The Three Poisons: Delusion

Delusion is not as easy to characterize as greed or aversion. It manifests in less obvious ways, often hiding behind a mask of complacency. In the early 16th century, the humanist writer Erasmus wrote a book entitled Praise of Folly, illustrating the endless ways humans deceive themselves, usually with ruinous results. It is an encyclopedia of delusion, which could just as easily be called folly.

Folly in Erasmus’ book is the universal accompaniment to every human enterprise. People embark on careers, marriages, friendships, parenthood, and even recreation without the slightest idea how any of it will turn out, yet they think they know what they are doing. It is this act of self-serving prognostication that is the essence of folly. There is a saying that “Life goes on while we are making other plans.” Folly is those other plans. Folly, or delusion, is the motivation behind our tendency to live so much in an ideal future where we will have everything we want, causing us to devalue the present; or to fear disaster and waste our lives chasing a false sense of security. Delusion is also behind the tendency to devalue ourselves by believing we are other than what we are. We believe we are intelligent, beautiful, and accomplished, or else we think we are stupid, ugly, and good for nothing. Either appraisal is a devaluation and delusion, because it places a label on what can never be defined.

Just as desire and aversion are two sides of the same coin, delusion is the coin’s rim. We believe that if we could just have what we want, or get rid of what we don’t want, all will be well. If we could find the right person and marry him, we would live happily ever after; if that annoying coworker would just go away, we would finally experience lasting job satisfaction. Delusion is related to ignorance, with the refinement that it is willful ignorance. You can picture the delusional personality type with her fingers in her ears, forever chanting “lalala I can’t hear you!”

My best example of a delusional type is Ronald Reagan with his clarion call, “it’s morning in America!” (his admirers would doubtless suggest a different political figure). People who want to believe a leader in spite of the fact that his policies will not promote peace, prosperity, or goodwill are suffering from delusion. Likewise, people who try to use fact-based arguments in a setting fraught with emotion are deluded. Delusion permeates American political culture, more so even than the greed of consumerism or the hatred of racism (although in the current state of polarization between liberals and conservatives, hatred may overtake it). Erasmus’ Praise of Folly shows no respect to rulers of his time, castigating them as warmongering and hedonistic, with little to no interest in benefiting their subjects. If he were able to see 21st-century America, he would say that nothing has changed in five hundred years.

Humans are poor resources of wisdom or self-control, yet even so, all the poisons have some positive benefits for humanity. Desire can spur us to pursue wholesome actions, while aversion can motivate us to correct injustice (or even to do something as necessary as avoid spoiled meat). And without delusion, Folly tells us, no one would have the courage to undertake anything worthwhile. The path to enlightenment begins where we are, with a desire for a better life, an aversion to suffering, and a deluded notion of where that path will take us. It may seem like a poor foundation, but it’s all we have.

The Three Poisons: Aversion

I am going to admit one thing right here: I am an aversive type. Figuring out one’s type tends to resemble reading about symptoms of various diseases on the Internet, in that a person can easily imagine being afflicted with all of them. Still, when I face up to my most basic reactions to the world, the answer is clear.

Aversion, or hatred, is the flip side of desire. People have a strong response to something, but instead of wanting to draw it close, the impulse is to push it away. Aversive types walk into a room and find the one jarring note, the flaw that ruins everything around it, while greed types find themselves wanting everything they see.

Each of us flavors our aversion in our own way. When I was younger, I hated noise: the sounds of other people eating, chewing gum (especially bubble gum!), laughing loudly, snoring, just living their lives. I was the annoying neighbor who would pound on your door and demand you turn the music down, or track down a radio outdoors and tell the malefactor to turn it off. I was the silly person who would come outside in her bathrobe at 7:00 a.m. and tell the guy to quit mowing the grass while I was trying to sleep. You get the picture, I’m sure. On and on it went. Barking dogs, crying babies, children playing, weekend parties, the folks in the apartment downstairs making love, everything. I say I used to do this because for the most part I’ve stopped. Until that happened, though, my life was always just one intrusive sound away from being bloody hell.

Then there were the quarrels. For pretty much all of my life I’ve had at least one person in my immediate surroundings who would drive me crazy. Usually, but not always, these people have been women. I’ve journaled about them, talked endlessly about them, carried on interior monologues about them, dreamed about them, and ground my teeth when around them. Exposure would mean fresh fodder for rumination, although absence brought scant relief. The only way of getting rid of an obsession would be to find another one to drive it out.

