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Conditioning

The process of conditioning begins as soon as we’re born, if not before.

This concept is similar to that of being trained, except that when a pet or an employee is trained, there’s a well-understood outcome in mind.  The goal is to have a dog that doesn’t pee on the floor and a clerk who knows how to operate a cash register.  Fair enough.

But on a wider scale, we are often unconsciously trained by our families and societies to be a certain way overall.  This is where things get tricky.  If you start to think about it, it can be difficult to tell if who you “are” is based on your conditioning, or due to your supposed free will.  A simple rule: If you have to ask, it’s probably conditioning.  This is the case for the majority of people.

Furthermore, because we’re animals concerned with survival, our personalities are shaped by the things that happened to us in early childhood, especially any events that created primal fear.

If we felt uncertain that our survival needs would be met by our parents, we’ll carry that fear into adult life.  In this case, we continually flail to “figure it out,” never feeling quite right, regardless of how much wealth or physical comfort we amass.  Those of us who have experienced egregious pain in childhood often go on to develop issues with substance abuse and/or addictive relationships.  Adverse childhood events (trauma, acrimonious divorce, neglect, cold familial climates, etc.) are the single greatest predictor of drug addiction later in life.

Here, we’re using whatever methods are available in order to avoid feeling old pain.  As teenagers, millions (if not billions) of us find that alcohol is an awesomely effective way to push pain away.  With drugs, we get to numb out and unwittingly reenact the shame and powerlessness of our developmental years.  We do this because it’s what we know best, and what we know feels safe, even if it’s killing us.

If we felt loved and healthily attached, we develop healthy egos and build more conventionally stable lives.  Usually it’s a mixture: We can handle our responsibilities, but if someone digs a little deeper (or triggers a particularly charged association), they get a front row seat to our showcase of fucked up stuff.

It’s important to note that whether our foundations are “good” or “bad,” they’re still forms of conditioning.  When our lives are determined by our conditioning, we are not free.

In this way—for all the incredible feats of mankind—we are not much smarter than Pavlov’s famous dog.  Without the light of consciousness, our upbringings haunt us until death: An unreliable father instills the belief that no man can be trusted, and revolving-door relationships are entered into.  A disapproving mother causes us to feel inadequate, and we spend our lives seeking outside validation. We will be forced to continue to act from these mentalities unless we take a look at our beliefs and make a commitment to challenge them.

This work—and it is work—can be thought of as “unlearning.” In therapy (or on our own), we can question and change beliefs that do not serve us. Little by little, we untangle the knot of false narratives to reach a healthier mental space. People often learn to rewire themselves in order to be successful and at peace, and these are not unworthy goals.  However, replacing sad stories with happy ones is not the end of the path.

The path is about undoing all stories. Operating from no story is where true freedom lies.

In Western culture, we’re instilled with a whole lot of disempowering beliefs when we’re young: “Your worth is measured by your material success.” “You should set your sights lower/give up on your dreams.” “You are most lovable when you’re quiet, polite, and good in school.”   These things tend to be communicated subtly, right at home.

No parent means to do this to their child. But so many people are too busy trying to cope with their own pain that they’re incapable of being consistently good parents, yet having children (or rather, having sex) is a primitive drive. It happens anyway.

If they aren’t obviously suffering, parents usually condition their children in a misguided attempt to protect them. The logic is that if one conditions a child properly for their society, they’ll do well in said society, and is that not what we want for our kids’ lives? Of course we want our little ones to get along easily in the world. We want to spare them pain and struggle, even if we know intellectually that this is not possible.

So what happens if the child, against all odds, desires something radically different than what the parents would have chosen for them? Maybe they grow up and find that they have no interest in “making it.”  Perhaps they don’t want to go to college or get married or have kids of their own.  Maybe, upon noticing its madness, they fully reject the very family/society they were (unsuccessfully) conditioned to thrive in.  They think they’ll go live in the woods forever and call you from the nearest payphone a few times a year.

If the parent is at all wise, they quickly face the realization that they’ve projected their life desires (which were projected onto them by their parents) onto their kid.  In this way, they’ve unintentionally ignored that the child is an individual agent with his/her own heart to follow to the very end.  Parents do not own their kids anymore than spouses own one another.  Again, we might think this sounds fine in theory… until the kid wants to be a starving artist or renounce all technology or make some other choice that we do not understand.  Suddenly we don’t want them to follow their hearts anymore; we want them to listen to us.

In this situation, depending on where the parent is on their path, they will either: A. Accept that the child is going to live his/her life and provide loving support when requested, or B. Resist and continue projecting.  In the unfortunate case of the latter, they’ll insist the child make some kind of structured plan and withhold support unless they acquiesce and conform to the kind of life they’re “supposed” to want.  This is all control issue stuff, but then, it’s almost always control issue stuff.  The ego hates to see that it really, really doesn’t have much of it.  Like, none at all.

Luckily, parental love is deep, and after initial resistance, they usually come around.  If they don’t, it is 100% within a child’s power to back away from their parents.  It’s important for me to write this to the people who are deciding whether or not to cut toxic family ties:  You have no responsibility to people who are not loving towards you, regardless of bloodlines.  

