Buddhism distinguishes two types of ignorance. One is the ignorance of failing to ascertain some aspect of reality. We weren’t paying attention when some feature of reality presented itself, so we didn’t get it. This is simple, innocent ignorance, which can be rectified by attending more closely and learning. When we look more closely, we see what is really happening.
The more pernicious type of ignorance, or delusion, actually catapults us into suffering. In active delusion, we project our own prejudices, assumptions, and beliefs upon reality. Then, forgetting that we have done so, we fuse our projections with actual appearances. We hear things that were never said, see things that never happened, remember actions never taken, and so forth. Psychologists call it transference or projection — a marvelously creative mind painting its own reality. Instead of critically comparing our projections, assumptions, beliefs, hopes, and fears with actual appearances, we fuse them together and simply assume that what we perceive is real.
The Practice of Mindfulness: Discovering Projections and Reality
The practice of mindfulness entails a careful examination and surgical dissection of what is being presented by reality from what is being projected by us. When we are simply imagining something and we attend with a quiet mind, our projections tend to vanish like mist under a hot sun. On the other hand, when a phenomenon is actually a manifestation of reality, the more closely we attend, the more distinctly it appears.
A central theme in the application of mindfulness is attending to the manifest contents of experience, from moment to moment, in order to distinguish what is really being presented from what is merely projected. We can perceive, acknowledge, and embrace the causal efficacy of all manner of phenomena by seeing regular patterns and associations. When A appears, it gives rise to B, not just once but repeatedly. When A is absent, B never occurs. This is a phenomenological understanding of causality, rather than a metaphysical fixation on mechanistic, physical causes.
Guided Meditation: Mindfulness
Sustain mindfulness of all appearances and projections — considering everything grist for the mill
Settle the body in its natural state and the respiration in its natural rhythm. Then settle the mind in its natural state, in the mode of open awareness of all appearances. Maintain an ongoing flow of unwavering mindfulness of whatever appears to the physical senses and the mind.
Monitor the balance of mindfulness with introspection. If you see that you have been carried away by distracting thoughts, relax more deeply, return to the immediacy of the present moment, and release grasping. If you see that you have become spaced-out or dull, arouse a fresh interest, focus, and settle your awareness in the present moment.
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Carefully distinguish appearances being presented to you from the projections you superimpose on these phenomena. No thoughts are banished, only the clinging to them. As thoughts and projections arise, note them for what they are, without conflating them with perceptual appearances. In the sensed, there is just the sensed; in mental events, there are just mental events. Everything — including projections, when recognized as such — is grist for the mill.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Snow Lion Publications.
Minding Closely: The Four Applications of Mindfulness
by B. Alan Wallace.
About the Author
Trained for ten years in Buddhist monasteries in India and Switzerland, Alan Wallace has taught Buddhist theory and practice in Europe and America since 1976. After graduating summa cum laude from Amherst College, where he studied physics and the philosophy of science, he earned a doctorate in religious studies at Stanford University. He has edited, translated, authored, or contributed to more than thirty books on Tibetan Buddhism, medicine, language, and culture, as well as the interface between religion and science. He teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California. Alan is the president of the Santa Barbara Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Consciousness (http://sbinstitute.com). Visit his website at www.alanwallace.org.