Typically, the objects of my wrath were colleagues, peers, co-workers. Often they were rivals. In most cases, the adversary would either initiate or at least participate in the hostilities, out of jealousy or a desire to gain dominance. Seminars and department meetings were excellent venues for carrying on a passive aggressive campaign, finding just the right weapons to inflict pain without anyone else knowing what was going on. For an academic, this would mean introducing subtle notes of disagreement to discredit the other’s point, undermining without appearing to do so deliberately. At parties and social gatherings, hostilities might escalate through subtle flirting with another woman’s husband.

After hours, I engaged in countless phone calls and coffee breaks with allies, in which we’d rehash the person’s misdeeds, stupidity, bad hair, or whatever. I tried bringing these things up with my husband, but he was not a satisfying sounding board because he almost always would signal either boredom or disapproval, precipitating a fight between the two of us. All I can say is, Stephen, I’m sorry, and I am eternally grateful to you for sticking by me through all this tedious nonsense!

Aversion frequently drives people to embrace causes, which in turn leads to admiration from like-minded people. I have an award plaque from our local AAUP chapter for having advanced the cause of academic freedom. What that amounted to in reality was declaring all-out war on the college administration, standing up in faculty meetings, sending out all-faculty emails, participating in a grievance procedure, and ruminating day and night on the wrongs perpetuated by the evildoers. I had a tight-knit group around me keeping the fire alive, all of us assuring one another that we were fighting the good fight.

My actions actually helped both individuals and the college as a whole, but underneath all of it I knew that something was off. I was exhilarated, but I was also miserable, for I had no peace. It took me years to understand what it means for seemingly virtuous actions to come from a dark place. I am grateful beyond words to have learned this lesson.

The Three Poisons: Greed

According to Buddhist teaching, there are three poisons that affect the mind, creating a distorted lens through which we view reality. These are greed (desire), hatred (aversion), and delusion (wrong view). These roughly correspond to the three types of sensations we encounter: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. Finally, there are three basic personality types that lean towards one of the three poisons more than the other two, although all of us are affected by all three. I am going to begin with the greed type.

People of this type look at a room full of objects, or a catalogue or department store, and immediately focus on wanting what they see. My mother was a greed type. She was a marathon shopper, bringing home sacks of things almost every day. A typical exchange between us would go like this: “That’s a lovely shade of lipstick you’re wearing, Jane. What is it?” “It’s a Revlon, called [insert name here].” “Oh, really? I’d like to get that shade. Can I try it? Maybe it will look good on me.” And within a day or two she would add it to her collection.

Whenever she travelled with my dad the two of them would acquire Persian rugs, bone china, and artworks to bring home. At the point of my father’s retirement, they had a sizable house filled with beautiful things. The task of downsizing was excruciating, which is why they did only the bare minimum to fit into their retirement home, itself not exactly small. After my father’s death, my mother stayed in that house for four years before moving to my town in the Midwest. Getting her out of there was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, because she wanted to spend hours considering each item, reminiscing about it, lovingly planning either to donate or keep it. I and her realtor ended up calling in a group of men with a truck and hauling off all the stuff she would not be taking with her. She was furious, but if we hadn’t done it she would never have made it out of there at all.

Greed types are hungry for experiences, things, life itself. Greed isn’t necessarily all bad, for without it none of us would be motivated to do the things necessary to keep us alive. We also wouldn’t be able to appreciate the good things the world has to offer. As with the other two poisons, however, greed is rooted in the illusion that we can find true freedom and happiness from what is outside ourselves, and the energy we devote to getting the things we crave can occupy our entire lives, setting us up for frustration and even abuse (think about animal hoarding). The thrill of anticipation is never quite realized in having what we want, and so we soon get bored and want something more.

I think about greed as the feeling I get when I see something that causes me to light up like a Christmas tree. In my case, it’s cake. There’s a scene in the 2013 version of the Great Gatsby that I noticed more than any of the others, in which Jay Gatsby prepares to meet his lady love at Nick’s cottage. He fills the place with flowers accompanied by an extravagant array of cakes, and for the entire scene, the cakes were all that I noticed. A picture of a beautiful cake is often enough to send me to the store to get some for myself.

Greed or desire is a lens through which a person experiences the world. Everything is evaluated as being potentially available to a greed type, who has a bottomless bucket list. While it may seem unflattering to describe someone in this way, we’re only presenting facts to be understood, not moral judgments or criticisms. Insight is the necessary step to letting go, which in turn leads to freedom.

