Delusion is a demeaning word in our society, generally reserved for insults or serious mental illness. But there is nothing inherently wrong with delusion. It’s not only part of the human experience, delusion has helped our species survive.
I might catch some shade from psychology professionals, but I’m using the word delusion in the non-clinical sense, how it’s often thought of in Eastern parts of the world where Brahmans and Buddhists have intensively studied cognitive psychology for several thousands of years.
“A delusion is a mistaken belief that is held with strong conviction even when presented with superior evidence to the contrary.” – Wikipedia
As you’ll learn below, we ALL have delusions (you are not the exception). Our minds are exceptionally clever at blinding us from our own delusions , yet they’re lightning-quick to emphasize the delusions of others.
If you fit the truth-seeker archetype (like me), you initially see delusions as negative obstacles or enemies. They represent injustice in this world and distort our sense of what’s important. We have to sit with, or calmly reflect, on delusions to realize that people naturally cling to them (including you and me). They aren’t inherently bad, evil or negative. Sometimes, they even lead to positive change.
Delusions are chameleons
When it comes to your delusions, you are virtually blind to them. The clever buggers are a lot like chameleons, blending in with their surroundings.
No matter how oblivious you are to your own delusions, your mind is quick to point out the delusions of others — unless it’s a delusion you both share.
Your mind is also to quick to dismiss rational and well-supported beliefs of others, should they challenge your own, tightly held beliefs. You’ll better understand by looking at some famous beliefs once labeled as “delusions.”
In 500 B.C., a Greek mathematician said the Earth was round. He was ridiculed.
The Greek mathematician was named Pythagoras. Yes, the Pythagoras who created the Pythagorean Theory you learned about in Geometry class.
While I’d love to say Pythagorus’ radical round-earth theory is universally accepted today, there is a growing number of flat-Earthers in America.
A long line of scientists insisted that invisible organisms were often responsible for crop-related famines.
Agostino Bassi proved it to be true in 1813. It was later accepted, but didn’t stop the ridicule of life-improving scientific discoveries – especially when the culprits are invisible to the naked eye.
A physician insisted that doctors should wash their hands to prevent patient deaths.
Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis was asked to examine why babies in a particular hospital were dying at a higher rate (10%) than other local hospitals (4%). He theorized that when doctors handled cadavers before assisting with birth, it somehow contaminated the birthing and put infants at risk.
To prove Semmelweis was a madman, the hospital’s doctors agreed to wash their hands and the infant mortality rate dropped to 1-2%. When Semmelweis tried to share the revolutionary news with other European doctors, he deeply offended them for suggesting they were endangering their patients by poor hygiene.
Ridiculed and humiliated, Semmelweis suffered from isolation, depression and alcoholism. He was eventually moved to a mental asylum where he died, forgotten by his peers.
But before we wildly celebrate “delusional” thoughts, we must also acknowledge that delusion was responsible for the Holocaust, Salem Witch Trials, and the extinction of animal species we believed were evil.
‘Delusion’ is just a label and it can be dynamic. Accept that delusion is part of a human’s everyday experience.
Why are we all so damn delusional?
Because we’re human.
It is human nature to pick-and-choose our truths according to our preexisting belief set. This phenomenon is known as confirmation bias. It’s real and it’s a damn powerful thing.
Imagine you absolutely love a fictitious brand of rice, Uncle BJ’s (UBR). You just can’t get enough of it! You love it so much, you set up a Google Alert; whenever a news article mentions UBR you’re notified, One fine Sunday morning you’re reading up on Uncle BJ’s Rice and see 3 new UBR articles.
- ‘Uncle BJ’s Rice linked to increased rates of stomach cancer’
- ‘World Rice Lover’s Organization Name’s Uncle BJ’s No. 1’
- ‘Finger-pointing Ramps Up after Rat feces found in Uncle BJ’s Rice’
Because of your love for Uncle BJ’s Rice, your confirmation bias kicks in hard. You dismiss or minimize the importance of articles 1 & 3, while exaggerating the importance of article 2. Why? Because article 2 fit your existing belief set — it told you what you wanted to hear — while articles 1 & 3 do not.
