One day during his teenage years, my meditation master, Swami Rama of the Himalyas asked his Guru Bengali Baba, to remove his youthful misunderstandings about the nature and power of maya. Wishing to teach by demonstration, Bengali Baba simply replied, “Tomorrow morning I will show you what maya is.”

So excited by the prospect that he would finally be able to remove the “golden disk” and see through the illusion of maya, the young student found himself unable to sleep or meditate that night. Early next morning, as the two walked along the Ganges, Bengali Baba suddenly ran from the boy’s side, rushed up to a large, imposing tree, and wrapped his entire body around it. Apparently writhing in pain, the master cried out, “If you are my true disciple, then please help free me from this terrible tree.”

At first Swami Rama was amused, then shocked and finally afraid as he witnessed what seemed to be a very real, supernatural, life-threatening event. IF his great teacher could not free himself from the clutches of this strange and ferocious tree-like being, perhaps it would entrap him as well. In his hesitancy and fear, the boy stood paralyzed until he heard Bengali Baba cry out again. “Please, my son, take hold of my hand or foot and try to pull me away! My body has been caught by this tree and I cannot get away!”

Swami Rama tried to help, but to no avail. After exhausting himself by unsuccessfully trying to pry his master’s fingers, hands, arms, toes, feet and legs from the persistent pull of the tree, he stood watching his teacher’s predicament with new eyes and asked,m“How is this possible, Master? A tree has no power to hold anyone captive. What’s really happening here?”

In response, Bengali Baba unwrapped his arms and legs, laughed and said, “This is an example of how the cosmic illusion of maya enslaves you. It was your own attachment and fear for your beloved teacher—and for yourself—that caught you in its spell.”

In that instant, Swami Rama understood that the illusion and pain of maya is, in fact, self-created. Through our own unexamined concepts we become attached to worldly desires and then claim that they have entrapped us. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Compassionate Buddha saw through this illusion when he warned humanity, “Do not swallow a red-hot iron ball and then cry, ‘I am in great pain!’” Centuries later, Leo Tolstoy observed, “If you did not desire your present position, you would not be doing everything possible to maintain it.”