Conditioning

Conditioning, noun: influencing, shaping, constraining, controlling; bringing something into a usable state by preparing, adapting, softening; changing behavior by rewarding or punishing each time an action is performed. We’re all familiar with Pavlov’s example of conditioning – by ringing a bell simultaneously with the feeding of test dogs, he trained the dogs to salivate at the mere ringing of the bell even if they could not see the food. Conditioning is easy to explain neurologically, as a biochemical response. The satisfaction of a bodily need or the discharge of an emotional tension leads to a release of hormones (like adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine in the case of fear, or dopamine and oxytocin in the case of pleasure), and to changes in the sensitivity of nerve cells. As an axon repeatedly fires to a cell, the cell is more easily stimulated each subsequent time because a neural pathway is established. An automatic reflex or unconscious response is formed, which is no longer subject to control by the will. Conceptually and emotionally, it’s more difficult to explain the complex conditioning of human behavior, since it begins to take shape before language and memory develop and has to be inferred backwards, from its effects.

Following Margaret Mahler, many psychologists have inferred from observation that infants, in their first few months, live in a kind of symbiotic unity with the mother and the rest of their environment. This state of oceanic immersion or connection gradually diminishes as their needs become unfulfilled, whether through inadequate attention, care, or breastfeeding, and they begin to feel the first painful glimmers of being a separate entity. But even after the infant grows into a young toddler, there remains a sense of a separate-but-continuous-flow, as it begins its intense love affair with the world through touching and sucking objects. It’s easy to see when watching toddlers that they’re oblivious to conditioning and are busy living out their immediate desires, playing with everything that comes their way – the mother’s breast, the slippers they pick up off the floor and chew, the bicycle tire. Although some forms of conditioning begin during infancy, as feeding and sleeping become regulated, the real process of conditioning begins with the discipling of the body through toilet training and becomes increasingly complex with the onset of language. After stumbling into language, children become caught in a long, drawn-out battle to maintain the integrity of their pleasures, adventures and magical sense of time against the repressive demands that are imposed on them. All the adults around them are preoccupied with discovering the best technologies to discipline them. Children’s bodies become something to control, restrain and civilize. They are trained to feed, shit and sleep at regular intervals so that the economy of time may better penetrate their skin. And they are taught the ways of fear and shame – as they’re scolded for displaying anger, crying, laughing too loud, or playing with the “dirty” parts of their bodies. Eventually children’s emotional expressivity, natural instincts, intuitions, and sense of wonder and playfulness are all forced to go underground as they learn to construct an acceptable mask or persona in order to get the love and approval they crave.

Some of us retain strong memories of these heroic battles and gradual giving in to the imprint of conditioning, while for others it’s just a distant and vague blur – although this doesn’t make its effects any less real. I have very strong memories of putting up a fierce struggle to maintain my sense of magic and imagination, in contrast to the demands to be reasonable and well behaved. I used to believe that animals and birds could talk, and was fond of long conversations with my kitten, Mr. Pips. Mr. Pips was female, but back then I had no idea about the propriety of names and genders. Besides, she had chosen her own name and whispered it to me in a dream. She often looked at me while opening and closing her mouth and making strange cooing sounds, and I knew she was talking to me in a secret cat language that only I could understand. I knew when she was hungry or cold or when she just wanted to sit on my lap and purr. I also remember all those moments when I managed to escape the prison-walls of the home and school to steal a few hours of play with my friends. We used to pack such a horde of adventures into those brief moments, that time became like a dilated sponge that absorbed sparks of joy, and did not trickle away like grains of sand in an hourglass. Our playtime was swollen by dreams of impossible worlds, by fairies, mermaids and dancing mushrooms that came to life from stories. Many of us experienced this painful chasm of childhood, in which we were caught between two incompatible worlds. Outside the repressive atmosphere of family discipline and the drudgery of school, we managed to set loose our unlimited power of transforming the world according to our imagination. But parents and teachers were always on the sidelines, patiently waiting for us to join their monochrome universe. Innocent of the ways of conditioning, we could not help but fall like trapped animals into their snare. We had no weapons to shield against the sweetness of their despotism, and by the time we became old enough to decipher what was happening, we lost our sense of the incomparable superiority of those vanished times. But beneath the protective masks and the armor we fashioned to shield against the blows of life, the traces of our childhood still remain with us, like an open wound.

