What in the world is spiritual conditioning?
Here’s a story from a few years ago that got me thinking about it…
The familiar discomfort had returned. My stomach flipped and my heart began to race.
It was my daughter’s turn to spar.
This was certainly not her first time at a martial arts tournament. I gazed at her calm face, admiring her ability to hide her nervousness. The opponents shook hands, the whistle blew, and it began. I stood in the sidelines, a smile plastered on my face, watching her while simultaneously observing the thoughts racing in my head, my erratic breath and my racing heart. I tried to remember the teaching on breath control. What was it? Oh yes, the 4:2:8 breath. Or was it 4:1:4?
My mind churned as I continued to watch, and various teachings arose in snippets as judgments to my current experience of inner chaos —“equanimity is the key to deeper understanding,” “the end of discursive mind activity is called yoga,” “I need to meditate more.” The cacophony of inner voices rose to a fever pitch as I tried to recall what I must do next that would be in line with the spiritual teachings I was studying.
Amidst the many conflicting and confusing thoughts arose the unexpected remembrance of one powerful teaching from the Shiva Sutras.
Knowledge is bondage.
This is an aphorism I use often, because it is so powerful. It wasn’t until I delved into the teachings of the Direct Path that I began to realize its enormity. The fundamental tenet of the Direct Path (as taught by Shri Atmananda Krishna Menon and my teacher, Greg Goode) is to rely entirely on direct experience when inquiring into phenomena related to the world, body or mind.
It isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially when we come to this inquiry after years of study that imparts upon us the subtle veil of spiritual conditioning.
Conditioning, as we know, is the result of the layers of learning that form the lens through which we view the world and ourselves. From an early age, we are taught to evaluate and understand all that we perceive through the lens of our caregivers, peers, culture and society. As we accumulate life experiences, the emotional imprint of every experience adds a new dimension to that lens. Importantly, conditioning is a form of knowledge, where we learn to perceive the world and ourselves in particular ways. This mass of accrued knowledge becomes the basis for how we live, think, feel, and interact.
When we come to the spiritual path, we are rightly shown the cause of our suffering—the sense of lack and separation that are held in place by the knowledge we’ve gained thus far through our cultural, social, and moral conditioning. The teachings and practices of the path begin to take hold as this mass of conditioning begins to diminish. The filter of perception is gradually unclogged.
The Filter of Knowledge
In the process of spiritual learning, the knowledge accrued by the teaching begins to replace the knowledge of our social and cultural conditioning. Progression along a path depends on the path. Our learning of the specifics of the path begins to shape the lens of our perception. If Tantra is the path, we come to see, for instance, the play of the tattvas or the nuances of vak (language) as the fabric of reality. In many ways, one set of beliefs (the previous cultural, social, and moral conditioning) is replaced by another set of beliefs acquired through the study and practice of the particular path.
Spiritual conditioning is often better than cultural/moral/social conditioning. At least we learn that our percieved limitations are not as real as we previously took them to be. And to be clear, spiritual learning can lead to an even greater sense of separation, with elitism and bigger ego issues! It’s not uncommon for those who become well-versed in the nuances of the path to feel quite accomplished and special. Particularly if issues around self-esteem haven’t been worked out, accumulation of spiritual knowledge can lead to subtle or (usually and) overt narcissism. The accrued knowledge now clogs the lens of perception, where “I” (that was previously prone to inadequacy and is now inflated with the specialness of knowledge) is so much better than everyone else.
Most importantly, however, the very teaching that helped us understand our limitations stands in the way of opening to the innocence of experience.
What is supposed to be stands in the way of what is.
Instead of breaking into light through the filter of one stained glass, we’ve only succeeded in replacing it with another.
The Shiva Sutras open with the following declaration:
Consciousness (unbound by limitations) is the Self.
What prevents us from knowing this?
The second aphorism answers simply: Jñānam bandhah, referring to limited or differentiated knowledge.
What does that even mean?
Limited knowledge arises from our central sense of lack and separation, which in turn arises from taking ourselves to be the body-mind.
What we don’t see clearly is that this sense of lack and separation is propagated by spiritual conditioning as much as it is by social and cultural learning. When we accrue the knowledge of social and cultural conditioning, we learn about ourselves in particular ways. When we accrue the knowledge of spiritual conditioning, we re-learn about ourselves in other ways. We replace one stained glass with another.
In both cases, the “I” is the object that we take ourselves to be.
In reality, the “I” is the subject that has no attributes, and is bound to experience through the triad of subject, object and the process of experiencing.
No amount of knowledge accrued about the “I” as the object can result in the shift of realizing that the “I” is the sole subject. Accruing spiritual knowledge simply makes the story of the “I” a better one; it doesn’t enable the deep, visceral seeing of the story that is the very basis of bondage.
Another way of examining the aphorism is to say
Ignorance is bondage, where ignorance is to take ourselves to be the story of the “I” (no matter how great the story!).
Why is this such a big deal?
Because until the shift of identity happens from object to subject, the “I” necessarily remains separate and inadequate. Only with this shift does the realization dawn that there is no other.
Ignorance vs. Innocence
Is the problem of spiritual conditioning solved by remaining ignorant? You know what they say – ignorance is bliss!
