Becoming a Child of Illusion.
As modern people, we often feel stuck between our ears.
Often, we don’t experience the world as it is. Rather, we think about it.
What we think about the world often reads like an endless soap opera.
A thought arises: “I wonder if I got that promotion.” This is what is known in Buddhism as a klesha—a sticky thought. It isn’t just innocent thought like, “I wonder why turtles are green?” It’s a thought glazed with fear.
It preys on our insecurities, and we react.
How do we react?
We think about it: “Right before I left work on Friday I saw Karen talking to Jim…she doesn’t like me…I bet she told Jim that I didn’t deserve the promotion because I was too young.”
This is like pouring gas on fire!
A third thought emerges in response to the second: “She’s just mad because she is married to someone she doesn’t like and feels stuck at home all the time!”
Five, ten, or fifteen minutes go by and we are dozens, if not hundreds of thoughts removed from reality. We feel excited, stressed out, afraid, and angry. To make matters worse, we make decisions based not on reality, but rather on information we acquired through this internal dialog.
Not only do we come to regret such decisions, but often the consequences of these decisions further arouse our insecurities and generate more sticky thoughts.
A similar process occurs at night when we lay down to sleep. We dream up all kinds of fantastic scenarios. We go on magical quests, engage in fantasies, and sometimes have nightmares where we’re being attacked by lions or crocodiles. However, when we wake up in the morning, we know they were just dreams. In our dream, the lion is a mirage or a hallucination. Interestingly enough, in dreams, so are we. The body running from the lion is not our “real body.” Just like the lion, it was a mental construct. It was an image generated by our mind. And so is the act of running. Subject, object, and verb—the whole thing—are an hallucination.
So it is with our daily life.
This does not mean that nothing is real. There is a dream-like overlay that we slide over our experience. This is what we think about the world or our version of reality. Often times, we mistake what we think about the world for the world itself and we migrate out of our experience into our heads, until the whole situation feels solid. It’s like an airplane propeller: when it’s stopped we see four separate blades, but as it gains speed those blades appear to be a solid disk.
When we watch our mind in meditation, we can see that what we think is comprised of various thoughts, but as one thought thinks about the previous thought, the whole process gains momentum until our hallucination seems real. A simple, yet profound example of this occurs when we are sitting in meditation practice with our eyes closed, yet seem to have a vague image of our physical body and our surroundings. Our eyes are not supplying us with that information. It is a concept of our self, held over our experience. In short, all “things” are “thinks,” as Alan Watts once said. Meditation practice enables us to work with this dreamlike condition of the thinking mind.
We can enter into this practical realization through the practice of meditation. Shamata meditation enables us to work with this conceptual overlay.
It enables us to move beyond what we think.
When thoughts arise, we return to the present moment as symbolized by our natural breath. We come back to the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nose, feeling the coolness of the in-breath and the warmth of the out-breath. Every time we return to the breath, we rediscover the freedom of basic sanity.
We step out of the prison of our klesha-ridden, busy mind—and into the freshness of the present moment.
Cartoon: Eric Klein.