SOME THOUGHTS ON CONDITIONING

written by
Geoffrey 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 upbringing, our schooling, the traditional thought-patterns of our social contacts, of our caste or our place generally on the social ladder.

 

This article first appeared in The Theosophist, April 2001

another apocalyptic vision

Another Apocalyptic Vision 1877
view of the Mahatmas by H.P. Blavatsky


Our religion, our politics, even our nationality all condition us. A Hindu sees the world as a Hindu, a Muslim as a Muslim, a Buddhist as a Buddhist. They each have a code of ethics, certain things they may or may not do. 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, particularly if painful or frightening. The psychological effects of these experiences vary with persons. A given experience may be shattering and enduring for some but slight and short-lived for others. They colour impressions received through the senses of what happens around us, and affect our judgements and thinking.

According to our teachers, all conditioning results in an obscuration of Truth. We cannot see things, people or relationships 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, they say, 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. If we have only our conditioned mind with which to observe ourselves, how can we become aware of our reactions and overcome this 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. 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 incurring further karmic debts by harming others.

It is interesting for a student of Theosophy to note this seeming division of mind. There appear to be two levels: one behaving or reacting habitually, automatically in a conditioned way, the other capable of registering and assessing these workings. But can one observe conditioned thoughts and reactions with the same mind that produces those thoughts? 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: Atma, Buddhi and Higher Manas, whereas the Personality comprises the lower principles: the lower manas, kama (emotion, desire), 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 unconsciousness 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. 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 are principles rather than particulars. With the slow emergence of higher mind promptings into the lower, conscience is born. The man begins to know right from wrong from within himself

Turning to the lower quaternary, as the Personality is sometimes called, the lower mind is constituted of the lower four principles of the manasic body, as opposed to the upper three principles of the higher mind which reflect the very spiritual nature of the cosmos itself. The lower four 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 birth it is conditioned, quite regardless of any conditioning that may come later during infancy or 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 what we are here on Earth. Even Masters suffer from this conditioning. Nothing exists which is not conditioned, which does not bear 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 were reflected, for example, in their handwriting and their style of writing. One or two conversed easily in English, others 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 sit scrawling something with a pencil and reeling off to Olcott dozens of poetic stanzas which embodied sublime or 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 about, by producing phenomena for his edification, while to another 'Somebody' Olcott 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.

How do we do this? Theosophy tells us that between the lower and the Higher Manas there is a membrane impervious to start with for most of humanity but which, with later development, can become a bridge. When this bridge is formed, the Egoic 'consciousness' pervades the personality and affects not only its mental insights and understanding but its behaviour, via the astral or kamic vehicle, by changing inner promptings, desires, and the like. Any modification of our thinking or the changing of our desire 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 raised into the spiritual realms which, with respect to our conditioned objective world, are 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 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 will always reflect what we are at a 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 the physical level.

So how do we really become unconditioned? The truth is that we cannot, until we are wholly identified with our Egoic Selves. A liberated consciousness is the real and only state of freedom.

The laws of Nature affect man's spiritual development. Everything is at a specific spot somewhere along the vast evolutionary path, each human being at a particular point on the way. As this road is travelled, so faculties are developed and grow. This applies particularly to the mental faculties. The piercing of the membrane between the upper and lower mind (the building of the bridge of Antahkarana) can only be successfully accomplished at the appropriate stage of evolutionary development. The process of building the bridge can certainly be started by many of us. It is achieved through mental training, by exercises, of which meditation in many of its forms plays a significant role. There are also other aids, for instance the use of consciousness-raising literature and music. These stimulate the principles of our upper mind. Acts of self-sacrifice, of real altruism, break down the barriers of 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 through 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 are to grow we have to be virtuous indeed; we cannot pretend.

It has been said by our erudite philosophers 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 process the journey is full of a sense of purpose, rich in incident and, now and again, encouragement. The process of deconditioning cannot start until a minimal degree of Egoic consciousness has been established, until the man has developed spiritual eyes to see and spiritual ears to hear.

 

Geoffrey Farthing joined the Theosophical Society in 1945 and was General Secretary of the English Section from 1969 to 1972. On two occasions, he delivered the prestigious Blavatsky Lecture (Life, Death and Dreams and Theosophy: its Beneficent Potentialities). A writer of considerable depth he was awarded The Subba Row medal in 1996 for his contribution to theosophical literature.

 

Geoffrey Farthing (1909-2004)


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