The short answer is no.
Teachings and practices are necessary to clear the lens of cultural, moral, and social conditioning. They lighten the load of stuff that obscures our perception, and help us cultivate the very important quality of discernment.
Discernment is the ability to know the difference between things – what is helpful vs. what isn’t, what to do vs. what not to do in a given situation, what practices to favor and which ones to let go, and with honing and refinement, the ability to know the difference between that which sees (subject) and that which is seen (object).
In Tantra, one of the most important principles is that of sat-tarka, where clear and sound logic arises in the context of discernment and leads to the subtle modes of inquiry that trigger the shift from I as object to I as sole subject. With sat-tarka, the mind is trained to become increasingly rarified and refined, to the point where the mind itself dissolves into the subject, accompanied by a sense of wonder and amazement. In the Direct Path, sat-tarka is called higher reasoning.
In the Direct Path, we are asked to look at an object in direct experience through higher reasoning and not learning.
For instance, when we set our learning aside, what is our direct experience of a teacup? As soon as we sit with a teacup, our years of learning and memory come in the way of experiencing it “as is.” When I initially sat with it, conditioning from my medical training arose —I knew how vision works, and this knowledge stood in the way of direct experience. When I was able to set that aside, I was distracted by my knowledge of the subtle and causal bodies, the tattvas, and reflections on needing to meditate more.
The Direct Path asks us to fastidiously stay purely with direct experience.
And so we sit with the teacup hour after hour, day after day. And one day, the limited knowledge of the teacup dissolves with a profound realization. Wait, in my direct experience, a teacup is not a teacup at all! It is merely color and shape, not separate from seeing. Further, seeing is not separate from awareness. And it hits us—how did we miss this for so long? This discovery is ecstatic, joyful and immensely freeing. Vision suddenly loses its ability to limit us in fixed ways. So too with other senses, our bodies, mind states, the world, and relationships.
Staying with direct experience gradually mitigates our spiritual conditioning. We realize that our intellectual understanding of words such as “unbounded” and “undifferentiated” had kept us from realizing them in direct experience. We arrive at a state of innocence, where no experience “sticks” to form or adds to the story of “I.” Every experience arises and subsides in the Here-Now, leaving no trace of itself.
The difference between ignorance and innocence is that ignorance is the result of not having the knowledge and innocence is the result of having given up knowledge when it has served its purpose.
Spiritual Conditioning in Practice
Spiritual conditioning is a roadblock in every type of practice. Take the example of japa, the practice of mantra.
Japa is of the main practices in Srī Vidyā Tantra. Volumes of texts have been composed to describe the process of japa and the outcomes of practice. The Yoginī Hrdayā is one such brilliant text that describes in great detail the practice of the central mantra of Srī Vidyā, the magnificent 15-syllabled Pancadaśi. Tāntrik mantra practice involves invoking certain bhāvās (states of mind/feeling), deep contemplation on the sound and meaning of the mantra, and particular types of visualizations.
When I practiced with the mantra in this prescribed manner, it resulted in great openings and clarity. After a while, I reported back to my guru. We talked about the nuances and subtleties of practice, and then he said, “Now, let it all go. Stop doing anything with the mantra. Let the mantra do its thing. Just be.” He was asking me to stop manipulating my experience of mantra. He was right. Only with stopping any doing did the mantra reveal its true might. What I knew about it prevented it from revealing itself “as is.” The mantra points again and again to that which is always fresh, whole, present. There’s no need for mental gymnastics with the mantra. It is quite enough on its own!
The subtle barrier of spiritual conditioning is perhaps the hardest to cross because it means that we must relinquish what we have assiduously accumulated over years of study. We tend to be quite reluctant to do so, as it threatens our identity as one who is knowledgeable. To stop manipulating experience and open to “what is,” bookish knowledge must be surrendered. Concepts, labels, and gathering of knowledge cease to be useful after a certain point. Intellectual, scholarly understanding is not the same as lived experience, and in fact, such a fixation is known as “śāstra vāsana” in Vedanta, an extremely difficult hurdle to overcome.
This is one of the great paradoxes of the spiritual journey—to really know, we must be willing to surrender what we think we know. Quite simply, we have to stop manipulating experience with knowledge.
In practice, it is quite simple. The experience can be a thought, an interaction, a sense perception, a bodily sensation or an emotion. Whatever the experience is, meet it with an open-hearted, innocent curiosity without any labeling. What is sadness without the label of “sadness”? What is hunger, irritation, an object, a sound, a taste, an interaction without stories and labels learned from books and texts? If we can slow down enough, and resist the urge to manipulate the arising experience with something we studied somewhere, we can open to its beauty and wonder. This is a process of surrender. In every experience, the knowledge is surrendered without a goal to get anywhere or acquire anything, including spiritual insight. To meet every experience and interaction this way is to relinquish judgments, justifications and validations, which are all based in memory, which in turn is based in knowledge. Every experience then becomes fresh, new.
The greatest path is one that disintegrates when it has done its work. It is like a ladder – to climb up, we have be willing to let go of the rung below. The shift from bondage to boundlessness only happens when the whole ladder disappears, leaving nowhere to land.
Shakti Rising, particularly the chapters on Bhuvaneshwari and Matangi.