Meditative Perspectives and Conditioned States of Mind

From an Eastern meditative point of view, the conditioning of language and other forms of symbolic representation is not to be denied. It might be true to say that our mental lives are largely conditioned, and so we are normally not in full control of our thoughts or how we respond to situations and other people. Yet we can gain control; we are more than conditioned vehicles of language because we are not essentially thought structures or symbolic animals. Derrida’s saying that there is nothing outside text would be true if we were our thoughts or our life stories. But we are not. We have a form of being other than thought. Thought is form, just like physical objects, but consciousness itself is formless. Even Descartes, who came to identify with thought, realized that whatever it is that we are has no form. The soul, mind, or consciousness was, for him, without spatial dimensions or shape. Sartre came to much the same conclusion: consciousness was, for him, unlike all things, objects, or entities. To say that there is nothing else to our minds than conditioned states would make us robotic entities, conditioned through language and other forms of representation. It would threaten to make all children and all animals without language or semiotic systems beings without consciousness. It would also make those with neurological conditions, such as Wernicke’s syndrome, without consciousness (or perhaps with some limited form of it).

It is the egoic part of us that is most attracted to a picture of the mind as conditioned states or social constructions of language, for the egoic part of us is, itself, conditioned. Perhaps, in some sense, the whole Western philosophical tradition can, as Heidegger suggests, be seen as a will to power, but that will to power’s source is the egoic mind—the mind that comes to identify itself with forms of all kinds, whether they come in the shape of physical objects or abstract forms, i.e., thoughts.

In a discussion with the Dalai Lama (Beck and Dalai Lama 2005), the Dalai Lama told Aaron Beck, one of the founders of cognitive therapy, that Beck’s book Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence (Beck 1999) is “almost like Buddhist literature.” Beck replied that he thought that the book “is about 1500 years late.” Indeed it is easy to see the connection between Prisoners of Hate and Buddhist literature by just considering the first three chapters that deal with the roots of hate:

The Prison of Hate: How Egoism and Ideology Hijack the Mind

The Eye (“I”) of the Storm: The Egocentric Bias

From Hurt to Hate: The Vulnerable Self-Image (Beck 1999)

In another interview (Beck 2011), Beck also goes on to explain how he started out as a Freudian but did not see what Freud saw in terms of cognitive structures when he engaged in therapy with patients. He could verify neither Freud’s theoretical basis nor the psychological reality that Freud ascribed to humans. Beck instead found something more like what the meditative traditions have found in terms of conditioned minds. He found that his patients were thinking the same thoughts over and over again—that they were caught in negative loops of thinking. He wanted to break those loops.

Another psychologist who came close to the Eastern meditative tradition within the Western tradition was Carl Rogers, the father of client-centered therapy and a key figure in the so-called third force in psychology. For Carl Rogers, a person would grow whenever someone else genuinely listened to him or her in a meeting with unconditional positive regard. This is how he describes client-centered therapy in an early article from 1952:

Client-centered therapy is built on two central hypotheses: (1) the individual has within him

the capacity, at least latent, to understand the factors in his life that cause him unhappiness and pain, and to reorganize himself in such a way as to overcome those factors; (2) these powers will become effective if the therapist can establish with the client a relationship sufficiently warm, accepting and understanding. From these two convictions it follows that in practice we do not try to do something to the client. (Rogers 1952)

These statements and others by Rogers come close to how the Eastern meditative traditions have seen a way of helping others—essentially through conscious presence and compassion (Brazier 1996).

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