The Circus Fun House

I remember, years ago, going to a very large exhibition in Toronto. It had many of the usual things one might see at a carnival – games of chance and skill, exhibits by members of the Canadian Armed Forces, roller coasters and other rides, food vendors, a home show, and so on. There was also an air show, with combat and civilian aircraft flying overhead.

One of the attractions in the midway was a fun house. Inside it was a room of mirrors. The mirrors were designed to distort whatever was in front of them. One such mirror made one look short and grotesquely fat. Another did the reverse, making one look very tall and thin. Turning the body at different angles to the mirrors produced some interesting images. People found this funny and not at all disturbing because, after all, they were just looking at mirrors designed to produce distorted images. No one, except perhaps small children, took the images produced by the mirrors seriously.

But what if someone had? What if someone had looked into a mirror that makes the viewer look terribly overweight and believed in what he or she saw? What if he or she mentally held onto this belief of their being overweight despite all other evidence to the contrary? Further, what if he or she decided that it was necessary to go on an extreme diet in response to that view from the fun house? It seems like a logical course of action if you believe strongly in the distorted image you saw there.

People with untreated eating disorders often act like people who have been in the fun house. Despite how they actually look, how much they actually weigh, and the input from the people around them, they hang onto a distorted image of their own body and engage in extreme behaviours that can lead to death. Ironically, they may see themselves in a distorted way, while not having the same distorted view of others.

People in a manic phase of bipolar disorder often behave in extreme ways because of distorted views. Some have been seriously injured or killed because they mistakenly believed in a view of their own invincibility. Others spend hours and hours surfing the Internet or writing, convinced they have discovered a new conspiracy theory or received a new divine revelation.

But are all such distortions of view so extreme? No. Do more people than psychiatric patients need to correct their beliefs to reduce or eliminate the suffering in their lives? Yes.

The Buddha taught that all things in reality have three characteristics: they are transient, they are disatisfactory, and they are not our self. We crave, hate, and ignore because we haven’t seen the truth of these characteristics for ourselves. We keep ourselves from true seeing by the actions we take.

A materialist continues to accumulate wealth and possessions far beyond his or her need. That’s not to say that having such things is wrong. The problem occurs with the belief that things bring happiness. If that were true, each of us would be very happy with a few simple possessions that helped us with our needs. Unfortunately the world, driven by ignorance, doesn’t work that way. Some people do simplify their lives and discover they are happier for it. Still others are driven to acquire.

Many workaholics work extreme hours with the mistaken view that if only they get their current projects finished, things will be better around the office. They don’t consider that more work is almost always coming down the pipe, and that managers learn to give that work to people who have proven that they are capable of getting the job done. So, any lull in the workload of a workaholic is often short-lived.

Those who take on additional work and long hours often do so for a chance at promotion and what that brings in terms of salary and benefits. Some even justify their work efforts by telling themselves they are doing it to make a better life for their families. They may get that promotion, only to find that the new position isn’t as enjoyable as they hoped, and they are spending even less time with their families – when time with the workaholic is what the families really want.

Alcoholics and addicts often take a drink or a drug when in a difficult situation. They conveniently ignore their own drinking or using histories to do so. The drink or drug provides no help with the situation, and may make it worse. The short-lived benefits of feeling good often result in their choosing this way of dealing with the next situation.

We could go on and on looking at the behaviours and views of different people – gamblers, adulterers, people with anger and control issues, and so on. We would find that their views are distorted by a misunderstanding of one or more of the three characteristics. They struggle and suffer, on and on.

Fortunately, the Buddha left us with a spiritual path that addresses our suffering. If we learn to keep our morality in check, as presented in The Five Precepts, and undertake effective meditation practices, we will begin to see the characteristics clearly for ourselves. With consistent application, we will see what we do to create our suffering and how our distortions play a role. Eventually, we will let go of all of our desires for things to be different then they are. What’s left is enlightenment, the highest happiness — right in front of us where it has always been if only we looked.



Jason Smith is a Customer Analyst at Economical Insurance doing process analysis, business analysis and business consulting. He is also an insight meditation teacher and author currently taking on new students. Anyone who wants to learn about and practice the Buddha’s way to enlightenment can reach him at Jason lives in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and is willing to consider working with students from outside this area by phone or Internet.


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