Conditioning is the entire arsenal of disciplinary technologies that are designed to break the spirit of the child, to mold it into a tame and predictable creature. It is meant to teach us the rules of separation, identification and lack. With our entry into language, the word “I” acquires an overwhelming significance, as our experience begins to be carved up into subject and object, into me and my possessions, into I and them. This is enforced from an early age by a system of rewards and punishments that teach us to measure ourselves against others and to beat them at tests, games and competitions. Because love and recognition from parents and teachers is not given freely but is dependent on measurable achievements, we develop a belief in our own insufficiency and a need to surpass others to feel good about ourselves. The mechanism of identification is born out of this sense of separation and lack – identification becomes a way of puffing up the self to overcome feelings of alienation and inadequacy. At first we identify with simple possessions like toys, and certain traits possessed by parents and role models. It continues to inflate our sense of self as we grow into adults, when we begin to identify with more complex possessions (clothes, cars, houses), with roles and ready-made stereotypes (husband, mother, intellectual, altruist, rebel), and with ideologies and political positions.

Freud believed that all our later identifications in life were defined and influenced by a primary identification that first took root when we were infants and felt a sense of continuity and symbiotic extension with the mother and lacked an awareness of boundaries. But something rings inaccurate about this theory. There’s a profound difference between feeling a symbiotic connection and a sense of oneness, and the mechanisms of identification. A rock does not identify with anything and neither does a wild animal. Something that is self-same and unreflective does not experience identification; identification presupposes a sense of separation and distancing, a distinction between self and other, and also an ability to see oneself from the outside. Incorporating an image of the other into the self (introjection) or projecting an image of the self onto the other requires a developed faculty of representation and the possession of language. It depends on having the prior concepts of I, me, mine, them, theirs, etc.

Because our sense of the “I” is precarious and defined against others, we try to inflate it and give it more solidity through identification – with material objects, with possessions, with ideas, with prefabricated identities and stereotypes. Identification with possessions is based on a desire for appropriation, for incorporating objects in order to expand the boundaries of the self and feel bigger. But there is also identification with groups, roles, and ideologies, which seems to move in the opposite direction – that of subjugating ourselves to something that stands above us. In this twin dialectic of subjecting things to our will and being subjected to others in turn, the common element is a sense of lack and insufficiency. We either fill ourselves up with things, seeking to make ourselves grow, or we strengthen ourselves by being subsumed or incorporated into something bigger, something external that has more authority and prestige than our single, individual I. In both movements, the need to identify with something outside of ourselves is more important than the particular features of what it is we identify with. And the more we add, the more we try to fill up the empty hole at our center, the more we believe we will eventually approach our completion. But we can never find ourselves in all of these additions, which is why we keep searching for the next one and the next – and it is this failure of finding ourselves through identification with objects, roles, images and ideas that turns the wheel of consumer society.

But no conditioning can ever be total, otherwise we’d be reduced to lethargic puppets that mechanically sleepwalk through a performance of life. And we would not feel a sense of dissatisfaction, of distance, of being out of step with ourselves, gnawing away silently at our souls. Every day we stumble upon magical moments when our alienations are shattered … for an instant, for an hour, for the space of a daydream. It might happen when we are sitting on a beach and are suddenly overcome by the sublimity of a sunset, feeling the orange and reds spreading across the vastness of the sky like a wave of electric heat. When we are really attuned to it, it is a synasthetic experience of colors, sounds, smells, tingling sensations, heat, emotions – that swell together in a promiscuous continuity of life that instills us with a sense of awe. Without any hallucinogens, the doors of perception begin to open and everything around us acquires a pulsating, breathing quality – we can literally feel its life-energy. Or it might happen when we get lost in the movement of a dance, when the body comes alive without conscious control and literally becomes the vibrations of the music. Or perhaps it happens when we are in silent communion with a lover, gazing into the infinite depths of his eyes.

