Emptiness

The essay was written after several counseling sessions with clients dealing with a deep sense of despair. After contemplating the foundation of suffering, and immersing myself in several books on the idea of emptiness, I sat down and put my thoughts into words. I completed this essay after 3 days at Starbucks, and copious amounts of triple espressos. I completed this essay with the song “Goose Bumps” by Wicked and Wild (EDM music) playing on Pandora.

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“It’s not supposed to happen like this; this just isn’t fair,” is what she said as she exposed her wounds of deep despair. Her immaculate dream of traveling the world with her husband of 48 years, now shattered by a debilitating form of dementia that has left her bright engineering husband unable to even converse. Babbling and wondering aimlessly around the facility that cares for him, she watches him from across the room as her idyllic picture loses all the vibrant color and begins the process of fading away. She is unrelenting and refuses to accept. Fueled by a strong need for control and order, she fights to revive her ideal picture. Even though the house of cards she has constructed is falling, she will not let go of the brilliant engineer that was her rock throughout these years. She clings to the incomplete dreams that deserve to be fulfilled. Then she vocalizes a sentiment that we all have said aloud or within: “It’s not supposed to happen like this; this just isn’t fair.” The suffering in the quiver of her voice is deep and heavy.

Suffering is due to the attachments we have. While suffering is inescapable, the extent of your suffering will coincide with the magnitude of attachments you have with the world you have created. We attach ourselves to expectations, ideals, and identities all the while thinking: this is how life supposed to be. We infuse everything around us with an essence that further deepens our feelings, judgments, and perceptions about the world around us. Even worse is that we live with a voice in our heads, and a conscience that takes all of our experiences and predilections and forms an illusory “self”, an “I”. This is the disease that has stricken us all: the ego, the “I”. The ego is made up of the ideas and beliefs that define you. The ego drives the narrative you live by. All of us live by a narrative that we’ve been constructing since we were children. The narrative fills in the gaps of our deepest existential question: who am I? Through adolescence and into adulthood, our feelings, thoughts, impulses and perceptions are filtered through the story that we live by. These are the factors that come together to create each individual: A value-driven human that seeks self-preservation through attachments to meaning. Once we are attachments are gone, compromised or given a terminal diagnosis – then suffering ensues.

My contention is that suffering can be mitigated if we release our attachments (or greatly loosen our grip) and stop infusing everything – even ourselves – with an essence. How so? By embracing emptiness. To put more concisely, living with the mindset of emptiness is to avoid infusing things and people with solid, fixed, and permanent descriptions. All of the wondrous adjectives that we fill our world with, will one day turn to dust or fade altogether. Embracing emptiness is a way to make peace with that reality.

Let’s go back to my opening illustration of the soon-to-be widow who said, “It’s not supposed to happen like this; this just isn’t fair.” She created a life that was replete with solid and predictable essences: solid conception of her brilliant engineering husband who is her emotional “rock”; fixed dreams that they would travel the world; predictable stable life that gave her the comfortable illusion of normalcy and homeostasis. Once those descriptions are solidified, they pave the way towards expectations and ideals that are just as predictable and fixed, whereby she expects the world and her life to produce the results that she anticipates. When reality is made clear – nothing is solid and predictable – she is now left exposed and raw; she now sees the illusions that guided her life and the deep chasm of emptiness is revealed. If only she would have made peace with the deep chasm of emptiness prior, her suffering would not have spiraled into inconsolable despair.

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What is Emptiness

Emptiness is a state of being in which you embody the realization that everything is without an essence. Essence has to do with the qualities we imbue on something/someone that, in turn, affect our perceptions and feelings. To imbue someone/something with essence is to fill them with adjectives, or descriptions that we believe to be inherent in them. For example, you come to view your Starbucks barista as a happy and out-going, yet when overwhelmed with a rush of customers, she is an angry barista. In short, you fill your barista with an essence, qualities that impact your feelings and judgments about this particular barista. Essence is a matter of interpretation; it’s something you are choosing to construct from a host of subjective qualities. Essences don’t exist independent of human perception. To perceive emptiness is to perceive raw experience without doing what we’re inclined to do: build a theory about what is at the heart of the experience and then encapsulate that theory in a sense of essence.

Emptiness, then, is to avoid the imposition of instilling an essence in the people and things around you. Moreover, emptiness is to be empty of the affect that impacts our desires, feelings and attachments to things and people. Why is this important? Because suffering is due to the attachments we form; when we imbue the object of our desire with special qualities and an essence – and then the object of our desire is gone, giving birth to suffering. Suffering is mitigated or dampened when we release our grip, unattached to the essence of things/people, and realize the emptiness of the qualities that feed our ego. Thus, to be in a state of peace to is be in a state of emptiness.

