For most of us, day to day life, on some level, is like a mirage. We function on automatic pilot, doing without truly inhabiting our experience. We proceed as though the people and things we count on will last forever – as if we are sovereign and autonomous beings, completely independent of others and our environment. When these illusions are inevitably shattered, we feel cheated and dissatisfied. To be disillusioned means discouragement in the face of truth revealed. However, if we can learn to be open to what is here, seeing things more clearly, we make space for acceptance and wise responding.
Phenomena that trick our senses are called illusion. But, when we consistently fail to recognize that our senses have been fooled and we carry on as if false perception is truth, this is called delusion. If we continue to hold fast to illusion even in the face of strong contrary evidence, this can lead to great suffering for ourselves and others. People who hold beliefs that marginalize, or otherwise harm other people do so, in part, because they have bought into an illusion and are living in delusion.
The Illusion of Permanence
Because of the way we experience time and our tendency to operate on automatic pilot, we forget or fail to recognize that all things are constantly changing. This is the illusion of permanence. Change can be hard and frightening, so we often experience an urge to resist it. When we take this to a level of insistence that certain things must remain the same, we live in delusion. Some examples of this are people who undergo extensive and disfiguring plastic surgery in an attempt to maintain youth or embody perfection, sacrifice quality of life out of a desire to extend it, or commandeer enormous resources to keep an outdated technology or career path viable. Consider belief systems such as neo-luddism (opposing the advancement of technology), nationalism (maintaining cultural “purity” and opposing “outside” influence), and anti-globalism (resisting increasing global connectivity). All of these are born from a desire to keep things from changing. These misperceptions cause us to expend vast amounts of energy at great cost to try to resist what is inevitable.
People with delusional beliefs often do not understand or accept the basic truth of impermanence – that absolutely everything changes in time. Belief systems that are built on the idea that things should stay a certain way forever – usually a way that is preferred by or seen as advantageous to the belief holder – create problems for believers and everyone else around them. When things inevitably change, the people who hold these beliefs tend to feel as though they are being mistreated, forgotten or ignored, so they take aggressive action to correct a perceived injustice and to stem a tide that cannot be stopped.
The Illusion of Independence
From the moment our senses begin taking in information about the world, we start building a concept of self, distinct from others. This helps us operate in the world in a way that makes sense to us and others, but it can also create a very lonely existence. Many of us in this culture are taught that we should “pick ourselves up by our bootstraps” and take care of our own. Some feel we should resist globalization because what is good for the many will deprive the few. They think that taking care of ourselves is enough. Others feel humanity is made up of separate and distinct types, and some types are fundamentally better than or have greater worth than others. They discriminate against individuals and groups based on arbitrary differences. People with these beliefs don’t understand the truth of interdependence, that we are all connected and what happens to one affects us all on some level. Clinging to our illusions allows the cycle of suffering to continue unabated.
How can we be more mindful of illusion so we don’t get caught up in delusion? First we can open ourselves to the possibility that our senses are fallible and our perceptions may be colored by our conditioning. This will give us some space to step back and examine our beliefs, collect data more objectively, and suspend knee-jerk reactions for wiser responding. In this way we can take a step out of the cycle of suffering and contribute to a more peaceful world.
People are distracted by objects of desire,
and afterwards repent of the lust they’ve indulged,
because they have indulged with a phantom
and are left even farther from Reality than before.
Your desire for the illusory is a wing,
by means of which a seeker might ascend to Reality.
When you have indulged a lust, your wing drops off;
you become lame and that fantasy flees.
Preserve the wing and don’t indulge such lust,
so that the wing of desire may bear you to Paradise.
People fancy they are enjoying themselves,
but they are really tearing out their wings for the sake of an illusion.
– Rumi, Wings of Desire