What does "It is not real" mean for Robert Adams and Ramana Maharshi?
I think it is very unfortunate that Ramana, Robert, and Nisargadatta all refer to the world as not being real without explaining in detail what they mean by "not real."
I want to most forcefully and explicitly state they do not mean you should stop eating, or deny yourself shelter, or deny yourself clothes, or not own a car, or not have a job because they are all unreal. They are not saying the world or your body are not real, therefore live like a zombie totally bereft of feelings, reactions, or needs relevant to sustaining your body. It does not mean that you should not protect yourself financially and avoid scammers. It does not mean you should not have insurance if people depend on you. It does not mean that if someone in your family or others in the community have desperate needs, you should not help them because they are not real, that they are some sort of fake news. They do not mean that if there is a dire political situation, such as a tyrant arising that will destroy the nation, you should not insist that they be stopped.
By "not real," they mean that all external and internal forms, such as your body, your sense of presence, your thoughts, your emotions, your house, the tree outside your door, are all temporary, are all ephemeral, all pop into existence, exist for a while, and then cease to exist. No appearance is permanent. Therefore, every situation in your life is temporary, a brief appearance that will pass, so do not get too involved in relationship to them, for you, the perceiver, are always there, outside of consciousness, outside of the world, outside of your body, existing only as an observer, while your mind fills in the details of the situations surrounding you, giving it meaning and drama. Without the mind making up stories about your situation and your body, you would be unperturbed by all internal and external events.
This is it. This is their message. Do not be too concerned about the external world, because everything in it is just momentary. The real you, to be discovered through self-inquiry and meditation, is the ultimate observer, the witness, the principle of knowing, of sentience, of cognition. You are the ultimate knower, seer, hearer, smeller, taster, feeler, and ultimately of all knowing and sentience. As such you are beyond the physical and mental worlds altogether, so turn your attention within and find this, which we give the name That. That is the only real because it is beyond all appearances of consciousness which are effervescent, ephemeral, and passing. The Real, is that which colonizes the unreal, the not real, the play of consciousness.
But if you take "it is not real" literally, as it is only a dream, or a passing nightmare of consciousness, you would become a zombie, a homeless person, not eating any meals because your body is not real, your hunger is not real, your need to pee and to take a crap, are all unreal. Your wife is unreal, your children are unreal, your mother and father are unreal, therefore pay them no heed, no attention whatsoever. Ignore them and their problems, because they are not real. And the naïve seeker then expands his attitude to all things.
There is no need to buy insurance, because nothing is real. Robbers are not real. Murders are not real. Tyrants are not real. Trump is not real. Hitler was not real. They are all just passing appearances, just as is your hunger, or your thirst, or your feeling chilled or too hot. None of these are real, so just sit in one place and observe the world, observe your body, observe your emotions and thoughts, and take no heed of them. Just turn your attention inside and find your true self, the only real, the only permanent.
Here is the next important thing you have to understand: “it is not real” is a teaching message from the teacher to the student who is not yet realized who or what they are, or for other persons in the audience who may be suffering from the loss of a loved one, debilitating physical disease, psychological or physical pain. This is a message to look within instead of without into the world, and by looking within one can find your own permanent truth of who you are. However, after you discover who you are the journey inwards has essentially ended, because the division of inward and outward disappears, and you discover you are the source of everything and that everything rests inside of you including the world and your body. That is, the message “it is not real” is meant for a student, or someone suffering. It is not meant for someone who has realized themselves as Self. That person is fully aware of the rather trivial nature of the external world and the body compared with the direct apprehension of one’s own self and its eternal existence. But after realizing the self, one just cannot continually turn within, because the division between inner and outer is dead. One is everything.
You see the consequences of selectively saying certain things are real, while other things are not real, so take no heed of them, like the present crisis in the United States of the Mafia-like Trump family, and Trump administration that has promised to drain the swamp, yet has hired 193 corporate lobbyists, and former corporate insiders, to run the Trump administration of the United States according to Elizabeth Warren. So, do we just watch Trump destroy our country, destroy Medicaid, eviscerate Social Security, create a huge databank on every potential voter in the United States that can be used for voter intimidation and other forms of suppression? Do we ignore the fact that there are 60 million people that are so dumb that they cannot see through Trump's constant lying and changing positions on everything, or his naked self-interest in everything he is engaged in? To ignore the fact that Trump is utterly fawning around Putin, ignoring all the other leaders of the world but meets privately with Putin for three hours, perhaps discussing Russia's loan agreements with Trump's family business, or perhaps discussing Boudin's videotapes of Donald Trump engaging in various sexual situations with Russian hookers?
Most emphatically, "It is not real" does not imply ignoring injustice or abject stupidity or abject brutality in the world. "It is not real" means do not take the world too seriously until it hits you in the ass, and you are forced to take stock, just as you would be if you found you had a cancerous tumor, or were having a heart attack, or a potential murderer was threatening your life.
Remember, all the while that Robert was teaching about the world not being real, to take nothing seriously, and to turn all your attention inside, he was in fact living as a family man, raising two children, as well as fostering children. He had various jobs as a handyman, teaching non-smoking classes, producing pirated audiotapes, etc. It means that he had extensive dental work done during the last year of his life at age 69 because his teeth were so bad. He had a whole mouth reconstruction during the last year of his life. Nisargadatta ran the family business of selling cigarettes from the time he was 36 to the end of his life at 82. He spent many years speaking with friends and other devotees of Siddharameshwar regarding the nature of reality, of consciousness, of birth and death, while he worked on his final understanding as expressed in his talks in 1978 to 1981, his final teachings, including those of unreality.
To make this a little more real, pardon the pun, we must realize these are the teachings of an 80-year-old man who has seen everything and done everything. For him, the world had no reality, no meaning. He had seen and done everything. There was no more interest in the world for him. He was through with it. From that point of view, of being a tired old man that is seen and done everything, nothing in the world was of any value to him. Even his own consciousness was of no value to him any longer. He repeatedly says in his last three years, he was waiting to die, and get the whole thing over with, hopefully without too much pain or trouble in the process of dying. He wanted to throw away the whole world and consciousness because they disturbed his peace which he found in his deepest depths. Compared to that peace that lay closest to his soul so to speak, nothing was of any value. And in that sense it was not real to him. He was selling this philosophy to other people who were suffering, as did Robert. In this sense, the phrase "it is not real" is a universal solvent dissolving all suffering based on one's experience in the external world including pain in the body, rheumatism, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, poverty, lawsuits, and the scorching heat of the Arizona desert. They exhort others just turn within and find that peaceful center and take refuge there in the deepest part of your Self.