Many years ago, my guru gave our meditation group a lecture about “Monkey Mind”. He told us that monkey mind was sometimes used by the Buddha to describe our easily distracted, constantly thinking behavior of consciousness. In a similar way a monkey jumps around and swings through the trees, our minds jump and swing from one thought to another. Oftentimes this busy mental activity generates illusions that we believe.
I’ve heard commentators in the mass media and on the Internet describe some sort of event or activity, then string a long line of assumptions and fears into the commentary. The intent is to persuade us to think as he does and instigate our own fears and possible scenarios. All of this derives from mental activity and imagination. The intense fears that result are actually illusory thoughts. They provide us with comfortable beliefs that seem to help us cope with the world around us.
We usually think of illusions as tricks that a stage magician performs in order to fool us into believing that he possesses special powers of magic. Sometimes we think about optical illusions that baffle the mind. One reason I enjoy optical illusions is that they remind me that whatever I see is a distortion of reality. The troupe of monkeys in my mind are busy stringing meanings and beliefs about stuff I take in through my senses.
We forget that illusions are created by all the senses, not only vision. There is no way for our brains to directly experience what goes on around us. What we experience and believe are synthesized from data that comes into our minds via sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. There is so much going on around us, that we unconsciously sort through the data in order to formulate our perceptions of reality. Because of all this constant sensing and sorting, we can say that our lives are illusions.
That’s not to say that everything is make-believe. There are actual rocks, plants, animals and so forth. What our monkey minds choose to do with the raw data, however, leads to our beliefs about things, other people, and situations.
You can see this happen every day. When we view a video about skydiving and feel fear and trepidation, while others might feel joy and excitement, we form an opinion about skydiving from our own beliefs about heights, airplanes, and parachutes. The fear about skydiving feels solid and true. The same for the joy about skydiving, it can also feel substantive and true to the core. The opinions we have about skydiving seem unshakable and almost holy.
In the case of optical illusions, our eyes pick up the raw image that the artist has put on paper or screen. The mind immediately sorts through perceptions that have formed because of prior experiences with the represented shapes. The mind is driven to make sense of what it sees because of assumptions about depth and motion perception. The brain synthesizes the image through the illusion of constancy and experience.
Most of the illusions we experience each day are innocuous or mundane. We simply assume that what we experience is real and not illusory. Problems arise, when our monkey mind fixates upon a thought. This is when we become worried about something. At its extreme, monkey mind creates hallucinations. The mind tries to form a complete picture from incomplete and/or inaccurate data.
In the same way we suspend doubt and disbelief when we become absorbed in a movie, we suspend doubt and disbelief when we listen to a politician who represents views we wish to affirm. In both situations, we choose to experience illusions. We get all wrapped up in the illusions until the movie ends or when the politician is caught in another lie.
We don’t need the technology of optical illusions, ventriloquism, or politics to experience illusions. Our imaginations are busy all the time. We study a certain cloud in the sky and “see” Abraham Lincoln’s face. A feature in the landscape resembles a horse’s head. These things are not Lincoln nor a horse, they are the results of our minds trying to make sense out of prior experiences with similar shapes.
In extreme cases, we might assign some sort of deeper “meanings” to illusions and call them “visions”. If you might happen to see a cloud that looks like Abraham Lincoln on his birthday, today, you may be tempted to assign to it a supernatural meaning. If you ponder a geological formation and see a horse, you might believe it is a benevolent place for horses and equestrians.
We like to dream and indulge in wishful thinking. Not only do our minds form illusions that entertain us while we sleep, our monkey minds, create illusions about people we encounter and the choices we must make.
It’s easy and automatic to constantly get caught up in fantasies, dreams, hopes, and fears. Sometimes these illusions give us comfort. Often, our thinking and attitudes become critical, fearful, and stuck because of the beliefs we adopt as a result of our illusions. We forget that we form our strongest beliefs within the foggy mists of incomplete data.
If the illusions are convincing enough, we may find it difficult to let go of the resulting beliefs, even when we’re presented with intellectual and scientific evidence to the contrary.
When we are caught up in fantasies, hopes, fears, and preconceived beliefs, we’re unable to move forward and realize our goals or overcome our fears. In the process of uncritical acceptance of illusions, we not only risk hurting ourselves, we may harm others. Furthermore, if our illusion is different from someone else’s illusion, conflict may arise. After all, we believe that our illusion is the correct one.
Sometimes, illusions result in ideologies. The mind can create an imaginary world of perfection or a utopian future. The mind sets about to find a way to make that vision a reality. On the other hand, we might envision a severely flawed world or a dystopian future. We then find a way to protect ourselves from the evil outsiders and invent ways to destroy what is threatening. In either case we leave ourselves open to the possibility of disappointment or, conversely, become a threat to society.
In the best cases, we eventually discover that unclear or wishful thinking does not serve us well. We learn to curb habitual escapist day-dreaming and intoxication by beliefs and substances. When we remember that our world is a blend of our illusions, we can become more kind to ourselves and more compassionate towards others.