Suffering, Freedom, and Delusion

In some spiritual practices which aim to end human suffering, it is accepted that truth seems to be better than falsehood, and by this I mean that typically truth leads to more positive outcomes; “to the extent our acts produce results contrary to those we wish to achieve, we are under delusion.” (Capriles 2000, p. 163). In ideologies designed to free the conscious entity from suffering, it is said that delusions or illusions are the ultimate, primary cause of human suffering. These ideologies’ proposed remedies to human suffering involve ridding oneself of delusions. This is done through a variety of methods which are designed to either a) recognize or notice the delusory nature of the ideas they hold to accurately represent experience, thereby allowing the practitioner to let go of said ideas, or b) replace delusory ideas with ideas that are as accurate as possible representations about the nature of experience. The latter method is actually insufficient due to the impermanent nature of ideas. If option “b” was our only option, even memory loss would be able to reverse liberation or enlightenment. Yet, the state of liberation must be irreversible to be free, and it is said that once this transformation of the mind is completed, the change is permanent and reversion to the past state of suffering is impossible. Elias Capriles (2000) describes this by saying that “those who free themselves completely from delusory valuation cannot fall into a condition of suffering again. Since they no longer feel separated from the plenitude of the universe, even if they function in non-transpersonal realms they recognize the illusory character of the separateness they experience.” (p. 168). When using the term “delusory valuation”, Capriles is referring to the habit of mistaking truth for the experience we are given. This is based on the notion that reality as we experience it is inherently distorted by our mental faculties. Delusion arises from a confusion of the map with its territory. As Capriles (2010) describes it:

No map in terms of thoughts can correspond exactly to the territory of the given, for nothing that can be asserted concerning any region of reality or entity whatsoever can exactly correspond to it or exhaust it.” (p. 35).

Capriles (2000) elaborates on delusion:

“Delusion arises when we fail to recognize that entities do not exist inherently and absolutely; that they depend on other entities and on our own mental processes in order to exist in the manner they exist for us This delusion is a confusion regarding the mode of existence of entities (including human beings): when we believe that our objects and we ourselves exist inherently and substantially (in the sense of being self-existing and not needing the mind and/or other objects or subjects to exist), that the relative is absolute, we are under delusion.”(p. 169).”

From this we can gather that two of the primary delusions we suffer from is the belief in a self which is distinct from its environment, and that the way in which we interpret stimuli is distorted. However, it is unclear whether this is to mean that our perceptual mechanisms are inherently distorted, or if it is to mean that the way in which we tend to think about what we perceive is distorted.

Th notion that the idea of separation is both a delusion and a cause of suffering is also described by Alan Watts in his book The Way of Zen . Watts (1977) characterizes one of the primary illusions humans face as the split-mind illusion, which is “the identification of the mind with its idea of itself.” (p. 140). This illusion arises when we “attempt to act and think about the action simultaneously” (Watts 1977, p. 140). Another way of describing this is to say that if we always thought about our potential actions, we would never act. At some point, we take action and in so doing, we momentarily abandon analysis. Perhaps immediately afterward you believe it to have been the wrong decision, but this type of reflection can only happen postmortem. In fact, this reflection and doubt can arise so immediately after the action that it can appear to happen simultaneously. However, one cannot simultaneously – in the literal sense of the word – act and also think about acting. The conscious mind only performs one action at a time, though it can jump from action to action quite quickly. This attempt at being what Watts (1977) calls “double-mindedness” (p. 141) ceases, giving rise to single-mindedness, only when we realize ” beyond any shadow of doubt that it is actually impossible to do anything else.” (p. 141). In other words, our attempt at double-mindedness, or “our identification of the mind with an idea of itself” (Watts 1977, p. 140) is based on the false belief that the mind is of this double nature; that the self is an intentional agent which can navigate and moderate the mind whilst the mind is acting. This false belief is exemplified in the pop-culture analogy of the self as the operator of the mind and body, wherein the mind is the control-room wherein the self resides, able to manipulate the controls to manipulate the body. In this analogy, the self is neither mind nor body, but rather is an entity that exists within them and uses them. This separates the self and mind, giving rise to the belief that the self not only watches the mind as it works, but can exercise control over the mind.

