Denial means the act of declaring something is not true.  A simple enough word, but the way people use the word has become somewhat of a pet peeve for me.  I find that people use it in a derogatory way when they are judging another person’s actions and/or their stage of change level.  As commonly used, if I say you are in denial, what I am really saying is that I have the only truth.  And, perhaps, I know your truth better than you.

I’m not sure where our use of the word got off track.  It feels quite neutral to say that someone denies something, e.g. for many years I denied that eating saturated fats and eggs caused heart disease.  However, to say one is “in denial” feels charged, e.g. I was in denial that eating saturated fats and eggs caused heart disease.  “Being in denial”, inherently means I’m wrong, when it should just mean I don’t agree with something.

Consider the saturated fats and eggs example.  For many years, the mainstream thought that these items needed to be avoided for a healthy heart.  I denied this reality and, despite heart disease running in my family, continued to have the best cardiovascular system in my family.  Now, the mainstream has come around to my way of thinking.  Would I say they were in denial all those years?  Doesn’t that seem like a silly use of the term?  Perhaps they would have disagreed (denied) that my way is healthy, but it would seem strange to say they were in denial.

The “authorities” had taken all the available information and come to a different conclusion than me.  Then the mainstream had followed their advice. (I started to say they followed it “mindlessly” but realized that would be adding a judgement. Let’s just say they followed it without examining it further.)   In some traditions (Buddhism), this would not be called denial, but ignorance.  “Everybody” in my saturated fat example was simply ignorant of the truth.

The word ignorant rubs me wrong as well.  Inherent in the way it is commonly used, it suggests a mental deficiency, instead of just a simple and temporary not knowing. I prefer the term awareness.

Sometimes one is not aware that something is really a problem because no time has been taken to examine the situation objectively. This is the case when people accept things at face value, or accept information from people that they trust without examining it personally.

Other times people may be aware they are having a problem, but they ignore it because they cannot imagine an alternative or they think this is just how it is.  This is the case of the alcoholic/drug user that is surrounded by others that are drinking, using, getting DUIs and calling in sick to work due to hangovers.  It just doesn’t seem like a problem because it is normal.  I wouldn’t call that person in denial, they are just not aware of the alternative and/or aren’t looking for an alternative because they are already “normal”.

I think Socrates may sum it up best…

The unexamined life is not worth living.


The Truman Show

The Truman Show, a movie released in 1998, demonstrates a couple of Buddhist and/or common spiritual ideas. These include how insight experiences mature to insight and how deceptive reality will eventually be illuminated and overturned by Truth.

In the movie, Truman (Jim Carrey) is adopted at birth by a corporation The Turman Show movie coverand becomes part of a reality TV show featuring him that airs worldwide 24 hours a day.  His world consists of a man-made set, Seahaven, which is an island populated by actors.  Every once in awhile he may get an idea that his world is peculiar, but the participants in the deception work to support his view that Seahaven world is real.  The movies depicts Truman, in his third decade, becoming suspicious and trying to break through the veil of deception.  While the Truman Show director and producers are trying to keep him trapped, the viewing audience is rooting for his escape.

I was originally introduced to the movie by Geshe Michael Roach, who suggested it illustrated the idea that buddhas are all conspiring to get us enlightened.  However, it seemed to me, that the most active participants in Truman’s world were working to keep him in his trapped state.  Albeit, the viewing audience was on his side, they were powerless to help him.  This is much like the idea that we have to do our own work to reach enlightenment.  Buddhas can help by teaching, but they cannot create our enlightenment for us.

The movie, however, does seem to illustrate quite nicely the idea of deceptive reality.  In the Buddhist model, the world we live in is quite real, but the reality of it is deceptive.  This is similar to how Truman’s world was real, but not the way Truman thought it was.

Our normal reality, or conventional reality, does not work the way it appears to work.  For instance, it appears that when we do something wrong (e.g. lie to our boss that we missed work because we were sick when we were not) that good comes from that (e.g. we keep our job and get a day off). This apparent cause and effect is a deception.  Only the unpleasantness of being lied to or being deceived can come from telling a lie.  This is not obvious because of the time delay between the action and the fruit of the action.  This is how we can act in ways that harm ourselves – the cause and effect connection is not obvious.

Truman had experiences in his childhood and as a young adult that could have led to insight into the reality of his world, but it wasn’t until he got older did enough of these experiences mature into true insight.  When he got the idea that his world might not really be as he thought, he began to test that insight and it was validated.  This realization then caused him to renounce the world. In fact, he was so done with the world that we was willing to die as opposed to living the lie anymore.

This is similar to any spiritual quest.  One starts with a dissatisfaction with the world and a seeking for something better.  This causes one to examine their world more closely.  In Buddhism this culminates in a realization that the impermanence and suffering in the world are truly not satisfying and feeds the drive to reach a “state” that can provide lasting satisfaction.

In Buddhism we say that samsara will have an end and that all beings will become enlightened because truth is a powerful antidote.  We see that manifest in Truman’s world.  Despite his world continuing to feed him lies, he recognizes truth and goes after it.  In the end he reaches freedom and the Buddhas (viewing audience) cheer.

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