This is how politicians make a living, by the way. But really, can you blame them? They’re telling you what you want to hear!
Be aware of confirmation bias. It will prevent influencers (news, advertisers, politicians, etc.) from easily controlling what you think.
Availability Heuristic & Emotional Reasoning
Unfortunately, confirmation bias is just one obstacle originating within our own minds. The availability heuristic, emotional reasoning and many other defects hinder our ability to recognize and champion truth over delusion.
I’m not going to dive deeper at this time, but if you’re you’ve ever wondered why someone can have such different political or religious views than you – let’s be honest, why they’re wrong and you’re right – I recommend reading The Knowledge Illusion by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach. I’ll probably review and discuss that book in the future, because even the most stiff-minded folks are bound to get woke while reading that gem.
You’re not the fair, rational creature you think you are. If you’ve ever read jury instructions, you can see it takes a lot of practice to even attempt being fair.
OK, we’re delusional. Why care?
If you’re not a truth-seeker type and feel relatively happy with your life, you might be struggling to understand the value of exploring your own mind. Why rock the boat?
What good is becoming more aware of your mind’s strengths and limitations, like delusion and unhealthy attachment? Maybe you think it’s silly, hippy crap or you simply don’t have the innate motivation to swallow the red pill like Neo. The blue pill has been working out just fine and you enjoy its security, the predictability of painting things as black and white, good and bad, etc.
Fortunately, this isn’t The Matrix and the red pill is merely a symbol; you don’t need to make a suspenseful, life-changing decision. But if you wouldn’t mind being a better person – with less stress, anger and fear – you really should consider tasting that red pill. It costs you nothing except effort (sweat equity). And since it’s a practice, the only way to fail is to not even try.
Delusion and projection can really screw up the world
As humans, we all experience delusions on a daily basis. We also project our own level of understanding, beliefs, delusions and life experience onto the actions and words of others.
There is an expression describing optimistic people: “She/he sees the world through rose-colored glasses.” Well it doesn’t matter what color the lenses are, you’re seeing the world through your own unique set of glasses. You can also think of it as a filter; you filter all the universe’s stimuli in your particular way.
But the problem isn’t experiencing life in your own unique way. The danger occurs when we strongly attach to our projections, closing our minds and hearts. We often end up blaming others for any of the “messes” we make.
Think of your favorite news source or media outlet; then shift to one you absolutely detest. Now, take a breath and realize you’re an offender, too! Each media outlet has its own brand and spin – *ahem* delusions it projects – of what’s causing the world’s problems.
There is no such thing as the unbiased truth when you’re a human, because bias is an inherent quality of our existence. You cannot eliminate delusions, so just be aware of them. And do NOT feel guilty or hate yourself for having delusions, it’s all about working with them.
The key is being aware of your own delusions and skillfully weakening them.
Attachment to labels and ideas of self.
Do you regard yourself as either as a ‘cat person’ or a ‘dog person?’ Anti-cat folks, do you really believe there isn’t a cat on earth who you’d fall in love with? What if it acted like a dog (and didn’t trigger your feline allergies)? Cat lovers, are you really ready to dismiss each of the world’s 32 million pet dogs as ‘not your thing’ when many canine species are known for their cat-like nature?
The truth is, you could meet the world’s most perfect pet, but if you strongly project the label of ‘dog person’ or ‘cat person’ onto your self-identity, you risk missing out on your best four-footed friend.
Heed the saying, “Never meet your heroes…” because you’ll be disappointed. I never met Kevin Spacey, my ex- favorite actor, but when he was hit with 15 separate allegations of sexual assault or misconduct it really did hurt me (aside from the empathic pain for his victims). I was previously so comfortable expressing my adoration of his acting – and projecting a positive light on him for it – that it tore me up inside a bit to change my beliefs about him. I got too attached to some idea of him, rather than just appreciating his acting.
Also note, in the above saying you can replace “hero” with “celebrity crush,” or “politician of choice.” Your romanticized idea/concept/label of someone or something will almost always overshoot reality, because you’re projecting unearned qualities onto him, her or it (this is how a lot of vacation time-share units get sold!).
