This is an excerpt from Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True:
If you accept the idea that many of our most troublesome feelings are in one sense or another illusions, then meditation can be seen as, among other things, a process of dispelling illusions.
Your feelings are illusions (but illusions can be powerful)
I’ve come across ideas like this but for whatever reason, Why Buddhism is True is the first time it seems to be sticking. It might be because the other times it’s been an aside and then it jumps into the how-to of meditation or some exercise in stoicism.
You’re feeling things so strongly mentally that it carries over into your physical space. Your anxiety feels like tightness in your chest. It’s that pit in your stomach.
That’s the same feeling you’d get 10,000 years ago when it could be helpful to feel like you’re in that much danger. Because you may very well have been in actual danger.
You can learn to look at bad feelings as illusions that aren’t useful. It takes some of that power away.
Just like a magic trick. It looks like that assistant just cut off my hand but it turns out my actual hand was eaten by a seal a long time ago. You’re just seeing a fake hand being detached. When you learn the trick, the original illusions loses power.
If you need to remove power from a bad feeling, remind yourself that it’s an illusion.
Distance yourself from feelings (and you just might get to know them better)
An aspect of the book I enjoy is that Robert Wright acknowledges a lot of opposing ideas that come about when learning about meditation and enlightenment. He explains loving kindness meditation but also says it hasn’t worked for him yet.
If you want to get to know someone then you spend a lot of time with them. You stay close.
It can be the opposite with your feelings. You start out so close to your feelings. They’re all you know. If you’re right in the fray of the battle it’s hard to keep any strategy in mind. Jon Snow probably was just trying to get air while climbing up a pile of bodies.
Meditation lets you create some space.
It’s a small space at first. And at first you’re just going to recognize that you’re in the fray at all. That creating space is even possible.
Then you’ll create enough space between you and your feelings to get a sense of their shape. Taking a step back allows you to see the picture.
Now for the bigger picture. With enough practice, you’ll create enough space to see how the feelings interact with each other. You’ll see which ones have been dominating your mind.
With that awareness you’ll slowly be able to influence those interactions. You won’t be able to flip the switch off completely on each feeling but maybe you can dim them and let a lava lamp shine.
Will this dull the good feelings? (Up to you!)
I went to Universal Studios recently. It reminded me of one of the first times I went to Disneyland growing up. The Indiana Jones ride was new that summer. The line was long but also really entertaining the first time through. It was a bit of an illusion itself.
A couple decades later (if only age and slower metabolisms were illusions) and every ride has a pretty interesting line experience. Optimus Prime is saying he needs my help specifically. I’m about to be turned into a Minion. There’s even a live concert before the Jimmy Fallon ride.
I’m aware that they’re ways to make you forget that you’re in line. Sometimes it works. I liked that live concert for the cleverness behind the magic trick itself. I loved the Hogwarts line because I forgot it was a trick at all. I lost myself in it.
For the good feelings, I suspect you’ll still find ways to enjoy what’s happening. Even if somewhere inside you know it’s an illusion.