What is psychological conditioning?

Some extracts from Krishnamurti on the topic of psychological conditioning:

Would we say that human beings from the very beginning of time are conditioned by their immediate experiences? Immediate experience of danger, of security, of physical uncertainty, of survival, seeking protection, and not completely finding that protection, being anxious, afraid, both neurologically and physically. Surely that is the beginning of human conditioning, right from the very beginning…

Human beings right from the beginning of time have to have food, clothes and shelter. In the very searching of it, in the very hunting of it, in the very demand for food, going through various experiences in acquiring food, there began the conditioning. Conditioning, being hunted and hunting, the experience of fear, the experience of uncertainty, the lack of safety and so on. That is the beginning, obviously, of human mind being conditioned. Physically most of us have this urge to be protected, find safety, security, certainty. Right? Obviously. So that is the beginning of it…

That - please let’s go slowly - that is, physical demand for food and clothes, has that - I am asking you, please investigate together - spilled over into the psychological field? That is, one has food, clothes, and shelter, one needs it, but also one thinks one needs psychological safety, psychological security, psychological dependence, psychological anxiety and so on, so on, so on. So I am asking - please listen to this - I am asking, I am not stating, I am asking you to find out if the physical needs with all their reactions have not entered into the arena, area of the psychological field…

Isn’t the content of your psyche the desire to be happy, the conflicts, the joys, the pleasures, the fears, the anxieties, the greed, the envy, the violence - isn’t that the content of your psyche? … do you see these facts in your psyche? … your anger, your jealousies, your hurts, your anxieties, your fears, your pleasures, your beliefs, your opinions, your judgements, your egotism, your violence, your arrogance - you follow? - the whole of that.

(1st Public discussion, Ojai, 1979)

K: I wonder what we mean by conditioning. Is it the tradition, not only present day tradition, but centuries and centuries of tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation, and is this conditioning the whole background of civilisation, culture, the social impacts and the many, many experiences that one has? Does all this contribute to the conditioning of the brain? Not only all this but also the various impressions, the propaganda, the literature, the television, all this seems to add to the background, to the conditioning of every human being, whether he is very, very, very poor, uneducated, most primitive, and to the most highly educated, sophisticated human beings. This conditioning seems to be inevitable. It has been a factor that has endured probably for a million years, or fifty thousand years. If all that is the conditioning, or the background of every human being, and that obviously shapes our thinking, controls our reactions and responses, and our way of behaviour, conduct, and the way we eat and think and feel and react, and all that…

MZ: Sir, am I correct in understanding that this conditioning of which you speak goes into the human consciousness before the birth of the human being? In other words he is born with a certain loading of conditioning, a certain content in his very brain that you would call conditioning. It is not only what happens to him in his actual life as he grows up?

K: Not only that. We have used the word consciousness, which is, if we can examine that for a while, that consciousness is all our reactions, responses, all our idiosyncrasies and tendencies, both biological as well as psychological, and all the beliefs, faith, the gods man has invented, the rituals, the daily routine of work with its boredom, with its mechanical responses; and also the fears, the anxieties, the pain, the depression, the elation, the intense sorrow, the loneliness, the uncertainty of the future, all that, and the fear of death and the continuity and all that is our consciousness. That consciousness, with its content, is the conditioning. And that conditioning is centuries old

Instinct is part of our conditioning, is part of our brain which has been programmed. My instinct sees a dangerous animal and it says, run, or kill or do something about it. I hope you are not killing… Instinct, that is really quick response, is coloured, naturally by our past knowledge. That knowledge may be very, very hidden, subtle but without that knowledge instinct is not possible surely?

