Hands up, everyone who’s seen Castaway, the movie with Tom Hanks about the guy who ends up stranded for years on a deserted island. That’s a lot of you — good.
If you recall, Hanks was on a delivery aircraft, something similar to DHL or FedEx. The plane crashed, and he was the only survivor. After the crash, he managed to make it to a small island in the middle of nowhere. He started going through the freight that washed ashore along with him, looking for anything that could help him survive. Among many things, he found a volleyball, of the Wilson brand. That volleyball turned out to be one of the most significant elements to the story, to his survival, and — I think — became a fascinating enquiry into the nature of mind.
What began happening, you may remember, was that he started talking to the volleyball. At first it was clearly something that made him feel foolish, but over time it became so regular that he was having lengthy, complicated conversations with Wilson. Rationally, we can recognize just how weird such behavior is — after all, if someone started acting that way at the office, treating a pencil sharpener as a personal confidante, we’d quickly become worried about his sanity — but in the case of one person stranded in total isolation, it might seem a bit more sensible.
We’re social animals. In one form or another, we like human contact. Sometimes the contact isn’t what we’d prefer, but by and large it’s something we need on a psychological and emotional level. One of the worst punishments that a prisoner can be subjected to is solitary confinement; we even punish our children with time-outs, isolating them briefly from interaction with all others. People locked into sensory deprivation tanks actually begin hallucinating after less than an hour, partly because the stimulus-hungry mind ends up all alone with itself and, lacking anything to keep itself occupied, it begins making things up.
So, in a mind left with total isolation and something that looks vaguely like a human face, it’s not difficult to imagine that face becoming more and more real.
Wilson turns into a companion, a friend — and even an adversary, who gets into at least one heated argument with Hanks. He pitches Wilson away, then frantically goes on a mission to save the volleyball from being lost. He has to; Wilson is incapable of self-help.
Wilson eventually becomes such a significant extension of Hanks’s personality that, when he cobbles a raft together and they set out to sea, Hanks mourns Wilson’s loss in a storm. He can barely keep himself alive, there is nothing he can do to rescue the volleyball, and yet, all he can do is sob, over and over again, that he’s sorry. “I’m sorry, Wilson, I’m so sorry…” Just as one might do with a flesh-and-blood human that one was unable to save.
If you haven’t seen the movie, all of this sounds silly. If you have seen the movie, you might remember how emotionally effective that scene was, and how believable Hanks was in his interactions with Wilson. You really did get the sense that the volleyball had a mind of its own. (Then, thinking about it, you realize just how silly it all sounds.)
What struck me when I saw that movie all those years ago, and what continues to strike me now, is how much like Hanks we are when we interact with the people around us. Sometimes it seems almost as though we’re all talking to Wilsons of our own: Hollow heads with faces on them, who have no independent thought.
We don’t consciously do that. In Castaway, Wilson’s personality was, quite literally, just an extension of Hanks’s own psyche. We know that the living people in the world around us are not the same as a volleyball; they each have their own thoughts, feelings, and motivations. But we often behave as though they do not — and when they assert their individuality, it can sometimes be quite surprising, even annoying.
Have you ever been in conversation with someone you know, and heard her say something that seemed totally out of line with your expectations of her? Maybe she expressed a political or religious belief that left you wondering where she was coming from. Maybe she related an experience that seemed completely out of character for her. Maybe she revealed a predilection for an outré food or intimate behavior, something you found difficult to imagine anyone enjoying.
It was jarring, wasn’t it? Here’s this person you thought you knew, telling you something really unexpected about herself, something that forces you to reevaluate her and your entire relationship to her. What was your sense at that time? What was your response? Was it something like, “I never imagined you’d be interested in…”?
My supposition is that we tend to have expectations of others. Expectations of behavior, belief, and outlook, expectations that allow us to categorize a person into our view of the world. I feel that, by having these expectations, we’re actually placing an extension of ourselves onto others, in the way we presume they will behave. When they then go out and behave differently than expected, we’re confronted with what feels like a surprising twist to our own personality.
What’s disrupted is not our view of the other person; what’s disrupted is our idea that he is somehow just a set player in our internal dramas. When he begins speaking and thinking for himself, it’s as though some little corner of our mind went a bit crazy and started reading lines from a completely different script. We forget that we’re not just talking to volleyballs, and we don’t like being reminded otherwise.
