Edward Sapir, a noted anthropologist, has said: “We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.

Language Determines How We Perceive Reality

Language is far more than a tool for communication. With language we categorize, distinguish, and create the universe. Ultimately, we perceive the world consistently with our language. For example, when we think in English, we perceive a world made up primarily of objects: people, trees, and houses. These objects do things or have things done to them using verbs. We literally see everything in the world in this fashion. We don’t perceive “things out there” because there really are things out there. That just happens to be our worldview, because in our language there is a subject, which acts upon an object, which exists independently of the subject. In the English language, independent entities (subjects and objects) are primary, rather than processes or relationships. That’s not true in every language.

As Ralph Strauch points out in his book The Reality Illusion: “Some languages are structured around quite different basic word- categories and relationships. They project very different pictures of the basic nature of reality as a result. The language of the Nootka Indians in the Pacific Northwest, for example, has only one principle word-category; it denotes happenings or events. A verbal form like ‘eventing’ might better describe this word-category, except that such a form doesn’t sound right in English, with its emphasis on noun forms. We might think of Nootka as composed entirely of verbs, except that they take no subjects or objects as English verbs do. The Nootka, then, perceive the world as a stream of transient events, rather than as the collection of more or less permanent objects which we see. Even something which we see clearly as a physical object, like a house, the Nootka perceive of as a long-lived temporal event. The literal English translation of the Nootka concept might be something like ‘housing occurs;’ or ‘it houses.’”

We swear things exist because we distinguish them though our particular perceptual apparatus and through our language.  Change those and you dramatically change the world that you think is “out there.”  There might not even be any more “things.”

Please leave your comments and questions here about today’s post.  I read all posts and answer as many as Ian.

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47 Comments

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  3. Vijay Kumar Agarwal May 9, 2017 at 9:47 pm - Reply

    Dear friend,

    I have once again closely read your article and relished it.

    May I humbly point out that there is a spelling mistake in the following sentence:

    “The language of the Nootka Indians in the Pacific Northwest, for example, has only one principle word-category……….”

    Instead of “principle”, the word “principal” should have been used.

  4. Vijay Kumar Agarwal April 25, 2017 at 9:50 am - Reply

    I find echos of Alan Watts: THE BOOK in your article.

  5. Ashok Agrwaal July 15, 2016 at 7:41 am - Reply

    Good piece. Almost lucid.

  6. Epi May 25, 2016 at 11:16 am - Reply

    what if reality was only made up by our mind to understand the things that we can sense? If that is possible, then a reality of a being that has higher capability to understand it is real and ours are not real? another is, knowing what is the senses are, if all suddenly disappear and what is left but your mind, will reality still exist? does the universe exist before our eyes, because we can comprehend it and if we cease to exist then will the reality of our universe will cease too?

    just here to ask. I feel that I am in cage, unable to unlock the door which is wide open.

  7. Iustin November 30, 2015 at 4:50 am - Reply

    I have a question: WHY reality exist? Qui prodest?
    Suppose you are right the question remains. If “reality “presents it self the way it does because this is how our sensors are able to depicted for us, it means that until we grow those senses the is something out there to which we respond creating the necessary senses. Dubito ergo cogito, cogito ergo sum is true. What I perceive to be MIGHT be true. Me creating my reality is half the answer. Why am I doing this? Why am I? That would be the other half.

  8. amy June 16, 2015 at 11:28 pm - Reply

    So what is the point of our existence?

  9. Matthew May 26, 2013 at 11:06 pm - Reply

    If atoms are 99.999999% empty space and the only truly solid things are elctrons, protons, neutrons and other sub atomic particles – then it follows that we are at least 99.99999% empty space.

    In fact, if you compressed a person down to the only solid parts ie electrons, neutrons and protons etc, the total volume would be so small that no-one could actually see them.

    What then are we looking at when we see a person? I should think an elaborate display of energy?

    This same idea applies to everything we can see. So, what are we really looking at?