The notions that we can think about ourselves, act upon ourselves, etc. are all derived from the belief in our own self-referential capabilities. Thoughts, however, are not truly self-referential, although they can contain self-refential meanings. I explain this in a past personal journal entry:

” We cannot separate ourselves from the mind and look at it, but we have the next best function: memory. Self reflection is thinking about a memory about one’s interpersonal experiences. It is impossible to reflect upon what you are doing whilst simultaneously doing it. Thus, self reflection is the process of accessing memories and thinking about them. True self-reference, then, is not possible. A self-referential thought is actually a thought with a self-referential. Within a thought, meaning can refer to meaning, but thought cannot refer to thought. Take the example of the thought: “Thinking about thoughts.” This may seem to be a self referential thought, yet it is actually a thought about past experiences of thinking. In other words, it is a simple act of recollection. The same thought can never occur twice, yet the same meaning can be carried within two different thoughts. Thus, thoughts can carry self-referential meanings, yet the thought itself cannot be self-referential, because a self-referential thought would be a thought which has itself within it.

If thoughts were photos, what we typically think of as a self-referential thought would be a photo of itself. However, a photo of itself is actually a photo of a visual representation of itself. The photo does not contain itself – it contains a representation of itself via its content. True self-reference would require the photo to actually contain itself, not just a mere visual representation. This hypothetical photo which contains itself and not just a representation of itself is impossible to imagine and equally as impossible to create.

All thoughts are spontaneous. Many thoughts seem spontaneous even to the thinker. Stream of consciousness thinking typically gives rise to a slew of unexpected thoughts. When we open our mouths to speak, rarely do we know which words we will be using. This is all spontaneous action of the mind. Yet, when we have thoughts of volition or intent with which we exercise our will, we believe those are actions of the self – of us, in stark contrast to the random thoughts which our mind provides us with during stream of consciousness thought. Control of our emotions and thoughts involves a series of steps: First, we decide we want to control our thoughts by limiting certain kinds of thoughts (e.g. negative thinking). Then, a negative thought occurs and the intent to control the thought is immediately remembered, causing us to think the new thought ” I want to limit negative thinking” rather than the negative thought itself. To believe that this is done by a sovereign agent called the self is to misunderstand thinking completely as well as to commit the local error of infinite regression.

The infinite regression is mistakenly made when we believe that the initial thought of intent was made by a sovereign agent. For a thought of intent to be truly and freely made by a sovereign agent called the self, there would have to be a preceding thought which planned to think an intentional thought. Yet, for this preceding thought to be intentional, it must have been preceded by an intentional thought itself, ad infinitum. In this way, even thoughts of intent are spontaneous.

Moreover, to then act out a thought of intent, we must remember to do so. In the specific example given above, the intent is to stop negative thoughts from occurring. To do this, we wait for an initial negative thought and we stop it from initiating a process of negative thinking. When the initial negative thought occurs, instead of allowing it to cause an ensuing process of negative thinking, we immediately remember our intent to stop the thought process. For a brief moment, the negative thought is at the forefront of our attention, and therefore the thought of intent is not at the forefront of our attention. Yet, somehow, by setting an intent prior to the negative thought, the thought if intent will automatically reassert itself and we will be reminded of it as soon as we think the negative thought. In the moment the negative thought occurs, we do not choose to remember the thought of intent, because that would entail already remembering it (circular reasoning). We cannot choose to remember an intent we previously set. Rather, the intention automatically reasserts itself in the form of remembering after it has been set. This process of remembering is another automatic, unintentional behavior that allows thoughts of intent to be carried out. So, not only are thoughts of intent or volition spontaneous, but the ensuing behaviors motivated by the initial thought of intent are also spontaneous. This means that the self-sovereign agent we believe ourselves to be is actually spontaneous action. It is not something or someone who chooses to act on other, more spontaneous thoughts. There is not a division within the mind of free-willed thoughts and random spontaneous thoughts. There are only random spontaneous thoughts, and the belief in both free willed thoughts and also spontaneous thoughts that occur within the same mind is the belief in the split-mind.

