Context and Conditioning

By Geoffrey Geddes

Life imposes context. We do not choose our genetic attributes or our initial social and environmental circumstances. The power to affect our context develops with our maturing consciousness, eventually crossing a threshold after which choice drives our destiny while chance doses in the back seat. Once we cross that threshold, the quality and consequence of our choices depends on our conditioning.

A child is born with an exposed spine. In 1,400 A.D., the child is suffocated and the corpse is burned as a spawn of Hell. In 1,700 A.D., the child dies and his parents mourn their loss and struggle to understand their divine crucible. In 2,000 A.D., doctors repair the condition and the child lives. In each case, the child has not contributed to his story; he has merely suffered it. Only the third child – the child who receives the gift of time – might impact his own destiny. Still, if time alone assured a fulfilling life, pharmaceutical companies would have downsized long ago.

A child is born in Hyderabad, India, with an “untouchable” heritage. At the same moment, a child is born in New York City to a wealthy hedge fund manager. The Indian child becomes an activist for peace, admired by millions, who spreads hope and joy until her graceful death. A police officer discovers the American child in her 16th year, collapsed in an alley, a needle hanging from her bruised, lifeless arm. Context is powerful, but not determinative.

Conditioning begins before birth. Strains of Bach diffusing through a womb calm a fetal heart; Hendrix riffs increase cortisol levels. Did your mother coo and pet her belly while reading? Or did she waddle up the bus stairs on her way to scrub floors? Did Dad introduce himself? Or was he too embarrassed to ‘talk to a tummy’? Did Mom indulge her cravings for nicotine or alcohol or sugar?

Once our sense organs activate, every person we encounter and every event we experience inform our conditioned responses. We learn across a spectrum of awareness, from determinedly conscious memorization to unwitting operant conditioning. Unless we also learn how to filter unwanted influences and self-direct our conditioning, we remain at the mercy of chance and ego. The world is a minefield of lessons, many insidiously destructive. Step lightly.

You shut the car door, pull up your jacket hood to keep dry, and wave goodbye to your mother.  She waves distractedly as she drives away. You vaguely notice the lack of activity in the school parking lot. You walk the familiar route up the stairs and down the hall to your fourth grade class. You push open the door and enter. The entire class is already seated and the teacher has long since begun the daily lessons. You freeze as your mind wrestles with the unexpected scene. “Looks like someone forgot to ‘spring forward’,” says Mrs. O’Malley. “Hang up your coat, nincompoop!” The kids laugh. You walk into the overflowing cloakroom, wishing you could hide there all day. You hang up your coat and walk back out to your seat. The stares and titters burn your face. After school, when you tell your mother about the incident, trying to convey your deep mortification, she sings “oopsy” as she sets the clock on the stove ahead one hour, and then offers a dismissive “people are no damned good” as she serves you your chicken pie. You feel ashamed, and somehow responsible. Lessons learned: the world is unpredictable and scary, other kids are mean, teachers are mean, Mom thinks you’re a cry baby, and you’re definitely a nincompoop.

Arriving late to class and suffering an immature epithet barely registers on the scale of traumatic experiences. Yet, that experience plagued the boy for years, feeding his feelings of loneliness, isolation, and incongruity, and fostering behaviors that perpetuated those feelings.

Head-sleuths assert that the average human brain generates tens of thousands of thoughts daily, most of which are redundant. Thirty thousand recurrent thoughts about avoidance or regret or worry or resentment – or being a nincompoop – will destructively condition the strongest of us. Training a dog to dance a jig requires significantly less repetition.

We live in a tumultuous world amidst imperfect beings; negative conditioning is unavoidable. Mapping and negotiating a path to a more authentic, rewarding life depends on developing the skill to recondition harmful behaviors. The paths to a more effective life are as varied as the Late Bloomers who travel them. Consider this one:

Step One: Choose to Bloom

Unlike flowering plants, which involuntarily bloom in response to favorable conditions, humans must choose fruition. Ignore ego’s counsel; ego will always endorse avoidance and relief over engagement and authentic living. Listen to your authentic self – your essential you. If you decide that living an integrated, congruent life beats marching numbly to the grave, then, every day, choose to bloom.

Step Two: Open Your Eyes

Rend your consciousness from ego and focus on the truth of your circumstances. Open your eyes and assess your situation bravely and honestly. Itemize the flaws in your conditioning, your behavior, and your character. Leave no challenge unidentified. But also list your assets – the lessons and skills that will serve you in your struggle to bloom.

Step Three: Accept Reality

Accept your circumstances; accept your limitations and your defects; accept your resentments, your regrets, your fears, and your pain. Surrender to the reality of your present moment. Set aside your ego-inspired cravings for Hollywood melodrama and fairy tale endings. Embrace your life as it is, as it has been, and as it will be.

Step Four: Ask for Help

Humans are pack animals. Ego promotes a life of minimal challenge, which often includes solitude and reckless self-help. Call a friend, join a club, or Google a group. Angels live on every street. Ask for help.

Step Five: Plan Your Campaign

Roaring brutes can smash and terrorize, but strategy wins the day. White knuckles will always lose their grip. With the help of your allies and mentors, carefully plan your bloom.

Step Six: Practice

Success occurs not in a moment, but arises from a lifetime of patient, determined labor. Persistently practice authentic living and find your joy in progress rather than perfection. Review, revise, and work your plan every day.

Step Seven: Pay it Forward

Life, as a transpersonal totality, derives from the choices and actions of its innumerable manifestations. Destructive, self-serving actions contaminate life; compassionate, supportive actions enrich it. Promote a positive, harmonic evolution of life by paying your pearls forward.

You face a challenging journey, one that ego would have you interminably postpone. To undertake that journey is to live; to forego it is to die unfinished. So, find your why, find your hope, find your strength, and take your first step.


Photo courtesy of John Andrusko.