Conditioning – like “ego” and “mind” is one of those words that are sometimes used in ways that confuse rather than clarify.
When I look at it for myself, I find that it can be quite simple.
To me, conditioning refers to habitual patterns created from infinite causes from within and outside of the particular holon (whole/part) we are looking at.
So it is pretty clear that the vast majority of conditioning is very useful. In terms of the conditioning of our human self, we find conditioning in just about any activity we engage in, from language to knowing how to eat and walk. Conditioning makes it possible for our human self to function in the world. Without it, we would be a vegetable, although since even our biological functioning is conditioned, we wouldn’t even be alive or exist.
In the bigger picture, we see that the typical conditioning of all our ancestors – to stay alive and procreate – was also necessary to our existence as a human self. And the conditioning of this universe – its habitual patterns and “laws” – is needed for this galaxy, solar system, planet and a living planet to exist.
So the first thing I see is that from a conventional view point, conditioning is not bad at at all. It is what allows for my human self, and this living planet, to be around. And looking a little further, I see that it is not bad or good in itself, it is neutral. It just is.
So when different teachers talk about conditioning, and make it sound as something slightly sinister, what are they really talking about?
Of all the innumerable forms of conditioning, it seems that they are talking about two subsets of conditioning.
The main one is our habitual tendency to take stories as true. This automatically creates a sense of I and Other, which in turn fuels a sense of drama and unease. This is not bad either, it is only uncomfortable. And it comes from lack of clarity.
And the second subset of conditioning comes from the first one. From belief in stories, and a sense of I and Other, a whole set of other forms of conditioning is created. Mainly the habitual tendencies of a rigid view, an ambivalent heart, reactive emotions, and whatever behaviors comes out of those.
The tendency to take stories as true is what most spiritual practice is really aimed at, or rather – aimed at undermining. Practices such as inquiry, prayer, yoga, precepts and so on all invite us to see a little more clearly that thoughts are just thoughts, and notice a little more clearly what we really are – that which experience happens within, to and as.
The other thing spiritual practice is aimed at, which is mostly secondary and sometimes a byproduct of the first, is to invite our human self to reorganize. It invites the habitual patterns of a rigid view, a closed heart and reactive emotions to reorganize, and our human self to heal, mature and realign with what we really are – whether what we are notices itself clearly or not.
Conditioning, like “ego” and “mind”, is one of those words that is sometimes used in a way that confuses rather than clarify. But it can also be quite simple. The wast majority of all conditioning is very useful. How to speak, walk, eat and much more are all conditioned. They are all learned habitual patterns which help our human self function in the world. Yet there is one form of conditioning which creates stress for us: the habitual tendency of taking stories as true. And that is the form of conditioning often referred to in Buddhist and other circles. And from that one, there is a few other forms of conditioning. From a rigid view comes the habitual patterns of a closed heart, reactive emotions, and whatever actions these fuel. The first form of conditioning is very helpful. It is, in many ways, the software that helps our human self function in the world. The second form of conditioning comes from confusion, and finding clarity around what we really are is the main aim of spiritual practice, whether it is inquiry or devotional or something else. The third form of conditioning is worked on through spiritual practice, almost as a by product. These patterns are invited to shift, even before we notice more clearly what we are and see stories as just stories.