(Conversation with Mary Zimbalist, 1984)

We are conditioned - physically, nervously, mentally - by the climate we live in and the food we eat, by the culture in which we live, by the whole of our social, religious and economic environment, by our experience, by education and by family pressures and influences. All these are the factors which condition us. Our conscious and unconscious responses to all the challenges of our environment - intellectual, emotional, outward and inward - all these are the action of conditioning. Language is conditioning; all thought is the action, the response of conditioning…

In the Christian myth of original sin and in the whole eastern doctrine of Samsara, one sees that the factor of conditioning has been felt, though rather obscurely… This conditioning is action in all relationships - to things, people and ideas…

The very factor of conditioning in the past, in the present and in the future, is the “me” which thinks in terms of time, the “me” which exerts itself… so the root of all conditioning is the thought which is the “me”. The “me” is the very essence of the past, the “me” is time, the “me” is sorrow - the “me” endeavours to free itself from itself, the “me” makes efforts, struggles to achieve, to deny, to become. This struggle to become is time in which there is confusion and the greed for the more and the better. The “me” seeks security and not finding it transfers the search to heaven; the very “me” that identifies itself with something greater in which it hopes to lose itself - whether that be the nation, the ideal or some god - is the factor of conditioning.

Questioner: … What am I without this “me”?

Krishnamurti: If there is no “me” you are unconditioned, which means you are nothing

The brain is the result of time; it is conditioned to protect itself physically, but when it tries to protect itself psychologically then the “me” begins, and all our misery starts. It is this effort to protect itself psychologically that is the affirmation of the “me”.

(Urgency of Change)

Is the entity that desires to free the mind from conditioning different from the mind itself? If it is different, the problem of effort and the action of will come into being. Is the ‘I’, the thinker, the person who says, ‘I am conditioned, and I must be free,’ the ‘I’ who makes an effort to be free, is that ‘I’, that will, that desire, different from the conditioned state? Please, this is not complicated. You are bound to ask yourself this question when you look at the problem. Am I, who wishes to free myself from conditioning, different from the conditioning, or are they both the same? …

What we are trying to find out is whether the mind which has been conditioned for centuries, generation upon generation, can free itself. Surely, it can be free only when there is no action of will, when it realises that it is conditioned and does not make any effort to free itself from its conditioning

Reality comes into being only when there is a total cessation of all conditioning, that is, when the mind is free and therefore still.

(Public talk 2, New York 1954)

Your mind is conditioned, whether you acknowledge it or not. You may superficially break away from a tradition, but the deep layers of the unconscious are full of that tradition, conditioned by centuries of education according to a pattern. A mind that would find something beyond, if there is such a thing, must first be free of all conditioning…

We are trying to find out how to free the mind, the total consciousness, from all conditioning, for unless that happens, there can be no experiencing of reality…

So it seems to me of the greatest importance to begin with ourselves, to be aware of our own conditioning. It is only the mind that is capable of patiently observing its conditioning and being free from it that is able to have a revolution, a radical transformation, and thereby to discover that which is infinitely beyond the mind, beyond all our desires, vanities and pursuits. Without self-knowledge, without knowing oneself as one is—not as one would like to be, which is merely an illusion, an idealistic escape—without knowing the ways of one’s thinking, all one’s motives, thoughts and innumerable responses, it is not possible to understand and go beyond this whole process of thinking…

The mind is not merely the waking consciousness occupied with daily activities, but also the deep layers of the unconscious in which there is the whole residue of the past, tradition and racial instincts. All that is the mind, and unless that total consciousness is free right through, our search, inquiry and discovery will be limited, narrow and petty…

The mind is the total consciousness, with all its different layers of knowledge, acquisition, tradition, racial instincts, memory…

How can such a mind be free, since any movement of the mind to be free is the result of its conditioning and must bring about further conditioning? There is only one answer. The mind can be free only when it is completely still. Though it has problems, innumerable urges, conflicts and ambitions, if—through self-knowledge, through watching itself without acceptance or condemnation—the mind is choicelessly aware of its own process, then out of that awareness comes an astonishing silence, a quietness of the mind in which there is no movement of any kind. It is only then that the mind is free.

