Delusion Is a Hindrance to Insight

Sunday, May 3, 2015 - 1:07pm
Photo by Luis Reina

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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Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears monthly.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

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I want to know why you chose a Jackson Pollock painting to illustrate this piece. I'd also like to know the name of it and where it hangs. The questions that come to mind ore: Do you think Jackson Pollock was delusional? Do you think we look at art because we're delusional or to become less so? I'm a fan of JP (obviously) so I'm curious about this choice.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Good questions, Mary. I, too, am an admirer of Pollock's paintings. They can elicit so many types of responses from viewers, which is what I like most about them. Rather than saying something about Pollock or his paintings, the photo could be read into and approached from the reader's perspective — in conjunction with, along side, or independent of the text. What you bring to this photo, I hope, adds to Ms. Salzberg's column and layers it with meaning — just not one with an agenda! ;)

Thank you, Trent. That was my position.

Interesting. I was getting centered, going deeper to be in that space of internalizing, ruminating, adjusting, making it my own to speak to a personal behavior I am trying to adjust. I then realized the end of the article. Could you speak more to it?

Pollock at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Beautiful insight

I think this is pretty common among people with histories of trauma, especially in childhood. Taken to an extreme, it becomes dissociation, being out of touch with the present moment altogether -- a useful survival tool for small beings who have no power or control or way to conceptualize what's happening to them. I find that mindfulness of body, in particular, is helpful in staying present when I notice that I'm drifting away.

After four decades of on & off therapy, meditation, & addiction groups I still have to work to not turn to food in an attempt to escape from distress. Like any addiction it only makes it worse. Frustrating that abuse as a child still affects me in my 60's but so grateful for having all these supports. Like you I find meditation focused on body feelings helps the most cuz FEEL the pain of bingeing as well as the bliss of abstinence.

This is brilliant Sharon, thank you!

The numb/brain fog experience you mention is probably quite common and completely understandable. I experienced it often in the past and still do on occasion. When a person is under stress our brain goes into either fight, flight or freeze. We are discouraged by our culture from going into fight or flight so freeze is the only choice remaining. That's what causes the numbness and brain fog. It's an automatic response, but it can be reduced by mindfulness and somatic techniques which reduce our stress.
I notice, just now, Nancy already basically said the same thing.

I guess. I zone out most every day, more often as the week goes on and I get more and more tired and worn out. It used to make me panic and attempt to correct it or get myself focused. But it turns out all I have to do is rest of go to sleep for the night - I'll be focused again the next morning. It has become my own little light for "empty tank" like that in the car. And yes, it has its pleasurable side!!

Sharon writes:

> 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.

What could be more exciting, involving, interesting and wonderful than life simply as it is? Isn't the neutral moment of life as much a gift from God as the pleasant or painful.

I loved this article and I would love to hear more about "mindfulness" I have been practicing meditation for the last 2 years now and i am starting to enter in a space of connection with my inner Self or my true Self that is serving me. Thanks for your insights.

I feel this most when standing in the middle of my house with no pressing appointment or job obligation to prepare for: suddenly (it seems sudden), I don't know what to do. I have a "to do" list, I have options, I have freedom, I have needs, and whether or not I consciously consider my choices at that moment, simply having to decide launches me into confusion and a sense of being overwhelmed. I simply do not know what to do, and it often becomes so painful that I escape into television or food, or more likely, both. In the past few days, having just completed teaching for the year, I have fallen into this mindless-state for two or three days at a time. The confusion doesn't make sense--I am not someone whom others think of as stupid -- but I sure feel stupid when I get "trapped" in this pattern. Of course, it's not new--childhood was a place to escape from--but neither am I naive. The craziest part is this: the one thing I DO know is that sitting mindfully for even ten minutes will break the spell, and sitting every day would probably spare me from the frequent shame and pain, and yet putting my butt on the bench is the one intelligent move I generally do not make. Today, however, I will, as soon as I send this reflection.
Sharon, you were my loved and respected teacher at IMS throughout the 80's; your books have continued to foster what mindfulness I manage to muster, and I am very glad that a friend just brought my attention to this column and your connection with this website. Thank you so much.

I'm so very glad I foundMs. Asimo's reponse today, altho' late: Jul 28th; but still. Her words are amazingly comforting to me as I, too, often of late have this same experience, and think I am the only one. No one else does this, (or so I've always thought) and I don't talk about it to anyone because it does indeed sound too "crazy." My experience and feelings are so like what she describes. I've just never been able to put it in words, or make any sense of it. Her reference to childhood trauma, however, does give me a good clue; and the past 3 years have been full of excessive pain, sorrow and loss, so maybe this is a reaction to all of that. Still confused, and still haven't been able to move past it, but this is such a hopeful start. I can't tell you, Ms. Asimo, how relieved and grateful I am that you choose to share this on-line. I so hope you've found a way to begin working through this, and I am encouraged to look directly at it, instead of continuing to try to ignore and evade the issue altogether. I, too, am a mindfulness student, and will rely on that as a beginning. Thank-you, again, and many, many thanks to Krista Tippett and those who produce this wonderful site.

"Delusion Is a Hindrance to Insight" I'm feeling this title from beneath of heart.

Mindfulness of body..
i like your post very much.

thank you Sharon, your words are precise and help me navigate away from the stories in my head... so grateful to you...

Great to see this article. That remind me "The illusionist" :))

This is mind-blowing Sharon, thank you.

This is son interesting i was in the center for few moments and stop their make me amazed.
its really beautiful insight.

Very creative tutorial! Thanks for it. Mine will be a frog

Excellent article. Thanks for sharing with us.

This is an awesome and great techniques. Thanks for sharing.