From the Faculty: Pilar Jennings

The contemplative traditions are relatively unanimous on the status of “illusion” as an obstacle to contemplative insight. What is the source of illusion, insofar as you understand it?

In the spiritual terrain, this is a key question.  And as you might imagine, in the psychological one, too. As a Buddhist psychoanalyst, I appreciate the critical importance of exploring the role of illusion as a way to both facilitate and potentially run from healing.  In religious life – regardless of the tradition – we intentionally cultivate relationship to feelings, sensations, and beliefs that cannot be proven. There’s no testable data to confirm the presence of a Buddha, or awakened being, angels or God. We use our minds, and our capacity for imagination, alongside strong affect and associations to cultivate a felt sense of being surrounded by caring entities, however you configure them.  This is a long way of saying that the source of illusion is the mind. It may also, depending on the nature of the illusion, originate in the brain.  For instance, optical illusions result from the brain’s misinterpretation of what the eye perceives.  But in religious life, our illusory experience is generated through our mind’s capacity for imagination and meaningful symbolic representations.

What are the effects of a world pervaded by illusion?

Illusory experience isn’t inherently problematic.  The question is whether or not we can access the part of us that has some awareness of entering into or experiencing illusion. In other words, is there a part that can offer needed reality checks, helping us stay curious about an illusory experience without conviction of its veracity? Without this part, we’re susceptible to delusion and that becomes more problematic.

If you’ve been even peripherally aware of our political milieu over the past four years, you might be wondering if we are indeed living in world pervaded by illusion. And to some extent, it seems we are, regardless of our politics. This takes many forms: The conviction that what we’re living through will never change, fantasies of a savior (politicians from preferable parties, with more resonant ideologies, etc.), and that things have never been worse.  The feelings associated with these illusions make sense, but it’s important to tease apart the feelings from the illusions that generate them.

According to your perspective, how does one pierce through illusion?

To intentionally notice our illusory experience, most of us need someone else who can see the illusion with more clarity.  It’s for this reason that in Buddhism and in psychotherapy, we’re encouraged to work with trusted mentors.  We all have psyches ripe with fantasy and longing, and terror of certain realities, that easily gives rise to illusory perception.  For this reason, in all substantive healing paths, practitioners work closely with mentors who can point out our places of unconscious ensnarement, non-judgmentally offering insight where our thinking and sensing may be clouded over with illusory perceptions, and where reality might be edgier and more complex but ultimately more clarifying and freeing.

What is the truth beyond illusion? What is the nature of this truth?

I feel reluctant to make categorical statements about truth writ large.  This reluctance is informed by my appreciation for subjectivity and that ultimate truths can only be accessed through our subjective experience.  For example, patients often want to know how I can tell if they’re doing better.  I chime in to offer my sense of how a treatment is unfolding, but ultimately I defer to what the patient is experiencing.  Are they more trusting of their perception? Do they feel safer in their own minds and bodies? Do they suffer less anxiety and more enlivening encounters?  Can they imagine being in relationship with another person without being badly harmed, and maybe even deeply cared for? They know best, and I do my best to accurately reflect their subjective knowing. I think trustworthy spiritual mentors do something similar.  They’re not inclined to tell a student what they are or should be experiencing.  Instead, they’re more likely to express curiosity for the student’s unfolding experience and to affirm the student’s own capacity for insight and illuminating awareness.

If illusion is understood as the passive state of non-knowledge about the truth, then we might conceive of the “virtual” as the flipside of illusion, actively cultivating imagination to aid in the process of insight? What does your tradition/speciality say about this notion of the virtual?

Well, interestingly, in both my spiritual and clinical worlds, there is enormous respect for our need to both allow for and investigate illusory or virtual experience (here I’m using the terms interchangeably).  In Tibetan Buddhism, for instance, we use imagery to evoke a visceral sense of our own capacity for aliveness, compassion, and clear seeing.  So often our sense of ourselves is skewed.  Most of us at some point internalize delimiting beliefs about who we are, and often these beliefs prevent us from even imagining a future ability to live with more meaning, relative contentment, and even joy.  So in our spiritual lives, we allow the imagination to evoke awakened beings who have all sorts of symbolic attributes – colors, hand gestures, facial expressions, etc. – and slowly risk cultivating a visceral sense of communion with these Buddhas (beings awake to their fullest capacity for aliveness, insight and compassion), and then practice imagining that they reflect our truest nature.  We are a Buddha, even if we think we’re completely nuts, anxiety-ridden, phobic, etc.  Without having to deny this complex psychological sense of ourselves, we slowly make room for a fuller truth.