Emptiness is a phenomenon in which we are completely free from any obstructions. Emptiness is an opportunity to step back and view the world clearly.  Unencumbered by our prejudices, judgments, and biasness – emptiness quiets our anxious mind, and liberates us to the experience of a still mind.   Emptiness is the canvas and background to your very being – blank. In the West, the feeling of emptiness is often seen in a negative light that connotes nothingness or meaninglessness. When someone bemoans of feeling hollow inside, they are quickly encouraged to take up a hobby, go on vacation, or see a doctor for depression. This kind of emptiness is common in those who feel lost when it comes to meaning and purpose in life. Contrary to a nihilistic hollowness, emptiness is starting point for calmness and peace. Emptiness is our true nature, utterly free from expectations, ideals, status, reputation, and obligations. With no agenda or need to continually protect our fragile ego, emptiness gives us fresh lenses to view and experience the world.

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Impermanence and Emptiness

The two threads that weave the tapestry of emptiness are impermanence and non-self. Impermanence is the acknowledgement that everyone/everything is in a state of ceasing to be. Simply put, nothing is solid, nothing is predictable. Even a new-born baby has begun his/her journey towards death. To Westerners, this is dark and morbid thinking, but it’s reality. Impermanence is almost impossible for human beings to embrace because it goes against every ounce of our fiber: at all cost, we fight for self-preservation. So strong is our fight, that even though we know intellectually that we will one day die, we do whatever we can to push those thoughts away.

Not just people, but even the impermanence of things escapes us. I remember watching my dilapidated 1996 Toyota Camry being hauled to a junkyard, and then reminiscing about the day I purchased it and thought it was the most amazing thing ever, possessing a kind of infinite beauty. I ponder the same thoughts about my dad, who, as a little kid, was my invincible superhero – the strongest man in the world (in my eyes). Now in his eighties, he can barely feed himself. The full force of decay and entropy never hits us until the object of our desire is facing complete extinction – but even then, we often continue to deny impermanence. We desperately cling to people, things, and ideas, imbuing them with an everlasting life force to feed our purpose, meaning, and identity. And then when we experience death, loss, or a faith crisis, we find ourselves shocked, utterly bewildered and barely able to get out of bed and face the world –shell-shocked to find our world not as stable, predictable, and in control as assumed.

Emptiness and impermanence go hand-in-hand because the tranquil state of emptiness can only be experienced when you grasp for nothing. Emptiness is experienced when you fully embody the reality that nothing is solid, and nothing is predictable. This is what it means to just be; palms open clutching nothing, and a mind unshackled by the chains of constant thinking. This conception of emptiness doesn’t mean that we avoid enjoying people and things, rather, it means we don’t cling with parasitic tenacity to the concepts, ideals, and expectations of people and things. It means that we are able to take a step back, and simply embrace the now – the present moment. We’re not living in the past and we’re not placing demands on what the future should look like.

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Empty of Your Own Identity

The second thread that weaves the idea of emptiness is non-self. If I asked you to tell me where self is located, where would you point? Most people point to their head or heart. If you lose and arm, are you still you? Are you still you if you have a heart transplant? What about if you experience a brain injury? Where exactly is your self located?

At some point in time, we’ve done or said something that we later regretted, and thought, “that wasn’t me.” Or you’ve felt like you weren’t being yourself. You have many “self’s”, for instance, when you are mad, excited, nervous, in front of an audience, alone in your house, at work, or with your friends. So which ‘you’ is ‘you’?

We all live with the illusion that we have a self. We speak with the upmost confidence when we speak in first-person, “I”. If pressed to describe yourself, you will begin listing the attributes that make you … you. In essence, the “self” is the story that we create and live by which is the accumulation of our history and experiences. But the “I” is just that: a story that we’ve created and live by. The story you create evolves every day; morphing based on your perception of life events.

The mistake we make is in seeing our self as a fixed identity. We live by fixed descriptions that we lump together to form the concept of self. These fixed identities are as simple as man/woman, parent/child, smart/dumb, responsible/undependable, optimistic/pessimistic, introvert/extravert, etc. The problem is that we live with the illusion that these descriptions make our “self” solid and fixed. To the contrary, we are a vast array of feelings, perceptions, and responses that ebb and flow and cannot be pinned down to something fixed and solid. The “you” of last year, is different than the “you” of today. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus long ago said, “you can never step into the same river twice.” We are constantly changing, and who you were last week is not the same as today. In the past week, you have experienced many feelings, perceptions, and reactions that – even in the most minuscule of ways – have shifted the way you interface with the world.

