Delusions are not, from a spiritual viewpoint, those aberrations that sometimes get one committed to a mental asylum. Personal mental twists of that kind might be called “illusions.” Delusions, by contrast, affect a wide range of humanity and are all but universal.
A delusion, then, is a widespread misperception of the actual state of things. All delusions suggest distorted images of reality. Worst of all, they cause us to seek fulfillment in means that always prove to be, in the end, mere shadows.
The “great delusions” are classically three in number: wine, money, and sex. To that grouping I have added another two: the desire for power, and for fame.
Wine includes any intoxicant whose effect on human awareness is depressing or deadening, and addictive. Intoxicants are (as the word implies) toxic, and reduce one’s ability ever to relate realistically to objective circumstances. For even when people recover from their alcoholic hangovers, they find themselves less able than before to cope with their difficulties.
“Wine” doesn’t include medication — anesthesia, for example, — nor the medicines people take to reduce severe physical pain. But even pain medication can become addictive by prolonged use. Addiction is the most particular danger of drinking any form of alcohol. And although some people claim that marijuana and various “hallucinogenic” drugs are non-addictive, they present at least the danger of psychological addiction.
Escaping reality by numbing one’s awareness
Those who aspire to superconscious awareness and inner soul freedom should shun, if possible, anything that dulls one’s awareness. What makes such things delusions is that they promise escape from reality by numbing one’s awareness of it. For this reason people will often seek refuge in sleep or over-eating. However, such a “way out” is no better than that of the legendary ostrich, which hides its head in the sand at any approach of danger.
The spiritual path, on the other hand, far from being an escape from reality, offers the only way out of delusion itself, and to the only abiding reality there is.
Paramhansa Yogananda: abstain from alcohol
Many people, of course, take alcoholic drinks not to deaden their awareness, but simply to be sociable, or for the stimulation they say it gives them. Any stimulant, however, brings one under the sway of duality. Raising one’s spirits by artificial means leads inevitably to a corresponding lowering, later on.
It is a mistake, therefore, to take alcoholic drinks even socially. And although the negative effects of light drinking may not be immediately noticeable, they will become so, in time.
A student of Paramhansa Yogananda heeded for a time the Guru’s counsel that she give up drinking alcoholic beverages. After a few weeks, however, finding it socially inconvenient to abstain from alcohol altogether, she began drinking a little beer or wine at parties. When she saw the Master again a few weeks later, he looked at her sternly and said, “I meant all alcoholic beverages!”
Desire for Money
The next of the “great delusions” is money. Money is not, as tradition tells us, “the root of all evil,” for we obviously need it in countless situations. In this sense, money is a “necessary necessity,” to use an expression of Yogananda’s. We should try, therefore, to make good use of it. Money itself isn’t the problem. The problem is people’s desire for money, which can indeed be called “the root of all evil.”
False hope of finding happiness
Money never, in itself, gives happiness, nor can we derive happiness from anything we buy with money. The desire for money is a principal delusion for the simple reason that it offers endless opportunities for satisfying the desire for everything we hope (falsely) will bring us happiness.
Rich people, unless they are free from attachment to wealth and use their money primarily to help others, are seldom happy—statistically, they have been found to be less happy than poor people. Possessing wealth opens up the possibility of “satisfying” an almost limitless number of desires. The rich person is likely to devote himself to looking around for “what more” possessions and exciting experiences he can accumulate in his attempt to find happiness. Yet happiness eludes him completely, for as my Guru succinctly put it, stating the law that governs desires: “Desires, ever gratified, are never satisfied.”
An affirmation of lack
Indeed, the very desire for things is itself an affirmation of lack, which in turn is a kind of poverty. We must understand that the source of all happiness lies in oneself, never in outside things. To nourish it, we must develop an inner life.
What about the third of the “great delusions,” sexual desire? Sex is, indeed, the greatest delusion of all.
“I want something from you”
What is delusive about sexual attraction, above all, is its reaffirmation of ego-consciousness. Men and women, feeling a natural attraction to one another, hold particularly to the thought, “I — you.” That thought “I” predominates, of course: “I want something from you.”
For the devotee who wants to know God, ego is the supreme delusion to overcome. Ego is the post to which every other delusion is tied. As long as we engage in any activity (including thought) with ego-commitment, it will be difficult to escape from ego-consciousness, and the inevitable suffering it brings.
