What is the conditioning of the mind?

… time will change and even reverse many of your present opinions. Refrain, therefore, awhile from setting yourself up as a judge of the highest matters


The quote is from the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428-348 B.C.) – student of Socrates (c. 469-399 B.C.) and teacher of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) (Phillips 2001). The quote highlights a universal truth about the nature of opinion and whatever we think we know to be true. Our knowledge is always limited by whatever opinions and knowledge available at that given moment in time – which can be referred to as the epistemological problem: 

How do we know what we think we know? How do we know anything?” The epistemological problem is that philosophers have never succeeded in answering the question. Many in the nineteenth century thought the answer lay in science. We could know things for certain through the scientific method… perhaps the single most important discovery in modern science has been that there are limits to scientific inquiry. With a few ifs, ands, and buts, there is no more real certainty to be found in science than in theology. Yet uncertainty breeds anxiety. It’s scary that our best minds are those who best know that they don’t know

Peck: The road less traveled and beyond, Simon & Schuster, 1997

The point in the quote is in line with the insight presented by Plato some 2000 years earlier. The difference is that there in science as well as in modern western societies has been a tendency to believe that it is possible to gain some sort of final certainty in knowledge through science – though it doesn’t seem to be the case. For everything we know – more is going to be revealed about things we don’t know. 

Furthermore, we are culturally conditioned, and that conditioning affects our opinions and limits our ability to question the domineering ‘truths’ within our culture. 

Cultural leaders such as political, religious and corporate leaders promote certain cultural norms as certain ways of thinking and living as the truth – leading people to assume that if everyone is thinking this or doing that it must be normal and correct – without thinking for themselves.

An example is when people believe the lies of advertisement about how if we are not happy, comfortable or fulfilled we must be eating the wrong cereal or driving the wrong car. In this case we are letting ourselves be deceived by companies driven by motives for profit (Peck 1997). These are examples of simplistic one-dimensional thinking promoted in our culture which discourages us from questioning and sorting through difficult times and much less confront the lies of materialism (Peck 1997).

The Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti describes how this cultural conditioning makes it difficult for the human being to look at himself and learn about himself.[1]

Is one free from the culture that has conditioned the mind? Being born as a Hindu or a Moslem, with centuries of propaganda – ‘Don’t do this, do this; believe in this, don’t believe in that’ – has conditioned the mind. And such a mind says, ‘I am going to learn about myself’! It doesn’t realize that it is conditioned. And a conditioned mind cannot possibly learn; therefore, it must be free of its conditioning

J. Krishnamurti 1970

The quotes of Plato, Peck and Krishnamurti touches upon the fact that the individual human mind is limited and conditioned. The mind is conditioned by whatever culture in time the individual human being is raised in. And this conditioning makes the mind judgmental according to the conditioning that has shaped it.

Some of the most common – and often destructive – assumptions are based on stereotypes about ourselves and other people. Stereotyping typically involves labeling and categorizing people and things in a simpleminded manner, then making judgements on the basis of the assumptions we attach to these categories. Such assumptions often prove to be misleading

Peck: The road less traveled and beyond, Simon & Schuster, 1997

Schema theory in itself focusses on the conditioning of the individual that stems from his or her upbringing and childhood experiences that causes the development of certain core schemas and beliefs. These schemas can induce a belief in the individual that he or she is not good enough, unworthy and unlovable. That he or she will be rejected and/or abandoned. That he or she never will have his or her core emotional needs met and that he or she is unable to live up to other people’s expectations and so forth. Hence the magnifying glass in the treatment process of schema theory is focused on the ‘me’ (to use an expression from Krishnamurti) and how the ‘me’ is controlled cognitively, behaviorally and emotionally by his or her underlying maladaptive schemas. 

These maladaptive schemas results in an underlying fearful uneasiness for which people try to compensate in various ways in their relationships and in the ways, they try to escape and soothe these underlying fears in search of having their core emotional needs met and obtain some sense of safety and security. The goal of schema therapy is to teach the individual to respond in a healthier manner whenever our maladaptive schemas are triggered. However, schema theory is not focused on dissolving the overall cultural conditioning of the mind.

Schema theory provides an analytical basis to identify adaptive and maladaptive schemas and coping styles and how they reveal themselves in coaching conversations. But since schema theory doesn’t address how to free ourselves from the overall conditioning of the mind, I have found it necessary to combine the knowledge from schema theory with a philosophical approach in my coaching and consulting services. The reason for this methodological choice is that a philosophical approach can help cultivate our capacity to really think for ourselves and thereby become able to free ourselves from the conditioning of the mind.

How the philosophical approach can enhance the quality and depth in the way we think will be explained further in the next post on my blog. Please subscribe if you want to know more about this subject.


5 thoughts on “What is the conditioning of the mind?

Leave a Reply