Collective Bubbles of Delusion
by David R. Loy
What makes human beings unique is also our Achilles heel – the defect that may yet destroy our species, along with most others.
Like other animals, we have instincts, but, thanks to our large neo-cortex, we can gain some degree of freedom from them by choosing how to respond to them. This is something that must be learned. We are born helpless and incomplete. During our extraordinarily long childhood – when the neo-cortex is developing – we are dependent upon, and vulnerable to, the conditioning controlled by caregivers.
So the downside of our relative freedom from instinct is our susceptibility to ways of thinking and acting inculcated by others. Much of that training process occurs before we have the conscious awareness to understand what is happening, much less any ability to evaluate it for ourselves. A common consequence is lifelong subordination to authority figures of one sort or another.
The sense of self develops in relation to other selves: we internalize our caregivers’ and siblings’ understanding of what the world is, and our role within it. And the conditioning does not end when we become adults. Since our egos are inherently insecure, in need of constant reinforcement, we remain very concerned about what other people think and especially sensitive to what they think about us.
Why do we usually believe something, such as a particular political ideology? Not because that belief-system is based on evidence. It’s no coincidence that children normally have political opinions very similar to their parents’. We learn to believe something because it is believed by others whom we respect/identify with/want to be like/want to be liked by. We are good at finding reasons to justify what we believe, but it is much more difficult to examine critically and sincerely our deepest beliefs. In fact, we are not usually aware that they are beliefs: they are not just true, they are reality. We do not normally distinguish the stories we hold about the world from the world itself.
The Buddha was aware of this problem, and emphasized the importance of not being attached to views. He applied this to his own teachings, which he described as a raft that can help us to get across the river of samsara (this world of suffering, craving and delusion) to the “other shore” of enlightenment. He warns us not to think “this is a great raft, I’ll carry it with me everywhere.” Let it go!
In place of the Abrahamic duality between good and evil, Buddhism focuses on ignorance and wisdom – the insight that comes with awakening. Delusion (moha) is one of the “three fires” or “three poisons” (the others are greed and ill will) that cause suffering when what we do is motivated by them.
Because it emphasizes individual awakening and personal transformation, Buddhism has not had much to say about collective delusion. It is of some importance that my delusions are usually not that different from the delusions of other people, especially those around me. I live within a bubble of beliefs that’s not separate from theirs: in fact, our bubbles normally overlap so much that we can refer to group bubbles of delusion. These collective bubbles can help us understand why the world works the way it does, especially the institutional structures that perpetuate social dukkha (suffering).
“Climate change” is a good example. (I use quotation marks because it would be more accurate to refer to “climate breakdown” or even “climate collapse.”) Many people in other developed nations are puzzled that so many Americans believe global warming is a “liberal hoax”. Given the overwhelming scientific consensus about the seriousness of our situation, the denial movement is a classic case of a collective delusion bubble.
This example is important in another way too: it shows how much more dangerous the problem becomes when delusion is tied in with greed (the first of the three poisons). As the old saying has it, it is very difficult to get people to see something when their livelihood depends on not seeing it. What is perhaps most baffling about climate change denial, though, is that there is little if any real benefit in doing so for anyone except those who own and manage fossil fuel corporations. Denying global warming is not only an especially problematic collective fantasy; it is a false belief manipulated with expensive and clever propaganda campaigns, by people who mostly know it is a dangerous fiction, but who are more interested in the short-term profits to be made by continuing to pump fossil carbon into the atmosphere. The result is not just a collective bubble of delusion: it is a bubble intentionally perpetuated by powerful corporations and billionaires – an example of institutionalized delusion.
In collective denial – such as that concerning climate change – the group bubble of delusion becomes much more difficult to dispel, or even to become aware of, when people consciously or subconsciously believe they benefit by not seeing it. That suggests a Buddhist response: by truly letting-go of one’s sense of self – the ego-self whose well-being is separate from others’ well-being – the self-interest that sustains the bubble is undermined. This is true collectively as well as individually. In the case of climate change, we need to realize that the well-being of our own species can’t be separated from the well-being of the whole biosphere. Buddhists and others need to realize that the kind of personal well-being, awakening and transformation we seek will not occur if we are indifferent to what is happening to other members of our community, our society and our natural world.
♦ David Loy is a professor, author & Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan lineage. Artwork by Sam Francis