(Public talk 1, Ojai 1955)

So we must come back to our beginning, which is, can the brain be ever free from all the programmes we have received? And the speaker, K, says it is possible. It is possible only through watching, not condemning or accepting, but just watching the whole movement of your thought, watching the very activity of thought, watching the origin, the beginning of thought. And so in this watching the brain then becomes much more sensitive, not only to its own responses but sensitive to nature, to everything around one, to the world that is becoming more and more dangerous, and to the world of one’s own psyche, so that there is a constant objective and subjective relationship, an interchange, never coming to a final decision.

(Conversation with Mary Zimbalist, 1984)


Any and all aspects of the ego-self, the psyche, are fruit of psychological conditioning. Agree?

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In this he uses the word ‘mind’ meaning the brain.
Elsewhere he says ‘mind’ is unconditioned, brain is ‘conditioned’, when brain is unconditioned, “it is mind”.

Yes. I did some research into this issue a year or so ago and discovered that K’s language around ‘mind’ underwent a change in 1979, partly due to a specific experience he had when he was at Rishi Valley, and partly because of his discussions with Bohm.

Mind and Universe

Well, this is what this thread is proposing to inquire into. What is psychological conditioning?

The Encyclopaedia Britannica says that

in physiology, [conditioning is] a behavioral process whereby a response becomes more frequent or more predictable in a given environment as a result of reinforcement, with reinforcement typically being a stimulus or reward for a desired response.

So the natural purpose of conditioning in animals (and humans) is obviously to optimise their capacity for survival and flourishing. Conditioning helps creates helpful instincts and susceptibilities in animals that help them to respond to danger, fend off enemies, and find food and shelter.

As one can see from the first extract, K similarly suggested that conditioning has arisen through the need to survive - to seek food and shelter, react to dangers, and so on. It is part of the natural biological demand - in all animals - for security.

However, the issue seems to be that this natural movement of conditioning (which began as a means of affording physical security) then proceeded to move inwardly, into the field of psychology, into the field of psychological thought (made possible by the rapid growth of the neocortex) - creating culture, religion, belief, as well as all the contents of consciousness (psychological fear, psychological grief, as well as psychological pleasures and ambitions that transcend what is physically necessary or required).

This is what K and Bohm describe in their dialogues as the beginning of psychological time, and which perhaps various human cultures refer to obliquely through myth:

K: In the Christian myth of original sin and in the whole eastern doctrine of Samsara, one sees that the factor of conditioning has been felt, though rather obscurely.

So our conditioning is thousands and thousands of years old. It isn’t simply what we might have read today in the newspaper or watched on YouTube - it informs every aspect of our thinking, reacting and relating.

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That’s the point I was trying to make: To see what psychological conditioning has wrought, just look upon any and all attributes and behaviors of the I-construct, ego, psyche. That’s its fruit.

I’d say that its essence is (something like) the building of connections between stimuli and responses that shape the mental and physiological processes of the conditionee.

Reading these extracts from K on conditioning I am left with a sense of “no way out”.

PS. The sensation is not new. it seems evident - and necessary for the abandonment of effort by the me.

Perhaps there is, but it’s very (very) expensive, you basically need to cash in all your chips. ???

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Yes - the way out is dependant on realising that there is no way out (for “me” & mine)

Right, when we think of ‘awakening’ (or whatever term we use), we think “I awaken.” That’s an oxymoron!


Now - when the self arises again (resurrection/reincarnation) from psychological death - it seems evident that it will interpret what has happened. The brain will necessarily project some understanding/memory/experience of what has occured - and from conditioning will arise conclusions. Thus falsifying (moving away from) any insight…

Your last post reminded me of this…

For I, “out” is just another room in my prison, a superficial change, a distraction from feeling trapped, confined, hopelessly limited.

For I, there is no way out because “out” is a dimension too timeless and spacious for I.

Free from final decisions… freely coming and going

Yes ‘re-membering’ that the ‘thinking me’ is a thought / feeling…a back and forth? A coming and going that brings about a “sensitivity” and a kind of joy?

