Seventeen Forms of Conditioning

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    Here is a list of seventeen major forms of conditioning that shape our lives. Included are the factors that tend to keep us trapped in samsara and also those that make an escape possible.

    Root Relation This refers to the presence in or absence from the mind of greed, hate and/or delusion. These are the three valencies of attachment that keep us anchored to other conditions in such a way as to make us into their victims rather than their employers. Everything that can be considered unwholesome, pathological or self-defeating in mental life is at least tinged in one way or another with one or more of these three.

    Object Relation The mind is conditioned by its object. Mind always has an object, whether conscious or unconscious. In the Buddhist theory, if there is no object there is no mind. Even in dreamless sleep there are objects of mind that include traces of previous lives that cannot be recalled in wakefulness. The object conditioning the mind at any one moment maybe trivial or significant. Significant objects hold the attention longer. One returns to them again and again and they become the building block with which one constructs the structure of one’s life. The object relation is of central importance because if we understand a person’s objects, we understand them, and if significant objects change, the person changes.

    Predominance When object relation is combined with root relations so that the object is desired, loathed or utilised for self-conceit, the object acquires power over the person. This is the common situation. When greed, hate and delusion are absent, the object world becomes both a resource and an object of wisdom and compassion. The time when it does so is when the mind is mobilised by intention, enthusiasm, “heart”, or curiosity. These are the factors that have the power to override habit and take us into new territory. These, therefore, are vital factors for therapists to cultivate in themselves.

    Association Like psychoanalysis, Buddhist psychology gives great importance to how the mind flows from one item to another. Each mind state is conditioned by the one that preceded it and these form orderly sequences. The meaning of this ordering is partly the common property of a culture and partly particular to the individual. If one pays careful attention to the way that a person’s mind moves from object to object, one sees revealed the object structure in the enquirer’s mentality and thus shows the pathways along which one can enter his world or permit him to go deeper.

    Common Origin Associations do not always flow neatly in a one leads to one fashion. Often it is a branching structure such that one stimulus sparks off several associations that are born together. Since it is basically only possible to deal with one thing at a time this leads to some things being shelved to be dealt with later and in therapy this is a common occurrence. This means that it is part of the responsibility of the worker to keep track of what has been shelved. The work proceeds in pulses of energy and as a pulse fades one may wish to track back to its origin to recover a shelved item that may also prove to be significant.

    Interdependence As we see, all the forms of conditioning mentioned up to this point interact. Our mentality is constructed somewhat like a house of cards. Because one loves one’s mother one tends to like the food she cooks and therefore to like the people who serve such food and have other characteristics similar to mother’s and so to like the kinds of places where such people are found and, perhaps, to marry a girl like that and so to have a certain kind of decor in the house and so on and so on. A structure of intermeshed conditions shapes one’s existence. This means that an astute person can, from a relatively small amount of data, predict a good deal about a person’s life that has not actually been revealed with a fair probability of accuracy. It also means that if one or two key cards in the structure are removed, the whole house may fall down. These points have great relevance to the practice of therapy and the pracipitation of awakening.

    Props Whether actually interdependent or not, the frame of our life is supported by many props. This is the basic idea of conditioning, that in order to do anything certain conditions have to already be in place and, therefore, we search for and hang onto such supports. These include the common cultural props of money, status, nationality, class and occupation, but they also include a multitude of things that each person finds personally supportive. Being ill, for instance, leads to a change in one’s activities and in how one is regarded. It is possible to become attached to invalid status as it enables one to avoid responsibilities. illness can be a prop. Again, in couple relationships, each tends to provide props for the other and in this way the roles of the partners are differentiated and become interdependent.

    Inducement The prospect of reward or benefit is an obvious form of conditioning. We do things in order to get something and if an action has brought reward in the past it is likely to be repeated. This is similar to the bahaviourist idea of reinforcement. A behaviour can be established by its being rewarding. An interesting finding from behavioural psychology is the fact that erratic reinforcement can often be more effective in establishing a bahaviour pattern than consistent reinforcement. After all, life is like that. A cat hunts. About fifty percent of times it actually catches the mouse and the rest of the times the mouse gets away.

