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The Evolution of Conditioned Mind, Part 1

April 9, 2017



There is usually a period of time that passes between the first conversation I have with someone about conditioned mind and the point that they actually begin to understand what I’m saying—that they really get it that there is something living in their heads that is not “me”, and that this something exerts nearly full control over their lives. This is a radical point of view to be sure, and some softening up is usually required before it can truly sink in. When it does, usually the next question is, “Why?”. Why are things set up this way? Why are we not free to be our natural selves? Where does conditioned mind come from and why is it necessary? I have had these same questions myself many times, of course, and the response I’ve always given, both to myself and others, is that it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that things are the way they are and that there is a way to alter that, a way to see how conditioned mind works and let it go. Speculation of this sort has never seemed helpful. A few weeks ago, however, when a fellow that I’m coaching asked me those questions, I decided to answer them, both for him and for me. As I did I discovered that it actually is helpful to see the big picture and to understand how conditioned mind came to be. The information is useful in the same way that, say, the history of a particular disease might be for the work of curing it. It’s also terribly interesting. And so I decided to put the answer, so far as I can see it, in a blog or two in case it is of use to others.


Just so you know, what follows is the product of a meeting between three influences: the understanding I have obtained over time as to the structures and practices of conditioned mind; a long-term interest in archeology (I was an anthropology major in college); and an excitable imagination. I’m making all this stuff up, in other words. The evolution of conditioned mind was never discussed at the monastery where I trained, and I am not aware of anyone having written on the subject (if you know of someone who has, please let me know), and so I’m on my own. I believe that the scheme I am about to present to you is well-founded, however, mostly from the fact that conditioned mind is so utterly predictable once you can see how it works. I know its wily ways, and I can see it doing it’s thing way back to the dawn of history.


There was a point, we may presume, when conditioned mind did not exist, or at least it existed only in potential. Non-human animals don’t have it, as far as I can tell. They have intelligence, many of them, and a portion of awareness large enough to allow them to respond to their surroundings, but they seem to lack the ability to perceive themselves as separate and autonomous. I lived for fifteen years with the most adorable dog in the world (her name was Rhea), and I loved her as I will likely never love again, but even so during all that time I never saw any evidence that she was conscious of herself. She was smart as a whip; she knew what she wanted and was expert at getting it (in a cute sort of way); she was like no other dog who has ever been, with a personality all her own, and yet she was unable to be other than herself. That’s why I enjoyed her so much, in fact, and it’s the reason we got along. She couldn’t hold a grudge against me, even though I gave her ample reason to. She couldn’t feel sorry for herself. I never got the feeling she understood that she would die, even during her final days. She was absolutely unique and yet perfectly merged with Life at the same time. So was everybody else, I think we can presume, before humans came along.


At some point our ancestors evolved to the point at which they were capable of abstract, symbolic thought. This, of course, is what makes us different from all other critters. We became able to predict events from current data and to imagine possible outcomes. We learned to see patters in nature and remember them. We began to collect information, and somewhere along the line we invented language so that we could communicate what we knew to others. There are a number of theories as to how this transition happened. I will not attempt to outline those here as I’m not really qualified (it’s interesting stuff, though, if you want to look into it), but instead will get right to the relevant question: where in all this did conditioned mind come to be?


The way I see it, none of the things that our thinking brain made possible for us—the ability to imagine things that do not yet exist (a new tool, for example), to abstract various possible actions and choose between them, to associate cause and effect (an herb and the results it produces in the body, for example) and so on—involve conditioned mind. This is just the human mind doing what it evolved to do. It’s not much of a leap, however, from these abilities to the thought (and it’s significant that it is a thought) that “I” am doing them. That’s how it naturally seems, isn’t it? It seems like there is something that is doing the thinking. And there is! That something is Life. Because it’s happening in “my” head, however, it’s an easy thing to stumble into the illusion that there is some individual entity that is not the same as Life thinking the thoughts. That something, we assume, is “me”. “Me” is just a thought that we believe in, generally to the extent that we are not aware we are thinking it. Somewhere along the line somebody had this thought. This, I would say, is the advent of conditioned mind.


Things get really interesting when we follow human development out of the primitive social structures of our primate ancestors and into the more complex relationships that abstract thought and language made possible. I am out of space, however, so I will explore that topic in the next blog.

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