    Matthew

    • Corsair August 12, 2014 at 6:22 pm - Reply

      @ Matthew, good question. If you looked at the Solid surface of a Neutrons,protons & electrons, would it be vibrations? Vibrational,frequency based? …Once you find that out, then what is the vibrating strings made off???……Then how does life,consciousness & awareness fit into that?

  10. Sue April 6, 2013 at 10:01 am - Reply

    Mindblowing, but fascinating. Thank you

  11. zach January 22, 2013 at 8:35 pm - Reply

    “I have to disagree. What you and Morty claim is that consciousness comes before existence. But obviously consciousness can not “exist” if existence itself does not exist.”

    …But do you exist if you are not conscious of it? and if you are not conscious of your existence do you perceive a reality or is that reality perceived by others

    This article has made me very confused. thankyou.

    • Morty Lefkoe January 22, 2013 at 8:42 pm - Reply

      Hi Zach,

      It isn’t that consciousness comes before existence. It is that consciousness comes before physical reality. And most people use the two terms (existence and physical reality) synonymously.

      Love, Morty

  12. Eugene February 15, 2012 at 7:34 am - Reply

    So, to sum it all up, does “reality” really exist ? Guess it isn’t. :)

  13. T February 8, 2012 at 4:20 am - Reply

    This is absolutely insightful and inspirational. Thank you!

    What if, something we’ve been saying that exists but, actually, it never existed?!

    What if, we just discovered that thing we’re seeking it was always in our life?!

    What if, people being to focus on what makes them happy?!

  14. damian January 30, 2012 at 8:10 am - Reply

    This post allowed me to explore a realm of thought that i wouldnt have gone to before.imagine the possibility then of being able to create your own distinctions in the world such as what is ‘there’ and what ‘isnt’,since what we percieve are merely the distinctions we hv colectivly made in our reality!this would have a number of implications!a man could define up and down,which would inevitably allow him 2 perform stunts thought impossible like flight,one could instantly transfr themselves from one point in space to another by creating parallel planes between them and another of very thought to be impossible acts!
    Consider this for a second…..what if a human being was brought up in a stasis chamber such as a water tank for example from the moment of his birth till he reached 20.lets establish certain conditions,this person would only be allowed to be communicated with using sound waves,he would hav to learn how he ‘sees’ in this world of his by aquiring another means of visual communication to his brain.this would also force him to learn another means of communication other than language such as sound waves as well.if this person were then released from his stasis chamber,he would perceive and interact withthis new world he was thrown into on a level we perhaps thought was impossible.my point is i think the human body as the ability inherent in itself to do extraordinary things but we are all being tied down by rules and definitions we have already come to learn.that is why a child is capable of having precocious talents in he is brought up in the right environment i.e one that doesnt know boundries!

    • Morty Lefkoe January 31, 2012 at 6:41 pm - Reply

      Hiu Damian,

      Thanks for your thoughtful post.

      Yes, much more is possible to humans that we think if conditions under which we grew up were significantly different.

      Love,Morty

  15. Mac Gates January 29, 2012 at 3:28 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the response. Nice talking to ya and I love your blog

  16. Mac Gates January 29, 2012 at 3:14 pm - Reply

    This seems to be the same idea as the Buddhist concept of emptiness.

    • Morty Lefkoe January 29, 2012 at 3:22 pm - Reply

      Hi Mac,

      Yes, it is similar. We just get there on a different path.

      Love,Morty

  17. Janet Robinson January 22, 2012 at 10:11 am - Reply

    Morty, this is a brilliant essay! I need to read it again just to integrate it. It definitely confirms that the only meaning that anything has, is the one that we give it. This is all based on our conditioning. If more of us could just ‘get’ that, we would have the freedom that we search for.

  18. Ken January 22, 2012 at 2:20 am - Reply

    Thank you for helping me look at ‘reality’ in a more genuine way.

