Our Beliefs and Conditioning are Transient

From our e-book “Filling our life with Celebration”

Enlightenment involves peelingBecause our beliefs and conditioning are transient or impermanent, our ego is similarly impermanent and transient. This is good news because it is this fact that makes enlightenment possible. Enlightenment involves peeling away the layers of beliefs and conditioning that we have accumulated. It is the process of making our egos lighter; hence the word enlightenment.

The various religions help to peel away our conditioning of being self-centred by encouraging us to develop compassion and kindness. Unfortunately, they also add on beliefs into our mental system to the point that we waste our time arguing over them. It is better to spend our time to understand the beliefs and conditioning that burdens us and to learn to let go of them, instead of trying to defend them by arguing with others.

All of us have beliefs and conditioning that we need to transcend. Even Saints like Paramhansa Ramakrishna are not free from it. The Dakshineswar temple was completed in 1855 and Ramakrishna was 21 years old at that time. The temple was funded by Rasmani, a rich widow of the Shudra caste. When the time arrived for the statue of the Mother Kali to be installed, Rasmani could not find a Brahmin priest to officiate the event because it was deemed derogatory at the time to a Brahmin to worship for a Shudra or accept gifts from a person of the caste. Rasmani sought the advise of Paramhansa Ramakrishna’s brother Ramkumar who was a respected and sought after Brahmin priest at the time. He was of the view that if the temple was made a gift to a Brahmin, no Brahmin would be considered degraded by acting as the priest. Because Ramkumar was famous for his devotion he was invited to act as a priest for the temple and he accepted.

Ramakrishna initially objected to this. It is a conditioning from his own father Ksudiram who never accepted any gift from the lower caste. However as his spiritual knowledge increased he eventually dropped all ideas of caste and creed as the following story clearly shows.

Ramakrishna often disappeared at night and returned early in the morning. One day, his nephew and devotee, Hriday, followed him and saw him meditating naked under an Amalaka tree. He even removed his ‘sacred thread’ that Brahmins wear. When Hriday questioned him, Paramhansa Ramakrishna replied, “this is the way one should think of God, free from all ties. Since our very birth, we have the eightfold fetter of hatred, shame, pedigree, culture fear, fame, caste and egoism. This sacred thread means that I am a Brahmin and therefore, superior to all. When calling upon the Mother, one should set aside such ideas”.

These stories show that even a person of Ramakrishna’s stature needs to work off the conditioning and beliefs that he is subjected to as a child.

How do we let go of our beliefs and conditioning? We do not try to push them out of our minds or resist them. We accept those conditioning as being part of us as a parent accepts the weaknesses of her child whilst appreciating the child’s strengths. An example of a burdensome conditioning is the animosity between the Koreans and Japanese due to the war between the two countries in the past. From young, they have been conditioned to hate each other. I know of a company which placed a Japanese to head a company in Korea. It was a disaster! The company did not understand the power of past conditioning. No matter how great a leader the Japanese was, the past conditioning of the parties eventually made it difficult for them to cooperate.

I may seem to be contradicting myself. How can we let go of a conditioning whilst accepting it at the same time. Trying to resist the conditioning creates unnecessary mental stress and discourages us to make further effort. That is why we have so many names for different psychological illnesses. We want to put a name to our mental suffering so that we can give up trying to heal ourselves. With a name to whatever mental suffering we are going through, we can choose to be a victim and blame the medicine for not solving our problems. We have surrendered our independence to modern medicine.

We slowly let go of our past conditioning by recognising how we react to external circumstance because of our conditioning. Then we choose not to react based on the conditioning. When a conditioning takes a hold on us, we bring our awareness to our breath and observe our thoughts and emotions. Practicing this during meditation when we are not overwhelmed by external circumstances will enable us to do this better. We only choose to act once the negative thoughts and emotions fade away. This is why people with strong awareness acts more wisely and are better at ‘thinking on their feet’.

One aspect that is not so apparent in the Bhagavad Gita is that the Lord was teaching Arjuna right in the middle of a battle! It was not before or after the battle but right in the peak of it. It implies that we can truly learn from our sufferings or challenges. Tibetan Buddhists welcome suffering because they understand that suffering brings growth. They can also see that when things are going fine, one often do not question the meaning of life. That is why they are generally happy irrespective of their experiences.

Suffering also brings compassion for those who are going through a suffering which we have gone through before. Observing how we react to suffering to based on our past conditioning and habits allow us to transcend them. Therefore, the acceptance of suffering as an opportunity to understand ourselves and to grow, can reduce the mental suffering that comes with negative experiences.

We can also learn from others in our daily life. I am not referring to the spiritual masters but rather, the normal people in our day to day life. If we find someone who is naturally joyful and light, we can grow by learning about their beliefs and conditioning. We can figure this out by listening intently to what they say. We will often find that they tend to see the goodness in others. They do not look down on others. They do not look down on themselves.

Just recently, I met someone who has a great sense of humour. He was enjoying himself tremendously and at the same time, lifting up everyone around him. I was just wondering about his beliefs and conditioning and he just looked to me and volunteered this information. He mentioned, “sometimes when we are feeling down, it is useful to lift ourselves up by watching comedies. Even when we are driving, our children can watch the comedies and we can listen to the conversations”. The conditioning that he has transcended is the false belief that our emotions are permanent. He is an example of a person who is aware of his emotions and who takes action to improve himself.

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