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. ^

3. Ultimately, we see every­one as being fun­da­men­tally the same as our­selves, on many lev­els. Dissolving dis­tinc­tions in this man­ner helps reduce our self­ish­ness (or so I have been told). ^

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. ^