Article in The Theosophist of April 2001
SOME THOUGHTS ON CONDITIONING
by Geoffrey A. Farthing
Psychologists and philosophers say that most of us react to the world outside and to other people as we do because of our ‘conditioning’. This conditioning is the result of our up-bringing, our schooling, the traditional thought-patterns of our social contacts, on our caste or our place generally on the social ladder. Our religion, our politics, even our nationality all condition us. A Hindu sees the world as a Hindu, the Moslem as a Moslem, the Buddhist as a Buddhist. They each have a code of ethics with certain things they may do and others they may not. It takes much courage to break free of these conditionings because by doing so we sever the bonds of our cult or even family.
There is also and very importantly the fundamental conditioning of our experiences, of what has happened to us, particularly if it has been painful or frightening. The psychological effects of these experiences will vary with persons. A given experience may be shattering and enduring for some but slight and short-lived for others. They will colour impressions received through the senses of what happens to us around the person. They will also affect our judgements and thinking. These tendencies will be indicated in a person’s astrological chart.
According to our teachers, all conditioning results in an obscuration of Truth. We cannot see things, people or relationships, etc. as they really are, purely objectively. They are all coloured by the tints of our conditioning spectacles.
When wise men are asked how we can be free of this conditioning, their reply is to observe, to be aware of ourselves and see how we react or how we behave according to the pattern of our particular conditioning. If we can so observe ourselves in thought and action, they say that we can in time become free of the limitations of the effects of our conditioning.
It is very seldom asked, however, with what do we do the observing. How can we become aware of our reactions? If we have only our conditioned mind with which to observe our self, how are we to overcome both its and our conditioning? Can the mind be divided against itself?
Some teachers advise us to practise the regular discipline of self-analysis, particularly our behaviour towards others, against the rules of conduct or whatever scale of ethics we have adopted. We can then see any unkindness or where we have omitted to be as helpful as we might have been. This tends to remove the risk of our incurring further Karmic debts by harming others.
It is interesting for a student of Theosophy to note this seeming division of mind. There can be two levels: one behaving or reacting habitually, automatically in a conditioned way, the other capable of registering and assessing these workings. Can one, however, observe conditioned thoughts and reactions with the same mind and from the same level as those thoughts themselves? Theosophy provides us with some answers. One is the distinction between the Individuality and the Personality. In theosophical parlance the Individuality comprises the three upper principles of man, viz Atma, Buddhi and Higher Manas, whereas the lower principles comprise the Personality, viz. the lower manas, kama (emotion, desire, etc.), prana, the Linga Sarira and the physical body. There is normally a division between the Higher and the lower manas.
The real man, the Egoic individuality, is centred in the Higher Manas, the seat of the man’s unit consciousness and of his ultimate “I”-ness. This “I” is unqualified; so too is consciousness itself, but not of course the contents of consciousness: they are all conditioned or qualified. Consciousness is a reflection, at our level, of the Absolute. It is without attributes but it gives rise to awareness, and that is inseparable from the things of which it is aware. It is these conditioned things that are the elements of universal Maya during Manifestation. In other words, consciousness at Egoic level is pure and unconditioned. We are told that the nature of any experience of the higher mind is of the highest spiritual order. This means that it is utterly impersonal, and its ‘objects always in terms of principles rather than particulars. With the slow emergence of higher mind promptings into the lower, conscience is born. The man is beginning to know right from wrong without any rules from within himself.
Turning to the lower quaternary as the Personality is sometimes called, the mind is constituted of the lower three and a half sub-principles of the manasic body whereas those of the higher mind are the upper three and a half principles reflecting the very spiritual nature of the Cosmos itself. The lower three and a half deal with the objectivised Cosmos or being, in other words the personal man whenever he is in incarnation. Out of incarnation these personality principles, together with those of the kamic plane and the ‘life’ planes, are dormant. They are represented by the continuing skandhas, which are the conditioned residue from previous lives on the Egoic chain.
Because of these conditioned skandhas there is no such thing as an unconditioned personality. Even at its birth it is conditioned, and this is quite regardless of any conditioning that may come later during its infancy or its adolescent and mature existence. The lower mind is the conditioned personal mind. It of itself can know no state that is not conditioned - although consciousness, which during the life of the man can be centred in it, is capable of breaking away from that conditioning.
This conditioned mind is what makes us the persons we are here on earth. It makes us what we are. Even Masters suffer from this conditioning. Nothing exists which is not conditioned, i.e., bears the characteristic stamp of what it is without which it would not be.
