Breaking free from our conditioning

Understanding the conditioning of oneself, and human conditioning at large, is no easy thing. Whether we like it or not, we’ve all been conditioned to one extent or another. So the issue isn’t so much about establishing whether we have been conditioned or to what extent, but rather how we can start to break free from it

As a child I suffered at the hands of bullies as most of us inevitably do at one time or another. As well as experiencing bullying outside the home, it can be particularly difficult when you live with one, and yet for those of us with older siblings then this will likely have been our experience

Upon reflection I feel like I was quite sensitive as a child, because being bullied on a daily basis by my brother left me feeling traumatised. It wasn’t so much that the bullying itself was so bad, but at the same time its consistency and ongoing nature made it very difficult to bear

As was my experience, whenever we suffer and lack the ability to process what’s happening to us, we tend to develop coping mechanisms which then form part of our conditioning. These coping mechanisms serve a purpose at the times when we are experiencing something very difficult, and essentially help us to ‘get through’ whatever it is that is happening to us

As well as developing coping mechanisms, we also tend to draw conclusions about the people we believe are harming us, which in turn causes us to enter and remain in a state of conflict until we subsequently unearth such beliefs. This also forms part of our conditioning, and those who truly wish to follow a path of inner development will need to be determined to work through and remove all of these limiting, self-imposed mental constructs

Understanding our conditioning

human conditioning of our brain

One of my main coping mechanisms with regards to the bullying I described was to develop a belief that antagonising other people was normal. Had I not developed this belief, then being bullied on a daily basis for many years may have quite literally led me to having some sort of breakdown

Rather than allowing myself to believe what appeared evident – ‘that this behaviour was cruel, unkind and unnecessary’, I developed a belief which essentially normalised what was happening to me. This prevented me from having to face the fact that I was in a situation that I deeply wished to be free from, and knew that I was going to be stuck in it for a long period of time

Unfortunately however, the consequence of holding such a belief was that I in turn antagonised kids at school. So as well as feeling like someone was being unkind to me, I was also unkind to others

We can think of this process as forming some sort of protective cocoon around ourself. The layers of conditioned beliefs we adopt serve to protect us in the sense that it’s less painful to believe what we make up rather than to face what we actually perceive to be happening

So just as the caterpillar draws into a self-made cocoon, which protects it whilst it undergoes its metamorphosis or transformation, so do we cocoon ourself within what appear to be protective ways of thinking. And just as it is the destiny of the caterpillar to emerge transformed and enjoy its new-found freedom, so it is our destiny to transcend all these limitations to find our own freedom. We just have to gain the courage  to face their origin and the determination to work through them

What’s interesting to observe upon reflection, is that when I was younger, say 8 and below, my behaviour probably wasn’t so bad and I seemed to have a normal amount of friends. However as I got older I struggled more and more to deal with what was happening to me. Due to this internal struggle my behaviour gradually deteriorated and I found it increasingly difficult to get along with other kids and form healthy relationships

By this stage you might be wondering ‘geez what did your brother do to you?’ In retrospect nothing really stands out, and it’s like I said – I was probably a sensitive kid. I’m sure many of us with siblings have endured something similar, but either way it effected me very deeply

My response to being exposed to this daily conflict was to develop a belief that protected me in some way at the time. In truth it didn’t protect me at all, as it caused a great deal more disruption in my life, and looking back, I can see the cold heart I developed towards my brother just added to the pain

So where did the pain actually come from? Was my brother really that bad, or was I just a sensitive kid? Was it true, as I believed deep down but couldn’t face, that he was being deeply unkind and unfair, or was it more true that the way he was acting was normal… or was it somewhere in between?

As we dig into our belief structures and conditioning we’ll actually find it can get very complicated. We may uncover all sorts of confusing beliefs and constructs, and as we begin the process of unearthing them, initially we may find we need to spend a lot of time working through those sitting on the surface

But until we feel some sort of shift in our mind… that is until we feel the release of one or more of these limiting beliefs, and therefore no longer live our life within their grip, then we still have further to dig.

So going back to the story – although I had recognised that my passing on pain to others had been a method to cope with what I had experienced, there was still a deeper belief underpinning this one….. one that I was holding onto and that continued to cause me a great deal of suffering and pain for many years after it took root

Unravelling our conditioning

Unravelling our human conditioning


So what exactly did happen in my mind to cause all this suffering to manifest?

