What does the cultural and personal conditioning through our years of development enable us to do? What layers of conditioning are there? How does our conditioning operate and limit us? What is our ‘normal’ Western worldview? Can it be summarized? What is possible for us as human beings? When we try to open up to new possibilities, what typically happens? When new experiences do happen, does our previous conditioning still tend to filter things?
What’s possible for us as humans?
As we ‘grow up’, our native cultures teach us how to function in certain common, practical ways as individuals and as ‘normal’ members of our particular society. We learn, try, and come to embody a particular conventional reality–how people in our society usually perceive and interpret the incredible variety of situations and circumstances in life. The study of these patterns is the subject of developmental psychology, linguistics, and anthropology, among other fields.
This enculturation is quite useful, to say the least. But once we are interested in discovering our full potential–not just what’s normal in our culture–we are likely to find that our conditioning has become confining and limiting. Just about everything we do is filtered and shaped by it.
To ‘see through’ our conditioning, or even dismantle it, it seems essential to get very clear on exactly how we’ve been conditioned, and then to actually see our the habitual patterns in operation. The next section will briefly examine the process of conditioning we’ve all undergone, no matter what culture we ‘grew up’ in.
A brief account of complex development
Who am I? How did I get this way? As newborns we seem to have little or no conditioning. As we grow up we learn: (1) language, (2) skills, and (3) habits, conditioning, and complexes–systems of interrelated, emotion-charged ideas, feelings, memories, and impulses*.
*footnote – my definition of complex is more liberal than that of most psychologists.
Conditioning is similar to programming the operating system software necessary to use a computer, after which it operates largely out of our awareness to enable the accomplishment of various tasks. Over years we are conditioned by our cultures in many complicated ways.
Very gradually we learn that objects persist at particular locations–they ‘occupy’ a particular area for a while. We eventually learn that objects seem separate from each other. We become very familiar with one special object ‘here’, as contrasted with other objects ‘there’. And around the same time, probably by avoidance of displeasure and pain, we develop a simple sense of ‘inside’ contrasted with ‘outside’.* By elaborating the simple sense of ‘inside’ and ‘here’, a complex sense of ourselves as a persistent observer is developed. Eventually we distinguish ‘before’ from ‘after’. Then a sense of how long something lasts, duration, becomes possible.
*footnote: Inside-outside, here-there, and before-after are examples of what can be called strictures—-somewhat stable structural features of experience. Some strictures may also be complexes–systems of interrelated, emotion-charged ideas, feelings, and memories.
So when we are still quite young, our conditioning includes at least a sense of inside vs. outside, here vs. there, a sense of occupying space, a perceiver and observer separate from the perceived and observed, a sense of duration, and before vs. after. It has taken psychologists more than a century to understand how this ‘inner’ development takes place, and we may still not understand it thoroughly, yet it proceeds very naturally within most cultures. Later, as adults, we even take these primitive, underlying strictures and complexes such as linear time and ‘container space’ for granted, as ‘real’ aspects of the physical world. But they are actually the results of our conditioning.
The observer vs. observed stricture is elaborated into a sense of an independently existing self. The self includes a ‘normal’ sense of having a personal space and mind that are separate from others, and a sense of being a willful and independent agent existing continuously across the flow of linear time. Self is further developed into a particular type of personality–which is probably just a complex of habitual responses to events and circumstances of various kinds.
After these common foundational strictures have been firmed up, cultural differences come into play. For example, in some cultures a sense of before vs. after, combined with a sense of occupation, is elaborated into linear time–a persistent sense of time flowing from past to present to future. Instead of linear time, other cultures seem to develop a less complicated perception of serial time. And there are surely many other cultural differences.
The resulting restricted state
After years of complex inner development, our ordinary Western conditioning is complete. As Tarthang Tulku wrote in Time, Space, and Knowledge, “the events and facts which we know—the tremendous weight of our past and of our cultural conditioning—have seemed to establish a vastly complex world within which our present positions gain their meaning.” (p. 212, TSK) The resulting state can be summarized in terms of time, space, and knowledge:
Time is divided into moments and seems to flow linearly and out of our control, from past to future, at a constant rate. Within this flow we are limited to occupying a kind of ‘moving spot’ that we call ‘the present’. We seem to ‘have’ time, yet sometimes feel like we’re running out of time, and can’t stop the relentless flow that causes us anxiety, friction, overwhelm, and pressure.
