Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ignorance: The Opposite of Bliss

(A companion piece to "Animosity"--see below.)

We were talking about ignorance, the other night in sangha. There's a wonderful, very thourough explication of the dharma's teachings on the subject by Thanissaro Bhikkhu on Access to Insight,
here. Than Geoff writes: "When the Buddha focuses on the ignorance that causes stress and suffering, saying that people suffer from not knowing the four noble truths, he's not simply saying that they lack information or direct knowledge of those truths. He's also saying that they lack skill in handling them. They suffer because they don't know what they're doing."

Ignorance comes in a variety of forms. There is, I believe, genuine ignorance, which is fostered by poverty and the sheer lack of opportunity to learn. Some of the least fortunate among us in this world are condemned to the kind of existence where immediate survival itself is the first and only concern. For the rest of us, ignorance is a choice. It can take the form of denial, a stubborn refusal to look at the truth about ourselves--the kind we have learned a great deal about through the work of the twelve-step programs.

Ignorance can also be nothing more than simple laziness. It takes effort to be informed, to learn what's important to know about ourselves and our planet. It may be induced by willing self-deception: we believe what we want to believe. But it's also a good deal easier to swallow down the half truths and lies that are offered freely by those who would wish to deceive us for the benefit of their cause or religion. I think, here, of those millions of us who reject the preponderance of proven scientific evidence in the matter of climate change, the determined idiocy of those who buy into the belief that this planet is six thousand years old.

This is ignorance promoted by dogma or propaganda, and it is used widely and with demonstrable success in the political arena. Such half-truths and lies are used to persuade those who choose ignorance over knowledge to vote against their own interests in the polling booth. Seduced easily by greed or the gratification of prejudice, they accept without question the one-line slogans that are thrown in their direction, and repeated with such frequency that they come to stand in for the truth. We see the results of such widespread ignorance in the current inability of our politicians to move beyond the ill-thought and irreducible cliches on which they were elected.

It's no exaggeration to say that simple ignorance threatens to destroy our country. It works in even more devious and invisible ways to destroy us. I was reminded of this when reading an op-ed piece in Tuesday's New York Times, Evolution's Gold Standard, by Diane Ackerman. "When people feel bad," she writes, "they instinctively want to hug someone or something." It's this instinctive reaction that leads us from the need to touch to the need to have--from contact, in Buddhist terms, to the clinging that leads to suffering. And it is precisely this instinct that is readily exploited by those who would wish to sell us stuff, the commodifiers who drive the markets that drive the engine of the economy.

Think of it, researchers determine, these days, what it is that our acquisitive natures respond to: "Companies have always been hoodwinking our fickle senses," writes Ackerman. "Panels help design just the right 'mouth feel' for new yogurts, the right crunch for potato chips, the right degree of pucker for lemon sorbet. Used-car dealers spray 'new car scent' in their vehicles. Malls waft 'eau de pizza' around the heads of hungry shoppers. Perfumers weave talcum powder into their aromatic tone poems, hoping to evoke memories of innocence and nurturing. Realtors bake bread or spray 'cake bake' around the kitchen before showing a house to a potential buyer."

As though we didn't know it! We simply, for the most part, choose ignorance--because it is easier, because it allows us the immediate gratification we seek. We choose then, to be governed by our ignorance in the subtlest and most pervasive of ways. The (difficult) response, in every walk of our lives from the politics to the shopping mall, is to make the effort to know the difference between what we want and what we need, and to make appropriate choices determined by that knowledge. It is galling to realize how much of our lives is governed secretly by those whose sole interest is to make money from our ignorance; and to realize exactly how successful they are in doing what they do. We have only to look to Washington to see the results of their nefarious work.

Clearly, we need to exercise a great deal more skill in the way we acquire and process the "truths" we live by.


mandt said...

excellent piece, Peter!

PeterAtLarge said...


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SKYCHI said...

The lulling of the psyche through laziness has reached a peak as you so aptly defined it in your excellent work here. A Nation so used to the easy drive thru choice is struggling to adapt to the work it takes to chose wisely.

The world is full of this aroma induced subliminal knee jerk behavior. Your exacting definition of the problem of this seduction certainly does clarify the truth of our predicament in the present
economic/political arena. This "blind craving" described in the op-ed New York Times piece is everywhere.

SKYCHI said...

Regarding "the truths we live by" I suggest reading "The Money View" blog by Perry G. Mehrling

"Sympathy for the Devil" regarding the search for collateral and shadow banking.

mandt said...

To add to SKYCHI----read Guy Debord's 'Society of the Spectacle'.