We have been looking at the Three Poisons, the patterns of reactivity that we humans tend to fall into, thus losing our ability to be awake to this moment. While the Poisons of aversion/hatred and greed/craving are fairly obvious to notice, it is much harder to tell when we are experiencing delusion. As I write this, outside my window is a thick January ground fog. How appropriate! Delusion masks the lay of the land. In class, during meditation, I heard fog horns out in the Bay. It could have been someone’s cell phone on vibrate instead of mute, but it sounded like a fog horn. Either way, it made me realize that as we investigate and discover delusion in our experience, we are a bit like ship captains recognizing fog, sounding our fog horns.
But with delusion, more often than not we don’t recognize the fog we are in as fog at all. If it’s a lifelong delusion, how could we know we’re in it? If someone told us we wouldn’t believe them. It is easier for us to see when someone else is walking around in a cloud of delusion. Can we cultivate compassion and understanding for them? When we are able to do that we discover that whatever aversion we may have had for them softens. We’re not buying into their myopic view, but we can feel compassion for them as fellow beings caught up in the suffering of delusion.
Once we have begun to recognize delusion in others, we can gently open to the possibility of the existence of delusion in our own experience. It’s tricky, but having extended compassion to someone else, we have the capacity to extend it to ourselves, allowing us to see delusion without aversion blocking our way.
Delusion is manufactured and supported by the other two Poisons of greed and aversion. And in turn, delusion provides a blindness that is necessary to sustain craving and hatred.
Say, for example, as I am passing by an ice cream shop, craving arises. Delusion rushes to that craving’s aid by whispering very selective pieces of information, like how much protein there is in ice cream, or the memory of how as a child ice cream was a reward and a sign of parental affection, etc., and so I find myself standing at the counter reaching for that cone.
But before I can enjoy it, maybe aversion rushes in — shame on me, I’m so weak, etc. — supported by more selective bits of information about how much sugar and calories are in this cone, how fat I am, how people will be judging me, making the cone feel like a handful of embarrassment instead of a simple pleasure. Of course with all this going on, there’s not much room for being present with the experience of tasting and enjoying the flavor, texture, coldness, etc. so that I end up feeling both guilty and unsatisfied.
Whether or not you relate to this particular example, you can no doubt find other examples that show how the three Poisons support each other in what we might call a triad of collusion.
There are many more facets to delusion than just providing cover and shame in the purchase of an ice cream cone. There is a difficulty in seeing things as they are and a willingness to buy into stories that under analysis make no sense. These stories can be part of our family mythology that feel like the bond that holds family together. If you think about your family, notice if there are any unspoken agreements about how to explain uncomfortable things. You might think of it as the oil that makes the machinery of family run more smoothly. The story may have begun with the best of intentions, a white lie to avoid hurting people’s feelings or sharing what might be considered shameful truths. But the acceptance and solidifying of the lie into the family story is delusion in action, supported by the two other poisons: craving normalcy and hating to be seen as abnormal or immoral, etc. In class I shared a story from my own family, which is not for sharing on the internet, but it was a good example of the delusion of family mythology.
Our collective cultural mythology is supported by propaganda and our desire to be a part of something positive and powerful, not something subject to human failings. It’s frighteningly easy to prey on our human desires and aversions by fueling it with resonate selective truths or total fabrications. We can be suckers for persuasion if it plays into what we want to believe is true. Facts be damned! Again, it’s much easier to see how ‘the other side’ is delusional. The idea of there being sides may be the biggest delusion of all. Who knows?
Our ongoing investigation is asking, ‘How can I be in skillful compassionate relationship with this?’ When it comes to a body of information, especially the complex intricacies of the family mythology, perhaps the most skillful compassionate way is to acknowledge that we don’t know.
If the story is harming us, it’s worth investigating, getting beyond delusion. This is certainly the case in sustaining a viable democracy. Whether a bit of familial folklore is actually causing harm is debatable. But in either case, it’s skillful to recognize that we don’t know the whole truth. We can see how we have the tendency to cling to what we want to believe, and the tendency to believe anything negative about anyone we don’t like.
Can we see that our happiness is not dependent on any story being true or false? Whether it’s about ourselves, our family or our country, can we acknowledge that we don’t know everything? Can we be open to other views and new facts we hadn’t previously known? This kind of open exploration doesn’t threaten us. Our identity is not built on what we believe to be true being true! We can find a wonderful richness in being able to relax our stranglehold on our precious truths. We can hold them in an open embrace, look at them with a more discerning eye, and know that they do not define us.
‘I don’t know’ is a powerful liberating phrase. Once on a retreat I spent a whole day discovering the proverbial tip of the iceberg of all the things I don’t know, and seeing my assumptions of knowing fall by the wayside. For example, I was doing walking meditation across a patio of concrete squares, and there were some things I took for granted that I knew about them, but there was so much more that I didn’t know — how thick they were, what was under them, who laid them, where the material came from, etc. etc.
I looked at trees this way and discovered that my ‘knowledge’ about any given tree is only what I’ve been told or have learned from seeing fallen trees with innards exposed, but in fact I know very little about any particular tree — what all is going on inside, what life forms reside there, where the roots actually run underground, etc. The more I investigated, the more I realized I don’t know.
And that was a joyous recognition. Because there’s no way to know everything and I could let go of the presumption of knowing and the need to accumulate knowledge as if there will be a test. I can explore the world following whatever veins interest me, and learn as much or as little as I please, and no matter how much I learn, even about subjects I study in depth, there will always be lots of room for acknowledging that I don’t know, that the information I received is incomplete or misleading. Making room for that possibility, that likelihood, freed me from feeling incomplete for not knowing everything.
So joyful a discovery was this that I wrote a note to my teacher and pinned it on the board saying simply ‘I don’t know!!!’ A few hours later a note appeared on the board with my name on it and inside was her reply: ‘Yay!!!!’
Consider how, if you’ve ever looked through a microscope, you might have been astounded by the worlds within the world we think we know. The world as we know it is totally based on the lens of our own perceptions through senses that, while amazing, are quite limited. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know! So we stop assuming we do. Yay!
‘I don’t know’ may on the face of it seem like a delusional state, but it is not the dulled down ‘duh’ of delusion. Instead it is a sense of awakening to the interconnected complexity of all life’s systems, networks, patterns, infinitesimal to infinite space, all in a constant state of flux, expansion and contraction, in cycles of birth, growth, death, decay that nourishes new life. I am, you are, we all are, a part of all this, and for me that is more than enough to know! Even as I thirst for knowledge, it is enjoying the process of investigation rather than the idea of accumulation and becoming a walking encyclopedia of indisputable truths.
Sensing the infinite and interconnected complexity of life, perhaps we can relax our misguided efforts to be separate from it. We can let go of our need to stand out in a crowd in order to be admired or loved. Each of us is an intrinsic part of it all, radiating and receiving in every moment, a living breathing-thinking-feeling floating, ever-changing field of aliveness we call ‘me’. Whee!