Yes, we can still love these people from a distance and remain open to reconnect if they’ve made an honest change.  We can have compassion for the pain they must be feeling in order to continually reject their own offspring.  However, we do not allow these people to affect us negatively because we have lives to enjoy and things to create and ain’t nobody got time for that.

When our desires are conditioned by the outside, we end up very confused and unhappy. 

This happens sneakily, through messages that are sent to us every single day in every single way: Advertisers tell us what to want.  Our parents tell us what to want.  Our friends and their parents and our teachers and their friends and everyone else around us tells us what to want.  Again, this is all protective.  They want the best for us, and in this culture, the “best” is measured by external details like possessions and institutional achievements.

Being unconscious of this process, we are easily convinced that we really, sincerely want a six-figure income, a big house, 2 children, a Labrador retriever, a 401K, and a toned stomach, for instance.  Bear in mind that this is a bit of a stereotype and it doesn’t really matter what the details are.  The process is the same.  Being convinced to want a yurt in a commune with no children and a polyamorous lifestyle is no more “evolved” than the first set of desires I listed.  The circumstances are not of importance.  It’s the psychological foundation that’s under examination.

With a mindset steeped in false desires, we half-follow our hearts in order to fulfill them: We find jobs that are loosely acquainted with our passions, marry whichever lovely people we’ve been dating for a while in our 20s, and buy items to attach to that reflect our interests.  This can result in a lovely life, and the point is not to denigrate those who have created their lives in such a way.

However, there’s rarely an abiding sense of peace after we check off the boxes that were presented to us.  This is because on some level, we know exactly which elements of our lives are false.  The discomfort of such emptiness is ever-present.  Soon enough, we’re living the lives “we” always wanted, but we can’t stop looking for more; we never feel complete.  We want a bigger TV, a vacation, a promotion, and a new car.  So we get them.

And then what?  More desires appear, and we scramble to fulfill them as well.  Usually, everything we already do have is taken for granted because we’re too busy seeking to fill our newest desires, which, of course, just keep on popping up.  For many people, even (maybe especially) in prosperous parts of the world, life becomes something of an endless, depressing game of whack-a-mole.

One day maybe we notice that we have all this stuff that feels like nothing and at least some of the time, we just want to run away.  That an intensely hard reality to face, but it’s a necessary step if we want to get free.

It is amazing what kinds of traps the unconscious mind can get us into.

The surest way to get off of this nightmare carousel is to follow a piece of advice that’s so simple it’s become a cliché: Follow your heart.  The message is basic, but doing so is not easy.  Our culture systematically rejects our hearts at every turn.  It tells us that our hearts are stupid.  It tells us that maybe our hearts are okay but money is better.  It says that our hopes and dreams and feelings may be cute, but there’s no time to grow those parts of ourselves because dammit you need a mortgage and a retirement plan because how else are you going to be safe in this world?

It is all very noisy and, in a word, crushing.  After a lifetime of conditioning, listening to ourselves is a skill we have to consciously develop.  It takes tremendous courage and determination, but when we honor ourselves regardless of what the world tells us—all the way to the very end—we are utterly transformed.  We are new.

This marks the arrival of free will.  This is the root of personal power.

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Consciousness Levels, Part 2

Consciousness is primary. 

It is the thing that informs how we live our whole lives, including the kinds of thoughts we have, the way we view others and ourselves, what work we go into—everything.  And it’s not the beliefs we hold that determine where we fall on the consciousness scale (in the case of a racist belief, the level would be fear and/or anger).  It works the other way around: The level forms the beliefs. 

When personal consciousness spontaneously expands in an unconscious world, things can get very scary.  Consequently, most of us tend to fall into a semi-comfortable place on the scale, and from there we proceed to make a life out of justifying why we can’t live differently.  We do this unwittingly, so I don’t mean for that statement to imply judgment. (For how can we judge that which is unconsciously done?)  It’s what I did and it’s what I see happening still.

The vast majority of people cannot yet psychologically afford to grow in this way, or, they have no interest in doing so.  For millions, existential matters have not stared them down hard enough to cause them to come crawling to the Truth.  So, for reasons beyond their control, fear wins.  Smooth growth in personal consciousness depends on belonging to a conscious community, and most of our communities are just not very conscious yet.

This is even (and sometimes especially) true of spiritual communities and those that are built around specific social causes.

From lower levels, the mind is used in lower ways.  For instance, if one is at the level of fear, they use the mind to find reasons to be afraid: Here the world is imagined as a threatening place where the apocalypse is nigh and people will screw you over at any opportunity.  If they’re at the level of anger (a major obstacle for many people who start to see the sickness in the world), they use the mind to reinforce why it is acceptable to be angry: Here the world is imagined as a super messed up place where the apocalypse is already occurring and most other humans are idiot-garbage-people.  Lots of people take up “causes” at this point: Anger is is where many, many people get stuck, expecting that changing the outside world will necessarily alleviate suffering within.