The realization that double-mindedness is impossible effectively ends the attempt to operate double-mindedly. Similarly, the realization that even free-will is fundamentally spontaneous and therefore not truly free ends the attempt to control the natural spontaneity of the mind. However, this type realization and resulting spontaneous behavior cannot be intentionally initiated. One cannot choose to be spontaneous. One cannot intentionally give up control. Such contradictory behavior is just the perpetuation of the illusion of the split mind; of a truly free-willed agent capable of acting on the mind. This is because to attempt to stop thoughts associated with the split mind delusion is to continue to act under the assumption of the split mind. Through the act of reflection*, one can realize the fallacy involved in these behaviors, thereby ending them not through control but through understanding.

From all of this, we can gather that the path to freedom consists more in releasing ourselves from particular behaviors and the illusions that cause them. It is a phenomenological emptying of the mind of beliefs by discovering their fallacies, rather than an acquisition of accurate ideological representations of experience (which would just be improving the correspondence of one’s maps to their territory; they are still confusing maps with the territory, they are simply making it more difficult to recognize the fact that they’re doing this).

The question is: is such a change permanent, as it is claimed to be? Is liberation truly irreversible? The reason for doubting the notion of permanence is that the state of freedom from suffering (liberation) results from changes within the mental operations of the mind. Anything that results from change is ultimately subject to further change, and therefore, how can a change within the mind be permanent if it is by nature impermanent? It seems to be contradictory. It is. There is a catch, though: As long as the mind suffers, it can be freed from suffering, because suffering is caused by the same mental function that can be used to free oneself from suffering. Suffering arises as a result of a particular type of mental function – namely reflection and identification with reflected object. The remedy is simply a reflection upon identification (the sense of self) as well as reflection upon the act of reflecting whenever suffering arises. As you reflect on the behavior that causes suffering, you’ll begin to notice that it is always accompanied by a narrative wherein “something is done to me”. Perhaps it is you who has done something to yourself, and thus you feel a sense of self-loathing. Perhaps another person has done something to you, and you feel angry toward that person. As you reflect on this narrative, you realize that when it is yourself whom you are angry at, it is because a behavior done by your mind-body violates an attachment to a particular ideal also within the mind. Your mind remembers this, and because the mind says “that’s me” when it brings forth that memory, but also says “this is me” to the one who holds the ideal which was violated, there is the split mind wherein the mind becomes angry at itself. This process demonstrates exactly how reflection gives rise to suffering. The solution is reflecting on this process itself, and reflecting on that sense of self that you are constantly reasserting with your own memory. Reflection causes suffering, and reflection ends suffering.

A note to readers: Although I say that reflection is both the cause and the end of suffering, this is not completely true. Reflection on suffering and identity begins the process wherein you will ultimately arrive at the realization that suffering is too a part of the mind, and the very attempt to reflect on it in order to overcome it is simply the split-mind disguised as spiritual practice. Truthfully, there is nothing to do about suffering, and this is the realization that frees us from suffering. Yet, I encourage everyone to not take my word for it: investigate your suffering for yourself.

Works Cited

Capriles, E. (2010) Beyond Being, Beyond Mind, Beyond History: A Dzogchen Founded Meta Transpersonal Philosophy and Psychology (Vol. 1). Merida, Venezuela: University of the Andes. GR, Italy: Shang Shung Institute.

Capriles, E., (2000b). Beyond Mind. Steps to a Metatranspersonal Psychology. Manoa, HI, USA: International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, Vol. 19, 2000 (University of Hawai‘i at Manoa).

Watts, A. (1977). Three. New York, USA: Pantheon Books

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