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Monday, June 15, 2009

Confronting our delusions

(CC) Victor Nuno,
Ancient philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism both claim delusion and ignorance are the source of our suffering. What is the nature of this delusion and how do we overcome it?

Humanists, lacking supernatural beliefs, often seek wisdom wherever it can be found, and wherever it is based on naturalistic observation and rationality. Aside from many modern sources, I tend to relate to Buddhism and Stoicism. In my last post on non-attachment, I said that in both cases, the central theme and argument of each essentially boils down to the following:

We people harbor a lot of misunderstandings and misperceptions about ourselves, our worlds, and our condition (delusions). If we had greater understanding, we wouldn't get so worked up or upset about 'the dilemma' (the fact that life often doesn't go as we'd wish). Those who work to understand this deeply and engage in certain practices to transform themselves accordingly, will tend to have happier, more contented lives.

What is the nature of this delusion? This seems to be where Buddhism and Stoicism differ.

The most common summaries of Stoicism suggest that the delusion is that we forget what we control and what we cannot control. We act as though we can control things which are outside of our control, and we forget this. As a result of our mindset not conforming to our true nature, we suffer. We suffer because we have not fully accepted the things which are not within our control. The teachings of Stoicism are designed to help us begin to see the world in these terms. A similar endeavor to let go exists in Christianity, as expressed in the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."

However, Buddhism says the delusion has to do with impermanence. Because we do not recognize and accept that all things are in flux and impermanent, we are unhappy. Because we want things to be fixed and unchanging, we suffer when they change. Buddhism offers practices designed to allow us to experience impermanence conceptually and therefore come to terms with it, even seeing it as a beautiful thing that makes possible all of the things we do like.

So, which is it? Is the nature of the delusion about what we control, or is it about impermanence?
At the risk of equivocation, I think some consistency is fairly easy to spot here. I would offer the following solution...

The nature of our delusion is that we do not clearly understand and accept the reality in which we find ourselves - we do not completely comprehend Nature as it is, rather than how our short-sighted impulses would desire it is.

The nature of reality is that it is an impermanent complex system which is interdependent and always in flux. It is because of impermanence and interdependence that there are many things over which we do not have control. So, we fail to appreciate and accept that we lack control because we do not appreciate and perceive the impermanent nature of reality.

To prove the consistency of these concepts, let me quote a Stoic source on impermanence, and a Buddhist source on control:

As the Logos would have it, Michel Daw has just today furnished me a link to daily thoughts on Stoicism from a book he's reading. Today's entry was as follows, from the famous Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, Meditations book x. 36 (bold mine):

SAITH the Poet, "The winds blow upon the trees, and their leaves fall upon the ground. Then do the trees begin to bud again, and by the springtime they put forth new branches. So is the generation of men; some come into the world, and others go out of it." Of these leaves then thy Children are. And they also that applaud thee so gravely, or, that applaud thy speeches, with that their usual acclamation, O wisely spoken! and speak well of thee, as on the other side, they that stick not to curse thee, they that privately and secretly dispraise and deride thee, they also are but leaves. And they also that shall follow, in whose memories the names of men famous after death, is preserved, they are but leaves neither. For even so is it of all these worldly things. Their spring comes, and they are put forth. Then blows the wind, and they go down. And then in lieu of them grow others out of the common matter of all things, like unto them. But, to endure but for a while, is common unto all. Why then shouldst thou so earnestly either seek after these things, or fly from them, as though they should endure for ever? Yet a little while, and thine eyes will be closed up, and for him that carries thee to thy grave shall another mourn within a while after.

Meanwhile, over at, Buddhist monk Venerable Jegaro states (bold mine):

"Happiness in the normal sense means that you always get what you want, when and how you want it. This is very difficult, because so many things are beyond our control: the weather, one's appearance, health, relationships, one's meditation so many things we cannot control... When you are not burdened the mind is at peace. It is naturally joyful and happy. The Buddha was a shining example of this happiness. From my own experiences of having met many great meditation Masters, they share this quality of inner [tranquility], despite the inability to control conditions and events..."

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Meditation states of the Zen of Meditation:

"[Zen Buddhism] teaches us to let go of the people we like to think we own and control in favor of a philosophy that teaches us we can only control our own thoughts, our own actions, and our own reactions."

Thus, the 'delusion' is a complex and fascinating truth that produces a myriad of different consequences. It is understandable that some thinkers have emphasized different aspects of it than other thinkers have. In both cases, the philosophies that sprung from each have fruitful things to teach us about living well in this natural universe.

In the future I plan to get more into the balance of this wisdom with compassion, and widen out to relate this back with Humanism. Until next time, thanks for reading :)

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