"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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Richard Bach
Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Richard Bach (yes, a descendant of composer J.S. Bach)--pilot, writer, spiritual seeker. His best known work is "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" which was made into a movie. He was married for 21 years to actress Leslie Parrish who he often described as his soul mate. I remember her best as Jocie in the original "Manchurian Candidate" with Frank Sinatra. They divorced in 2002.

The book "Illusions" is about an itinerant flier (ostensibly Richard Bach himself at an earlier stage in his life) who flies passengers around the skies above Midwest corn fields in an antique bi-plane. He is unexpectedly joined on this lonely journey by another individual doing the same thing in a 1928 Travel Air--Donald Shimoda. However, it pretty quickly becomes apparent that there is something abnormal about Shimoda. His plane sits in an Illinois corn field appearing factory new, no torn fabric, no oil stains, not even straw from the passengers inside the aircraft. Upon questioning from Richard, it turns out that their meeting was no accident, Donald Shimoda had planned it. Donald has arrived to be something of a mentor for Richard.

The story itself is entertaining but that is not where the true value of the work lies. What Bach does is use the story about a mentor / mentee relationship as a framework for presenting his conception of life. One need go no further than the title to deduce what that concept is: Illusions. His premise is that life itself is an illusion, that we are in reality beings of spirit, not beings of material substance. If the concept of life as illusion sounds familiar, the most likely reason would be that it is the central tenant of Hinduism. Link.

Bach's story is not a parable in the genre of Coelho's "The Alchemist" but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Bach sets forth rather abstract eastern religious principles in digestible, accessible terms for the western palate. It's a breezy read that can be completed in an afternoon so I'll not indulge with a cliff notes summary. I re-read the book every few years and enjoy it each time.

The spiritual content of the book is plain and open (other than the short introductory parable discussed below) so there is not much for me to offer by way of interpretation. However, I shall venture that the Richard Bach is actually having a conversation with himself in this book. The characters Richard and Donald are both different version of the author--shall we say the older, wiser Richard having a heart-to-heart with the young Richard. That has significance for this reason. Bach, in my view, is not urging each of us to scour the corn fields of the Midwest looking for our personal Donald Shimoda. Rather, I believe he is telling us that we are each our own Donald Shimoda. The questions should be directed within and, from there, the answers shall come.

For me, the most profound element of the book is a short parable contained in the prologue:
Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept silently over them all--young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.

Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth. But one creature said at last, "I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom."

The other creatures laughed and said, "Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks and you will die quicker than boredom!" But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more. And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, "See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!"

And the one carried in the current said, "I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure." But they cried the more, "Savior!" all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone, and they were left alone making legends of a Savior.

© Richard Bach, reprinted with permission.
This is another take on the "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" theme. Obviously, the creatures hugging the river bottom afraid of the current are a metaphor for the mass of humanity that has not yet awaken to the reality of life. In this aspect, the river creatures are the same as the sheep in The Alchemist. Bach is urging us to stop being afraid, to actively swim with the current of life which ultimately leads to a higher existence. Letting go and floating with the current is much more difficult than it sounds.


Comments (7)

Joe's Primer on Myth And Religious Parables

FWIW, a short film on youtube.com inspired by a passage in the book Illusions:

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