Space is seen as an indefinitely extended ‘nothing’, with distance felt between things within space. We and things feel substantial, independent, and persistent, ‘occupy’ different locations in space, have size, volume, edges, and an ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. We have a kind of private mental, or personal space, but this seems less ‘real’ than physical space. Personal space seems independent of others and other things, and yet seems to change somewhat, depending on our feelings and connections with others. Our experience of space can feel restrictive, confining, and pressured, rather than open and free.
Our knowing or ‘seeing’ is limited to a particular ‘thinker’ position or ‘point of view’, with a felt separation or ‘distance’ from what is known. Knowing and knowledge usually seem to be located primarily inside our heads and minds. An act of knowing takes some time, and involves directing knowing from its source ‘here’ toward distant objects and events. We collect experience and information by these acts of knowing, and build up models, systems, and theories. Very often our knowing and perceiving is inaccurate and biased, depending on our unresolved emotional difficulties (conditioning) and current desires and fears.
Does this description of normal Western conditioning fit for you? Does it seem accurate? Is anything wrong, left out?
Though normal, this conditioned state is also inflexible. “Ordinarily, we have an unfortunate tendency to locate or orient ourselves in a very fixed way. Of course, we do not see this tendency as being a problem, but rather a way of keeping ourselves, our self-images, properly defined and grounded. But this self-centeredness obscures the vastness of space and time available by consolidating against it.” (p. 44, DOT I)
Attempts to escape our condition may further condition us
In this way, over years of development, our lives are structured layer after layer, complex interwoven with complex, until our personality has been ‘formed’. Again, all this conditioning is similar to the many layers of a computer’s operating system software. And just as we may pick up viruses on our computers, as humans we may develop various troublesome conditions that disturb our normal functioning and well-being: confusion, doubt, rigidity, obsessiveness, loneliness, isolation, a sense of confinement (or even claustrophobia), pressure, discontent, anxiety, self-centeredness (or even narcissism), prejudice, hysteria, neediness (even emptiness), and so on.
Then we usually find methods to change or get rid of the troubling conditions. But these methods are likely to be further elaborations of our conditioning. Like fish unaware of water, we don’t know how limited we are to our habits, even when we try to break them.
Krishnamurti said, “I am the result of all the social and the spiritual compulsions, persuasions, and all the conditioning based on acquisitiveness–my thinking is based on that. To be free from that conditioning, from that acquisitiveness, I say to myself, ‘I must not be acquisitive; I must practice nonacquisitiveness.’ But . . . what is important is to understand that the mind which is trying to get away from one state to another is still functioning within the field of time [which implies conditioning is still in effect], and therefore there is no revolution, there is no change.” – Collected Works, Vol. VIII,163, Choiceless Awareness
Our typical approaches to resolving troubling conditions and issues are completely oblivious of a crucial fact, which is that all these conditions as well as the self structure to which they seem to ‘belong’ are simply (convincingly real) instant-by-instant fabrications* that don’t need solving. We can let the process go, without ‘freezing’ it and then trying to fix what was frozen. If we can “go beyond this typical lower time orientation of ‘someone’s doing something’. . . . then our difficulties in living can be solved very easily, naturally.” (pp. xxxiii-xxxvi, DOT I)
Breaking down the structure
Using patterns we’ve learned to break down other patterns we’ve learned can be self-defeating. But eventually something often happens to break the logjam of patterns, if only briefly. We might have a sudden opening or inspiration, spontaneously putting us in a very liberating state. We might gradually learn to meditate and start to dissolve the holding power of a lifetime of habits. Or we might somehow become exhausted, realize that all our attempts at change are futile, and find that we can give them up. Perhaps our personal architecture becomes so complex and stressed that further complication just cannot be supported without a collapse of some kind.
After a breakthrough, we try to understand what happened. Often we don’t know what to think about the experience itself, and how it arose, but we’ll still decide what to do about it based on past conditioning. What else do we have to go on? We might maintain most of our old structuring for a while, but as time goes on it may become more and more difficult to hold things together. The edifice of our conditioning may continue to crumble.
Eventually we see that our personal edifice is no longer edifying or otherwise worth trying to maintain. At some point it may even seem that the primary way to progress is to foster, rather than resist, the dissolution of the complexes that constitute layers and layer of habits and filters.
Since this breakdown of structuring usually occurs over such a long period, and since it still tends to be interpreted in terms of our past limiting conditioning, it can be very difficult to see clearly what is happening. We may find it helpful to get some idea of what others have experienced during breakthroughs, and to clarify how these essential or peak experiences differ from the layers of cultural and personal conditioning we and others have taken on and embodied.