Denial

It’s been a while since I talked about Buddhist concepts, so let’s look at denial.

The Buddha observed that being in denial is a major source of unhappiness. If you ignore truths about yourself or the world, you end up out of sync with reality. This is a recipe for suffering—sooner or later, reality wins. So denial is a defense mechanism that’s guaranteed to fail eventually…at which point you have to face the truth anyway, or else double-down on denial which only puts you farther out on a limb.

Being in denial is often unconscious. Once in a while, we might recognize that we’re deliberately ignoring something important, but usually we suppress that recognition as quickly as possible. We distract ourselves with other things, or we tell ourselves stories to cover up or deflect uncomfortable feelings. And it’s certainly the case that sometimes we just aren’t ready to deal with some truth. It’s too raw, or we feel too battered to cope. It can be a mistake to confront something huge when we’re not ready.

So what to do? This is where meditation and meditative practices come in. There are many many forms of practice aimed at many many results…but in Buddhism, two types are especially important:

    1. Focusing and calming the mind. Left on its own, your brain hops all over the place; or maybe it goes round and round in circles; and sometimes it just zones out into numbness and blah.

      So the first meditative practice is almost always working to focus your mind on a single thing. You might focus on your breathing, or a sight or a sound or a repeated phrase…but always something simple. You practice doing that for longer and longer until you’ve trained your brain to focus and settle down.

      The classic metaphor is letting mud settle out from muddy water. Stay still long enough and the mud will go to the bottom, leaving the water clear.

    2. Once you can focus and set aside distractions, then you begin a different type of meditative practice: just watching your body and mind with awareness.

      Body awareness is enormously important. Some people think that meditation means denying your body, but we’ve already said that denial will mess you up. You aren’t trying to repress your body, you’re trying to feel it fully.

      So for example, if you find yourself bored, what does boredom feel like? Tension in certain places? Itches? Sleepiness? Restless thoughts? But the point is not to suppress any of your natural experience. Simply notice it and be aware, without making up any stories around it.

Building up awareness is your tool for avoiding denial. By increasing your awareness of body and mind, you eventually can notice when you’re lying to yourself. “I’m not angry!” (Then why are my shoulders so tense?) “I don’t care what he thinks!” (Then why have I spent the last ten minutes going around and around inside my head inventing ways to crush him in an argument I know we’ll never have?) “I didn’t mean anything, it was just a joke!” (Then why am I so fiercely insisting that she’s the one in the wrong for being offended?)

At the same time that you’re building up awareness, you’re building your capacity to face what’s what. As I said before, denial is a defense mechanism, and some people have gigantic burdens to defend themselves against. Meditation doesn’t make your problems smaller, but it makes your capacity for truth larger. Eventually, it may let you face anything (including the biggie: you and everyone you care about are going to die).

BUT NONE OF THIS IS EASY. The first time you try “focus meditation”, you’ll discover what Gandhi called Monkey Mind. Your thoughts skip all over the place, despite how much you try to focus them. Even after days, weeks, and months of practice, you can still get distracted sometimes. As for “awareness meditation”, that’s a lifetime of work. As soon as you become aware of some pattern of denial you’ve been caught in for years, you realize there’s another one just beneath it.

For this reason, it’s really helpful to find support: a teacher and/or a like-minded group of people who can keep you going, and also call you out when you go into denial about no longer being in denial…because it’s shockingly easy to lie to yourself at every step along a spiritual path. You can get stuck in comfortable ruts, or just as easily get stuck in ruts that aren’t comfortable but are familiar—patterns of behavior that you know aren’t helpful but you still fall back on anyway.

And getting stuck in ruts about meditation is just as easy as getting stuck in other patterns. You can believe you’re doing great paying attention to your body and mind, when really you’re just running through patterns on autopilot.

Speaking of patterns, this gets us to karma…but let’s leave that until next time.

[The picture of the couch at the top of this post is from the Wikipedia article on Denial. I believe it is Sigmund Freud’s couch. Freud was in denial about a great many things. Photo by ROBERT HUFFSTUTTER [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]