Inattention and Delusion
Buddhist psychology describes the way delusion operates in our lives. One form of delusion is a lack of attention. Without attention, it is as if the Wicked Witch of the West has sown our hometown with poppies and we don’t notice where we are. We could call this forgetful delusion. Forgetful delusion arises when we don’t notice what is happening, when we are lost in thought, half asleep. It is like the experience of driving to a destination, parking, and realizing that we have no memory of the whole drive. Or as a friend said once in a restaurant, after demolishing a plate of food, “I have no idea where my meal went or who just ate that!”
With delusion we live our lives on automatic pilot. We walk down the street and return home without registering where we are and what is happening. On a stormy day we miss the scudding clouds, the splash of rain at our feet, and the glow of windows at twilight. We miss the sparkle in the air on a sunny spring morning. We even miss the faces of our loved ones when we arrive home. Whole periods of our lives disappear in the trance of delusion.
We live in a culture of chronic inattention fed by the frenzied pace of modern life. Our schools and workplaces push us to multitask, and our fragmented attention becomes cursory, shallow. Surrounded by stimulation, we become bored and restless, prone to addictions of all kinds. As author Anne Wilson Schaef points out, “It is in the interests of consumer society to promote these things that take the edge off, keep us busy with our fixes, and keep us slightly numbed out and zombie-like.” Unfortunately, what is commonly accepted by Western psychology as “normal” can actually mean we are functioning at a significant level of delusion. This delusion can happen even when we outwardly appear successful, possessing everything that money can buy, while experiencing deep lack of inner peace.
Mindfulness training wakes us up from the trance of delusion. Mindfulness shifts us out of fantasy into seeing clearly. Without mindfulness, the deluded mind habitually reacts, unconsciously grasping pleasant experiences and rejecting unpleasant ones. Harder to see, delusion ignores neutral experience. When things are neutral, we get bored and spaced out because we are so culturally conditioned to seek high levels of stimulation. So we miss the aliveness behind the neutral experiences that make up much of our day. And yet when our attention grows, what seems neutral or dull becomes full with an unseen richness.
Instead of trying to dispel delusion, the first act of mindfulness is to simply notice the times it arises, when we go on “automatic pilot.” We can take an interest in lack of awareness. To do this we can deliberately look for the areas of our life that are most unconscious. We will notice how delusion comes hand-in-hand with worry, distractedness, speed, and addiction. It is a challenge to our habits to pay attention to delusion. As we do so we begin to wake up.
Sleepiness and dullness are also symptoms of delusion. On a biological level, sleepiness comes when we are tired and need renewal. When people first come on retreats, they often fall into grateful, exhausted sleep as soon as they start to meditate. At the least opportunity for calm, their body expresses its needs. This healthy sleepiness is a natural response and has to be respected. In certain monasteries this sleep is called “the poor man’s nirvana.” But at other times sleepiness and dullness are simply delusion. Like the opium den of the mind, they bring a seductive forgetfulness that checks out and just doesn’t want to see.
When we live in delusion, we unconsciously ignore or judge others. We miss their inner beauty. We also miss their pain, and cannot respond to them with compassion. With inattention, we miss the meal in front of us, the parade of passersby, the ever-changing scenery, the openhearted connection with the world.
With mindfulness, we can awaken from delusion. We can live more fully, we can love more fully, we can be present and alive.