    Precondition Because real life reinforcement is erratic, we seek guarantees. We long for a world where we get what we want whenever we want it rather than just some of the time. Actually we might find such a world rather boring, but that does not stop us craving for it. A person can be paralysed by attachment to precondition. The reward that we seek to guarantee may be that what we are about to do shall turn out to be the “best”. Faced with three options a person may be incapable of choosing any due to not knowing which is best. Or a person may have such high expectations that they are unwilling to undertake the first steps on the ladder without a guarantee that they will reach the top. Life rarely provides such guarantees and such as we imagine are generally fantasies. However, such fantasies can also be powerful motivators. If people can be induced to think that something is inevitable they will generally go along with it even if it affronts other values.

    Ongoing Support or Secondary Gain. This is the other side of the coin of inducement. We tend to go on doing something so long as we are getting something out of it, even if what we are getting is not ideal. Almost all dysfunctional behaviours bring some advantage, even if it is outweighed by the disadvantages. In fact, most sins can be seen as the result of short term thinking. The robber gets an advantage, even if he ends up in prison eventually. The person trapped in an invalid ot victim mentality does benefit therefrom even though he or she might have a much more satisfying time by adopting a different life strategy.

    Habit Once a behaviour or attitude is established it does not fall away easily. If you want a person to do something they have not done before, the first time is the most challenging. Once they have done it once or twice it is likely they will do it again. Somebody you have helped will not necessarily help you – they are more likely to remain dependent. Somebody who has helped you is quite likely to do it again. This might seem unjust, but conditioning is not fair or balanced. A behaviour may be established by inducement, in childhood, for instance, and then later the pattern of inducement changes, as in adult life, but the person continues in the old way, all the while feeling vaguely confused that life is not providing them with what it used to do.

    Karma Karma is drama and drama has momentum. The things we think, say and do form part of longer trajectories that have effect in the future. Karma is based upon intentional action. When one does something intentionally a “seed” (bija) is sown that will ripen later. “All of life’s a stage and all the men and women merely players” said Shakespeare and the role that we find ourselves in, the scripts associated with it and the audience expectations that we confront all condition what becomes of our life. Karma assumes there is a moral order in the universe and, in a sense, all the issues that we confront are, at some level, moral issues.

    Consequence (vipaka) We learn by experience. When we see the result of karma our motivational pattern changes. Virtuous action is commonly the result of seeing the disadvantage of its opposite. Commonly, a person’s character is much affected by certain critical incidents that have happened in his or her past and these are frequently occasions where consequence has become apparent in a particularly graphic or unavoidable way.

    Feeding the Fire Karma tells us that intentional actions now conduce to similar actions in the future, but it is also the case that we often go further than mere repetition. We feed our anger, resentment, jealousy, laziness, self-pity and so on. It takes a deliberate effort to refrain from doing so. These conditions are self-feeding fires that pull in fuel and grow.

    Potency Our life energy is a fundamental condition for all our acts, yet it may wax and wane. Our masculinity and femininity are clearly massively influential conditions in our lives. Likewise our senses and sensuality. Then there is faith. Nobody can live without faith of some kind and we shape our faith from both experience and conviction. Faith gives rise to enthusiasm and motivation. Another important potency that we have is our capacity for remembrance and for keeping things in mind that act as guides to thought and action. Then we have also capacities for concentration and for wisdom or insight.

    POTENCIES (Indriya)


    Sexuality: masculinity & femininity



    Energy & Enthusiasm

    Remembrance & mindfulness

    Concentration (samadhi)

    Wisdom (prajña)

    Dhyana Dhyana, the word from which we get “Zen”, refers to meditative absorption, a state of letting go of attachments that keep a person enslaved by their other conditioning. Dhyana is, therefore, a condition that can drive out other conditions.

    Marga Marga means path or track. It refers to the spiritual path considered as the tracks of those already liberated beings who have gone before. This, however, is a “trackless track” in the sense that one does not follow it by imitation, but by release. The existence of such a possibility is a condition for liberation since when we know something is possible we are much more likely to undertake it. A condition that enabled the Buddha-to-be to leave his palace and go forth into the ascetic life was his glimpse of a holy man crossing the town square. This was enough for Gotama to know that something was possible and that enabled him to leave home and embark upon his search.

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    Very interesting and informative. Could be a useful wall-chart to return to in the heat of any heated moment. NAB

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