What does all this have to do with emptiness? Well, emptiness is the realization that nothing is fixed and solid, just like our concept of self. In other words, in a state of emptiness, you’re not attached to the descriptions and identities that make up ‘you’. Instead, you see yourself as an experiencing consciousness that accepts life as it happens. ‘Accept’ doesn’t mean condone; rather, it means that you face the world with courage, knowing that all events in life – like the ocean – ebb and flow. Moreover, it means that when conflict (psychological or physical) comes your way, you possess the wisdom and insight to know that your identity and “self” is not really being threatened. Rather, like a cloud moving through the sky before dissipating, so too will the conflict that appears to threaten the “self”.

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Final Words

Emptiness means holding onto nothing. The intersection of impermanence and non-self is in the realization that nothing is fixed – even though we live like all is fixed and under our control. As long as we live under the illusion of control and that people/things are predictable and fixed in our lives, pain and suffering will be waiting at the threshold. Like I have already said, while suffering is inescapable, the extent of your suffering will coincide with the magnitude of attachment you have with the world you have created. Making peace with the reality of emptiness is the antidote to deep despair. Emptiness is a state of being that helps accept that everything comes and goes and ebbs and flows. Again, everyone knows this intellectually, but few truly embody this in their daily living. For when we embody emptiness, we approach ourselves and the world with a humble, open and accepting disposition that acknowledges that even though suffering is part of life, it need not overtake us. Negative emotional states will arise and fade. We need not get swept away by the torrid currents of anger, bitterness, and despair. They too shall pass.

 

 

 

 

Necessary Illusions: for the secular and religious

 

“With the truth, one cannot live. To be able to live, one needs illusions” – Otto Rank  

kjoiubNot too long ago, I visited a husband who had just put his wife on our hospice service. I was there to provide counseling and guidance given that she had just received a terminal diagnosis. What made this case unique was that the patient and husband are only 41 years-young, with four beautiful children. I remember sitting in the car in front of their house’ preparing myself for the hurricane of grief and despair that await. Despair, however, was not what I found. I was greeted by the husband, I’ll call him Mike, who gave me a big smile and welcomed me into the house. I met two of their children and the patient as well. She shuffled into the living room appearing so frail and weak like she could break in two at any moment. The mood in the room was not at all what I expected. While they were obviously concerned and saddened by the recent news of terminal brain cancer, the family nevertheless smiled, laughed, expressed gratitude for hospice and the physicians, and kept thanking me for taking the time to visit them. Towards the end, I couldn’t resist, I had to ask the husband, “How is it that you are able to appear so positive given your wife’s dire condition?” He looked at me with a smile and said, “We’re Christian, and our faith in the overall goodness of God’s plan is what keeps us optimistic, even though terminal cancer is now a part of our story.”

I remember leaving the house thinking I was in the Twilight Zone. Surely their faith was a house of cards that would tumble to the ground as reality set in. He must be in denial, and his faith is a crutch that will leave him utterly disillusioned and inconsolable when the reality of being widowed sets in. I stayed in touch through their time on hospice. I was waiting – and assuming – that the veneer of optimism and hope would shatter, thus exposing the futility of a hope in God’s plan which includes cancer, pain, and heartache.

When she died a month later, Mike didn’t shatter. I remember calling him not long after she passed, and he spent the entire call expressing gratitude and joy for the time he had with his wife, and for his church family that surrounded him with love and compassion as he adopted his new role as a widow. There was that hope and optimism again! Sure, there was sadness at the loss, but he stood strong in the midst of the pain believing that God is good and in control.

This story buttresses what I have been long suspected, but have denied. The illusions we believe can serve to help us adapt and cope with the chaos and uncertainty that life provides. Whether Mike truly believes that God is literally real and watching over him or not, is not the point. The point is whether or not his belief has adaptive features to help him cope with life. Some people might say Mike is delusional in his thinking. Often people consider faith in a higher power as a crutch in order to deal with reality. But the truth is, every human – religious or secular – devises illusory crutches in order to cope with a chaotic world. In fact, our mental health depends on the illusory crutches that infiltrate our minds.

