baby monkey near some flowers

A Hidden Curriculum: Conditioning in the Contemplative Classroom

monkey mother and baby

Photo by Saray Jimenez

In Psychology, conditioning is the process of training or accustoming a being to behave in a certain way or to accept certain circumstances. In Buddhism, the conditioned describes anything that arises through causation. Taken together, this includes all the ways we learn to be human within a particular context. Conditioning is ubiquitous and some of it is necessary for living beings to survive and thrive. Yet it can also be a sort of hidden curriculum that we learn from in an unexamined and unintentional way – often to our detriment. I’ve been curious about how my own and others’ conditioning impacts our development and work as teachers of contemplative practices.

What inspired this curiosity is the many wild monkey videos that have come across my social media feed lately – especially videos of monkey moms and babies. Its been fascinating and revealing to watch them. Sometimes the babies are born high in the trees. I find it amazing how they reflexively reach out as soon as their little hands emerge from the birth canal to grasp their mother’s fur so they don’t fall. They arrive fully equipped with a powerful instinct and grip.

Baby monkeys cling against all odds to their mothers, even as they are being peeled off her body, dragged on the ground, or submerged under water. This instinct to grasp and cling is life saving. If they happen to lose contact, they flatten their little bodies to the ground, alternately screeching and cooing, calling out for care and safety. Through trial and error, they learn how to interact with their mothers and other bigger monkeys, how to ask for milk or to share food in a way that makes it more likely they’ll be nourished, how to calm one another, and how to cultivate allies. They learn who they can safely approach and how to approach them. The babies that don’t figure this all out risk serious injury and even death.

baby monkey in a tree

Photo by Erik Karits

Since the monkeys and I are both social primates, much of this seems very familiar. It makes me feel surprisingly tender and even more curious about our human conditioning – the ways we’ve been taught to be people within our environment, the ways we’ve learned to survive and thrive (which includes internalized and rejected sociocultural norms, beliefs about ourselves and the world, values, habits, etc), and how this all shows up in our personal practice and in the contemplative classroom.

The author of the Lion’s Roar article, The Healing Practice of Cultural Humility, Charlene Leung, says we have all received a “complex inheritance”. Conditioning happens from the moment there are feedback loops in our biology – maybe even before that when we consider epigenetics and generational trauma. It’s part of being a living being. Some of it is essential to life, some is useful, some vestigial, some harmful, and this can change according to context; life circumstances, place in the world, time in history, developmental stage, etc. All of it is interconnected within systems that are greater than the sum of individual parts. Through repetition, these ways of being can become quite ingrained, like water carving channels in stone.

I am large. I contain multitudesWalt Whitman, Song of Myself

In the crucible of my evolving contemplative practice and finding myself increasingly among diverse, often international communities, I’m discovering that some things I thought were givens are simply views. Things I didn’t think much about and took for granted are not universal truths. I’ve been increasingly curious about how these views impact my ways of being in relationship with myself, others, and the world – and in my teaching. I’ve discovered I can be more choiceful and flexible in the ways I relate to some of my conditioning. The baby monkeys help me hold this more tenderly.

Conditioning impacts our views and behavior – the ways we see ourselves and others and the assumptions we operate within. We’re aware of some of it, but much of it we’re not. When we’re unaware, there can be unintended consequences. For example, there’s emerging research on “habitual behavior patterns” that are environmentally consequential, such as water and energy use, food consumption, waste management, and modes of transportation. Researchers found that the strongest predictor of stable and ongoing behavior tends to be past performance frequency – basically how ingrained it is, rather than the expected costs and benefits of the action. It appears we’re often acting on autopilot rather than thinking critically about what might be the best response in any given situation.

mom and baby monkey by pool

Photo by Nabeel Hussain

How do we know when our conditioning may be having a harmful impact? If we’re fortunate, other people (such as our practice community or class participants) will make us aware of it. This feedback can be a rare gift when we’re able to receive it with an open heart and mind. A mindfulness practice can also help us become more attuned to the presence of stronger emotions such as impatience, irritation, wanting, and not wanting – these too are signals to look deeper. We begin to see, earlier and more clearly, the little recurring struggles that show up again and again in our interactions. Some other signs that further exploration may be warranted include :

  • being “rule bound” or rigid – insisting on things being a certain way without question
  • failing to set appropriate boundaries – having trouble guiding the co-creation of a “safe container”
  • having very strong preferences – such as in the way we set up the practice space, in the types of practices we offer, or around particular ways of learning or knowing
  • maybe especially in the US, prioritizing individualism and autonomy in our teachings
  • defaulting to judging, violent or gendered words or phrases in our guidance
  • operating on broad assumptions – perpetuating biases and stereotypes

Leung wrote, “Regardless of whether we are on the upside or the downside of sociopolitical power, we all participate in and uphold a socially constructed hierarchy that benefits some and marginalizes others. By listening to ourselves, we can begin to recognize that participation as well as our own biases, limitations, and unconscious stereotypes. As a result, we become more authentically open to ourselves and to others.” She says our practice “creates an inquisitive atmosphere for self-awareness and reflection, a loving space to heal” so that more of the unconscious might become available to conscious awareness and intentional responding.

We can practice freedom in an unfree world.Lama Rod Owens

As our conditioning is revealed, simple recognition is often enough to let go of unhelpful habits. With very ingrained patterns; however, we may need to deliberately turn the mind toward something good. This might include noticing and savoring helpful qualities when they arise or intentionally cultivating beneficial habits. Dr. Rick Hanson talks about the importance of “taking in the good” so that related neurons fire and wire together to help us incline toward what is beneficial more easily and frequently.

I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.The First Edition

baby monkey eating and looking

Photo by Joseph Anson

Curiosity can be a strong ally in our work to unravel harmful conditioning. Getting outside our usual routines and comfort zones, interacting with diverse communities, and trying on new practices can reveal previously unimagined possibilities for being and relating. Andra Fella, in her dharma talk “Daily Life Practice”, suggests choosing some specific personal projects, such as a problematic habit that happens regularly that we’re really interested in investigating. She advises setting an intention and saying to oneself, “I want to know: when this happens, how am I, how is my body?” At first we might not notice until we’re well into our routine, but eventually we might see things coming, noticing habits and patterns as they’re arising. We can facilitate this by asking ourselves:

  • How does my body and mind react when something feels pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral?
  • What’s it like when things are different than I expect – different from what I’m used to?
  • What am I experiencing in this moment that’s surprising or new?
  • What’s it like when I set aside preferences?

By daring to explore conditioning with self-compassion and genuine interest, mindfulness teachers can bring a potentially hidden curriculum out of the shadows into the light of awareness so that we might make wiser choices about what we are practicing and how we are guiding those we serve.


2 replies
  1. Laura Shannon Swift
    Laura Shannon Swift says:

    Tracy, I can’t tell you how helpful this article has been for me in the last 24 hours. I’ve read it over and over again. I’m looking at my assumption about work and my irritations with it to see what I’ve been conditioned to believe. It has been helpful to me to switch my focus. Thank you friend.


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