The Nature of Conditioning

It’s in the nature of our being to be conditioned by our surroundings. We live within an immersion in perception and the adjustments and responses, the reactions and the habits of mind – let’s say of the “brain” – and of the body, inter-meshed and interwoven in ways that are inseparable from our experience of “reality.”

There is no value in an attempt to “strip away” our conditioning. There is no underlying “reality” to be discovered and there is no underlying “I” to do it.

This is one of the guide-posts that clarify the meaning of striving and show us how we can avoid its traps. Striving is inseparable from a belief in transcending all conditionality to reach a “higher” reality or some end beyond our world.

Without this insight there can be much confusion between any action we might contemplate or take and striving. This confusion can lead either to paralysis or frustration. By linking striving to the attempt to outrun conditionality connects the futility of an approach to life that sees only division and seeks to find answers to self generated problems with the deepest manifestation of that impulse in the desire to transcend our conditioned natures.

Settling this question also opens up the possibility of finding what we can do.

One way of looking at the derailment of our capacities to engage creatively with being brought on by civilization can be found in the distance between the conditioning civilization imposes on us and what we need to find our way as creative beings. This shows up throughout our daily life. The constant pressure to defer to some future. The push to strive harder and to waive our squeamishness at making each other into means to our ends. The making of ourselves into the means to the ends of others either under duress or with the Stockholm Syndrome mentality developed and maintained by the most ruthless among us to hold us to value their desires above our own needs. Through it all our efforts keep us too exhausted, drained, off balance and confused to do anything else.

We crave recreation.

We confuse some state of relative luxury, in which we are “free” of the consequences of our maintenance in that state by the sacrifice of others, with the existence we imagine a pre-civilized human enjoying when it took just a few hours to meet their daily needs and there was no clock always ticking to rush us beyond our capacity to renew ourselves. That state can be idealized into a utopian fantasy in which there are no cares. Such a life never existed. This idealization is an example of the ways our civilized world views take us right past the point of such a past into the traps of idealization and striving we find “normal” through long established habit.

The lesson to be found in pre-civilized life is one that shows us that a life organized around our actual needs can develop a conditioning in which we have evidence that humans physically interchangeable with us on a genetic level were able to live within relatively stable interaction with their surroundings for unheard of spans of time, time-frames now only imaginable for the half-lives of our nuclear wastes.

Civilization’s conditioning leads us to insist that such stability could only have been “boring” and that such lives had to have been miserable, they had no amenities, no security, the list goes on from here. The trouble with this list of faults is that they are so intrinsically tethered to the holes in the civilized world view. It’s entire edifice of striving is built on and runs on the energies such striving unleashes within the frustrated hearts of its adherents as they insist that their falsehoods are true and that we have no other choice not already held out in the armorium of civilization’s limited and self-correcting possibilities.

Our problem, if we can be said to have one, is in our confusion of this list with all possible choices and with the way the self-correcting nature of the choices we do see all work to maintain the hold of civilization on our psyches.

We are conditioned beings. We cannot live without being conditioned by our surroundings, by each other, by the cultures we inhabit. The choice lies in how we shape our conditioning, and whether we are able to affect our responses to our conditioned state.

Consciousness broke over our human ancestors and clove the world into pieces. Creation myths are the aftershocks of this process’s opening stages. It’s not at all surprising that we should have found all powerful constructs that controlled the expressions of consciousness as the unmediated lives of our pre-conscious ancestors gave way to one in which there was this incredibly powerful sense of witness behind perception and our reactions to our now mediated world.

Throughout the evolution of culture we have tried to make sense of this by positing an “I” behind the process, whether gods, a God, or the individual psyche itself. In each case we seem to have lost some of the ability to interact within direct engagement with our world as the mediation became more elaborate and more internalized. Living in a world filled with a pantheon of gods and spirits with which we have to interact in a continual awareness of our vulnerability and the dangers of hubris would have been closer to a direct unmediated existence unfettered by consciousness than a life in which we find ourselves to be the measure of all things.

What none of these world views has ever allowed us is to develop a sense of the interplay of perception and conditioning as the generator and the matrix, the field of existence itself, and to be able to moderate and mediate between our conditioned responses and our point of most direct contact with being. What we’ve never had since we became conscious has been an ability to see where we actually stand in this world of perception and conditioning and have an attitude towards it that does not insist that our reactions are themselves the ultimate reality. Civilization represents the urge to not have to face such an eventuality. It is more “reassuring” to build up such fictions and use them to displace our true conditions from our awareness and replace them with illusions.

For this reason we find disillusion, which should be celebrated as a “rite of passage” into adulthood as the greatest tragedy, one that we are willing to pay for in the proliferation of man made tragedies its avoidance subjects the world to on ever greater and more destructive scales.

The artists’ “life” has been one area in which the old urges and some of the necessary conditioning for the maintenance of a creative relationship with our surroundings has survived if only in ruins. It takes a discipline to maintain some distance from the flood of life’s striving imposed by the civilized culture to stand apart enough to hold one’s own counsel and husband one’s strengths to be able to make some contact with creativity, with what David Bohm calls “Mind.”

The artists’ life has also been twisted by contact with civilization. It has been conflated with that life of luxury and fame and fortune that maintain their holders in suspension above “normal” cares. Art is seen as an accoutrement of the life of luxury and its makers are either the pets of the powerful or given some measure of “power” to exercise on their own. They are seen to be rewarded, in this life or the “next,” by the measures of value the civilization holds dear. Their existence is always brought back into “harmony” with the values of striving and means to ends that drive civilization’s efforts.

It seems to me that this convergence of factors is one of the places where we can work to change our world view to take into account the destructiveness of our current possibilities and the limitations these current views force upon us as alternatives.

Art’s in-utility has always seemed incredibly significant to me.  It is always seen by the “Philistines” as the reason for its uselessness. It has been taken as a sign of its “luxuriousness” and its ability to dress-up the ruthlessness of power’s greed and its holders lack of empathy for their victims. I think all of these views miss its true import. Arts in-utility is not only a sign of its being outside of a culture’s shibbolethic value structures, it is the way in which it may hold its practitioners to meditate on the possibilities of a life without striving.

This is easily short-circuited. This is civilization’s greatest power, its ability to turn any impulse to its own ends. But it is still there as a germ of a possibility. It has traditions and habits and a history of practice that stretches back as far as any evidence for consciousness. In this there is a space to carve from a relationship to being and a different conditioning that helps hold us in that relationship.

We are by nature conditioned. Only through an awareness and acceptance of that nature can we have any chance of changing the nature of our conditioning.

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