Conditions and Conditioning

Conditions and Conditioning

By Desmond Yeoh Seng Cheong

What is conditioning? We need to differentiate them. Conditions are the external circumstances that we face. Conditioning is our habitual reactions to conditions. These two factors affect our destiny.

Ajahn Sumedho gave a very good example of these factors in his book,  Intuitive Awareness, “I remember when my parents were alive I went to stay with them for about three weeks, because they were really sick. I was the abbot of Amaràvatã, fifty-five year old Ajahn Sumedho and going home and living in the same little house with my mother and father. It brought up all kinds of childish emotions — because the conditions were there for that. You were born through your parents. Mothers and fathers bring up your memories, your connections of infancy onwards. So a lot of the conditions that arise in families are conditions for feeling like a child again even when you’re a fifty-five year old Buddhist monk and abbot of a monastery! My mother and father would easily go back and see me as a child. Rationally they could see “He’s a middle-aged man,” (then I was middle aged!) but they would still sometimes act like I was their child. Then you feel this rebelliousness and adolescent kind of resentment about being treated like a child. So don’t be surprised at some of the emotional states that arise”.

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“Throughout your life, as you get old, kamma ripens and then these conditions appear in consciousness. Don’t despair if you find yourself at fifty years old feeling very childish. Just be aware of that for what it is. It is what it is. The conditions for that particular emotion are present so then it becomes conscious. Your refuge is in this awareness rather than in trying to make yourself into an ideal man or woman — mature, responsible, capable, successful, ‘normal’ and all the rest — these are the ideals”.

“Here I am not looked at as a child. I’m the oldest person here! You may see me in terms of a father figure, because an old man like me brings out the sense of authority. I’m an authority figure, a patriarch, a father figure, a male figure — a grandfatherly figure to some of you. It’s interesting just to see this state when the conditions are there. Rationally you can say, “He’s not my father!” but emotionally you may feel like that, acting to me like I’m a father, because it’s an emotional habit. When the conditions for that kind of male authority figure are present, then this is what you are feeling, it’s like this. There’s nothing wrong with it, just notice it’s the way it is”.

“I used to get really angry when women would get bossy. When any woman would show any kind of bossiness, I would just feel this rage. I wondered why I would get so upset with even a tone of voice, why I could get so enraged over a bossy attitude. I could see that it was like when I was a boy, trying to get my way against my mother. If that’s not been fully resolved yet, then if the conditions for that rage are present then this is what will arise. It’s through awareness of it that you resolve it. As you understand it and see it in terms of what it is, then you can resolve, or let it go, so that you are not just stuck with the same old reactions all the time”.

Our conditioning tends to reinforce itself. A mother tells his child that this is a dishonest world and no one is to be trusted. As he is growing up, a friend betrays him and his conditioning gets stronger as his mind keeps reminding him about the betrayal. His mind replays the incident over and over again. The betrayal happened once but in his mind, it has happened a thousand times. Whenever he hears a spiritual teachings to be more compassionate and giving, his conditioning tells him that the teacher is living in a different world and does not understand reality. Whenever he reads about scandals involving spiritual leaders, his conditioning makes him jump to the conclusion that all spiritual masters cannot be trusted. Only those that have passed away can be trusted. It is safer that way! He continues to suffer due to his conditioning because he leaves in constant fear and selfishness.

Whenever he hears a spiritual discourse, he will listen out for teachings which are consistent with his conditioning. If more often than not the teachings are consistent with his conditioning, he will find the teacher to be a good teacher.

Such an attitude will hinder our spiritual progress because the role of our Guru is to help us remove our conditioning. Only then can we grow and become lighter; happier. Sometimes, The Guru needs to play the role of a garbage truck. Sometimes, we may find the garbage truck unpleasant because of the stench but it helps us by removing our rubbish. A teacher who appeals to our conditioning is merely adding to our pile of rubbish. He does not stink but when he moves away, he will leave a stinking pile of rubbish behind. As we let go of our conditioning one by one, we will feel lighter and happier. We begin to have choices because we no longer react based on our conditioning.

