Chapter 6: Conditioning

[Definition: condition: n. state of being; vb. to create condition(s); conditioning (verbal noun): the process of creating condition(s)]

I'd like to start this chapter by inviting you to participate in three more exercises, though these are rather different in nature from those in Part 1.

Exercise 1 Simply answer the following questions:

  1. How do you spell 'STOCK' ? ...
  2. And what do you do at a green light?

Exercise 2 Consider the following tale:

One day, a father and his son were driving to town to go shopping when they were involved in an accident. The father was killed but the son survived and was rushed to hospital. He was subsequently sent to the operating theatre to await surgery.

The surgeon arrived but stopped short: "I can't operate on him - he's my son!"

Answers to 1 & 2 are given in the footnotes.

Exercise 3

Pick up a newspaper and look at the top of the front page ... do this without reading the headline!

Do you find this difficult? If so, then like me, you have been strongly conditioned. In fact, for me this reveals one of the most conditioned aspects of my nature, which has been ingrained since I was a young child. The main reason is my penchant for the manipulation of words and numbers, especially anagrams and the like - I'm a keen player of Scrabble ()! On occasions as soon as I see some letters, in a split-second my brain is permuting them!

To help us view more creatively, we may take the approaches described in the exercises of Chapter 4, in particular by trying to observe the shapes without applying labels (as in the example on contemplation). To facilitate this I suggest we look at the spaces in between.

If you can view the headline as if it is an unfamiliar foreign language, then you will have released yourself from some conditioning.

Throughout our lives, from the moment of conception, we are very strongly conditioned by our experiences - internal and external - of surroundings and incidents at home and in society. The most dramatic of these leave deep impressions, which may be termed engrams and contribute particularly strongly to our mental conditioning.

It should be apparent then that consideration of conditioning is very important; in fact, a large amount of psychotherapy deals with applying certain techniques to try to get patients to cope with engrams. Incidentally, it is my opinion that the benefits of such treatment have been underestimated by all the long-established religions.

Conditioning can be seen to restrict creativity, limit our experience and narrow our understanding of the truth. Such conditioning may occur individually or in groups. Of the numerous examples in the history of society which may be cited, a recent prominent case was the intense conditioning ingrained in a few Communist leaders in the Soviet Union who brought about little change and hence an immensely archaic and inefficient economic system.

At the individual level conditioning often encourages a dogmatic dualism - the cultivation of views, opinions, concepts etc. which fix us in a box and set us apart from others. It is fair enough to have views and express them, but it is detrimental to blindly hold on to them without being open to modification. This is especially true today when we need cooperation, common purpose and a globally united vision.

For Christians, being 'created in God's image' surely implies the need for being totally creative, so how are we to handle conditioning? Should all conditioning be eliminated before we can be 'one with God'? Let us first investigate further the conditioning itself.

Cause and Effect

Up till now we've seen a few effects of conditioning and examined in a very general way some of the influences which contribute to conditioning. Many of the world's problems are tackled at this sort of level, but this is really too hazy to solve them: what may initially appear to be a satisfactory outcome turns into misfortune (or so it seems). To see how precarious conceptions of life can be, it is instructive to consider the following allegory from the Taoist 'Book of Lieh Tzu' 2.
'Once upon a time there was a poor old man who lived with his son in a ruined fort at the top of a hill. He owned a horse which strayed off one day, whereupon the neighbours came to offer sympathy at his loss. "What makes you suppose that this is misfortune?" the old man asked. Later the horse returned accompanied by several wild horses and this time the neighbours came to congratulate him on his good luck. "What makes you think this is good luck?" he enquired. Having a number of horses now available, the son took to riding and, as a result, broke his leg. Once more the neighbours rallied round to express sympathy and once again the old man asked how they could know that this was misfortune. Then the next year war broke out and because he was lame the son was exempt from going to the war.'
For each phenomenon (effect/event) there may well be several conditionings (causes); depending upon what conditionings combine and to what extent, different phenomena will result. To gain wisdom we need to examine more precisely causes and effects and their implications, and to do this we need a suitable starting point - a universal law. Much of what follows is seen to emerge from my Buddhist background, and I have satisfied myself that it makes sense. For a more comprehensive treatment one should refer to the explication of 'Dependent Origination' in the Buddhist scriptures 3.