Well, my parents would say that from the age of 18 months I would flinch whenever my brother would walk past me. He’s 2 1/2 years older and so that’s an insight in itself – he clearly struggled with the arrival of the new kid on the block

As mentioned above, when I examined the way I responded to and dealt with his behaviour, I observed that it didn’t appear to deeply affect me until I was a bit older, that is until I had gained a greater degree of social awareness

It was at this point that my behaviour at school started to change and deteriorate, and I became less happy. So what happened to make the change… I mean I don’t remember the bullying getting particularly worse during that period of my life

It feels like as we become more socially aware then we get a feeling for what appears to be acceptable and what doesn’t. For me it seems likely that I formed a belief that older brothers didn’t treat their younger brothers as poorly as mine treated me. This belief then formed along the lines of ‘older brothers should be kind to younger brothers’, or if not that then at least that ‘older brothers shouldn’t be mean to their younger brothers’

Upon analysis I’ve realised it goes even deeper still. Because of the frequency of the bullying I determined that my brother bullied me all the time, or at least this is what it felt like. So when I dug right down to the core of it, the belief I held that was causing me all this pain and of my own negative behaviour was this – ‘an older brother shouldn’t be mean to his younger brother all the time.’ This is what it felt like was happening and the situation felt deeply unfair

In a similar way, if we check for ourselves and in our own experience, it’s likely we’ll see that we’ve also made up many rules in our own mind about how we believe both ourself and others should and shouldn’t behave. Although they may seem to hold some sort of objective truth, in reality no such truth exists…. we simply had a thought, believed it and then lived our life assenting to that belief. It is the collection of all such beliefs in our mind that form the basis of our conditioning

Freeing ourself from limiting beliefs

Children breaking free from human conditioning

Initially, learning to let go of our conditioning can be very difficult, and unless we’re truly dedicated to a path of self development, then most of us probably won’t want to. I mean sure, it might be easy to let go of beliefs that are clearly superficial and without any particular basis such as ‘men shouldn’t wear dresses’, but as we get to the more entrenched ones, those that have deeply affect the way in which we live our lives, then it becomes much harder to develop the wish to be free from them

So going back to the belief I formed that ‘older brothers shouldn’t be mean to their younger brothers all the time’, well this belief caused me a great deal of pain. Most people would probably agree that it sounds reasonable and maybe even that it’s the way it should be, but we all know that in many cases it’s not the way things actually are

When we form a belief that’s in contradiction to the way things are, then this will inevitably cause us pain. The greater the dissonance between what we believe should be happening from what is, then the more pain it will cause us to experience… and this pain has many, many layers

So although I only formed one main, underlying belief regarding my brother’s behaviour, this belief in turn caused me to develop another belief that gave rise to great conflict and pain – that it’s normal and okay to be unkind to others

It’s funny because these two beliefs could almost appear to be contradictory, one believing that being unkind is unfair (principally because it was being directed towards me) and the other believing it was justified (because it was being directed towards others, albeit by me). This in itself highlights how we can act out on contradictory beliefs and yet feel totally justified in doing so

It also highlights just how selective our attention can be, ie – it’s ok for me to be mean to others, but not for someone to be mean to me

Ultimately, all of these beliefs I formed conditioned me to be emotionally disturbed. As so many of us do, I became obsessed with the unfairness with which I was being treated, and yet what did it achieve? All it did was bring on wave after wave of suffering. Prior to my rejecting my brother’s behaviour, although not ideal, I was more-or-less okay….. however after forming the belief that it wasn’t acceptable, it only served to greatly amplify the pain I was experiencing

What I’ve subsequently come to recognise is that how people act or behave is out of our control, and if we want to be happy then we need to become more interested in our own response to what’s happening and less interested in the behaviour of others

It would probably be fair to say that all of us, at one time or another, have been unkind. Considering everybody throughout the world has any number of relationships, whether we’re brothers, mothers, fathers, sisters, cousins, friends, neighbours… or even just complete strangers, at one time or another we’ve all harmed another person in some way

And yet the truth is that we have no ability to truly harm others, nor them us. It’s only our own painful minds that arise in response to what’s happening, that have any real power to cause us suffering

So we could say that it was my own belief that I developed in my mind that was the principal cause of my being harmed, rather than my brother’s behaviour. I formed a belief, and because I assented to that belief, then I experienced a great deal of mental anguish. Had I not formed that belief and just learned to accept the way I was being treated, then my life would have been a lot easier

