Are You a Delusion?

When our ancestors looked into the night sky they were captivated by the heroes and villains who lived there. They traced lines around star clusters and projected wonderful characters onto them. They told stories about how these sky beings passed their stories down from generation to generation.

The constellation Orion is the most recognizable constellation in the night sky. If you live in the west, you probably know Orion as a great hunter. Over his left arm hangs a lion’s skin for a shield. In his right hand he wields his unbreakable club. He is locked in battle against his eternal enemy Taurus, the mighty bull, with splendid long horns and fire darting out from his eye. Huddled behind Taurus are the Pleiades, the seven sisters, distraught and frightened.

However, if you live in the Middle East you may know Orion as a heavenly shepherd. In some European tales he is a magic archer. The Vedic hymns of ancient India know him as the deer Mriga, who is surrounded by hunting dogs.

What stories we tell! Constellations are just stars and stars are whirling clouds of cosmic dust at very high temperatures. Many constellations are made up of smaller constellations, which in turn are made up of still smaller ones. We know that the stories we tell about the stars are just fabrications. But what if you discovered that you are also a fabrication?

Buddhism offers a model of the self that is based on constellations, or aggregates. According to this model, you are comprised of five major aggregates: form, sensation, perception, impulse/emotion, and consciousness or thought. Each of these five constellations is made up of smaller constellations and together they account for every aspect of your experience.

In Buddhist psychology, an understanding of the self as a constellation is an example of upaya, or “skillful means.” It offers a way of relating to our lived experience with lightness, buoyancy, and resilience, holding our sense of self lightly, regardless of what happens in our lives.

Through a regular meditation practice we come to realize, as Buddha did, how we fragment and divide what is ultimately a dynamic, undivided whole. Human consciousness is not separate from the great oceanic cosmos, whose form, color, taste, smell, and sound are created within our own mind.

The stories we create provide a sense of structure and security in an uncertain world. Security is important–but the fear that glues it together can be limiting. Through meditation we begin to see both the value and the limitations of our story-telling mind and discover the freedom of a mind unburdened by these limitations.

For meditation practitioners there are often two distinct phases to their practice. The first is about settling-in and it may be quite pleasant. There is more bodily awareness, more awareness of breathing, some moments of real calmness occur, along with the realization that we can be calm regardless of what’s going on. We begin to feel comfortable in our meditation and in daily life. Concentration becomes steady and the ability to stay with the breath builds confidence and resilience. Posture improves. The mind still chatters but it doesn’t dominate quite so much. We feel lighter, less burdened.

But many Zen practitioners enter a second phase. As our practice matures and our thoughts slow down, a sense of separation and loneliness seeps into our awareness. Comfort vanishes. Anxiety bubbles up and we begin to experience more psychic pain than we had before. We may quit or blame the teacher and search for a different one. This can be a difficult time for both teacher and student. It is painful to lose a student just when his or her practice is beginning to yield something deeply significant.

There’s a wonderful Zen anecdote that compares the ego to an eggshell. The student is inside pecking to get out while the teacher taps from the outside. The metaphor is another example of skillful means, helping us to dis-identify with the egoic thoughts and emotions that make us feel separate and isolated.

The second phase of meditation can be disorienting. It is meant to disorient–so we can re-orient to a self that is not contained within a rigid ego shell. This transformative stage is always marked by difficulty. It’s painful to recognize that you’re confined within a limited and constricted space, one that lacks abiding joy and spiritual freedom. To move through the pain, first you have to get very close to it. This is what’s referred to as pecking the shell.

Learning to relax into whatever is happening, even our pain, is what Zen practice is about. As a teacher, my job is to help people stay with their difficulty and experience it fully, without withdrawing. An acceptance of our own pain and suffering with an attitude of kindness allows us to connect with others. As our heart opens it dissolves our shell of separation.

In 1950, Albert Einstein wrote a letter of condolence to a grieving father who lost his son to polio. In this letter, Einstein wrote:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

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