What I have come to experience and notice in others is that these imaginal, virtual experiences, can augment our sense of who we are and how others might enter into our lives.  Something similar happens in psychotherapy.  If a patient has experienced relationship as mostly causing harm, perhaps even catastrophe, interacting with the therapist might for some time seem like a virtual effort at safe-enough, respectful, and compassionate relationship.  There might be a conviction that the therapist is nothing but a fantasy – after all, the interaction happens only in one room at a specific time, and for a fee.  Surely this can’t be trusted as an authentic experience of real relationship!  But…if they hang in there, and the therapist is open to being in an authentic (and boundaried) relationship, the patient might come to find that the fantasy (or the virtual relationship) eventually helps usher in the reality of feeling known by another real human being, cared for, and respected.

What are some contemplative tools that are designed to cultivate non-illusory states of awareness?

To draw out the point I make in the previous response, in Tibetan Buddhism we use all sorts of methods for working with our senses.  We use imagery quite a bit, as well as hand gestures (mudras), music, chanting, and breathwork, to help us enter into a visceral sense of how we can use the mind for healing. Over time, and with lots of practice and skillful mentoring, what may begin as more of virtual experience starts to feel like a reality we can trust. This is supported by the Buddhist emphasis on both practicing and studying or reflecting.  The historical Buddha Shakyamuni and all the great teachers who followed, emphasized the critical importance of directly experiencing our Buddha-nature through meditation, alongside efforts at reflection and study.  Using our cognitive capacities to investigate and think about our experience in meditation is a critically needed part of testing out the reality of what we’re experiencing in our spiritual lives.  For example, we might spend years practicing mindfulness meditation, yet upon reflection notice how we become mindless when faced with any unforeseen frustration, or when faced with interpersonal conflict.  There’s a common misperception that Buddhism seeks to devalue the importance of cognition. But if you read the great teachers in any Buddhist lineage, for instance the revered 13th century Zen teacher Dogen, or the great 2nd century Tibetan teacher Nagarjuna, you find compelling work on our need to both directly experience the mind and heart, and think through the nature of this experience.  To check carefully how we’re progressing, what we’re entering into, and what we might need to work on with greater care.

Please describe the practice of utilizing one of these tools or techniques.

It’s not surprising that mindfulness meditation has become such a pervasive method well beyond the spiritual terrain. This has something to do with how clarifying this method tends to be.  Most of your readers will be well-acquainted with this practice, but as a pithy review, mindfulness meditation involves the process of noticing what’s happening in the mind without judgment.  It sounds so simple, even boring.  But for anyone who has practiced, you know just how challenging and surprising this can be. The mind tends to be a highly dynamic place. We carry within us extraordinary depth and breadth of feelings, memories, fantasies, and longing.  So when we make efforts to bring our awareness to the mind with less distraction than we’re accustomed to, what we become aware of can be startling. In a way, we’re risking contact with reality.  

I mentioned above that most of us have a slightly distorted sense of who we are.  This can become quite apparent through mindfulness meditation.  With a little quiet time, no devices handy, nothing to rush off to, suddenly we become aware of feelings we never knew we had, or haunting images we realize are seemingly always with us, or fantasies that seem much more compelling than reality. This can be a form of awakening, a process of noticing more about the truth of what we feel, how we experience ourselves and the world of our mind.  But…in order to really mine this experience for meaning, we also need to reflect on what we experience in our meditation.  To think about it, and in this way, to cultivate needed bridges between direct experience and cognition.  In therapy, something similar happens.  We have all sorts of experiences with the therapist and then we talk about it, reflect together to see if we can understand more about what we feel.  In both traditions, this bridge between the visceral and the reflective allows us to safely enter into more reality.

Are there scientific theories that reflect what ancient contemplative philosophies have been telling us all along?

Clinicians who practice Buddhist spiritual methods now have a wealth of compelling scientific data to affirm and flesh out the psycho-biological healing nature of these methods.  For instance, Stephen Porges’ work on polyvagal theory has offered a way to more fully appreciate our physiological response to trauma, or any experience of threat.  Interestingly, these clinical insights have now intersected with clinical methods that closely resemble ancient Buddhist healing practice.  One of Porges’ insights is that the autonomic nervous system develops personal patterns in response to our relational history.  In other words, habituated somatic responses to threat get powerfully reinforced as a ways of staving off any future threat.  When this happens, it becomes increasingly difficult for the body and the mind to access feelings of safety, ease, and connection.  In Buddhist meditation, we work with the breath and the mind as a way of cultivating the very physiological states that Porges describes as indicators of a regulated nervous system.  If you continue this exploration, you find a roadmap for somatic and mental regulation in the Tibetan Vajrayana teachings that closely resemble the biological specificity of the autonomic nervous system and its capacity for equilibrium.  This is just one compelling example of the intelligence we find in ancient spiritual healing arts.