Constant thoughts of lower fulfillment
Indulgence in sex is physically and mentally debilitating — especially so for men, but also, in time and particularly with over-indulgence, for women. It keeps one’s energy firmly locked at the base of the spine, whereas the higher one’s consciousness is centered in the spine, the greater one’s inner contentment, freedom, and happiness. Sex, moreover, binds people’s consciousness, in a way that no other delusion does, to constant thoughts of lower fulfillment.
Sexual indulgence prematurely ages people. It prevents them from exercising fine discrimination, and from enjoying finer esthetic pleasures. But worst of all, as I said, it binds people firmly to the post of ego-consciousness.
Benefits of overcoming sex-consciousness
The difficulty involved in overcoming sex-consciousness is more than compensated for by the freedom that comes with inner conquest. The resulting benefits are:
a) greater energy
b) greatly increased inner happiness
c) great inner freedom
d) better health
e) much greater mental clarity
f) an ability to give love equally to all
How can one overcome this natural urge? Not by shame, nor by disgust or any other negative attitude. One must learn to see it as a perfectly natural function, placed there by Nature to ensure the continuance of the species. The way out of it is first to think of it as a holy act — one, however, which can be transcended by even greater holiness in the thought of God.
The next thing is to be more impersonal in one’s behavior toward others, especially those of the opposite sex. To be impersonal does not mean to be cold. One can be very kind in one’s treatment of others. The important thing is not to want anything from them for oneself.
A natural magnetism exists
The next most important thing is to recognize and accept that a natural magnetism exists between men and women. It can affect them, in one another’s company, even if they are physically blind. The principal conduits for this magnetism are the eyes, and the sense of touch. It would be unrealistic to tell men and women to stop mixing with one another, though this is ideal for monks and nuns. However, to rise above this instinct, or to keep it under control, one should avoid gazing too closely into the eyes of the other sex.
Many scoff at the existence of sexual attraction simply because he (or she) meets so many of the other sex who exercise for him no attraction at all. Nevertheless, it’s always possible that an affectionate relationship may exist between certain people from past lives. That sense of special bond may awaken within him (or her) at any time.
Is there an age when the attraction is lessened? My Guru said, “No age. It is always present, until with God’s grace one has truly overcome it.” My sister-in-law once mentioned that her little daughter, aged about three, had a special giggle reserved just for little boys. And old people, even when the instinct is physically dormant, often show a special affection for young people of the other sex.
Limit the field by marriage
Avoid especially, therefore, the common practice of hugging others or touching them unnecessarily. A hug may be only a sign of friendship, but why express feeling for anyone through such a volatile sense as touch?
The best way, for most people, is to limit the field for themselves by monogamous marriage. Only when a person can mix with relative freedom from any thought that sexual differences exist does he find it easy not to be drawn downward by this “greatest delusion,” as my Guru called it. Complete immunity comes only with spiritual advancement, and even then one must be careful until the state of nirbikalpa samadhi is attained.
Desire for Power
Beyond these three “great delusions,” there are two other major ones. Supreme among them is the craving for power. What makes this craving a delusion is, again, the accompanying affirmation of ego-consciousness. All delusions, indeed, endanger one’s peace of mind, strengthen the ego, and deepen one’s sense of isolation from others and from any sense of support from the universe.
The desire for power may be less obvious than the first three “great delusions,” but with many people this desire, too, is obsessive. Indeed, in our present technological age, the desire for power is, if anything, growing in strength as the opportunities for achieving it increase.
The thought of controlling others
Power might be compared to the manipulation of chessmen on a chess board, with this important difference: a chess player may preen himself on winning a game, but the manipulation of people awakens in the manipulator the thought of controlling them. This thought causes one to reaffirm constantly his own egoic consciousness.
A true leader views his position as an opportunity to serve others. He therefore identifies himself with those whom he leads, which lessens any sense of separation he may feel owing to ego-consciousness. If, however, a person exults in exerting power over others, he will necessarily think in terms of forcing them to obey him. Power, therefore, necessarily increases a person’s ego-consciousness, making it more difficult for him to broaden his spiritual identity.
Dependence on the Good Opinion of Others
Last, I’ll mention a delusion that is actually three delusions in one. They come under the general heading of “dependence on the good opinion of others.” This little bundle of delusions combines the craving for recognition, for fame, and for worldly prominence. Anyone who harbors any of these cravings will seek support from others for his ego, rather than developing confidence in his own inner Self.
To be centered in the inner Self is the spiritual ideal. To base self-recognition on the opinions of others is to build a house on shifting sand. The greatest error in courting their good opinion lies in the fact that such dependence strips away any solid basis one might have for self-understanding. Even when others may be right — and especially where their opinions of you are concerned — you should depend on your own self-perception before God.