My contentions is simple: we need illusions to cope with life. Furthermore, religious belief is beneficial to mental well-being. In this essay, I will focus on the adaptive measures and necessity of illusions in our lives.

We need illusions because reality is crippling

I once heard atheist apologist Matt Dillahunty say,  “I want to believe as many real and true things as possible and as few false things as possible” (paraphrase). While this sounds reasonable, he forgets the fact that reality is crippling. What’s real is that one day my body will be shoved into a crematorium and reduced to ashes. And one thousand years from now, nobody will remember anything about me. While it’s true that what I do matters to me now, from a bird’s eye view of the grand scale of history –  it is utterly futile. To cope with the fact that every day is one day closer to the end, I must lean on illusions in order to avoid despair and suicide. We all do.

imagesnmnmT.S. Eliot had it right when he said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” We cling to our illusions even if they contradict the obvious. Could it be, though, that reality is not an illusion but that our version of reality is an illusion? In other words, none of us are perceiving reality for what it is but rather for what we wish it to be. The problem with reality is that it’s like a dinner party in which each guest is confined to their own experiences, interpretations, biases, and presuppositions. Thus, one guest thinks everyone is boring, another that some are judging them harshly, and another thinks they are the most intelligent in the room. One simply cannot see things as they really are, we cannot be aware of reality, given that illusions act as mediators.

There is a difference between what something is and what we think it is. Actually what
we think, is utterly inconsequential to what is. Illusions do not exist in the world (out there) but in here. The inner world is fertile ground for illusions to take root which then get projected into the world, thus influencing the perception of others about reality. These distortions, in the realm of reality, have no purpose other than to help us cope with the uncertainties that life brings. But first, what is an illusion?

An illusion is a perception that represents what is perceived in reality. An illusion is a false mental image or conception which may be a misinterpretation of a real appearance or may be something imagined. It may be pleasing, harmless or even useful [Random House Dictionary, 1976, page 662]. Lying subterranean within us all, is the knowledge of our mortality. We do not want to live in reality. We are perfectly comfortable living in an illusion that we believe provides gains that outweigh the effort needed to eliminate them. Most importantly, these illusions keep one mentally healthy.

What are the attributes to a mentally healthy person

To begin with, the vast majority of religious belief serve to enhance one’s mental well-being. Most religious beliefs promote virtues which include reverence for the sacred, abstaining from the profane, an appreciation for strengthening social bonds through community. While religion does have a bloody history, the Enlightenment has helped us apply more reason to faith. My focus is not on the extremely small percentage that are radical dogmatist who seek to use religion as a battering ram. My focus is on the majority who use religious beliefs, albeit illusory, to cope with the uncertainty of life. Overall, modern religion possesses strategies to enhance one’s mental well-being.

dyuuyuIf we are going to discuss mental well-being, let’s discuss the attributes of a mentally healthy person. Most experts agree that the ability to be happy, or at least relatively contented, is one hallmark of mental health and well-being. The acclaimed psychologist Marie Jahoda identified several additional criteria that will help us understand what good mental health looks like. Jahoda notes that ideal mental health is the ability to hold positive attitudes towards oneself, rather than to feel distress or anguish over one’s inadequacies or short-comings. Second, the ability to grow, develop, and move towards one’s goals. Finally, the capacity to develop an autonomous self-regard that does not require the reassurance of other people for meaning and sustenance. We can couple Jahoda’s criteria with Sidney Jourard and Ted Landsman’s viewpoint:

[The healthy personality] is guided by intelligence and respect for life, so that personal needs are satisfied and so that the person will grow in awareness, competence and the capacity to love the self, the natural environment, and other people. (Jourard, S.M., & Landsman, M.E.P. (1980). Healthy Personality: An approach from the viewpoint of humanistic psychology (4th ed.). New York: Macmillan.)

Most religious belief does not impinge on personal growth, self-awareness, and respecting life. In fact, most religious belief strives to enhance all of the criteria listed above. Again, we can always point to religious extremists who subjugate, oppress, and incite anger; but this is not the norm. To the contrary, most religious strengthen social bonds and provide strategies for coping with the evils of the world through illusions of an afterlife, a personal loving God, and a view of the sacred.

The secular person may respond by listing all the evils of religion. Fair enough. My concern, however, involves whether or not the illusion has adaptive or maladaptive consequences for one’s mental health. Thus, if religious belief involves killing or oppression, we can put it up against Jahoda and Jourard’s research on the attributes of mental well-being and have a dialogue. Just as we can draw distinctions between good health and bad health, so we can with adaptive and maladaptive aspects of the beliefs or illusions we hold.

