A school is a place where teachers and students ‘discover’ their own conditioning and how it distorts their thinking. This conditioning is the self to which such tremendous and cruel importance is given. Freedom from this conditioning and its misery begins with this awareness.
J Krishnamurti, Ojai, 1984
Many students come to Brockwood Park School unaware that they have a deep conditioning imposed upon them by their culture and society through schooling, advertising, music, the media and sports. We ran a course at Brockwood last year, primarily for grades 11 and 12 students, with the aim of uncovering this conditioning. Of course the staff come with their own conditioning, the depth of which is not to be underestimated. The deepest division that our conditioning takes for granted is that the observer is separate from the observed, and that the world is a separate entity from us.
In this course we tried to show the falseness of these divisions without wishing to impose, overtly or inadvertently, another type of conditioning. One thing this meant was to not negatively label ‘conditioning’ as undesirable; this labelling is already part of a conditioned habit, and would also imply that we understood the content and processes of conditioning well enough to make that judgment.
So the intention of the course was just to look at the ‘what is’ of conditioning and then, perhaps, any seeing of the fact of it would have its own action. However, at the end of the course we felt it was important to do an activity (which is described later), the aim of which was to go beyond conditioning.
The course did not involve much discussion of conditioning as such, as we wanted to engage the student in activities that reveal its nature. The difficulty with conditioning is that it is like my glasses; it shapes my vision but can’t be seen directly. Fortunately conditioning acts in nearly all our perceptions, reactions and behaviour, so that there are many types of areas where it could reveal its consequences.
I would like to sketch some of the activities that challenged the students’ assumptions about the nature of everyday perception and that also showed how we construct our world.
One such activity involved optical illusions. These are usually addressed as amusing phenomena that, though surprising, don’t have much significance. I beg to differ. They show clearly and directly how conditioning works in our perception. They have a further significance in that they remain as an illusion even when we know they are illusions!
Related to optical illusions are ‘low information’ pictures, where the students have to construct an image from the given data. Some see it directly, others have difficulty until they have the ‘ah-ha’ moment. Also, the ‘gorilla in the basketball court’ experiment (see www.theinvisiblegorilla.com) is available online, where one is ‘blind’ to what one doesn’t expect to see.
A very different area we then looked at was Zeno’s paradoxes and Einstein’s theory of relativity. The physicist David Bohm has theorized, using the psychologist Jean Piaget’s work, that these space-time phenomena are surprising to us because we have forgotten how our conditioned concepts of space and time were formed as young children. This area often left the students in a healthy state of bewilderment as to what the words ‘reality’, ‘truth’ and ‘actuality’ meant.
We also tried to get at the conditioned assumptions that our students had, by asking how they were thinking about a ‘hot’ issue in the school, in particular to do with, say, a decision to ask a student to leave Brockwood due to misbehaviour. We set the scene so that this elicited strong responses not so much to do with the decision but to do with values and priorities.
My point here is to show that the scope of resources is really quite large. The intention of these activities was to become aware of the processes and depth of conditioning without the distorting assumption that it needs to be eliminated.
However, it seems clear that to encounter life only with conditioned responses is an impoverished way to live. An activity that tried to go beyond conditioning involved asking students to go out of the classroom and, firstly, to look at an object in nature in such a way that the object tells its own story, not to project ‘naming’ and ‘judgements’ on it, and perhaps to see it in some kind of detail. A second activity was to close one’s eyes for a moment and then look again to see something of the object not seen before. With other experiments like this, including experimenting with looking at the ‘whole’, the aim was to experience a perception where conditioning was not needed, where it had no place, and so was quiet. We said to the students that it was not necessary to verbally report their observations; it was the doing that mattered and not the words that described it. Whether or not this activity achieved its aim, it seemed the students were quieter and more reflective at the end of it.
*This article follows on from the topics raised in the last issue of the Journal of Krishnamurti Schools concerning conditioning.