Time (in a Bottle)

Every so often something opens up a time warp and I find myself awkwardly split between the past and the present. So yesterday I was sitting, or rather lying back, in the dentist’s chair getting my teeth cleaned when a song came over the Muzak: Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” I groaned out loud, telling the hygienist that I found the song depressing, but I knew even then that the word “depressing” doesn’t really describe it because it’s so much more than that: it’s genuinely sad; tragic, even, both because of the artist’s early death and for what it says about the human condition. Here are the lyrics:

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day
‘Til eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you

If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I’d save every day like a treasure and then,
Again, I would spend them with you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do
Once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go
Through time with

If I had a box just for wishes
And dreams that had never come true
The box would be empty
Except for the memory
Of how they were answered by you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do
Once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go
Through time with

Songwriter: Jim Croce
Time in a Bottle lyrics © BMG Rights Management US, LLC

I thought back to the time when I first heard that song. It was featured significantly in a TV movie from 1973 called “She Lives,” a movie about cancer and young love, like “Love Story” and “The Fault in Our Stars” and so many others I’ve forgotten. I remember that one because of the feeling of tenderness and wistfulness it elicited at a time when I was the same age as the young lovers.

I went home and forgot about it until it was time to go to bed, at which point a demonic little impulse prompted me to find the song online and listen to it again. Next I read what Wikipedia had to say, and when the article mentioned “She Lives” I thought, “I’ll bet that movie is on YouTube,” and so I looked it up and ended by watching the whole thing. What surprised me was how well I remembered details of the dialogue after more than 40 years, even though I can’t remember precisely where I was when I saw it.

“Time in a Bottle” tells of the impossible desire to save what is most precious, one’s love for a particular mortal being, from the relentless march of chronological time. There is the consolation of going through whatever time one has with one’s love, but the tug is always there. My time in a bottle is a fragile memory captured from a distant time, of a young person I used to be, who lives in me still. I can watch that movie and see it from an adult’s perspective, or I can suddenly be just as I was when I first saw it as if no time has passed at all. I can even do both at once. The trouble is, I would rather not be caught up in a wistful dream of temps perdu. It’s like an incubus taking away all one’s energy for the task at hand. And now that I think of it, the couple from the film are dreadfully tedious in their absorption in each other, and the film itself is sweetly insipid. Even the song can grate on the ear with endless repetition.

Time for bed.

Growing up as the Donna Reed Show

Okay, I admit it: I’m the kind of tedious baby boomer who reminisces about the 50s and that part of the 60s that came before the real 60s, or as my parents thought, the time just before everything went to hell. Women in those days did their housework in poplin dresses with which they wore stockings and utilitarian shoes, their hair done and their makeup on. My mother’s hands were always full, of laundry, sewing, the vacuum cleaner, or dishes. She always had a fragrance about her, which I called a “mummy smell”: something along the lines of Jergens hand lotion, light and sweet.

I played on the dining room floor under the table, with coloring books and dolls and picture books. I vaguely recall a playpen prior to that, and a crib for nap time. I seem to have memories of very early childhood, of being held in my mother’s arms at the kitchen table, where she would spoon baby food into my mouth and coo at me. I tried talking to her, but she didn’t understand me very well, which was mildly frustrating. In the evenings after the dinner dishes were done she would bathe me in the kitchen sink.

At some point before dinner my father would come home, calling out a cheerful hello as he came through the front door. I ran down the hall to him and he would pick me up and swing me in his arms. He wore a suit and tie, with a grey fedora and grey wool coat. His shoes were always shiny and his shirts neatly ironed. He told me he was “the boss of the bank,” which strictly speaking wasn’t true, although he was the treasurer, close enough. We lived in a two-story white house with black shutters,  a full front porch, a bay window, and an enormous yard with a barn in back for the blue-and-white car.

I have two older brothers, but they didn’t live with us; they were “at school.” Mark was seven years and Tommy four years older than I. Three or four times a year they would be home for visits that typically lasted two weeks, and we would be a family together. In between times we would drive up once a month or so to their school in Rhinebeck, New York. Both our visits and theirs were the high points of my young life. I loved my big brothers and saw them as living an exciting, grown-up life away, bringing welcome noise and laughter into our quiet home. We spent the entire visit playing together, going on excursions in the car, and hiking in the woods looking for snakes and turtles, which we would keep for a day or two and then set free again. Mark was very knowledgeable about the different varieties, garter snakes and grass snakes, box turtles and painted turtles. The fact that some of these creatures could be deadly was a source of fascination—over and over, he would ask our father, “Can I pick up a snapping turtle?” and Dad would answer, “Sure, just as soon as you figure out which of your fingers you don’t need any more.” “No!” Mark would say with a big laugh, and not long afterward would ask all over again.

Tommy was quieter, pacing around the dining room with his hands in loose fists to either side of his head. Once in awhile he would come out with some brief remark, and then return to his pacing. He played with blocks and simple white plastic bricks, or else drew rows and rows of tiny, square-shaped objects on sheets of paper, always in pencil. He would vocalize aimlessly in keening sounds, sometimes singing a little. Outside he liked the swing set in the back, where he would sing loudly as he pumped higher and higher.