These are just blunt templates of worldviews.  Really, there’s a gradient.  And depending on external circumstances, one can easily fluctuate between worldview 1 and worldview 2.  This is because we don’t just stay at one level, but rather hover around a few different ones in our daily lives.  However, higher consciousness is always available and we all ascend to them at least once in a while.  This can happen when we fall in love or meditate or create art or listen to music or sit in nature.  It can also happen for no discernible reason whatsoever.  This is rare, but it does occur.

Neither of the above worldviews can offer a complete picture of reality, which is to say that they are not sane ways of looking at life.  In our blunt examples, both individuals have glimpses where they realize that much more is going on than they usually notice. As touched on in the above paragraph, they certainly feel love and connection and peace in specific situations, but tend to slip back down into fear/anger later on.  Again: This is no one’s “fault.”

The mind is an incredibly powerful tool, but without consciousness, it is primarily used to defend erroneous beliefs.  In short, at low levels, we unconsciously use the mind to stay unconscious.

And why do we do this?  The fear pattern.

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On Belief

When I first started writing about the levels of consciousness, I intended to explain how erroneous worldviews—in my example, racism—correspond to the Hawkins scale.  Clearly, someone who is racist is lower on the consciousness scale than a person who is reasonable and accepting of all people.  They are stuck at the levels of fear and anger.

However, as I wrote the post, it didn’t quite fit together.  I still intend to highlight a few of the unconscious beliefs that add up to such a worldview, but before that, I feel the need to explain a few things about the nature of belief itself.

Racism is a belief about skin color and its relationship to character and worth.  It is erroneous and has historically led to tremendous suffering.  If we see this and are averse to suffering (as most people are), we can quickly dismiss the position of racism as bad/wrong.  No disagreement there.

Here’s the missing piece that must be understood before we can proceed to examine the relationship between beliefs and consciousness levels: All beliefs are false.

A belief can change.  A belief is a mental position, and if we fancy ourselves open-minded, our mental positions should be flexible in the face of contradictory evidence.  If you pay attention to psychological research, you know that it usually doesn’t work that way.  Most people tend to simply look for things in the world that affirm their already-held beliefs.  This is called confirmation bias, and it’s one of the basic things we’re taught to be wary of when undertaking a scientific project.

Reasonable people know that it’s silly to cling to old beliefs in light of new evidence.   Somewhat hilariously, though, this is what they tend to do: Just as quickly and rigidly and angrily, they take up the belief that “people are stupid.”  With little self-awareness, they’ve fallen into the same trap as those they find so dull, for now they hold the mental position that humans are stupid, and of course they go around looking for evidence of this, just as people who are delusional look for evidence of their delusions. This chain of mental events occurs all the time.

So, if we are open-minded, our beliefs are flexible and subject to change.  If a belief can change any time, why would an open-minded person hold any beliefs in the first place?  What is their function?

And the answer is that beliefs give us a sense of safety and identity, and until we’ve become comfortable without them, these things seem very important.  Beliefs of any kind actually put us in an unstable place.  They set us up for argument and confusion and cause us to go around looking for things to keep our beliefs in place.

That is to say: Beliefs keep us ignorant of the Truth.

When I tell people I do not hold any particular “beliefs,” they either think this is impossible, or they find it frustrating.

It hasn’t always been this way.  Before my moment of awakening, which I will devote a post to at some point, arguing was one of my favorite things to do.  I loved to argue over any and everything, because winning arguments made me “smart” and “right” and I had been conditioned to believe that being smart and right were the things that made me worthy as an individual.  I had to constantly prove my worth to myself by finding ways to be smart and right.  It was exhausting.  The whole mechanism ultimately existed to hide my tremendous fear of being worthless, which millions—if not billions—of people also live in fear of.  I’m sure I missed out on many enlightening conversations and definitely a lot of joy because of that fear.

The glory of honestly having no beliefs is that you actually see the world as it is, rather than through your layers of opinions which are constantly seeking to be reinforced. This is crucial to helping yourself and everyone around you, if you so choose.

Here’s a question I’ve received a few times after stating that I don’t have beliefs: How do I know what to write about?  If I don’t “believe” this stuff, why am I putting my time and energy into communicating these things?

And the answer is frustrating to those who demand outside evidence for everything: There are things I know because I’ve seen them.  I do not believe them, because belief changes.  I know them.  I know them cold—as cold as I know that I love my family and that I care about animals and that I’m really into Rihanna right now.  I know these things as sure as you know you breathe oxygen.  I can’t precisely show you what I know in the outside world because these things come from within, like everything does, including the ultimate truths.  Every individual must discover what they really know for themselves, and should not be confused by the outside.

The difference between knowing something and simply having a belief is that true knowing requires no defense.  I am not here to defend what I know, only to speak it.  If anyone finds my truths to be disagreeable, I don’t mind. It is only the ego which feels the need to defend beliefs.

Furthermore, engaging in argument reveals that neither party is entirely solid in the positions they claim to hold.  If they were, why would they fight?  Debates actually serve to show how flimsy people are in their positions and to highlight the ego’s constant need for inflation.

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39

Most people fear for their sanity at least once in a while.  When they feel that they’re losing control over their minds (which they never even really had), they pull themselves together in one way or another.

They may do this in various ways, but the psychological process of these coping mechanisms is always the same: Addiction.

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