Delusion is a byproduct of the ignorance of our true nature. When we don’t know who we are, we build our discrimination on an identified ego. The ego has an agenda to be right, even when we don’t know. We could say delusion is an ego-generated narrative layered onto self-ignorance.
For example, not knowing how to start a business, we decide business success is based on appearance and buy expensive suits. Had we known what a business was in the first place, we would not have made that mistake. We can see delusions can be layered, narratives based on narratives, etc.
The Yoga Sutra has 2 words that are translated as delusion.
The first, bhraanti from v1:30 is about being mistaken or confused. This is an effect of invalid knowledge. In the sutras, the verse is describing obstacles to samadhi (transcending). For example, we drop spiritual practices because we hear everyone is already awake.
The classic example is seeing a rope in the dark and thinking it’s a snake. We experience fear and stress as a result of this delusion.
The second type, moha, from v2:34, is because of ignorance of our true nature. It’s a deeper delusion, with qualities of obsession, infatuation, or identification. The sutra also mentions degrees of delusion from mild to strong. As such delusions can be like “little white lies” all the way up to core aspects of identity. Moha is one of the drivers of negativity and injury, so its fruits are “unending suffering.”
Delusions can also be collective, such as the fear narratives that developed around COVID. War is a large scale example, often driven by animosity or firm beliefs. Yet, the perceived differences are due to ego identification. People can be willing to die for their unquestioned delusions because they’re driven by the ego that needs to be right.
Delusions can be quite pernicious, even being passed down as “memories.” I ran into an example where a pleasant, shared past-life memory was a mask covering nasty trauma. While the delusion made the memory happy, it blocked healing the trauma, and thus perpetuated the shadow.
It has surprised me how deep these can go.
All the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world are various degrees of delusion. This is why they begin to fall away as the Self becomes established, and we can see through the narratives when they’re triggered.
Mild ones can be convenient, like simplifying how to be in the world or sharing community narratives. But the larger narratives driven by fear, anger, and so forth are not healthy. They blind us to what’s here, what’s true, and who the people around us are.
The classic “mistake of the intellect” is the delusion that we’re a separate individual. It may be helpful for a toddler in separating from mother, but it becomes less valuable as we mature.
“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal decisions and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”
– Albert Einstein, 1950, letter of condolence to Norman Salit
Once we break that delusion of separateness with awakening, it becomes much easier to see through our other delusions.
But beware thinking you’re beyond delusion. Old, subtle ones that have not yet been seen can still be triggered. Life is full of surprises.
PS – This article is from an awake perspective. If you’re experiencing yourself as a separate person, then that is what is real for you now. However, post-awakening, we recognize what the article describes and our quality of life improves.