Understanding Delusion

Buddhism teaches us that suffering and unskillful states of mind arise out of three basic roots: greed, aversion and delusion. While greed and aversion are often fairly easy to recognize in our experience, delusion is much harder to recognize! Learning about some of the different ways that delusion happens can help us recognize it.

One form of delusion happens when we are disconnected from experience; we could say this kind is an absence of mindfulness. We might experience this as being lost in thought, or caught by sleepiness or restlessness.

One of the easiest ways to get familiar with this form of delusion is in the moment mindfulness returns after the mind has wandered. In that moment there can be a lingering sense of what it was like a moment before, when the mind was disconnected, caught, or absorbed in its world of thought. This lingering sense gives us a little taste of what this form of delusion feels like. Many different states of mind can have this disconnected quality:  sleepiness, restlessness, dullness, spacing out, or daydreaming, to name a few.  But because it is possible to recognize these states with mindfulness,  they are not fundamentally delusional.  We could say we are habitually disconnected in these states. In becoming mindful of sleepiness or spacing out there is no longer disconnection!

Another form of delusion happens when we are unaware of views, beliefs, opinions, agendas, or biases. Many of these unseen biases are based on personal conditioning, familial conditioning, social or cultural conditioning. We all have views about the world, other people, and ourselves. Often they are completely subconscious; we may not even know we have a view: we simply believe the view to be true. In this form of delusion, we can be aware even as we are unaware of biases that influence awareness.  We often meet experience through an unseen perspective that influences what we take in to experience, and how we take it in. 

One form of this kind of delusion relates to what psychologists call selective attention. Our minds have the capacity to focus selectively on something and ignore other experience. This is a useful function of our minds, helping our minds stay on the task at hand. Yet quite often when we are focused we are unaware that our minds are ignoring other experience, and believe that our senses are accurately taking in what is happening around us.

In one study on selective attention, participants were asked to watch a video in which people tossed a basketball to each other; they were asked to count the number of times the ball passed between the players in white jerseys. Most could do this accurately. However, most participants did not see a person in a gorilla suit walk through the basketball players. This not-seeing is form of selective attention, and is a natural function of our minds. However, when told about the person in a gorilla suit, and shown the video again, some participants denied that it was the same video!  This is delusion, the belief that our senses take in the world in an accurate way.

Some beliefs or agendas, if made conscious, are easy enough to see through. For example, once participants are told there is a gorilla in the video, it is hard to not see the gorilla! But some of our views are so deeply entrenched that it is hard to see them as views, and it is difficult to see evidence to the contrary. Deeply entrenched views like this can create real suffering in the world. 

For example, a pervasive view in American culture is “America is the land of opportunity. If you work hard enough you can achieve your goals.” This view denies differences of circumstance, opportunity and of oppression. It leads to a delusion in the dominant white culture that can’t see the way cultural systems give invisible advantages to white people, and corresponding disadvantages to people of color.  This view creates deep suffering in our society.

Due to views, beliefs, biases, or agendas, our minds take in certain experiences and not others. We may not be able to prevent this, and yet we can become aware that our minds are influenced by such views. One way to open to this is through curiosity about beliefs, especially when we are struggling. We can ask ourselves: “What is being believed right now?” This simple practice can begin to expose subconscious views. Only when views become conscious can we begin to recognize ways they might be biasing our experience.

A third form of delusion could be called human delusion:  deeply held views that human beings share. This form of delusion manifests as three basic misunderstandings:  we tend to take what is impermanent to be permanent, to take what is unreliable as a reliable place to find happiness, and to take what is not self to be self.  This is the most insidious form of delusion: it is especially hard to see through because largely we all share these views.  

As with personally conditioned views, we can be aware and mindful, and still completely unaware that these views are distorting how we meet and relate to our experience. Meeting experience through these powerful filters we do not even question the beliefs that underlie them.

Mindfulness can help us explore these human delusions:  but rather than trying to adopt a view of experience as impermanent, unreliable, and not self, instead be curious about what seems to be permanent or stable, explore what seems to be reliable, and investigate what feels like “I”, “me” or “mine.” Investigating in that way, the underlying distorted perspectives start to reveal themselves. 

The more curious we are about how delusion works, the more we can actually recognize delusion, in the moment, as it happens, particularly as we become aware of belief. Seeing delusion working begins to free us from delusion.

Andrea offered a recent multi-week series on the topic of delusion. It is available at: http://www.audiodharma.org/series/2/talk/7928/