Concerning the Masters’ conditioning, we have Olcott’s account of the Masters who helped H.P. Blavatsky write Isis Unveiled. They all had their individual characteristics which reflected, for example, into their handwriting and their style of writing. One or two conversed easily in English, one or two had great difficulty, one of them speaking only in French, and that one had a fine artistic talent and a passionate fondness for mechanical innovation. Another would now and then sit there scrawling something with a pencil and reeling off to Olcott dozens of poetical stanzas which embodied now sublime, now humorous, ideas. So each of the several ‘Somebodies’ had his peculiarities as do any of our ordinary acquaintances or friends. One was jovial, fond of good stories, and witty to a degree, another all dignity, reserve and erudition. One would be calm, patient and benevolently helpful; another testy and sometimes exasperating. One ‘Somebody’ would always be willing to enlarge on his philosophical or scientific explanations of the subject Olcott was to write upon, by doing phenomena for his edification, while to another’ Somebody’ he dared not even mention them.
We are still left then with the question, with what can we observe our conditioning? Are we to assume that even the Masters could not do that? Surely the answer is that we can somehow elevate our consciousness out of the limitations of the personal self into the realms of Higher Manas which is free from the taint of personal conditioning.
The next big question is, how do we do this? Theosophy tells that between the lower and the Higher Manas there is a membrane impervious to start with for most humanity but which with later development can become a bridge. As this bridge is formed, the Egoic ‘consciousness’ can pervade the personality and affect not only its mental insights and understanding but its behaviour, via the kamic and astral vehicles, i.e., by changing his or her inner promptings, desires, etc.
Any modification of our thinking or the changing of our desires as a result of Egoic influence is in effect a deconditioning process. We are becoming more true to our real Self.
More than this, with the increasing liberation of our consciousness from the limitations (conditioning) of the personality, the whole centre of gravity of our being is rising into the spiritual realms, and these spiritual realms are, with respect to our conditioned objective world, unconditioned. Consciousness is becoming liberated and this is the only true kind of liberation. It is with the mind functioning at this level that the machinations of the lower mind can be seen truly, dispassionately. This higher mind is an uninvolved, unattached observer.
With this liberated consciousness we can, so to speak, invert our attention and really see our conditioning from an unconditioned viewpoint. However, this viewing does not, of itself, decondition us. We still have to work through vehicles which bear the stamp of our personal characteristics as was instanced by the description of the Masters. Whilst we are operating in manifest vehicles, those vehicles must always reflect what we are at personal level and they are always ‘conditioned’. They still have to be controlled and ‘used’ as effective tools. They are a means of action and information-gathering (experience) at physical level.
So how do we really become unconditioned. The truth is that we cannot until we are wholly identified with our Egoic Selves and there the qualities of objective existence do not apply. A liberated consciousness is the real and only state of freedom.
The laws of Nature apply even to man’s spiritual development. Everything is at a specific spot somewhere along the vast evolutionary path. Each human being is at this particular point on the way. As this road is traversed, so faculties are developed and grow. This applies particularly to the mental ones. The piercing of the membrane between upper and lower mind (the building of the bridge of Antahkarana) can only be successfully accomplished at the right stage of evolutionary development. The process of building the bridge can certainly be started by many of us. It is achieved by the development of faculty, by suitable mental training, by exercises, of which meditation in many of its forms plays a significant role. There are also other aids: the use of consciousness-raising literature and suitable music. These stimulate our upper mind sub-principles. Acts of self-sacrifice, of real altruism, break down the barriers of our isolation from others and tend to give us glimpses of the unity of the human family and of all things in Nature. Compassion is thus born; this is a sensitivity to whatever other people may be suffering or even enjoying in life. In sensitizing ourselves we become able to share these feelings, not only in imagination but truly so.
We begin to become truly virtuous - spontaneously, not practising virtues as a requirement of any code of ethics. In real spiritual growth there is no counterfeiting or pretending - that does more harm than good. If we would grow we have to be virtuous indeed; we cannot pretend.
It has probably been said by our erudite philosophers or psychologists that the unconditioned man is virtuous. In The Voice of the Silence we are told how essential are the paramitas, the virtues. “The true pilgrim has a long path to tread”. This is a truism but in the going the journey is full of a sense of purpose, rich incident and, now and again, encouragement.
The process of deconditioning cannot start until a minimum degree of Egoic consciousness has been established, i.e. until the man has developed spiritual eyes to see and spiritual ears to hear.
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