  19. Linda January 21, 2012 at 2:14 pm - Reply

    I have a question about this…does this only apply if your are only using your 5 senses? Where we see our selves as a solid piece of matter in human form

  20. Leila January 20, 2012 at 9:43 am - Reply

    Hi Morty, thanks for your description of what makes a thing exist. If I understood – there is the distinction between the thing and what isn’t the thing. Without that distinction the thing would not exist. Baby’s learn to make these distinctions but the Nootka don’t. (I think their artwork would be pretty interesting :) Also, would it be possible to bring up a child with a language that promoted a more inclusive and less divisive way of being – maybe one that encouraged higher consciousness.

  21. Mattias Nielssen January 20, 2012 at 8:59 am - Reply

    Morty, I’m truly stunned by that viewpoint. Im really eager to know about where you learned about all this, or have you become so ‘in resonance’ with yozr work that this was a flash of inspiration.

    the reason I ask is because Im fascinated by NLP, the human mind and differing virewpoints of reality, ie Subjective Reality.

    I just turned 20, but I read really insightful books like Power vs. Force, Carl Jung and his coined theory of syncronicity, and also read about the power of human perception and the non-linear Universe. This is why Im so interested to know. I wanna make a difference in the future to help humanity shift and guide them to a higher level of consciousness.

    Thsnks for the article, God bless
    Mattiaa

  22. robert January 19, 2012 at 3:36 am - Reply

    for you, past and future is reality ?
    thanks.
    robert

    p.s: your goal is to see the difference between to be here now or in mind, or to see how a situation occur to us, no matter if is in the past, present and future ?

  23. Jill January 19, 2012 at 3:09 am - Reply

    Great Post! Very thought-provoking… especially about how much our language is a huge influence to our reality.
    I watched a documentary recently (here in the UK) about language and they showed an African tribe who only had 5 names for all colours, therefore everything they could ‘see’ was made up of one of those 5 colours.
    Fascinating stuff :)

  24. Don January 18, 2012 at 4:40 pm - Reply

    I think therefore I am! (I Think?) How I ‘think’ I think distinguishes the ‘thing’ that thinks-namly Me! Therefore I don’t exist unless ‘I think’. Therefore without ‘thinking’, how I could ever exist or be(-ing) an entity/thing? How and that I think/construct/consciousness, etc organizes how I make distingtions and therefore am being of existence/non-existence in the universe. The “I” that therefore exists through thinking may not be fully aware of who I Am if “I” never fully thought about who I AM! Therefore, what I don’t think defines/distinguishes what/how I am NOT! I THINK THEREFORE I AM THINKS I AM WHEN I AM NOT! “I” would never have thought (that) and therefore never have been what I AM! IMAGINE THAT!

  25. Justin Mazza January 18, 2012 at 2:21 pm - Reply

    Science is confirming what you are saying here Morty. It’s hard for the physical mind to totally accept what you are saying but at a pure consciousness level it is understood.

    You are going to warp a lot of minds with this post. :)

  26. Bruce January 18, 2012 at 2:04 pm - Reply

    Very interesting article. I offer my favorite definitions of reality so as to lend more clarity to the subject: “Reality is, here on earth, agreement as to what is. This does not prevent barriers or time from being formidably real. It does not mean either that space, energy or time are illusions. It is as one knows it is.” Def. #2: Reality is the agreement in the mental plane and solids in the physical plane.”—from the works of L. Ron Hubbard, a great American author & researcher.
    I think it’s important to define clearly the words of our subject so that it increases the understanding of what we are conversing about. This word “reality” has been twisted around so much that we lose sight of what are we conversing about. An example, if you and I see a chair in a room and we agree it’s there, that’s reality. But if someone sees an elephant in the room and no one else sees it, there’s no agreement there and that one person who sees the elephant is likely to be put in the straight jacket. Language on the other hand is the symbolization of things in the physical world so that communication is made possible between individuals. Without language we would have to communicate by pointing things out rather conversing via language. Remember, the word (symbol) is not the same as the thing. I think you get the picture. I hope this blog is of some use.

