Saturday, June 4, 2011

Suffering Illusions Gladly

“A wise man, recognizing that the world is but an illusion, does not act as if it is real, so he escapes the suffering.” Siddhārtha Gautama
The other day I went to see Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides. Even though the cinematography was visually stunning and Captain Jack Sparrow is still one of the greatest characters ever created, I left the theatre mildly annoyed. I couldn’t put my finger on it until this morning, when I had the same sensation after reading posts from a couple of FB buddies warning about a new cellular phone directory that would allow telemarketers access to previously un-findable mobile phone numbers.
Suspension of disbelief is defined as a willingness to suspend one's critical faculties and believe the unbelievable. The human brain is incredibly willing to suspend disbelief. It’s almost as though we are preconditioned to throw reality out the window when something we like better comes along. We do this in one of two ways:
Fictional suspension: When we know that what we are seeing, reading or hearing is untrue, we create a temporary mental dictionary of stuff-to-accept-without-question. Here’s an example from the movie:
Mermaids (noun, plural) [ˈmɜːˌmeɪdz]: vampiric half-fish, half-human creatures, all female, inhabiting Whitecap Cove.
Once an entry has been made, we embellish it with our own understanding based on previous encounters with the concept, adding qualities like: “breathes underwater” and “flops around on dry land”. This is why movies and books have those weird, non-sequitur dialogue sequences.
Captain: All hands to the yardarm, me hearties! Make sail for Whitecap Cove!
Crewman #1: But Captain, I’ve heard tell of mermaids in Whitecap Cove.
Crewman #2: You know, it’s a common misconception that mermaids only breath underwater. In fact, they need both air and water to oxygenate their blood. On the other hand, the rumor that their tails become legs when they dry out is entirely true.
Without this kind of setup, our critical faculties kick back in when we encounter a plot point that depends on a characteristic at odds with the entry in our temporary mental dictionary. Which is why I lost interest in everything except Johnny Depp’s awesome acting ability by the middle of the movie. The setups were missing and my disbelief was unsuspended by too many of these fictional faux pas.
Non-fictional suspension: This type of disbelief suspension works the opposite way, we accept new information as true when it fits into our world view, imbuing it with the halo of veracity that surrounds real-life experiences, especially when it’s presented in a factual manner. (Remember this, there’s a test at the end of this post.)
Would two of the most notorious, unscrupulous attackers of my wallet - cellular service providers who ding me for full minutes of airtime when I only used a few seconds and telemarketers who harass me at dinnertime to sell me stuff - join forces to fleece me even further? Of course they would.
I managed to unsuspend my disbelief long enough to do some research. The consensus of internet opinion is the cellular phone directory does not exist. Unfortunately, most of the people who hold this opinion also state telemarketing to cell phones is illegal, but when I read through the FTC guidelines for complying with the Telemarketing Sales Rule, I could find no mention of this commonly held belief. So now, I feel the same way about the cellular phone directory as I do about the mermaids of Whitecap Cove. Conflicting information has made both equally annoying to me.
Maybe I should consider everything I hear (or read) as though it were fiction. The Buddha said if I do this, I will escape suffering. But then again, I read about that the same place you’re reading this post - on the internet.


  1. Really articulate and persuasive. And funny.

    For me it's not so much about suspension of disbelief (in this dream we call "reality" too) as just seeing the underlying truths/realities/meanings/whatever. Without these it's all just special effects and why (along with my heterosexuality) the POTCs I've seen mostly just bored me. Indiana Jones too. Meaningless.

    Already I tell telemarketers that as a rule I try to never buy anything, as in scratch off my potential consumer or charity list, anything promoted in that way. Then I proceed to bore them with a long and, for me, entertaining diatribe as to why.

  2. You mean there could be an underlying reality in telemarketing? Other than “one born every minute”?

    Wish you still wrote a blog. Love to see your diatribe.