Illusions are ubiquitous

UCLA Psychology professor, Shelly Taylor, notes in her book Positive Illusions, “normal human thought and perception is marked not by accuracy but by positive self-enhancing illusions about the self, the world, and the future. These illusions are not merely characteristic of human thought; they appear to actually be adaptive, promoting rather than undermining good mental health.” We ought not think that the religious person is full of fanciful magical thinking, while the secular person is fully in-touch with ‘reality’. What research shows is that even the secular person embraces illusions that serve an adaptive feature to personal well-being.

uiuiIn my line of work in dealing with death and dying, the most common illusion [especially with secular people] occurs when death is experienced. I am perpetually baffled at how people convince themselves that they are alright, just after their spouse of 50 years had died. Obviously, the act of denial serves a self-preservation role: if I act like it didn’t happen, I won’t feel the pain. And, in a lot of cases this illusion can be adaptive, as it can prevent one from spiraling into despair, suicide or depression. But it’s a common illusion nevertheless. The protection of our self, ego, and identity is so important; and we will adopt whatever illusions we can to preserve our ego intact.

I believe this is a very important point in demonstrating the ubiquitousnous of illusions, so allow me to provide eight palpable examples of the illusions that both secular and religious people live by:

#1 We overestimate our abilities: We are introduced to self-deceptive methods early on in life. Young children do not differentiate very well between what they wish could be true and what they think is true, and thus they show wishful thinking in their estimations of their abilities [Stipek, D.J. (1984). Young children’s performance expectations: Logical analysis or wishful thinking? In I. Nicholls (Ed.), Advances in motivation and achievement (Vol. 3, pp. 33-56), Greenwich, CT: JAI Press].

#2 We carry illusions to protect our image. When asked to describe themselves, most people mention many positive qualities and few, if any, negative ones. Even when people acknowledge that they have faults, they tend to downplay those weaknesses as unimportant or dismiss them as inconsequential [Alicke, M.D. (1985). Global self-evaluation as determined by the desirability and uncontrollability of trait adjectives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 1129-1140].

#3 We carry illusions to bolster our self-conception. Most people see themselves as better than others and as above average on most of their qualities. When asked to describe themselves and other people, most people provide more positive descriptions of themselves than they do of friends. This tendency to see the self as better than others occurs across a wide variety of tasks and abilities [Brown, J.D. (1986). Evaluations of self and others: Self-enhancement biases in social judgements. Social Cognition, 4, 353-373].

#4 We carry illusions to enhance our ego. A consistent and ubiquitous research finding is that people take credit for good things that happen and deny responsibility for the bad things that happen [Bradley, G.W. (1978) Self-serving biases in the attribution process: A reexamination of the fact or fiction question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 36, 56-71]

#5 We use the illusion of logic and order in order to fend off dread. As Ernest Becker stated, “Through the imposition of logic and order on the world we spare ourselves the constant realization of the random terror of death.” As an example, we believe that people succeed through their own efforts, and this leads us to impute effort to those who are highly successful and laziness to those who are not. Even if evidence is all around us suggesting that events are less orderly and systematic as we think they are, rarely do we develop a full appreciation of this fact. The failure to recognize the role of random, unsystematic forces in many aspects of life may come, in part, from our need to see the world as a systematic and orderly place [Ryan, W. (1971). Blaming the victim. New York: Vintage Books].

#6 We carry with us the constant illusion of control. Psychologist Ellen Langer argues that most people succumb to an illusion of control, in which they believe they can affect events more than is actually the case. For instance: gambling. Gambling is a clear case in which the relative importance of personal control and chance are often confused. Sociologists Erving Goffman, who once took a job as a croupier in Las Vegas, noted that dealers who experienced runs of bad luck, leading the house to lose heavily, ran the risk of losing their jobs, even though the reason for the run of bad luck was ostensibly chance.

#7 We don’t [want to] appreciate chance because illusions give us a sense of control. When people were able to choose their own lottery card, as opposed to having it chosen for them, they were less likely to turn it in for a new lottery card that offered them a better chance of winning, simply because they felt it was not their card and they wanted to hold onto it. The longer a person held on to a lottery card and presumably had time to think about the likelihood of winning and he could do with the money, the less likely he was to turn the lottery card in for a ticket in a drawing with better odds. E.J. Langer was able to show that perfectly normal people engaged in a wide variety of superstitions and nonsensical behaviors in chance situations, when cues suggesting skill had been subtly introduced [Langer, E.J. & Roth, J. (1975) Head I win, tails it’s chance: The illusion of control as a function of the sequence of outcomes in a purely chance task. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 951-955].