    Best,

    Bruce

    • B Ramakrishnan January 26, 2012 at 10:12 pm - Reply

      I will add a further refinement to this.

      Reality is really the consensus of the majority on the existence of something either in the physical plane or on the mental plane. It is both a definition of something or a distinction of something from its peers !

      Like primrose yellow is different from Lemon yellow which is different from Golden Yellow. All are yellow, but you need to distinguish it from its peers.

  27. Elly Roselle January 18, 2012 at 12:13 pm - Reply

    Thank you for another brilliant piece that supports my own questioning of reality. I have often fantasized about all solidity morphing into holograms that one can step right through, yet our solid beliefs in solidity prevent this from happening. I suppose there is a certain security that comes from worldwide consensus beliefs / perceptions. Yes, I am a science fiction buff. I came to an understanding that was meaningful to me some years back: “Words are not reality yet they create an environment that creates realities”. I think we are on the same page!

    Another request: A few years back you posted a blog explaining your perception of the differences between your work and CBT. I seached you site for that blog today and all that came up was a headline: THE LEFCOE METHOD IS NOT CBT with a big blank space under it. I thought that your analysis was excellent and wanted to send it to a friend. Is it possible to get access to that blog again? Thanks so much.

  28. Margarita January 18, 2012 at 11:45 am - Reply

    As I understand the concept, the question is about duality and oneness. I agree that if someThing does not have the opposite, it does not exist. It cannot exist. This is the distinction between subject and object. Hard to comprehend, but it seems logical that if you don’t have the tools to distinguish, there is no existence.
    The conclusion is that the world we perceive is our creation. We cannot create something we don’t know about. OUR World is the SUM of OUR knowing about it. If we don’t know about it, we cannot see it. But we have the power to create new knowing or change old knowing. I have read that when Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, local tribes were not able initially to SEE the ships.
    I loved your natural confidence program. Everybody should go through eliminating these 23 limiting beliefs. Thank you, Morty, for helping us open our eyes and wake up.
    Deep gratitude and blessings.
    Margarita

    • J January 18, 2012 at 12:01 pm - Reply

      i love this old anecdote about the shamans not being able to see the ships but where does that story originate from??? thee people in america had boats before Columbus arrived. these where just much bigger boats. if we have big ships now and say the Brazilians built the worlds biggest boat. so big it made todays biggest boat look like a little rowing boat. surley i would see it coming if i was standing by the coast? =)

    • B Ramakrishnan January 26, 2012 at 10:04 pm - Reply

      Regarding the Chris Columbus thing and the Indians not able to SEE the ships, I would like to bring to our notice, that there can be things in plain sight that we do not see, simply because our mind refuses to see it or cannot distinguish it at all.

      Are we actually processing all what we receive through our senses ? I do not think so. What makes me slant to this view. Let me just give a small example.

      Take Rapping for example. Now in the last decade or so, we have started thinking of Rapping as a Genre of Music. Do you think in Beethoven’s time, it would be recognized as music ? I am sure rappers have been around for as long as “musicians”, except they would have mutated their skill into snake oil salesmanship !

      Do you take “Air Guitaring” as an art form ? It is only when you see a Bad Air Guitarist vs a Good Air Guitarist that you start seeing that there has to be a high degree of skill involved ! This is what Morty talks about the opposite existing. The “Bad” delineates the bottom and the Great delineates the Top. Viola ! the thing is distinguished from anything else !

    • Jochen February 8, 2012 at 6:17 am - Reply

      I have to disagree. What you and Morty claim is that consciousness comes before existence. But obviously consciousness can not “exist” if existence itself does not exist. Things are pieces of existence that we (choose to) distinguish and label, but that doesn’t negate the existence itself, nor the fact that existence existed before we distinguished parts of it!
      Because existence has an opposite, namely “non-existence”, everything we distinguish, and every concept we can think of, has an opposite as well, and thus exists.