We can start (as many of us have done) by becoming aware of superficial forms of conditioning and dropping them - such as the religious or nationalist conditioning of our societies, as well as the obvious prejudices and distortions we picked up from childhood (such as superficial sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, etc).

But the main issues seem to be that 1) there are layers of conditioning of which we are unaware; and 2) there are forms of conditioning that are so (seemingly) deep rooted that it feels impossible to dissolve or adequately break them down. In this latter case “the building of connections between stimuli and responses” has been rather too successful in creating a habit of conditioning.

In either case, according to K, only by being choicelessly aware of these habits of conditioning can there be a ‘way out’.

However, another aspect 3) of this conditioning business is that we usually only see fragments of our conditioning, one by one: we see individual reactive habits or attitudes. - We don’t (at least not usually!) see the whole of our conditioning all at once in a single sweeping insight (as K has suggested).

Is it possible to perceive ourselves - the whole content of our (conditioned) consciousness - in a single perception, in a single glance? Or can we only be aware of one fragment of our conditioning at a time?

First and foremost: I don’t know. The ‘closest’ I come is when I get a flash of seeing myself as a tabula rasa (newborn, perhaps even newly conceived) that has been written on for decades by parents, friends, media, teachers, experiences of all ilk. Or a newborn computer that has been programmed and whose old programs tend to stick around in program limbo but still manage to exert some degree of influence over the computer in its present moment calculations.

As you know, there is a view - shared by some Tibetan Buddhists, some Chan and Zen Buddhists, by the Advaita tradition, and others - that awareness (or attention, Mind with a capital ‘M’) is primordially pure and self-existent, the ground of all that exists.

Mary Oliver wrote that,

This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.

In Dzogchen they call this Rigpa, Dharmakaya, Buddha-jnana (Buddha mind) or nirvanic consciousness. And they distinguish this from Sems (meaning the thought-made mind), or the alaya-vijnana (the thought polluted mind).

Similarly in Chan and Zen - e.g. in Huangbo, Zongmi and Bankei - they speak of a universal Mind, an Unborn mind, a luminous tranquil awareness, which is limited and distorted by the presence of conceptual thought.

While the Ashtavakra Gita and Ramana Maharishi speak of a pure Awareness that is our true nature, and that this Awareness is all that exists.

They say that this Awareness (with a capital ‘A’) is always present, and that one only has to live ‘within’ it (as it were), remain ‘inside’ it, and continually dis-indentify oneself from the various contents of consciousness/thought that arise.

Krishnamurti doesn’t exactly deny this view - by his language he often seems to point to the primacy of awareness/attention/Intelligence/insight/Mind - but he does caution against too much faith or belief in this Unborn mind, because it may be just an idea (which it usually is for most of us).

That is, rather than focussing on the Unborn mind (or Awareness with a capital ‘A’), Krishnamurti instead seems to focus on what prevents this intelligence/insight/attention from operating: i.e. thought and the thought-created contents of consciousness (our conditioning).

The implication (it seems to me) is that by giving attention/awareness to our psychological conditioning, our (psychological) thinking and reacting first, the other thing - i.e. intelligence, compassion, universal Mind - will be there. But to want it to be there just because we desire it is the wrong approach. We have to do the ‘hard work’ of actually being aware of our conditioning first.

It may be possible, especially since we know we can “be aware of one fragment of our conditioning at a time”, so why fixate on how/when it all ends?

Every partial insight diminishes confusion and conflict and increases the likelihood of greater clarity and simplicity, so why not just stay with what’s actually happening?

“seeing the whole of our conditioning” comes across as too daunting a task. I’d like to put it in less heroic terms :

Firstly, seeing that I am angry (or sad or annoyed) with someone (or something), and recognising that this might be due to some tribal belief (that I hold), may alter details in our way of interacting with particular circumstances - this could be considered a slight change (an evolution) in who I am, how I act.

However, an understanding of the process of self - how it functions, through fear and desire based on the projections of this central selfish perspective of progess and survival - that is to see the “whole of conditioning”.