#8 We are able to generate illusory self-serving models of thinking. Psychologist Ziva Kunda suggests that people actively construct theories of why positive and negative events occur; in so doing they draw on their own attributes in order to defend against the possibility that the negative events might befall then and to enhance the perceived likelihood that the positive events will happen to them. For example, upon learning that the divorce rate for first time marriages is 50 percent, most people predict that they will not be in the 50 percent, but rather will remain married to their spouse throughout their lifetime. They convince themselves that this is the case, Kunda has shown, by highlighting their stable attributes that might be associated with a stable marriage and downplaying the significance of or actively refuting information that might suggest vulnerability to divorce. Thus, for example, one might point to one’s parents’ fifty-year marriage, the close family life that existed in one’s early childhood and the fact that one’s high school relationships lasted a full four years as evidence to predict a stable marriage. The fact that one’s husband has already been divorced once – a factor that predicts a second divorce – mist be reinterpreted not only as not leading to divorce in one’s own case but as a protective factor (“He knows he does not want this marriage to fail like the last one, and so he’s working especially hard to keep our relationship string”). The ability to draw seemingly rational relationships between our own assets and good events and to argue away associations between our own attributes and negative events helps to maintain unrealistic optimism [Kunda, Z. (1987). Motivated inference: Self-serving generation and evaluation of causal theories. Journal of Social Psychology, 53, 636-647].

These examples illustrate that we are guided by a self-serving bias because we deeply care about the self that has been created. In order to protect our ego, self-conception and identity, we are held as prisoners to our own our self-schema. Self-schemas are enduring beliefs that people have about themselves. Descriptions such as intelligent, musical, overweight, funny – are examples of self-schemas. Self-schemas enable us to take in the information that fits our prior conceptions of what we are like and what interests us and simultaneously helps us cement those self-impressions. Self-schemas, then, reinforce our ego and sense of identity. To shatter one’s ego and self-schema is to leave one hopeless, disillusioned, and worthless. Illusions, however, help keep our ego and self-schema intact.

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Illusions on a Supernatural level

If illusions are ubiquitous, then why do religious people take it to a supernatural level? The tendency for humans to take their illusions to a supernatural level involves what psychologists call locus of control. Evolutionary psychologist Michael Shermer notes that “people who rate high on internal locus of control tend to believe that they make things happen and they are in control of their circumstances, whereas people who score high on external locus of control tend to think that circumstances are beyond their control and that things just happen to them.” (The Believing Brain, 77) Psychologists find that having a high internal locus of control leads you to become more confident in your own personal judgment, more skeptical of outside authorities and sources of information, and have a lower tendency to conform to external influences. In fact, people who consider themselves “skeptics” about the paranormal and supernatural tend to score high in internal locus of control, whereas self-reported “believers” in ESP, spiritualism, reincarnation, and mystical experiences in general tend to rate high in external locus of control.

The level of uncertainty in life can exacerbate the illusions that take over us. Bronislaw Malinowski’s famous studies of superstitions among the Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific demonstrates that as the level of uncertainty in the environment increases so, too, does the level of superstitious behavior. We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range. In Malinowski’s words,

“We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under control of rational methods and technological processes. Further, we find magic where the elements of danger is conspicuous.”

What Malinowski found with the Trobriand Islanders, is that the further they sailed into the deep seas away from land – where risk was higher – the more illusions and superstitious behavior there were. Many of us are no different. Whether it is a belief in God or the secular person believing in the self-serving idea that they are more stable or intelligent than most people, the illusions serve an adaptive feature that helps us cope and persevere.

meaningFinal Words

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” In the context of this essay, the abyss is the subterranean reality that resides in us all: we will one day cease to exist. Self-preservation is the disease that affects us all, and illusions are the medications we rely on. Illusions are the necessary distractions that turn our faces from the abyss, in order to avoid being engulfed in its darkness. The afterlife, God, Buddha, identity, and ego are the illusory constructions that make up the scaffolding of meaning and purpose in one’s life. Most of these illusory constructions serve an adaptive purpose. They help us cope with death, they incentivize the pursuit of virtues, and they strengthen social bonds. The illusions we believe can serve to help us adapt and cope with the chaos and uncertainty that life provides. Even the secular person needs illusions. After all, when you see through life’s illusions, there lies the danger.