Ask Genyo

The Nature of Delusion (9/8/19)

Q: Genyo, what is the nature of delusion? M.S.— designer

A: Such a huge question you have asked! I’m not sure I am truly qualified to answer it, being a wanderer in the realms of delusion myself, but let me try, beginning with a straightforward approach, based on a dictionary definition. Delusion is believing in concepts and stories (produced by the mind) that are false, not in alignment with the actual reality one lives in. Delusion brings us suffering, because we are endeavoring to live according to views of life which are fundamentally untrue.

I remember when I was a young child, maybe eight years old, and a mischievous older friend told me quite convincingly that when you leapt off a diving board, and flapped your arms vigorously, you could not only slow your descent, but could actually rise up rather than fall into the water. I excitedly told my dad about this, and he then proceeded to tell me that it wasn’t true. I wouldn’t listen however, and argued with him quite vociferously, thoroughly convinced of what my friend had told me. My dad argued a bit, but then just let me show him. So I got up on the diving board, and jumped, and flapped hard, but was not even slowed in the slightest as I plunged into the water. I think I realized at the moment of actually trying this how silly I was, and thus my delusion was dissolved immediately, albeit with considerable embarrassment.

It is a good thing when our delusions can be so quickly dissolved. However much of the time discovering the truth, and clearing ourselves of delusion, is not simple at all. Sometimes the problem is that we do not realize we are in delusion. We believe what we believe to be true, and do not recognize that we are wrong. In such situations a clue to the fact that we are “off” is that we keep running into seemingly unnecessary obstacles. We may think that the world has singled us out for negative treatment, but in fact our delusions are a key element in the problems we experience. Other times the issue is that we hold on tight to our delusions even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Here it is important to consider and acknowledge the potential role of emotion. It is not simply mental concepts and stories that cause us delusion, but also the emotions that arise in response. We might remember the old notion about burying ones head in the sand, believing somehow that if one doesn’t see the danger, then one is safe. Indeed we may often hide from reality, or paint a false picture of reality, because the actual reality is too painful or scary to look at or acknowledge. In such a situation it is essential to be caring and loving with oneself — to recognize compassionately the role of such uncomfortable feelings, while at the same time gently pondering how you are in fact safer and better equipped to deal with life when you face what is actually going on.

The nuances of delusion are vast, much more than we can address in a short essay. However, at its core the nature of delusion is that we believe and follow a picture of reality, rather than being present with what is actually there. We prioritize and give more importance to our conceptual and emotional scaffolding about life, than to the real truth of life. The good news is that if we make a sincere commitment to inquire deeply into the nature of delusion, we can make real progress in freeing ourselves from it. A good sign is when our experience of life becomes clearer and more easeful. But even when we are feeling clear it is wise to follow a tenet of “not-knowing”, reminding ourselves to be ever-ready to let go of fixed ideas, and to practice awareness, free from pre-judgement, engaging with whatever is arising in the present moment. In this way we can respond to things naturally, effectively, and compassionately. Reality is always bigger, more vivid, and more present than our beliefs about it, and it is always changing as well. When we are stuck in our fixed ideas and feelings we suffer, and can cause suffering to others, and we also miss living fully. Acknowledging this, and working patiently with ourselves, we can free ourselves of prejudice, and learn to appreciate the actuality of our life, rather than what we want it to be. Pondering the nature of delusion may very well serve as a life-long pursuit, encouraging and guiding us to always be ready to let go of our concepts, plunging ever more fully into engaging our lives with openness, clarity, and compassion.