Ajahn Sumedho shared a story which illustrates this point: “One time years ago, I became very confused when I found out that one of our American Buddhist nuns had left our community and become a born-again Christian. I had just been saying to another nun, “She’s really wonderful, she’s so wise, she’s so pure-hearted. She’ll be a great inspiration to you in your nun’s life.” I was really embarrassed and confused when I heard the news. I thought, “How could she fall for it?” I remember asking my teacher Ajahn Chah, “How could she do that?” He looked at me with a mischievous smile and said, “Maybe she’s right.” He made me look at what I was doing — feeling defensive and paranoid, wanting a clear explanation, wanting to understand, wanting him to tell me that she’d betrayed the Buddhist religion. So I started looking at the confusion. When I began to embrace it and totally accept it, it dropped away. Through acknowledging the emotional confusion, it ceased being a problem; it seemed to dissolve into thin air. I became aware of how much I resisted confusion as an experience”.

Our conditioning also determines how we interpret circumstances. When a waiter give less than the correct change to a person who distrusts the world, he will most likely interpret it as intentional rather than an honest mistake. He will then become angry unnecessarily.

How we talk to ourselves is also a form of conditioning and it often reflects the language used on us when we were young. If we were often scolded for the mistakes we did during childhood, we are likely to be unforgiving with ourselves when we make mistakes; even little ones. Having said this, we must not blame others for our conditioning as it would only block our ability to remove those conditioning.

Telling ourselves not to hit ourselves is very different from being aware of the tyrannical thoughts. When we tell ourselves not to hit ourselves, we are trying to block out those thoughts, replace them with positive thoughts or distract ourselves with something else. Awareness is completely different. It is accepting and welcoming. It does not reject the negative thoughts but gives loving attention to it. Awareness seeks to understand; not to reject. It has unconditional love towards all our emotions. When we become aware that we are hitting ourselves, we may hit ourselves further for hitting ourselves and get into another round of thoughts! Remember, awareness is non-judgemental. Awareness accepts everything as the way they are.

Our awareness is constantly singing this song to us:

Don’t go changing, to try and please me

You never let me down before

Don’t imagine you’re too familiar

And I don’t see you anymore

I wouldn’t leave you in times of trouble

We never could have come this far

I took the good times, I’ll take the bad times

I’ll take you just the way you are

I need to know that you will always be

The same old someone that I knew

What will it take till you believe in me

The way that I believe in you.

I said I love you and that’s forever

And this I promise from the heart

I could not love you any better

I love you just the way you are.

All of us have different conditioning. No one else can remove the conditioning for us. The Masters can point out to us those conditioning within us which limits and hinders us from finding true happiness but we must do the work of removing those limiting conditionings ourselves. As the Buddha said, the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. We must use our awareness to step back from our conditioning and observe their effects on us. When we see that those conditioning are bringing more harm than good, we will let them go naturally.

Ajahn Sumedho said, “Learning to trust in this awareness is an act of faith but it is also very much aligned with wisdom. It’s something that you have to experiment with to get a feeling for. No matter how well I might describe or expound on this particular subject, it is still something that you have to know for yourself. Doubt is one of your main problems, because you don’t trust yourselves. Many of you strongly believe that you are defined by the limitations of your past, your memories, your personality; you’re thoroughly convinced of that. But you can’t trust that. I can’t trust my personality; it will say anything! Nor can I trust my emotions; they flicker around and change constantly. Depending on whether the sun’s out or if it is raining, or if things are going well or falling apart, my emotions react accordingly. What I trust is my awareness. It is something for you to find out for yourselves, you can’t just trust what I say. Anything I describe now is just an encouragement for you to trust”[1].

How do we know when a negative conditioning is affecting us at any one time? Simple, we observe our emotions. Our emotions shout out to us whenever our thoughts are not in sync with reality. Whenever we feel some negative emotions, we can choose to open ourselves to those emotions by being aware of them. When we do that, everything becomes very clear and we can see the conditioning behind the emotions. We can just watch what we say to ourselves as if we are an independent person listening to someone else talking.

Ajahn Sumedho explained it this way, “Have you ever noticed that even when you’re in a state of complete confusion there’s something that is not lost in that confusion? There’s an awareness of the confusion? If you are not clear about this then it is easy to attach to the state of being confused and wind yourself up even more, creating even more complications. If you trust yourself to open to the confusion then you will begin to find a way of liberating yourself from being caught in the conditioned realm, endlessly being propelled into emotional habits arising out of fear and desire”.

“It is not possible for emotional habits to sustain themselves, because, being impermanent, their nature is to arise and cease. As you do this you begin to recognize the value of this expansiveness (awareness), which some people call emptiness. Whatever you choose to name it doesn’t really matter, so long as you can recognize it. It’s a natural state, it’s not created – I don’t create this emptiness. It’s not that I have to go through a whole process of concentrating my mind on something in order to be able to do this and then, having done so, hold my mind there in order to block out everything else”.

