Delusion is one of the Three Poisons in Buddhism, one of the three foundational causes of our dukkha, suffering. We all experience it, even if we don’t recognize it (that’s the nature of delusion). Delusion is pervasive, and hard for us to see sometimes. When we avert from unpleasant experiences or find ourselves clinging to pleasant experiences, the suffering may be relatively easy to see. Because of the nature of delusion, we don’t notice its there. Even when we do, we aren’t always in touch with the suffering being caused.
Traditionally in Buddhism, delusion refers specifically to delusion around impermanence and not-self. Sometimes referred to as ignorance, this poison or mental state causes us to see things unclearly. When in a state of delusion, we don’t see things as they actually are. Before coming to practice, most of us are not in tune deeply with the ideas of impermanence and not-self in the world and our experience. This leads to suffering as we identify with experience, build identities around our thoughts, and cling to impermanent phenomena. Recognizing that this is the traditional understanding of ignorance and delusion, we’re talking in this post about delusion in a broader sense. There are many ways in which we find ourselves believing something that is untrue, hiding from our own truth, and holding on to delusions.
Holding onto Delusions
We all hold on to some delusions we have. We believe thoughts that arise, hold on to some hope that something will be permanent, have judgements about ourselves that are not true, and respond to others in ways that we think are helpful but really are not. I don’t say this so that you can sit there and beat yourself up. I experience delusion too! My whole intention in writing this post is to help you see where in your life you are holding on to something that isn’t serving you. Perhaps the word delusion is too harsh and doesn’t sit well with you, and that’s okay. Do you believe thoughts that are not true or create suffering? You probably do. In my experience, awareness of delusion in my thinking continues to grow. Quite often I realize I have been having/experiencing some sort of delusion and am just noticing it for the first time.
We hold on to the delusions for a reason. They serve us in some protective way. George Haas, a meditation teacher in Los Angeles, often says that our brains are hardwired for survival, not for happiness. The mind holds onto our delusions and thought patterns because they often protect us somehow. When we judge ourselves for making a mistake or causing harm, we may be protecting ourselves from feeling a deeper pain, guilt, or even compassion. The thought pattern of self-judgement takes us out of the actual emotions and puts us into thinking about the event. We buy into the thoughts, and suddenly take ourselves away from any awareness of what the mind/body reaction is. I have found myself falling into the delusive thinking surround the “fix-it” mind. The mind tries to fix some way I behaved (often in the past and out of my control) by thinking incessantly about it. I believe in that moment that I can outthink reality. This delusion serves me by giving me the feeling that I can control my behavior in the future. It’s wholesome to want to move forward and behave with more skill, but this chaotic, impulse-driven overthinking doesn’t help me understand more deeply. Instead, I can set aside time to really look at my experience with awareness and compassion. The seductiveness of this delusion lies in me not having to actually feel the pain or grief.
Letting go of delusion may be harder than we think. When we set the intention to look at our delusions, we may be a bit surprised to find out how many of our thoughts fall into the category of delusion. It’s natural that we don’t have perfect mindfulness 100% of the time in our daily lives. When we tune in, we can see how our thoughts are sometimes delusive and creating suffering.
In my own practice, the first step toward working with delusion was to simply practice bringing awareness to the thinking mind. You may use certain “thought-triggers.” These are thought patterns that you recognize as a trigger for awareness. Some of my thought-triggers are the fix-it mind, resentment, and not listening to somebody else speaking. When I notice myself doing these things, I recognize it as an opportunity to tune back into my present-time experience. Try bringing some awareness to the thoughts that are arising.
As you cultivate a mind that can bring more awareness to thoughts, you can investigate each thought a little more deeply. Is the thought true? How is it serving you? What does it feel like? By bringing awareness to the thought process, you can really break down some delusion in the thinking. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the thoughts again, so it can be good to investigate thinking in a formal meditation practice. There is a piece within us that knows. The wisdom within us recognizes if something is nudging us toward freedom or toward suffering. Trust yourself, don’t try to figure everything out, and just observe what thoughts arise and where they lead.
One thing that I have found extremely helpful in investigating the thinking mind is to remember that the thoughts are not personal. The mind makes connections we don’t want it to necessarily. The brain works without our control or desires. It’s the brain’s job to make connections, recognize patterns, and keep us alive. If we can practice letting go of our tendency to take the thoughts personally, we can look at them with more clarity, less guilt, and less judgement. When you find yourself in a moment of delusive thinking, you can simply ask yourself if that thought is truly “you” or even on purpose.
Can You Love Unconditionally?
This is a beautiful opportunity to practice metta. Although metta is traditionally practiced toward others or ourselves, I believe the core of metta cultivation is working to respond to our own personal experience with some loving gentleness. The thoughts are thoughts. Can you be gentle and friendly with the thoughts? When you break through the delusion and notice the pain, guilt, or lack of safety underneath, can you respond with compassion and care? Incorporating metta into our mindfulness practices can make a huge difference. We become less reactive and are able to respond with more wisdom and care.