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"Demonizing" Conditioned Mind

January 23, 2018



Here's a portion of an email I received recently:


"I guess I just wanted to reach out and say "Hi" and that I'm really glad to have been there for group recently. I really liked how you related with us and said that you are still learning and on the path just like we are in our own ways. It made you relatable, and I think makes the inner peace you have cultivated feel more attainable to those you speak with (which wouldn't as much be the case if people got the impression that you are some godly figure that has lived in a monastery for 18 years and is here to hand down wisdom).


Anyway, I'm reading your book right now and it has been a great companion. One thing that has come up for me though was the way in which the conditioned mind is talked about. It seems like it is demonized, which maybe is a helpful way to talk about it considering the way our minds can work, but I was also wondering if it can be something that we love? The conditioned mind and the inner critic can definitely be very unkind, but in a way, they were born out of trying to help us (they are just really bad at it :). I personally believe in evolution and wonder if the mechanisms of the conditioned mind are outgrowths of fear (which can of course be helpful for survival in some situations but luckily don't have to face very regularly). I'll get off my soap box now but I guess I just wanted to float the idea because meeting the conditioned mind with the same love you might give to a misguided friend has been working for me recently."


Here's my reply:


Thank you for your feedback about not setting myself up as some sort of enlightened guru. It suggests that I'm managing to stay in integrity with my practice as a facilitator/teacher, and that feels good. I have a karma to desire a position above others, to be looked up to, and such things, as most people do, and I really don't want to act unconsciously from that place. I see others doing it and it's not pretty. In addition, this sort of blindness and self-centeredness damages the Dharma and interferes with people's opportunity to wake up and end suffering. I would like to add clarity to our human world, not confusion. And of course it would be absurd to present myself as some kind of finished spiritual master, as that is most definitely not the case. I am a work in progress, as we all are.


It's interesting that you picked up on that way of talking about conditioned mind. I've gotten similar feedback from several others over the past few months and I've been looking at it for myself: what is really so in terms of the nature of conditioned mind, and what are the most helpful ways to talk about it? Since you brought it up, I'm going to use the occasion as an exercise to clarify what seems so about this for me at this time. The issue is still evolving for me, but here's how I'm looking at it right now.


There is certainly a way in which conditioned mind acts as an entity with human-like agency. It has a sort of a will, which is directed continually towards keeping the human safely encapsulated within a set of survival thoughts and behaviors that are appropriate to the person's family and cultural circumstances. That, of course, is what conditioned mind is in essence: a survival system. When we each were children it assisted us in surviving in the conditioned world we were born into. To do so it was necessary for each of us to abdicate our native independence to the system, to give our will over to the system so that it could do the work of living for us in a way that fit the conditioned expectations of the family/culture/society we were born into. The system contains mechanisms designed to keep us from accidentally falling out of our survival state and into our authentic nature, where we will be traumatized once again (as children we are punished for being our authentic selves, you know). The most powerful of these mechanisms is self-hatred. Whenever we venture too far away from our fundamental need to survive, self-hate kicks in to bring us back. In order to function as a system that contains and controls our authentic nature, conditioned mind talks to us as a human would do. It punishes us; it teaches us who and what we (supposedly) are, what the world is, what our possibilities and opportunities are, what we need to be afraid of, and so on. It acts just like a parent. I don't think it's too much to say that once a person gives their autonomy over to conditioned mind then that person is parented by the system. And of course it's not a loving parent--it is a hating, judging parent: not because that is what it actually is, but because that is what is needed to keep us in the system so we will survive.


I think it's best to look at the agency within conditioned mind as a metaphor, not as an actuality. At least so far as I can see there is no real agency. Conditioned mind acts like a parent, but it is not in fact human. It's like a machine that operates independent of any actual will or consciousness. A machine needs no will to function: it's functioning happens automatically. Like everything else in the universe, conditioned mind has no self-nature. We project self-nature onto it from the belief in our own self-nature, and the way we tend to describe it presumes self-nature (because our language assumes the reality of identity) but there is nothing in my experience that says the agency is actually there. It just looks like it.


And because it looks like it, because it acts like a human with agency and intelligence, there is a stage in practice in which it's helpful to look at conditioned mind as an entity whos desire it is to create suffering. The way we survive in this world is to suffer; it is true that conditioned mind is designed to keep us trapped in suffering, and so it is helpful to acknowledge that fact. I see it all the time that when people do not acknowledge the fact that there is a force within their minds that drives them to suffer then they do suffer, because they cannot see the cause. To treat conditioned mind as if it desires us to suffer and works incessantly to cause suffering keeps it firmly in our awareness, where we can see through it and where, with work and dedication, we can escape from the illusion.


I think a point comes, however, when we need to let that framework go. If we do not then we end up living in a world of strife and conflict, in a constant battle with conditioned mind. This, of course, is a grave error, as the whole point of practice (if you can say it has a point) is to let go of our relationship with conditioned mind and be free. The method can become a trap, in other words. Once we get to a point where we are aware of conditioned mind, where we understand how it works and can see into it's illusory nature, then it's time to practice turning our attention away and leave conditioned mind behind. We need to put our attention instead on the incredible beauty, harmony, and depth of what is here, in Life and in the moment. From this place of presence and consciousness, when the conditioned system is activated it arises within awareness, and from here we can let it go as we need to do.


The irony in all of this is that conditioned mind contains no reality in itself. It's a fiction, a mirage. We reify conditioned mind (we make it seemingly real) when we give it our attention, and there's a way in which deify it as well: conditioned mind is as a god to a child and to anyone who has not seen into it, no matter how old they are. We may even deify it in order to see it and see through it, as I just described above, but in the end we need to realize its emptiness and let it disappear into the void from which it came.


I'm really with you on the idea that it is born out of fear. People often ask me why we have a conditioned mind, and of course I can't really answer them because I don't know, but there are evolutionary explanations that are satisfying to me. Here's the short version: conditioned mind is an evolutionary adaptation. We learned how to be an "I" with self-awareness and with an ability to imagine things that are not here (possible threats, possible strategies to obtain what we needed...), and this gave us incredible power over our environment. Our fear of what we could not see taught us how to imagine it, and the structures of conditioned mind were created through evolutionary pressures in order to keep us firmly grounded in this place of self-awareness with all of the advantages that accompany it. This adaptation has worked extremely well, obviously, as it has given us dominion over all the earth. From an evolutionary perspective, however, it is destroying our ability to survive. It's the same with us as a species as it is with us as individuals: we are stuck in our survival system. We have given our will over to the survival system to the point that it has become autonomous--it has been deified--and we can't escape from it. Our next evolutionary step (if we manage it) will be, must be to let go of the illusion of conditioned mind as a species and move into our universal authentic nature.


It's not my experience that conditioned mind responds to love, and for the same reason as talked about above: it is a something, not a someone. A motor does not respond to love--as long as it has fuel it will crank out the rpms. Same thing with conditioned mind. I would project that the love you are offering is reaching the human who is trapped within the machine, and that human will absolutely respond to love. It's your love (the fundamental aspect of your authentic nature), in fact, that has the potential to pull the human out of his entanglement with the illusion of the machine and into a place where he no longer suffers.


Thank you for the opportunity to philosophize a little. Take care and be well, my friend.




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