Ramana Maharshi gave the same advice[2]: “Whatever thoughts arise as obstacles to one’s sadhana (spiritual discipline), the mind should not be allowed to go in their direction, but should be made to rest in one’s Self which is the Atman (the Divinty within); one should remain as witness to whatever happens, adopting the attitude ‘Let whatever strange things happen, happen; let us see!’…..the scriptures declare that thought itself is bondage, the best discipline is to stay quiescent without ever forgetting Him (God, the Self), after resolving in Him the mind which is of the form of the ‘I-thought’, no matter by what means. This is the conclusive teaching of the scriptures”.

We can either be aware of our thoughts or be caught up by them. These are two completely different matters and they feel different. When we are caught up with our thoughts, it is as if we are carried by them to go wherever they want to go. Our emotions and physical reactions comply completely with the flow of our thoughts. On the other hand, when we are aware of our thoughts, it is as if we are sitting still and watching the thoughts float by. The thoughts arise and then fall away into our expansive awareness or as Ramana Maharshi put it, we allow our thoughts to resolve into Him. We just need to experience the difference once; only once; and we will begin to take control of our happiness. This is all there is about enlightenment. There is nothing mystical about it. All of us can achieve it in this life time. We just need to get rid of our bad habits; our conditioning; That is all!

Ramana Maharshi said that the mind is an object of consciousness. It is an object and does not have any inherent power of its own. It appears as if conscious because of association with consciousness; just like a red-hot iron ball appears hot in association with heat but is not inherently hot. It is limited, non-eternal, and ever changing. It is only through awareness that we can experience Ramana Maharshi’s wisdom. Without awareness, our mind, the storage of all our conditioning, appears to have an inherent power and becomes our master. With awareness, we see the mind as it truly is; an object of consciousness; a tool we use to live in this material world. Upon death, it is no longer required and we live it behind together with all the other treasures we have accumulated throughout our life.

Therefore, through awareness, we will eventually understand our true Self. Ramana Maharshi said, “Knowing one’s Self (the Divinity within) is knowing God. Without knowing one’s Self that meditates, imagining that there is a deity which is different and meditating on it, is compared by the great ones to the act of measuring with one’s foot one’s own shadow, and to the search for a trivial conch after throwing away a priceless gem that is already in one’s possession”.

We can control our conditions in a limited way by avoiding dangerous places or people but sometimes unexpected things happen. We don’t want to argue but out of no where, someone finds fault with us. We cannot control those conditions but we can choose not to react based on our conditioning. It may be difficult because we may be bombarded with our habitual thoughts and emotions even before we get a chance to become aware of them. But if we are able to slow down, step back and be aware of our conditioning, we can avoid reacting in a negative manner. That is how we transcend our karma and take control of our destiny.

I could summarise the spiritual path as follows: With awareness, we become masters of our destiny. The ego is the warehouse of all our past conditioning. For our past karma to crystallise, the required conditions and conditioning must be there; for example, to be hurt in a fight, there must be an enemy and we must be sufficiently angry and proud so that we are not able to walk away from the fight. With a strong awareness, when certain conditions arise to trigger some conditioning within us, the conditioning will immediately melt in the light of our awareness. We are able to act with wisdom to prevent the karma to materialise fully.

Sometimes are conditioning may trigger us to go to places or do things which bring about the conditions for the materialisation of our past karma such as the habit of indulging in intoxicants. Similarly, with strong awareness, we can become conscious of those conditioning before they cause those conditions to arise.

This gives us a different perspective to the problems we face in our daily life. Problems give us the opportunity to train our awareness. If we are able to maintain our awareness when facing our problems, we will not feel weighed down and confused. For the first few times, we may not be able to maintain our awareness for long before being overwhelmed by our emotions. However, our ability to stay calm and conscious will improve over time as we continue to use our awareness as a protective shield. From this aspect, problems should be welcomed with an open heart. I noticed that whenever I am open to the problems I face, they tend to be resolved very quickly, leaving me stronger without any battle scars!

Therefore, the process of enlightenment is simply the strengthening of our awareness. At first, we are only aware for brief periods of time and only with significant effort because we still believe that happiness comes from external factors. However, as we persevere, we begin to see that happiness comes from within and the more that we are aware, the more peace and happiness we have. Eventually, awareness becomes effortless and intuitive wisdom arises within us whenever we need guidance.

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[1] Source: , Intuitive Awareness, by Ajahn Sumedho

[2] Source: The Collected Works of Sri Ramana Maharshi

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