The Law of Conditionality

[Definition: phenomenon an event/effect which is in turn a conditioning]

This law, which applies to both matter (to be discussed later) and mind can be stated as follows:

'All phenomena arise solely in dependence upon other phenomena.'
Put another way,
"This being, that becomes ... this ceasing that ceases." (Buddha Gotama)
It is the fundamental Buddhist doctrine: easy to remember yet staggeringly profound, it ought to be taught in some form to everyone. From this, through a little insight, a proper focus may be established on, for instance, the nature of 'good and evil' and on other concepts. For now we shall just examine how the law operates in a few minor examples.

Look outside at the weather - whatever you observe will be the result of phenomena; for instance, if there is the phenomenon of a thunderstorm then this will be the result of the coming together of the phenomena of heat and moisture in the atmosphere.

The law is easy to recognise in the physical universe, but perhaps less so in the 'mental universe', in which thought, sensations and emotions are affected by the law. The first three exercises of this chapter demonstrated the working of the law on thought processes, some of which have surprising effects.

Our conditionings are affected both by external influences beyond our control and more importantly by our own volitional acts - of body, speech and mind. In Buddhism, these acts are called Karma. But what bearing does all this have on our lives and on our personality? What is its primary relevance?

There is simply one truth which reveals its paramount importance: we suffer (mentally). The Buddha called this The First Noble Truth.

The connection between Karma and suffering (or unsatisfactoriness) is direct; the Law of Karma, which applies the Law of Conditionality to our Karma, is stated in the first two verses of the Dharmapada as follows:

"Unskilful states of mind are preceded by mind, led by mind and made up of mind. If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows him even as the cartwheel follows the hoof of the ox.

Skilful states of mind are preceded by mind, led by mind and made up of mind, If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows him like his shadow."

[In alternative language, a (totally) 'skilful' act is performed when 'one with God'; a (totally) unskilful act is performed when completely 'away from God.']

Notice how even an Enlightened being cannot ignore the Law of Karma, so it is a ridiculous fallacy to think that we may have rigid control over our lives - expectations that people and situations will behave as we desire will backfire. People who expect everything to 'go to plan' are invariably disappointed and subsequently experience dis-satisfaction and suffering. Even more serious, placing all one's trust in supposed certainties (pertaining to the physical world and society) is potentially catastrophic for everyone around: by the Law of Conditionality, things will change. It is useful to lean on a number of relatively well-established ideas etc. as long as one remains open to recognising the necessity for altering them in the future. Those who perceive change is necessary should, however, not expect everyone to change in sympathy!

Enlightened people do not have expectations as described above; they do not cling to preconceptions, but remain throughout perfectly satisfied, perfectly serene.

It should be fairly clear now that to be 'one with God', it is not the case that all conditioning should be eliminated.

Rebirth [to return to the question posed in Chapter 1]

I now consider what is perhaps the most crucial application of the Law of Karma, which has steadily shed light on my spiritual direction; on the nature of suffering; on why we suffer; on what it means to be a follower of Christ; finally, on salvation and liberation from suffering.

I anticipate from some readers much initial (conditioned) consternation and denial about what I am about to relate. So, apart from certain evidence which I shall offer, I take the opportunity of asserting whole-heartedly that there has not been a trace of conflict within me concerning the views which I am about to express. Further, in my encounters with people who do not share my views, I've never felt unsettled as to their validity. Also, this seems in itself to encourage my feeling that such views needn't dilute one's Faith.

A large amount of our conditioning arises from our biological instincts; as with every other species which has evolved, homo sapiens has a dominant goal - survival. Buried deep within the subconscious of most of us are three types of conditionings. They are directly related to consumption of food, sleep and sex.

Being emotionally attached to each of these acts (karma) conditions the mind to crave more of each - the more we have, the more we want. Each karma can very easily become habit-forming to the extent that given certain stimuli - e.g. a delicious-looking meal - then the mind reacts instantly rather like a penny-in-the-slot machine, and craves more. Such habits affect lifestyles and later the personality. The habit-forming conditionings continue right up to the point of death, and then ... ?

The Law of Conditionality continues to apply: this being, that becomes ... And so for most, the habits of a lifetime ingrained in the subconscious conditionings, together with the state of mind at the instant of death, must at some stage be manifest once more ... resulting naturally in another body. This is the doctrine of rebirth.

In fact, in preference to talking about such a chronological succession of re-births interspersed by deaths of the body, to more accurately reflect the especially psychological processes of conditioning, one can talk about a continuous stream of births (and implicitly deaths) which take place at every instant, throughout each life and death.

At this point I wish to point out a distinction which is sometimes made between rebirth and reincarnation. The latter may be reserved for a volitional rebirth, typically taken by those who wish to fulfil the Buddhist ideal of a Bodhisattva (literally 'Enlightened one').

