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Delusion Is a Hindrance to Insight

In Buddhist teaching, the three root hindrances to insight are traditionally considered to be grasping, aversion (anger and fear), and delusion. In different ways, these three central ways the mind “gets in the way of itself” have to do with misplaced or distorted trust.

For example, when someone does something that angers us, we often trust that getting angry is the response that will make us stronger. Or when we experience pleasure, we tend to want to “hold on” to the source of our pleasure in order to sustain the feeling. Ultimately, we become lost in refractions of reality by reading into things, lost in habits of misperception.

In this column, I’d like to focus on delusion (my most predominant personal hindrance). Interestingly, the English word “delusion” comes from the Latin word deludere — to mock, to deceive.

In Pali, the language of the original Buddhist texts, the word for “delusion” is moha, which means to be stupefied. In everyday life, delusion is the feeling of being on the road, and suddenly not knowing if you are in Massachusetts or Connecticut — maybe not sure of where you’re even going or why.

When we are in a state of delusion, we engineer our own misbeliefs and close ourselves off from insight. These days, we’d commonly say, “I’m spaced out.” We feel numb, cocooned in a fog, disconnected, and typically not caring that we are in this state. In fact, we might even like it. When lost in the fog, we don’t have to be too aware of discomfort.

In some sense, delusion is a state of not realizing what it is that we actually know, and what we don’t know — and not asking the right questions. It is a state of failure or resistance to see things as they actually are.

But why? Uncertainty, confusion: instead of mindfully accepting difficult experiences, or being able to sit and face ambiguity, our uneasiness causes us to space out or become numb. If that doesn’t seem to provide the precise relief we are seeking, we then might cling to rigid stories, assumptions, judgments, preconceptions — thinking that will be a path out of the clouds. But all of these can further obscure our vision, and instead create misimpressions, illusions.

The example that’s classically given is that of being in a storm, vulnerable to the elements. If you can find anything to provide shelter in that situation, you will cling to it and refuse to relinquish it. But is it actually providing refuge? Can we instead choose to navigate the storm?

Delusion tends to happen when our experience is fairly neutral. We count on intensity, both pleasurable and painful, in order to feel alive. When things are neutral, we often just want to take a nap.

Sometimes, we have the habit of going into a deluded state when our experience is painful, and spacing out is a method of self-protection. We also may fall into delusion when we’re just too busy to notice much else. It’s an interesting exercise to notice if and when you tend to zone out. You might well discern certain patterns.

Mindfulness is a direct antidote to delusion. The more we practice paying attention, with balance, the more the clouds clear, the more we see and know. That clarity is our secure refuge.

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