This week I unleash my “Inner Geek” with a Star Trek reference. In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard is interrogated by a sadistic captor, Gul Madred. Day after day, Madred tells Captain Picard to look at an overhead lamp with four light bulbs. He asks Picard, “How many lights do you see?” When Captain Picard responds with the correct number, he is tortured and starved. Madred wants Captain Picard to claim that he sees five lights, when, in fact, there are only four. Shortly after he is rescued, Captain Picard confesses to his ship’s counselor that toward the end of his captivity he believed he could see five lights.
Self-delusion is a common occurrence, particularly when we are under duress. It’s easy to see it in others. The homophobic preacher battling his own repressed sexual orientation. The “peace” activist who is angry and belligerent.
Of course, by definition, we tend not to see our own self-delusions. We may see ourselves as basically kind, generous, virtuous, open-minded or sophisticated. We tend not to see, however, the times in which we are or have the capacity to be mean-spirited, greedy, promiscuous, judgmental or a total geek.
Self-delusions can be a gift. In a crisis, we only see the part of reality we can actually process. In our formative years, the emerging ego creates a partially-true identity that helps us navigate the tricky social structures in which we live. However, to be mature and whole and avoid self-sabotage, these delusions must eventually give way to a more accurate perspective.
When I was in Japan, I went to verdant Mount Koya-san. Accessed only by funicular, over 100 Buddhist temples populate its slopes. At the temple where I spent the night, guests are invited each morning to join the monks for a fire ceremony. All of the monks except one sit together on the right side of a screen that divides the temple in half. They play drums and chant while surrounded by massive urns that house their sect’s sacred scrolls. On the other side of the partition sits one monk stoking a large fire. The fire symbolizes the goal of the chanting meditation, which is not only to burn away our self-delusions, but also to illuminate them when they return throughout the day so that we can make more conscious choices that are appropriate for the moment.
Besides meditation, methods of burning away and illuminating self-delusions include:
- Ask a partner or trusted friend for honest feedback without defending yourself
- Pause for self-reflection once in a while when you sense an unseemly urge, thought or feeling emerge within you
- Journal about what you consider to be unbearable in other people and then get real about the ways in which you behave (or are trying with every fiber of your being not to behave) in a similar way
- Lighten up. These self-delusions are part of the human coping system and are not unique to you. When from a place of objectivity you see them for what they are, there’s no need to take them personally or too seriously. You might even laugh at yourself…and everyone else.
What have you found helpful in illuminating your self-delusions? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.