Thursday, 7 November 2013

Conditioned and conditioning

There have been a couple of posts on John Stepper’s blog recently that have interested me.  I also find the conjunction of the two posts interesting.  They both talk about conditioning, but the first is about unhelpful conditioning and the second about skilful conditioning.

Me with monkey c. 1969
In the first blog he relates the story of an experiment with monkeys.  Whilst I am not keen on the existence of the experiment, it does demonstrate the nature of conditioning.  In the five monkeys experiment the animals are conditioned to respond to a stimulus they have experienced.  Eventually a monkey who has never actually had that experience adopts the same response.

We are not monkeys but we are in fact conditioned in the same way. We think that we make decisions and operate from free will, yet we are all totally compromised by our past experience and the influence of others’ past experience.  The only way to truly be able to make choices and actual have free will is to discover spaciousness in the present moment.  The only way to discover spaciousness in the present moment is to practice silent sitting meditation – meditation that lets go of thought.

The response to a stimulus clicks in so fast that we believe it to be automatic, but through meditation practice we can discover that the habitual response can be recognised.  A space can develop where we are able to see the process of perception and response.  Once the habitual response is recognised, there is choice.  We can decide whether to allow the pattern of response to continue, or whether to do something else.

At first we can only barely notice the habit clicking in.  We may feel that our meditation practice is making us more unkind, thoughtless, insensitive, angry, etc, etc . . . but it is simply that we are seeing our patterning for the first time.  At first we remain powerless to do anything about our habitual response and we have to have a sense of humour about that.  Eventually—if we continue to meditate every day—we will develop sufficient spaciousness to actually change our response.

This is where the second of John Stepper’s blogs is of interest, because it is about trying to develop desired, beneficial habits – trying to re-condition ourselves.  How do we develop the beneficial habit of meditation practice?  We want to meditate every day.  We believe that this daily practice will help us – yet it is difficult to get down to actually doing it.  There is a resistance to engaging with the commitment.  John Stepper quotes Martha Beck’s idea of Tiny Resolutions as a first step to achieve a goal.  As an example: if you cannot get yourself to actually do the physical exercise you feel you would like to do, you begin with the tiny resolution of at least touching the exercise machine every day.  Gradually this will overcome the first level of aversion, so that you could move on to the next commitment level of perhaps sitting/standing on the exercise equipment.  And so on.

With regard to our meditation practice, perhaps the first level could be touching the meditation cushion every day; then it could be sitting on the cushion; then it could be five minutes meditation practice . . . and so on.  Perhaps this could be a useful approach to actually getting down to our meditation.

Eventually we will need to let go of all conditioning – even skilful re-conditioning.  Ultimately perception must become clear and direct in the moment, and response clear and appropriate – a spontaneous union of emptiness and form, wisdom and method.  To achieve this goal we begin with our meditation practice so that we can become familiar with awareness in the present moment.

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