It’s likely that many people who have been in similar, and maybe even worse situations, simply wouldn’t entertain the idea of letting go of such beliefs, principally because they believe it to have some sort of objective truth and that letting go of it would somehow condone what happened

When you reflect on this, it’s amazing to recognise how addicted so many of us are to our own suffering. This is why it’s so important that we develop renunciation, the mind that truly wishes to abandon suffering, and that realises we have a choice whether or not we hold onto it

Once our own happiness becomes more important than being right, then we’ll find it much easier to start letting go of these limiting beliefs. With this determination we’ll be able to begin to unravel, and finally release ourself, from the complex web of conditioned belief systems that perpetuate our experience of pain and suffering


Forming new, healthy belief structures

Positive human conditioning


Although it’s a start, letting go of old beliefs isn’t necessarily going to be enough to free us and enable us to find the happiness we’re looking for. This is because for the process to be ‘water-tight’, as well as letting go of our old beliefs, we need to replace them with new ones which more accurately reflect the truth of the way things are

So maybe we hold a belief similar the one I described, let’s say in this instance that ‘parents should be kind to their children.’  For most people, they would agree that this is even more important than siblings being kind to each other… and yet is it the case? Are all parents kind to their children? Knowing that not all are, how does holding this belief make us feel?

If our parents were unkind to us, then recognising that his belief holds no objective truth is likely to be much more difficult than for someone whose parents did treat them well…. and it will also be causing the former person a lot more suffering

To loosen our beliefs we need to come at them from different angles, and initially just figuring out what the beliefs are that are causing us pain can be challenging at times. But we should know that every painful feeling we experience arises from grasping at such beliefs, so if we want to be free from mental pain then this is something that we will eventually need to work through

Having seen that as well as not holding up to the way things are, our conclusions also hold no objective truth, this will make it easier to start uprooting them. We then replace them with new beliefs, which in this case might be ‘parents do their best to be kind to their children’

Although some of us might not initially agree with this statement, if we understand that everyone wishes to be happy and that being unkind to others feels bad, particularly when it’s directed towards those we have intimate relationships with, then it would be reasonable to conclude that no parent would actually choose to be unkind to their children if they had choice, because as well as harming their child they are also harming themselves with their negativity

Practically speaking, if we were able to accept this view and live our life in accordance with it, then how would it effect the way we see things? Well for starters we’d relax a bit because we’d be opening ourself up to the truth of the way things are… it’s almost like holding onto the idealistic belief that parents should always be kind to their children leaves us in a state of denial as well as one of conflict

And of course I’m not saying parents don’t need to be concerned with the welfare of their children and treat them well, but it’s clear that it’s simply not within some people’s capacity to do so. Maybe it could be if they improved, but looking at the way things are right now, then it’s apparent that for some this just isn’t possible due to their own ingrained belief systems and conditioning

Parents are doing the best…. I mean they’re just people after all right? Who can say why some appear to be struggling more than others, and who knows what may have happened to them in their life that’s caused them to behave in the ways they do. I haven’t learned to be truly kind to everyone all the time, and so I know it’s much more productive to focus on how I can improve rather than finding fault (not that it’s always easy of course!)

Drawing on a piece of wisdom dating back a couple thousand years, didn’t Jesus say ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone?’ It’s so easy to point the finger and to blame and judge others, but wouldn’t it be a better use of our time to try and learn something about ourself?

And the great Buddhist master Atisha in his famous ‘Advice from Atisha’s Heart‘ said ‘do not look for faults in others, but look for faults in yourself, and purge them like bad blood.’ Why did he say this? Because as well as harming others with our negative attitudes, we also harm ourself. It’s a much more productive use of our mental energy to figure out what’s gone wrong in our mind, rather than directing it towards contemplating how other people and things need to change

Learning how to uproot our own beliefs and unravel our conditioning is a very personal process… it’s something we need to figure out for ourself by entering into a state of self-reflection. But as well as being challenging at times, simply due to the extent and the depth of the beliefs most of us hold, it’s also very liberating

This entire process is like a metamorphosis. Just like the caterpillar who enters the cocoon with all its limitations, we too remain trapped in the cocoon of our limiting beliefs. But just as when the caterpillar emerges from it’s cocoon and opens its wings for the first time, flying into the sky completely free… an expression of beauty and radiance, so too can we emerge from the limitations of our conditioning to discover the beauty of the being that lies within us all

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