There is a tradition in India that “reality” is, as Swami Omkarananda defined it, “what is self-existent and not dependent on anything else for its reality.” They ancient rishis looked at the contingent universe and saw nothing self-existent and concluded that this was all illusion, not real. If this is the definition of reality that we accept, then nothing at all is real.
But I don’t see reality that way. Everything in the universe depends on everything else for its being. Yet these things are not ‘unreal.’ They are real… but that reality is a changing, ever-shifting, ever-transforming and interdependent reality. The reality of these things consists in them being actually present… they are not mere figments of imagination. They have substance and solidity, even if they are not self-existent.
I cannot meditate under a tree and feel its bark and see its beautiful leaves falling around me and see its branches swaying in the breeze and say “tree, you are not real… you are a mere illusion.” No, the tree is as real as my own body and nonseparate from it. The being in the tree is the same as the being in me, even if the configurations of molecules, elements, atoms and biological processes are different in this body than in the tree. My hand glides along the bark of that tree and there is reality meeting itself… it is not mere illusion… it is not merely a dream… there is authentic presence there in that present moment. And I call that “real.”
The nondual awareness to which the rishis pointed is real, but so is the tree. To me, the tree and the nondual awareness are equally real. There is no separation between them, no duality of ‘real awareness’ vs. ‘unreal tree.’ All that is, is continuous, unified, even–paradoxically–those things that appear fragmented, conflicting, and jarringly and abruptly changing.
This (“my”) body and the tree are distinguishable in thought, and phenomenologically distinct, but ontologically unified/nonseparate.