By Kenn Duncan
Delivered as a Dharma talk, September 2019
“It is better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring” - Carl Sagan
Delusion is said to be the most dangerous of the 3 poisons, it’s described as confusion, ignorance, illusion, bewilderment, misperception of reality. Believing something which is not true and acting on this belief, one of the problems with delusion is it believes it’s true. Delusion can lead us to ignore the facts and cling to our views and opinions, it creates a loss of connection with reality. It can take us into the illusion of our thoughts and misperceptions and these inevitably motivate unskillful actions.
Further, we start to build stories around these delusions, you’re by yourself one day = I don’t have any friends, see someone on TV = I think that person is cool, or that person is not cool, I will never get old, never go bald, but the reality is we don’t know, is that person cool? Will I go bald? We don’t really have control. Delusion is trying to have control or fool us into thinking that our beliefs are real and true. We also form ideas about ourselves that limit us, by making stories of ourselves, I can do this, I can’t do this, I’m this way… I’m not that way.
Buddhism gives us a great view of delusion and that is that you shouldn’t take it personally or as a failure when it’s recognized or seen, by yourself or by others. It just comes with being a human being, our mind will work towards delusion, maybe as a protection. So rather than being judgmental about it or embarrassed about it, be willing to be transparent with it, talk about it, recognize it, know it.
Some common explanations, forms or levels of delusion (from The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield):
First level of delusion: Lack of Attention
This arises when we don’t notice what is happening around us, in our lives, when we are lost in thought, disconnected. It is like driving somewhere and having no memory of the drive to get there. It’s like being on auto pilot. Whole periods of our lives disappear in the daze of delusion.
The hard part is that we live in a culture of constant inattention fueled by the crazy pace of our life. We’re constantly pushed to multitask, and our splintered attention becomes sketchy and shallow. We are overstimulated, which can lead us to restlessness when we actually stop or come to neutral.
Another thing about living in this delusion is it can alter the way we interact with others, we may unconsciously ignore people or off handedly pass judgement. We can easily miss their inner beauty and miss their pain or suffering, and then we can’t respond with compassion.
Without mindfulness, the deluded mind habitually reacts, unconsciously grasping pleasant experiences and rejecting unpleasant ones. We miss the things happening right in front of us, we miss out on a connection to the world. Instead of trying to ignore delusion, the first step is to simply notice when it arises, when we go on automatic. Mindfulness can wake us up and shift us out of fantasy into seeing clearly.
Second form of delusion: Denial
This arises when we don’t believe what is right in front of us. On a personal level, we can deny issues at work, problems in relationships, depression, or addiction—as if denial will make them go away. This can happen collectively too, as a community we can deny things like climate change.
Sometimes we can cling to delusions even in the face of obvious danger. Like the scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles- guys are driving on wrong side of the road and believe, even in the face of warnings from other drivers that they are driving on the right side of the road and everyone else is on the wrong side. (how does he know where we’re going).
Third level of delusion -- and perhaps the deepest and hardest:
The Misperception of Reality
This can be the hardest because it challenges and threatens some of our most embraced assumptions. This would be delusion about happiness, permanence and the nature of who we think we are. In the case of happiness this explains why a rich person with seemingly all one could hope for can be unhappy, while a person living on the street with nothing can be very happy. Genuine happiness comes with a healthy state of mind and a wise and gracious heart, not what we have externally or even our circumstance.
With delusion of permanence we may believe that we can hold onto our feelings, experiences, and people. But nothing in life is permanent. As we battle to hold on, our days pass by and vanish. Change is inevitable, in our moods, the seasons, years, age, body, the people in our lives, even the movement of our breath, life is unstoppable. These delusions are rooted in forgetting who we are. We grasp our bodies, our feelings and thoughts and take them to be our identity. When we hold these things as ourselves we are actually closing ourselves to our full potential, the possibility of our true nature.
An immediate intention could be to not allow delusion to run our life, to realize that everything changes, no matter how hard we hold onto them, they don’t have to change for the worse or better, they will change, we learn this through experience, seeing this for ourselves.
Look carefully at what you hold most tightly to be true, because our deepest beliefs is most likely the place that holds our most firmly held delusions. Those things we absolutely know to be true, look carefully there, ask why do I believe these to be true, how do I know this, how does this affect my life.
Practice is a way to help us break through, see these delusions. It can allow us to be challenged or tested in a deep way, if we are not challenged we can find ourselves in delusion. Buddhism has whole bunch of lists, Four Noble Truths, Eight Fold Path, Five Precepts, Five Hindrances, 3 poisons etc… part of the function of these lists is to help us look at ourselves more carefully, to use them as sort of tools, to see how are these things played out in my life, not as a judgement but a tool to see how the mind can fool itself.
Practicing within community can also be very helpful, when we are alone it can be easy to have delusion around ourselves and even our practice, being around others can help us remain humble. Part of the great aspect of being in community is having people around us who can provide us support and feedback, people with whom we can be honest.
“Anger is easy to see, and greed is more subtle, but delusion is the hardest. All the accompanying mind states get cloudy, confusing. Look for moments of clarity. Keep to your experience, not your confusing thoughts. Learn the difference.”
— Ajahn Chah
We can’t control what happens but we can control how we respond to what happens. We don’t have to get rid of all our delusions to be a good person, or be happy, but there is an awaking that comes with seeing them for what they are, delusion can still be there but you won’t be fooled by it and in that find some freedom. This is a gift of mindfulness training. Through our repeated practice of loving-awareness we can take a moment to slow down and remember to breathe. We can quiet our mind, listen to our body and heart, and see the world with greater clarity and wisdom.
...to this resource for our community. Much gratitude goes out to our entire Sangha – and the numberless causes and conditions – for making this website possible, and for the joy I have experienced in creating it.
Detail of the Great Hall Mural
Courtesy Spirit Rock Meditation Center
Used with permission