      And btw, my daughter tries to interact with things she doesn’t know (and has never seen before) all the time. Her world is definitely more that the sum of her knowing about it!

      • Margarita February 8, 2012 at 8:01 am - Reply

        Everybody’s world is more than the sum of our knowing about it. It is the perception of ourselves that narrows it down. Simply put, we don’t have the tools to realize our God’s nature. Consciousness is this realization. One has more, other less of this realization. As a sum, the world (unmanifested) just IS.

  29. john January 18, 2012 at 11:35 am - Reply

    Morty. I kind of understand this as far as physical things like sound-silence , space-object why they exist to an observer, but what about personal identity ? What makes it exist? I mean the sense of who you are , your beliefs about yourself what goes with that to make it exist or? EX. I’m very self conscious in public I’m aware of ((at least imagine) how my performances are experienced by others. It seems real but is it a species of paranoia?

    • Margarita January 18, 2012 at 11:51 am - Reply

      Your awareness depends on your knowing of yourself. And this, on the other hand, depends on your beliefs about yourself. Your friends know and perceive you differently.

    • Morty Lefkoe January 30, 2012 at 8:04 pm - Reply

      Hi John,

      It is not paranoia, but beliefs that have you concerned about the opinion of others.

      Social anxiety is a function of several beliefs and conditionings. Most of them are available in our Natural Confidence program: http://recreateyourlife.com/naturalconfidence. Check it out and let me know what you think.

      Love,Morty

      • Dr. Friedmann March 7, 2015 at 2:23 am - Reply

        Dr. Morky Lefkoe,

        I am student at the University of Colombia. I have been attemting to contact you regarding a research project I am working on. It is over importance It regards the end of reality information. I would also ask for the name and number of your employer. I hope to hear from you soon. Use my email:thedogandtheshadow@yahoo.com

  30. John January 18, 2012 at 11:31 am - Reply

    Morty, you’re one of the few great thinkers out there fully sharing your thoughts and opinions and not holding back. Thanks for playing all-out and sharing these ideas; they give a blast of insight and spirituality into my everyday life on a regular basis.

    All the best,

    — John

  31. J January 18, 2012 at 11:29 am - Reply

    i guess what im saying is all this proves that Anything and Everything can and do exist in the physical world. rather than proves that nothing exists…

    then again that proves that nothing exists. haha

  32. J January 18, 2012 at 11:24 am - Reply

    totally get what you’re saying and agree but little bit confused by some of the parallels you’re drawing.

    ‘These aliens would experience and describe a totally different universe than the physical universe we would swear exists all around us.’

    – Yes, but just like we have knowledge of radio waves, atoms, space between atoms etc without being able to see it or perceive it, they should still know that sound and a ‘bigger physical world than their electron microscope view’ existed and that another bieng could perceive them right. like an insect would see ultraviolet light, we know it can see it but we can only see it with technology. doesn’t mean its not there right?
    surley as we are conscious and curious enough beings we have discovered tools to see and understand things we couldn’t only 100 years ago. if these ‘aliens’ where less advanced technologically they might not know of ‘our world’ as we perceive it but say they where, then they would have tools to look at our world, like we look at the universe for example… and it would exist to them too, right?

    i know im asking bout a small fairly insignificant part of your article. just curious what you think.

    • John January 18, 2012 at 9:02 pm - Reply

      Every analogy has other facets that may not accord with the point being made. I think it’s better to concentrate on the one aspect of the analogy being used to highlight the intended concept.

  33. Bianca Hausmann January 18, 2012 at 11:18 am - Reply

    This is so true. One of the most scary concepts I ever read about was the reduction of language to basic concepts like “good-not good” in the book “1984”, whittling away all nuance. I am sure that if we only had such limited ways of distinguishing things, our perception of reality would be diminished also, and we would lose so much.

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