What is common to these moments is that we feel no separation from ourselves and others, that we feel ecstatic – as if we are overflowing our boundaries and literally being thrown out of ourselves. Whatever we are experiencing unfolds easily, without effort or strain, and our sense of time becomes radically altered, as if the space of the present becomes dilated and we feel each part of our actions clearly and precisely, in slow motion. It is in these moments that we inhabit again the lost magic of our childhood, and intensely come into our own presence and power, feeling an intimate connection with our environment and with others. These moments  are outside conditioning, but not in the sense of transcending it or deliberately seeking to go beyond it as an act of conscious rebellion. They are more like a natural limit that conditioning cannot overcome, which offer us brief glimpses of a possible world that exists without separation, identification and lack. It’s because we encounter these thresholds of ecstatic experience that we know there’s something on the other side of conditioning. And it’s natural that having stumbled upon such moments by chance, that we should seek to extend them by will into the rest of our lives.

[This is the encyclopedia-like definition for “conditioning” written for Fool’s Dictionary. It is also a short fragment from the first chapter of Magic in Everyday Life entitled “Self-knowledge though Deconditioning,” which will be posted here soon … in all its excessive wordiness.]

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5 comments

  1. Unfortunately I could not arrange to joint your recent event on this topic at NOMAD-PSYBIENT location in Berlin. So I just want to make some practical remarks here. From my experience a possible approach to avoiding conditioned behaviour is just doing nothing. This sounds simple first of all, but it implies that you also think nothing and then also deeply feel the nothing-ness in its totality. Then it may happen that a powerful sun from a far away solar-system will illuminate this scene – leading you to unknown paths of conciousness, creative ideas, etc. pp. I am not a Buddhist and do not believe in god or something similar because these systems of thinking called religion are normally a great burden for being open-minded to this world and universe. But the idea of nothing-ness which may be also some kind of all-ness, are in my mind for long time now. For this reason I like to be in deserts which you also find on all mountains (here in Europe normally beyound 2,000 m altitude over sealevel). And in a desert it also always nice to find an oasis at a certain point. That’s the way how it may work out.

    1. Thanks for your comment (surprised to see a fellow Berliner on these pages). I agree that being in the desert or on a mountain is a way to avoid conditioned behavior (or is a limit that conditioning cannot overcome). But I rather see these experiences as moments of ecstatic fullness and communion rather than nothing-ness. I confess the concept of nothing-ness just never resonated with me, I think whether it’s an ecstatic sublime experience in nature or meditating in a dark and silent room it’s not nothing, it’s just a different form of experience. At best the label of “nothing-ness” is just a provocation to challenge our emphasis on doing and achieving and the agitated busyness of our everyday life – but it’s a metaphor or a conceptual fiction rather than something that corresponds to experience. And regardless of how wonderful and transcendent peak experiences in nature, or even in meditation, can be, one reason that it’s easier to leave conditioned behavior behind when you’re engaging in them is that they usually happen outside the traditional triggers that set off conditioned forms of behaviors – namely, relationships with other people. For this reason I believe the real test of breaking conditioned patterns of behavior is whether you can do it in the most difficult instances – in relationships with people you’re intimate with…

      1. Oh yes, that’s all true what you are indicating, but you have must misunderstood me, because I am not a missionary, just mentioned one possible approach. In German we have the saying: “A lot of roads are leading to Rome.” And sometimes it is really better to refrain from social interaction (for example in heavy and severe conflict situations) and first get aware for yourself individually of what is going on and why. Then it should be normally easier to handle this in a different way.

  2. I can’t believe that I have not discovered your posts sooner…(I suffer from a form of arrested development regarding social media),
    A quick read of just a little bit of your words is like experiencing a homecoming to a school I attended in a previous life…even some of your more obscure references (like to Gurdjieff) make me believe we speak the same language.
    Even off-hand remarks ring very true to me.
    It is early morning here and I must prepare for work, but I felt compelled to send an initial reply.
    I will be returning to your site very soon.
    You are a rare find.

    Namasté
    नमस्ते
    Chazz Vincent

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