There are certain moments or experiences in life which reveal a different you and its liberating. It’s liberating because you start judging yourself less and by the same measure, judge others lesser. Few years ago, under purple velvet sky, crashing waves and neon lights I had one such epiphanous moment that prompted me to write “The Thinking Me”. Over the course of past few weeks, in the esteemed company of Prof. Robert Wright, I had similar realizations that sat me down to write “The Conditioned Me”.
“Conditioned” is a fairly trending word which has garnered enough social fodder to be part of our colloquial vocabulary. After all, we are questioning and breaking social norms and stigmas like #metoo, #LGBT, #womenssentrytosabarimala, etc. However, the “conditioned me” is much more personal and deeper who deals with everyday issues. And these daily quandaries challenge your mental stamina and conditioning unforgivably.
I am conditioned to be angry when things aren’t my way. I am conditioned to think foremost about self-interest. I am conditioned to be biased against others as opposed to my own kin. I am conditioned to feel jealousy/insecurity towards others or of their success. I am conditioned to notice flaws more easily in others particularly enemies or opponents. I am conditioned to be physically attracted to more than one. As the day progresses the list gets longer.
Do these make me mean, avoidable or dislikeable? Or it merely makes a “Conditioned me”? We have, or atleast I have, very cleverly believed these instincts to be natural, almost automatic and involuntary. However, for the first time I came to understand why. Leda Cosmides, Robert Kurzban are prominent names in Evolutionary Psychology and years of their studies give a very plausible explanation as to why we are how we are.
Two and half million years ago when we were evolving in the minutest leaps as hunter gatherers, natural selection’s only agenda for us was survival and transmission of genes. It didn’t care for anything more or anything less. To this end we developed certain active parts or broad modules in our brains like self-protection, mate attraction, mate retention, affiliation, kin care, status and disease avoidance.
However, we left the caves an epoch ago to dwell in houses of glass and societies of law and order. But the evolutionary biases of the natural selection never left us. To those base modules of self protection, mate attraction and self-interest we added some more layers of social, moral and personal codes as per our convenience and need. This very conditioning is now at the heart of the decisions we take, the judgements we pass, and the opinions we hold.
The Burberrys, Rolexes, Rolls Royces are almost extorting on our module of status enhancement against our better judgement. Closer home, when I forget to add salt in food, I have a lot on my mind. But if my cook forgets, I reprimand him for not paying attention. My module of self-interest is again at work. We are supposedly intelligent beings yet so blindly ignorant of the fact that we as conscious decision makers are barely and hardly so.
One of the serious and real consequences of the current pandemic apart from health has been the financial impact across large and small enterprises, sparing a handful. However, it is an oft said statement spoken only half jokingly, “Atleast everyone’s doing badly. I am not the only one suffering.” Whoa!! We are certainly conditioned to feel better when our competitors aren’t doing well too.
Another favourite conversation these days is how the new lifestyle has brought in some real good change. Quality time with the family, lost passions revived, conscious health care, cleaner cities, fresher air and so on. We are certainly conscious or aware of these changes. Yet I’ll bet with all my leftover moolah, that once the vaccine is out or the virus leaves, we’ll be right back to square one. We will once again with renewed focus and energy run out to chase more wealth, pleasures and success. All the right changes that we made and appreciated will be thrown out of the window with hurried furore. The “conscious me” as I believe it to be the decision maker and task master will lose bitterly and shamefully to the “conditioned me”.
“Conditioning” implies the lies that we have so convincingly and unerringly told ourselves repeatedly and incessantly that it becomes our believed truth. So while we believe that we are choosing our responses, it is the conditioned – fearful, anxious, jealous, angry, self-interested me that is responding most times. Not to mention the subliminal and subtle environmental stimulation that influence our behaviour. Several psychological and neurological experiments have proven that there’s very little from our conscious realm that we use in our existence. This is one of those mesmerizing confluences of science and spirituality that reveal the same thing.
And still the trump card of all conditioning is that I believe myself to be the one in control, to be consciously evaluating my responses and actions. Now, of course this is very important for my public and personal image. I don’t want to seem like a loon who doesn’t know why she does what she does. It would greatly hamper my social survival and status. At the same time this belief of owning control is one of the most powerful and sweetest self-gratifying delusions.
It’s herculean to step out of the nefarious grip of these impenetrable and impregnable million years old lies. It would summon mental strength and selflessness of supreme magnitude to break out. However, just the fact that you start seeing your myopic biases into play, start realizing that you give yourself the benefit of doubt but deprive others of it, are no lesser epiphanies.
Science has given the history, biology and chemistry of our conditioning, but it is in the silent introspection of your mind that tells your true personal story. The evolutionary and social truth of our prejudices is no reason or excuse to absolve from responsibility. It is rather an opportunity to choose and change for the better. Because until you know that the line is skewed, how and why would you even straighten it.
I am no coach, no authority to either preach or prescribe anything. I wrote this piece purely as a fellow human who hasn’t snapped out of the conditioning but is seeing herself more clearly in its clenched fist. It hasn’t made me self loathing, just a tad slower in assuming self-importance and passing judgements on others.