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.