One of the charming yet potentially devastating traits of our species is in the way we lose touch with what’s real, even preferring illusions to what’s right in front of our face. And yet, the condition of fully believing our illusions – called delusion – creeps over us so gradually that we actually have no idea the extent to which our mind has been separated from reality.
The steps or stages by which our delusion progresses are not a mystery, however, and your hope for the liberated life depends on how deep your understanding of it is able to go.
Let this black dot represent reality – what’s right in front of your face. Its existence, as distinct from its appearance or your perspective on it, is independent of whether you notice it, what you might think about, or what belief you hold regarding it.
As we say: It is what it is.
Before you were even born, your nervous system was collecting data from the environment in order to regulate your body’s internal state accordingly. Once outside the womb this adaptive work ramped up, matching your internal state and behavioral response to the conditions and events around you.
If these conditions and events were “provident,” meaning that they provided what you needed to live, connect, and to grow, your nervous system was regulated to a default mode (or mood) of calm, centered attention. If they were not so provident, but instead hostile or painful, your default mood became that of anxious irritability.
Delusion got started way back there in your early hours and days of life. If your nervous system detected a less-than-provident reality around you – perhaps because your caregivers weren’t attentive, nurturing, or even all that present when you needed them – this subjective insecurity served as a filter of your perceptions.
Your anxiety screened out some sensory information, as it allowed in and amplified other information. An anxious nervous system is adaptively hyper-vigilant to any signs that confirm its default state. Already your attention was recalibrating according to this basic mood and making some things more important (i.e., more real) to you than other things – if those other things even got through the screen at all.
Your insecurity motivated you to reach out for whatever could help you feel less anxious. Not only did you stay vigilant to possible dangers, but you also grabbed on and held tight to whatever could pacify your anxiety. For this reason, I call them “pacifiers,” and your relationship to them was one of “attachment.”
This is profoundly (i.e., deeply) different from the healthy normal bonding of an infant and its mother. What we’re talking about is neurotic attachment: a compulsive attempt to feel secure by clinging to something outside yourself.
You are (more or less desperately) trying to find security in a relationship, when its proper source is “up” from your nervous system and the preconscious experience of provident support.
Neurotic attachment splits your motivation into two opposing lines: a craving for what can make you feel secure and the fear of not getting it, of losing it, or of it not delivering on your demand.
The self-defeating nature of this split motivation is at the root of our word ambition, where ambi means “both.” A fear of not getting what you want intensifies your craving for it, which only makes your expectation all the more unrealistic and irrational, amplifying your insecurity rather than resolving it.
At this point, your mind starts to close around a small set of absolute beliefs formatted along the lines of “I can’t be happy without, unless, or until” such and such is the case. It can be something as mundane as a new toy, or as abstract as an imaginary object of religious doctrine.
Just as a legal conviction throws the convict in a jail cell, so does an absolute belief incarcerate your mind – which is why we call it a “conviction.” It becomes impossible to even think outside the box of what simply must be true, since so much depends on it being so.
Notice how little of reality, represented by our black dot, is visible any longer. Almost by definition, your convictions have separated your mind from what’s real.
Since all that matters to you is what impinges on your ambitions for security, everything else must be screened from awareness. A mind that is closed inside its convictions must actively suppress or deny any facts or information deemed irrelevant to this pursuit.
The philosopher Alan Watts coined the term ignórance, where the accent makes it an act of willfully ignoring something or other. Because all that matters is what confirms and will hopefully resolve your deep insecurity, you must turn attention away from all that is by definition irrelevant.
Your carrying capacity of consciousness has been reduced to “what’s in it for me.”
By now the delusion is fully established. Trapped inside your convictions and driven by a craving for what nothing outside you can satisfy, this has become what Arthur Schopenhauer called “the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Your only hope is for some relief from the burden of existence, maybe in the next new and shiny thing, a suicidal exit, or perhaps everlasting bliss in the life to come.
So then, stop believing it.
The prison door of your convictions is not locked, but you will need to leave them behind for a truly liberated life. Not by argument, renunciation, or conversion to another belief system, however, but simply by bringing attention to the breath and warm presence of your body.
Here and now is the best place to begin again.