The Conditioned Self and Enlightenment

What we experience as our “self” (the talking blah-blah identity part) is a bundle of beliefs and stories we have learned about the world. Some of those are verbal and we can articulate them, although they tend to be sweeping generalizations (1)… But they are also stored in our bodies, in the reactivity of our digestive systems, the tension in our shoulders, our tendency to fold up our chests and breathe shallowly when avoiding conflict, or to puff up when feeling pugilistic. These reactions are our belief systems at work; it is a measure of how subtle they are that people are hard-pressed to answer their therapist’s or partner’s questions about what is going on in their heads and bodies.

What does it mean to claim that “I exist”? There is a (moderately) self-aware pattern in the universe that is time-evolving and has a partial record of the phenomenal world with which it has interacted. We mark the beginning of (this particular) process variously at conception, emergence of awareness, or birth, and we anticipate that it will “end” with death.

The interaction of this pattern with the phenomenal world starts with the flow of chemical through the mother’s body during gestation. “We” are constructed from the phenomenal world, but the instructions for how that takes place are chemically encoded information. Here “we” are, being phenomena, yet playing out the patterns encoded at all these different scales of time and space. The phenomenal world gives us glimpses into these patterns, nothing more.

It turns out to be vitally important, this conditioned self, because our social patterns emerge from the interactions of these conditioned selves… and each person experiences their stories as their “Self”… thus, we are more attached (literally) to those stories than to the outside World of which they are a representation. They are embedded in our cells, embodied.

This is what people are talking about when they say, “You don’t experience the world, you only experience your projections of it.” That is, you cannot interact with the world directly; your interactions are mediated by the conditioned self that inhabits your body. That is to say, phenomena arise, and the conditioned self places them in whatever is the closest box… if your conditioning seeks threats, you interpret people’s actions as threats, for example.

What we experience as self most frequently is this bundle of meanings we have made up, ad hoc, from whatever materials we have to hand. It is not reality; it is a map of reality with inputs limited to what we have gleaned from the (vast) stream of knowledge over the course of our limited life spans. The standard by which it rises or falls is merely its local effectiveness. Wilderness survival skill will get you nowhere in the Metropolitan Opera. Likewise, the ability to tease out a grain of truth by poring over primary source materials will not serve you if the task is fighting a chemical fire.

What is more, the social skills required in each of these situations are not transferable. It’s not a question of mere technical skills; it’s a question of figuring out “the lay of the land”. Who’s *really* in charge? How do things get done around here? How do we determine authority? How do masculinity and femininity play out here? What do we value?

The answers to these questions are almost never made explicit. Each individual who comes into the situation is expected to “feel them out”, using the map they brought with them. The risk of getting wrong the real structures of power are ostracism, withholding of access to resources (even those necessary to do your job) or even violence and harassment.

It is no accident that we use tactile and mapping metaphors here… I’m wanting to get at something very specific, and it is this: those cultural stories and our experiences interacting with them are written right into the cellular structures of our bodies. We do not (cannot) encounter new situations and think our way through; we have to do it by feel. They go by too quickly to solve them with cognitive effort.

ALL knowledge is embodied. By which I mean to say, “we” (culturally) cannot reasonably claim to “know” something that is only written down. If it is not stored in a mind (that is, something with reflexive properties) it cannot be reasonably considered knowledge.

And all knowledge, stored in the body, is experienced at some level as a part of “self”. These stored stories/maps of the universe are the most immediate experience of our consciousnesses, our local field. The local field claims to be the universe, complete, and demands that mismatches are resolved by changing the world outside. Only reluctantly does it permit itself to be modified in ways that erase existing conceptions. We cling tenaciously to these stories, because they have kept us alive so far, but also because we think they are all that we are.

Let us consider the bare possibility of something more. The mystical traditions offer us this: if you see through, truly, the limited (partial, local) nature of the socially constructed self, it becomes possible to navigate each moment by feel, to recognize the singular nature of each moment as it coms upon you. Enlightenment promises us that we can discard the map and engage the terrain directly.

1. See what I did there?