Why couldn’t Mark and Tommy live with us all the time I once asked, and my mother simply groaned and shook her head. I didn’t get it. I could vaguely remember a time when Tommy was still with us, at a school across town. Earlier still they had gone to the same school I would attend. On my first day of kindergarten, the teacher called my name and then said, “I had your brothers,” through lips that were pursed just a little, and maybe by then I had some idea why. My brothers were “a handful,” especially Tommy, although according to my mother Mark had been an even bigger handful at one time. That was before he was sent to his first school away from home, a place called Strawberry Hill, where the teachers used a clever strategy to get him to stop screeching: every day my brother loved going along to meet the mail truck, but he could only go if he didn’t screech that day. For awhile he responded by screeching until he was hoarse, but eventually he learned to stop doing it.

These stories were nothing more to me than ordinary family lore, along with the fact that while the boys were home, none of my other friends came around. It was understood that the time with them and the time without them were separate, and I got used to never so much as talking about my brothers with people from our life apart from them, not with people my age or with grownups. I did not break this rule for many, many years.

Fibromyalgia

Now we arrive at a place of loss. I have always been tightly wound, anxious; and sleep has been a struggle since I can’t remember when. I am also a master procrastinator. In high school I recollect nights at my desk, trying to finish hateful tasks (math homework, research papers) that were due the following day. In college I pulled all-nighters, and in grad school I found myself owing papers that had been due in classes a year or two earlier. I don’t know what combination of fantasy and denial prompted me to pursue an academic career, but that’s what I did, and so I made a lifetime of late nights, conference papers finished in airplanes, and hair-pulling over deadlines. Now in retirement I let dishes pile up and necessary paperwork fill my desk.

Not much is known about the cause of fibromyalgia, but it seems to be connected with inadequate, troubled sleep. As a young adult I took on the identity of an insomniac and wallowed in it, envying people for whom sleep was uncomplicated. I was the Princess and the Pea, the kind of person whose sleep could be disrupted by anything at all. In October, 2004 I received the fibromyalgia diagnosis. My first response was anger at myself for having brought on such a condition; next I cried, briefly; and finally I felt relief. Here was the answer, then, the permission I needed from an outside source to take things easy. No more overwork, no more late nights.

Only it wasn’t that simple. I had my diagnosis, but I was still able to function in my job, in spite of the severe headaches that had driven me to the doctor in the first place. I could cheerfully ditch some of the projects and committee work I had taken on, but what followed over the next few years was a cycle that would repeat over and over: a period of pain and fatigue, which would prompt a shedding of responsibilities, followed by a period of relative ease during which I would gradually take on more work, leading to another crisis that would force me to back off again. From what I gather, this is a common pattern for people like me.

I wasn’t happy, but I was buoyed by false hopes that at some point I would find that precious work-life balance everyone keeps running on about. It never happened. What happened instead was an intensification of my symptoms that eventually drove me into an early retirement. There is no way of knowing the precise cause, but I have a story that works as well as any, that my body reacted to the trauma of a full hip replacement, which occurred at the precise moment my mother descended into dementia. All are stories for another time.

Dreams of my Mother

I dreamed about her last night, my mother. It was a pleasant, warm, sunny day, and I was going to someone’s funeral, at a nice venue. There were a lot of women there, well-dressed, older. We entered a pretty room where tables were set up for lunch. My mother was with me, saying, “I’d like you to arrange my funeral here, Jane.” “But mother,” I replied, “I already had two funerals for you, a funeral and a committal service,” and thought, no, I can’t go through all that again. And it occurred to me that people don’t typically attend their own funeral services in the flesh.

Now we are sitting at a round table, more or less across from each other, with other women we might have known. I look at her closely, studying her face, her hair, her smile. I know every inch of her face, down to the small beauty spot on her nose. How wonderful that we can be together again! Yes, I think, dreaming is a way I can still be with her, even though she’s gone. I leave my seat and walk over to her, burying my face in her hair, breathing in her scent. My lips brush the soft, papery skin of her cheek, all just as I’d remembered.

On the morning of her death day a hospice worker arrived to give her a sponge bath in her bed. I saw the curve of her thigh, so beautiful, and said, “She did a lot of dancing on those legs.” Later, just before she was prepared to be wheeled out of the room by the funeral director, I uncovered her foot for one last look. Her feet were narrow, and the second toe was longer than her big toe, making it hard for her to find shoes that would fit. I touched the toe and smiled.