Conditioning and the Mind
As discussed in a previous post, I posited that Buddha may well be considered as the first behavioral theorist. He discussed the nature of conditioning and mental events. He pointed out that much of our mental habits are the result of basic associative learning processes causing us to become prisoner of our mental habits. The basic premise of conditioning is that things that occur together in time tend to be become associated such that the occurrence of one can elicit the other. In learning terms, such conditioning can take the form of stimulus-stimulus (S-S) learning, or stimulus-response (S-R) learning. We have become prisoners of our conditioned mind and so have lost access to our “original mind”. We thus can no longer see the world in its unfiltered “suchness” but become entrapped in the layers of internal dialogue, comparisons, analysis, beliefs, and emotional reactions.
Once a thought arises, it invariably leads to trains of other thoughts, images, memories and physiological reactions, all connected through complex associational networks that have been conditioned and then strengthened through countless repetitions and rehearsals. Thus each thought, has a causal influence and leads to consequent effects. This is essentially the law of karma or the law of cause and effect. The implication is that the more we engage in certain behaviors or even thoughts, the more likely that they recur. Neorologically speaking, it appears that the more we rehearse some thoughts or actions, the more we actually are creating neural pathways and connections. There is a law in neuroscience called Hebbs law that essentially states, Things that occur together, become wired together”. Thus, over time, the occurrence of one, elicits the other.
So the moral of this story is; Be careful what you do, be careful what you think! Everything that you do leaves a neural and karmic trace or residue that impacts your future thoughts and actions. However, when we practice mindfulness or meditation, we are in effect erasing karma. When you become aware of arising thoughts, images, impulses memories, and simply allow such cognitive impressions to float away without pursuing the chain, then these associational links and habits start weakening. Thus,over time, people find that they become generally less reactive and guided by arising emotions and thoughts. Such experiences simply rise and fall, ebb and flow.
To be clear, mental and behavioral conditioning is not to be viewed as bad or something to be controlled. It is a critical and beautiful aspect of adaptive functioning that is crucial for survival. Humans, ostensibly, have the most highly evolved complex cognitive capacity and thus have achieved simply amazing levels of intellectual and technical achievement. However, we have lost sight of the fact that our thoughts are only a tool. We have forgotten that “the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon itself”. And thus we have become prisoner of our reactive/conditioned minds that threatens our personal well-being and even our survivability as a species.
So, our practice is to endeavor to be mindful and present. Our choice is to be present to whatever arises in our cognitive/emotional/bodily/perceptual field and to remain perfectly open, accepting, and non-reactive to whatever we experience. Of course, while this sounds so simple , the actual practice is extremely difficult. But perhaps just knowing that we need to assume some level of care and responsibility (not control!) for our mental events, can be a critical first step in our journey of liberation for our own benefit and for all sentient beings!!
And so a couple of preliminary tips to enhance mindful and non-reactive awareness:
1) Engage in seated meditation such as mindful breathing meditation for at least ten minutes per day.
2) At several points through the day, try to stay fully present with a given activity: washing dishes, walking, yard work…anything.
3) When emotions arise, practice emotional labeling. “Feel the feelings…cut the drama” – Pema Chodron
4) Numerous times throughout the day, simply pay attention to everything inside and outside of you…your breath, thoughts, bodily sensations, sights and sounds. Practice just “being”.
5) When you observe that your brain is engaged in non-directed thinking, say to yourself “thinking” as you you simply watch the thoughts without getting involved in them. Simply watch them ebb and flow as though they were clouds drifting across the sky.
Please feel free to chime in with thoughts, comments, insights or objections.