An accessible way to think about this is prejudice or bigotry (which are not necessarily the same thing). We all have a little bit of that. We focus on a stereotype of behavior in a person, or we see a physical difference, and we immediately make an assumption about him. It might be a negative assumption; it might be a positive one; however, what we respond to in that case is not the person. What we respond to, instead, is how we imagine he is. We respond to a construct of our own presumptions, preconceptions, and beliefs. When he then fails to act in the manner we expect, we can become quite offended.
The difficult thing to realize is that the source of our offense is not in the other person’s insistence on being an individual. Our source of offense is that the other person, by being an individual, has bruised our own ego. The ego is forced, momentarily at least, to realize that it is not in control of the world.
Prejudices are hardly new. Buddhism came into existence some 2500 years ago in the Indus River valley, roughly where Hinduism arose as well. The social structure of the region included a rigid caste system, with Brahmins (a loose priesthood) at the top of the heap. Next in line were the soldiers (Siddhartha Gautama, the putative historical Buddha, is said to have been in this caste); beneath the soldiers were the merchants; beneath the merchants were the common laborers. Underneath all of them were the outcastes, the untouchables — the cast-aways.
In this caste system, where you were depended entirely on your birth; there was no vertical mobility. A Brahmin could not become a merchant, and a soldier could not become a Brahmin. It was seen as a part of the reality of life, a part of the system that kept the world functioning smoothly; and everyone was expected to remain firmly in their pre-judged place with no grumbling. (There were cross-caste interactions — there had to be — but no one had anything to do with the untouchables.)
After his enlightenment, Gautama broke those caste lines. He didn’t care if his audience was composed entirely of soldiers or servants, and he treated Brahmins and untouchables with equal degrees of respect.1 This was, of course, unnerving for many members of society; for some, it was probably heretical.
When he delivered talks on the dharma (Buddhist teachings), Gautama was not interacting with volleyballs; he was not addressing extensions of his own expectations. All he saw was individuals, each person with her own fears and sorrows, her own personality, her own outlook on the world. He didn’t have behavioral expectations of anyone. Nothing anyone said or did was shocking to him. It was all part of a much larger world, one that functioned in spite of human expectations, not because of them.
Ideally, we do the same today; in reality, we must realize that we do the opposite. We have our categories, our frames, our labels; we apply them to each person (or, sometimes, group) that we encounter. We all do this, partly because it’s faster than thinking of everyone we meet as an individual (unless we’ve put a lot of effort into releasing our preconceptions); partly because we’re evolved to do it;2 partly because — yes — we want to think we’re in command of the world, and that it will behave according to how we believe it should.
However, when we frame others into our outlook, all we’re really doing is forcing an extension of our own personality onto them. We’re blinding ourselves to the real nature of others. Not only is this unfair to them, but it can lead to some truly vicious conflicts.
Buddhism offers a way to get past this framing, by seeing that each person around us is not an eternal, unchanging entity.3 Everyone has moods, everyone has history, everyone has hopes. What we encounter in others is not a static point of reference; it’s a mixture of many different emotional and mental states, and those states change over time.
Insight meditation is the method used to disassemble this framing. In insight meditation, we actively look for any one single element of our own selves that is permanent, unchanging, and eternal. Is it the body? Is it our physical senses? Do we find permanence in our emotional state? Do we find permanence in our ways of thinking? How about the overall consciousness that is made up of these different things, and that ties the whole package together into an apparently whole entity? Is there permanence there?4
When we discover the answers to these questions, it’s a short leap to apply those discoveries to others. The result is a more refined, more clear worldview, one that is conspicuously lacking in Wilsons. It’s my wish for all of us that we may remember a simple truth: No one, anywhere, is a volleyball.
1. Among men. His views about women were liberal for his time — he didn’t divide the sexes and, eventually, even accepted women as followers. That acceptance took a while for him to build. Women weren’t actively disrespected in the manner of untouchables; they were more often simply ignored as irrelevant. I’m not sure which is worse. ^
2. Without the ability to form quick judgments based on general criteria, I don’t imagine many of our ancestors would have survived long on a predator-rich savanna. Furthermore, we seem to have an innate xenophobia. ^
4. Intellectually, of course, we know there’s no permanence in any of the five Buddhist aggregates (body, sensation, perception, conceptualizations, consciousness). It’s quite another thing to deconstruct ourselves internally, and viscerally realize the total impermanence of every aspect of our being. ^