Do you think Barack Obama was an excellent president? Are you a big fan of Donald Trump? Pay close attention the next time you hear or read their names. Did you notice it?
A negative or positive impulse surges through your mind and body before you’ve even heard the news associated with the politician’s name. That’s bias and it easily leads you into delusion. Hopefully we can agree that it’s… Very Sad!
You may find life easier if you soften your labels and ideas of self.
The wave of unchecked delusion corresponds with the strength of your beliefs.
The more you “believe” in something, the more irrational you are when it’s challenged. Your mind takes what it considers most important to who you are and what you represent – your sense of self – and protects it like a mama bear protects her cubs. Your mind is so clever, it doesn’t even let you know that you’re being a biased ignoramus. Instead, it convinces you: The other person is an idiot.
This is sometimes referred to as The Backfire Effect because you can present overwhelming evidence of something – let’s say a selfie with Jesus, Elvis or an alien – to a non-believer, and instead of softening his stance and considering he might be wrong… he absolutely doubles down on his belief set, retreating further into it and vehemently attacking anything making a good case against it.
That phenomenon sounds 100 percent horrible, but it’s not entirely bad. When you’re wrong about something extremely important to you, your delusional blindness can actually help you avoid a complete mental breakdown. To avoid a devastating psychological collapse like Syd Barett, your mind is able to slowly reshape its belief sets over time.
Simply recognize you are an irrational human being and go from there. Awareness is a natural catalyst to positive change.
Projecting on symbolic actions and gestures
You’d be offended if you thought you befriended an African tourist, but she suddenly gives you the middle finger. Does it matter that it was actually a positive gesture in her culture? Of course it does. She was asking if you wanted to eat food with her, but you were a Negative Nellie and projected it to mean ‘F*** Off!’
Some people believe kneeling during the national anthem is an effective way to communicate civil injustice, while others believe it’s a direct affront on our country or military service people.
Whether you’re the one standing with your hand over heart, kneeling on the ground, or sitting on the couch eating chips during the national anthem, it’s easy to project your thoughts onto the actions of others. As we’ve seen, this can create a lot of conflict, where each person believes her stance is the correct one.
Actions and symbols mean different things to different people, due to life experience. Try not to project your ideas about something onto someone else.
Don’t take your delusions on the road
Another instance of projecting one’s delusion is road rage. So much of it stems from defensiveness where one driver feels that the other motorist is deliberately being inconsiderate. I see it every summer when construction zones require two lanes to merge into one.
Read what MN DOT says about the zipper merge:
“When most drivers see the first ‘lane closed ahead’ sign in a work zone, they slow too quickly and move to the lane that will continue through the construction area. This driving behavior can lead to unexpected and dangerous lane switching, serious crashes and road rage.”
As you read – and hopefully took to heart – civil engineers and police officers encourage motorists to use both lanes in a zipper merge to move traffic most efficiently, safely, and avoid congestion in other areas/intersections preceding the zipper merge.
Yet I often see motorists deliberately blocking the merging lane well before it ends, presumably angry at other drivers’ audacity for using a lane (for its intended purpose). Not only are the “vigilante” drivers the ones increasing traffic backup and road rage, they are breaking the law.
This is projection. Blaming others for unfair, rude and illegal behavior when you only need to look at yourself in the (rearview) mirror. And hell, we’re all human and make mistakes. If someone really does drive like a jackass, take a breath. They probably aren’t trying to throw shade, unless you’ve already initiated or escalated the road rage. It takes two to tango. Be kind, if you can.
It’s okay if you’re thinking, ‘I don’t care what the law is or what this idiot blogger thinks, it’s still rude for those drivers to wait a shorter period of time than me!’ No problem. Maybe some those drivers really do have selfish intentions. Just work on awareness of your projection, take a breath, and consider the goal of DOT planners.
You’re free to choose ignorance, but it’s harmful to impose your delusions on others.
You’ve read the premier post of Finding Nonduality
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