In our ignorance there is always a fear of death, but we go on living as if there were no death. Every moment the ignorant person lives as if there were no death though he is frightened of it. The one who knows also lives as if there were no death, but he is aware that death can happen at any moment. He lives at two different levels. Life for him has split into two parts: the circumference has become separate from the center; the wave has become separate from the sea; the form has become separate from the formless. However, one cannot run away from death. It is a matter of wonder that a thing does not by itself cease to appear by our knowing that it is an illusion. By our knowing, only the consequent pain ceases.
Shankaracharya was always giving the example of a rope that appears like a snake in darkness. But this example is inaccurate because by coming near you can know that it is a rope. And once you know that it is a rope, however far from it you may go, it will not look like a snake.
But the illusion of life is not like that. The illusion of life is like a stick that is dipped in water. In the water it will appear bent, but when you remove it from the water, it is straight. If you put it back in the water, it will again look bent. Then if you put your hands in the water you find that the stick is straight, but still it appears bent. Just by your knowing that it is straight, the slanted appearance of the stick does not disappear. But by your knowing, you no longer behave as if in the illusion that it is bent.
Our illusion of life is not like that of a rope looking like a snake, but like that of a straight stick appearing bent in the water. We know full well that the stick is not bent, but only appears so. The stick even appears bent to the greatest of scientists who have experimented and who know that by dipping the stick in water it does not become bent. Thus, this appearance of crookedness is due to our senses. Our knowledge has nothing to do with it.
The difference, therefore, is this: that you will not believe that the stick is bent, but it only appears to be bent. The matter is divided into two different levels. On the level of knowing, the stick is straight. On the level of seeing, it is bent. There is no illusion on either of these levels.
On the level of living there is the body which is the outer and on the level of existence there is the atman – the soul. For the knower, the world is not lost. For him the world is just the same as it is for you. Probably, to him the world is clearer in its perspective and appearance. Every tiny cell of the existence is clearer to him. Nothing is lost for him, and he is not in any illusion. He knows that form is born out of the senses and is like the stick which appears bent in water. Because the rays of light bend and change while entering the water, the stick also appears bent. In air, rays of light do not bend, so the stick appears straight. The stick does not bend, but the rays of light bend while passing through water. Therefore, we see the stick as crooked.