I know that by now many readers will have reacted ( la penny-in-the-slot) since religious conditioning is extremely strong. To these people I ask, "Can you really deny in your heart what I have said? Can you really deny from what God tells you directly what I have said?"

It is in contemplation, meditation and prayer where you are most likely to generate the clarity of vision required to respond appropriately.

At an inferior level I offer as promised some evidence pointing to the validity of rebirth. First of all, the doctrine offers a logical explanation of the diversity of circumstances into which people are born. Hence, for instance, we should not begrudge heirs and heiresses of great wealth, for it is quite likely that they merit it by virtue of previous karma. On the other hand, even though many impoverished people could be suffering hardship through previous unskilful acts, the desire to help these people does not diminish for a compassionate heart.

Second, there has been mounting evidence amongst Western practitioners of hypnotic regression therapy where patients, on being asked to go back to the root of a problem, describe past lives.

Some people do not need such therapy to recall their previous histories. There have been television programmes detailing a few such cases, for instance 'Remembered Lives', BBC2, 10/10/92 (final part of a series). In these, children from around the world have described in uncanny detail previous lives - their relatives, favourite haunts, customs etc. In many cases, the evidence for rebirth appeared to be very strong; a large number of these have been well documented by Professor Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia 4.

Third, rebirth was a doctrine of some early Christian sects. It is likely, I feel, that this was subsequently suppressed by certain establishments. In fact, in St. John's gospel (9:1-2), rebirth could well be implied in the account of Jesus healing a man born blind:

'As he [Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"'

Consequence of the doctrine of rebirth: many realms of existence

I perceive a collective evolutionary aspect to be taking place which, in view of an eternal time scale, leads naturally to the need for other realms of existence - from which we may have come and, further, into which we may go. The human population explosion reflects the evolutionary drive.

What then is the nature of such realms? Well, look outside and you'll see: every living thing is, I maintain, a being responding as we do to the Law of Conditionality, though rather more reactively than us 5.

What a shock! For then the odds of being human are infinitesimal! Indeed human life is so precious! Being human, we have a chance to glimpse reality and go beyond conditioning; to be creative and not governed by instinctive reactions; we have the chance to gain, through free will, spiritual freedom! The animal realms, as far as I can tell, do not offer such opportunities.

A Spiritual Response

I'll just say a few words about how I feel one should respond to the challenge posed by the Law of Conditionality; further angles are given in accounts in later chapters, particularly in "On Being A Follower of Christ" and in "Conditionality and Transcendence." I stress that these are not rigorous methods, only clues.

As a suitable start, one must develop awareness of the Law of Conditionality - first of all at the physical level and then at higher mental levels. If one practises exercises in contemplation, meditation and prayer, then one will become aware of the conditioned and conditioning mental processes.

In due course one can observe more clearly how these conditionings are working in our daily routines - we come to realise that anything done automatically has been performed through conditioning, in a reactive rather than creative fashion. On such realisation we should seize the opportunity to become more creative in future actions; we should anticipate situations which have hitherto appeared mundane (for instance, the washing-up) and tackle them creatively - which means really just more mindfully, without letting thoughts wander. Hence the most trivial task can be fulfilling.

The cultivation of mental awareness will inevitably draw into focus our emotions. We should accept these as they occur and not try to ignore or block them; watching them will enable us to see them come and go. This seems all very good and practicable in sessions set aside for contemplation, meditation and prayer, but much more difficult to practice outside. If we can manage each day only a little meditation say, then we need other means in addition - this time to refine and purify our emotions throughout the remaining hours.

Since nothing can remain static, including emotions, then we should seek to be humbler yet, kinder still, and ever calmer ... in all situations. To facilitate this we should engage in aesthetic pursuits such as art, craft and music and seek good company, trying to express in these our meditational practice. If we train our minds like this, not only will our emotions be refined, but also there will no longer be such a strong division between the awareness of 'sitting meditation' and that maintained in other activities.

Thus the Law of Conditionality can be made to work in our favour.


  1. Solutions to exercises ^
  2. [in e.g. 'Taoism: The Way of the Mystic' by J.C.Cooper.] ^
  3. Here, as elsewhere, is presented very much some simple personal realisations or 'home-spun' ideas, which are not intended as an introduction to Buddhism. (At the time of writing this, my formal knowledge of Paticca Samudpada (Dependent Origination) did not cover the 12 links.) ^
  4. HyperLink to be supplied...^
  5. So regarding animals merely as God's gifts to make this world beautiful etc. is a show of ignorance, which I would put alongside sexism. ^

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- Paul Trafford 1996,97 Paul's home page