Every Person's Guide to Conditioning

(excerpted from Fighting the Invisible Enemy—Understanding the Effects of Conditioning)

What is Conditioning?

You may have heard the word "conditioning" before. To condition means to teach or train. We've all been taught to stop when a traffic light turns red. Have you ever thought about how many times you, as a child, had to be told to stop for a red light before you were actually "conditioned" enough to remember it yourself?

Most of the thoughts in your mind and the actions you take every day are based on how you've been conditioned. You've been conditioned to brush your teeth, to read, to think about yourself in a particular light, and to treat other people in certain ways. We are all creatures of habit who fall into daily routines of walking, talking, thinking and acting.

There are three different kinds of conditioning: biological, physical and psychological.

1. Biological Conditioning involves the living processes that are a part of being human and our drive to survive. In order to stay alive, you need food and water. If you go too long without eating or drinking water, you become hungry and weak. Your body is naturally driven to get what it needs. This conditioning is involuntary—it exists without you having to think about it.

The same goes for your need to sleep. If you've stayed up late or had to get up extremely early, you have experienced how your body feels when it doesn't get enough sleep, and that it's difficult to function well.

2. Physical Conditioning is training of the body. When you work out in gym class, you get your body in good shape by stretching, bending, reaching, jumping, running, and participating in various sports. After awhile, you perform these physical activities automatically, almost effortlessly, without thinking much about them. Your muscles become conditioned to the exercises you put them through. The way you shoot for a basket, or breathe when you run, becomes second nature as your body grows more and more conditioned to the workout.

3. Psychological Conditioning is training of the mind, such as learning to stop for a red light, or brush your teeth. You stop for a red light, or brush your teeth before you go to bed, because you have been taught to do so. Behavior that is repeated over and over becomes a "habit." Something you had to think a lot about first, you now do with hardly any thinking at all.

In our daily lives, we are conditioned by the things we see and the people we know. This conditioning determines how we think, and how we think determines how we act. When you are at home, you are conditioned to think and act the way your family does. At school, your teachers and classmates influence your thoughts and actions. Any activites you participate in outside of home and school can also influence and condition you. Parents and teachers teach you ways to think, act and be because they believe these ways will help you survive.

Not All Conditioning is Positive

You probably know that in the process of conditioning your body to perform positively, training can have negative effect—perhaps causing you to strain a muscle or tear a ligament. The training of your mind can work in the same unexpected way.

If you see a moving car heading straight for you, you are going to move out of the way of that car as fast as you can—without thinking very much before you do. That's an automatic reaction. This is a result of biological conditioning and is lifesaving—and therefore positive.

If, however, you've been pestered by a "bully" at school, and your parents have tried to condition you to fight back, but you don't like to fight and don't believe you should—then you feel an internal struggle called conflict. You are in conflict with the bully, you are in conflict with your parents, and you are in conflict with yourself. While the psychological conditioning you received from your family was meant to be positive, in this occasion it is having a negative effect.

This example can also work in reverse: If your parents are nonviolent people who believe you should "turn the other cheek," but you feel you need to fight the bully, you are also in deep conflict, and you may feel great pain inside.

Our conditioning can come from many different directions: from parents, brothers, sisters, teachers, friends, the football team, choir, band, or our religious training. There are times when these different groups have very different ideas about what is "right" or "good" and, as a result, their views may conflict with each other, causing you to feel torn between them.

There is Good News!

The good news is that you can do something about your psychological conditioning. While most biological conditioning simply is (we are born with it, and it exists no matter what we do), you can have some effect on your mind's conditioning—similar to the way you work on your physical conditioning. All it takes is (1) the interest to do so, and (2) the understanding that you can make a difference.

Activities and Exercises

Below are some games and exercises you can do to help yourself become free of conditioned thinking, the source of conflict. The most important "activity" of all is to understand what is happening to you when you are in conflict. It will be to your advantage to look at your fear, listen to it, and begin to see where your conflict comes from. Once you understand what conflict is, you can explore how it comes about and begin to get free of it.

Inner Conflict Awareness Exercise

Conflict may no always be expressed by violence—as when one person strikes another. Conflict may come out as a disagreement with someone. Or conflict may remain inside as inner pain—for instance, when your feelings have been hurt and no one knows.

The following activity is an exercise in inner conflict awareness. You can do this activity by yourself, by writing down your answers on paper—or you can do it with others (from two to four people). If you're doing it with others, write down your responses privately, then share them afterwards.

1. Write on a piece of paper, "I believe..." and then write down whatever comes into your head first. Write 10 different responses.

2. Then write "I don't believe..." Again, write down whatever comes into your head, and repeat 10 times.

3. Now write, "I should..." Write down what comes to mind, and do this 10 times also.

4. Then write, "I shouldn't..." (10 times)

5. Now try, "I believe in..." (10 times)

6. Now write, "I don't believe in..." (10 times)

If you have been doing this with others, everyone takes a turn at sharing their responses. Compare your responses to those of your friends. Ask one another:

1. Why do you believe...?
2. Why don't you believe...?
3. Why do you think you should...?
4. Why do you think you shouldn't...?

What did you find out? Were some of your answers the same as those of your friends? Were some different? Were some opposite? Ask each other:

1. Where do your beliefs or "shoulds" or "shouldn'ts" come from? Can you remember the time when you first heard this belief? Was it at home? At school? From a friend or relative?

2. Do you think you were born with these beliefs, or do you think you learned them?

3. Why do you think you were conditioned to believe these things?

The Self-Consciousness Scale

Write down the answers, or share out loud with friends:

1. I think I am bad when I:

2. I think I am good when I:

3. People don't like me when I:

4. People like me when I:

5. I would like to be like (name of person):

6. I would not like to be like (name of person):

7. I don't like it when my (friends/parents/relatives/teachers) think I am:

8. I like it when my (friends/parents/relatives/teachers) think I am:

Discuss your responses with others in your class or in your family. Try to find out where you got your ideas about what it means to be "good" and why you feel the way you do.

The Detective Game

1. One person describes something that he/she is afraid of.

2. The next person gets one guess as to why the first person is afraid.

3. The first person confirms or denies the guess.

4. Every person in the room gets one guess, then every person gets a second guess, until someone gives an accurate description of why the first person is afraid.

5. If nobody guesses the reason why the first person is afraid of whatever he or she is afraid of, the first person then has to tell the real reason.

6. Then every person gets a chance to offer a suggestion on how to overcome that fear.

The Observation Game

1. One person is chosen to say something mean or cruel to another person.

2. The person to whom the cruel words are spoken must...

A. Listen to the cruel words;
B. Sit quietly and allow any images to come to mind;
C. Not do anything—just watch;
D Breathe deeply;
E. Let the words come and go.

3. Remind the person that images and words are not able to hurt on their own. The idea is to face the images and words—and realize that they don't have control over you, unless you let them.

4. Give everyone in the room the opportunity to have mean or cruel words spoken to him or her, and to work through the feelings that come up as a result.