Conditional Thinking

We often take actions to get a result other than the action itself. This is what I call “conditional thinking,” doing something to get something else. For example, we may work to get money so we can take a trip to relax. This type of behavior is typically benign and is often our normal mode of operation, but problems can occur when we take potentially harmful actions without addressing the underlying cause – for example, consuming toxic substances to lessen our anxiety and stress.

It can be a powerful practice to become more aware of our conditional behavior so that we might avoid actions that are harmful to ourselves and others. Awareness of conditional action can also result in greater satisfaction in the action itself: gardening to garden, listening to listen, playing to play.

I’ve practiced meditation for years and now I teach it. One idea that I’ve been contemplating lately is, what is the goal, if any, of meditation? This very question is, of course, a type of conditional thinking.

The number of legitimate scientific studies that suggest meditation is beneficial has become staggering. As I’ve written before, even a modest practice of meditation has benefits ranging from improving concentration to modifying the DNA of our cells so that we might live longer.

Consequently there’s been a lot of interest in the practice of meditation. When some new trend is touted by both Oprah and the U.S. military, that’s a sign it has captured the zeitgeist of the times. Companies as diverse as Apple and Procter & Gamble have jumped on the bandwagon, too, hoping not to miss out on the newest, greatest practice that purports to increase productivity, health and happiness.

The problem is, however, that many of these proponents of meditation are trying to extract something from the practice. And here can be the rub. Attempting to force a condition on the practice of meditation changes it to just another consumptive behavior.

Recently a friend came to me and told me she’d started practicing meditation.

“I am really enjoying meditating; it makes me feel so relaxed,” she said over coffee.

I nodded in agreement.

She continued. “But I’m wondering how long I have to practice like this to get the long-term benefits?”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said.

“I mean, it takes 15 to 20 minutes to meditate every day,” she said. “I’m hoping that I can do this for a few months and then get back to my normal life.”

I didn’t know what to say. In my experience the practice of meditation is as natural and normal as brushing my teeth, so I just shook my head and shrugged.

What I practice and teach is a form of meditation that has its roots in the Buddhist Vipassanā tradition but also pulls from my experience as a Catholic and my studies into world religions, including Judaism, Native American rituals and Hinduism. My practice also pulls from the philosophic traditions of Greek, German, French and English as well as the Zen poets.

At the core of my meditative practice are three elements: 1) open awareness, 2) nonjudgmental observation and 3) compassionate listening to ourselves and others. Each of these three guidelines provides a framework that seems to foster peacefulness. Is the condition of my practice then peacefulness? Tough to answer definitively, but certainly it’s a possibility. However, if you spend time contemplating these three elements in a quiet setting, you may find that you actually let go of the conditions and instead become intensely connected and at ease with the world around you. So then are connection and ease the goals? Again, tough to answer.

Have you ever been doing something, perhaps a project or hobby, during which you find yourself joyfully lost in the activity to the point where you lose track of time? These are often moments of doing something not for some personal gain but instead doing the activity for the activity itself. Authors who have written on the subject have called these moments “flow” or “single-mindedness” and many other labels. I think of these moments as embracing the non-conditional, just doing the thing for the doing itself.

Living with more non-conditional activity in my life has let me observe and reflect on a few of my behaviors that have resulted in suffering for myself and others, such as when I drink too much wine or eat too many desserts. When I loosen my grip on the outcome and focus instead on the action itself, I find myself more flexible, healthy and able to adapt to what is an ever-changing environment, which gives me a great feeling of peace.

Does living more non-conditionally mean moving to a yurt, going vegan and throwing away your shoes. I don’t know, maybe. But for now, at least for me, I am happy with my indoor plumbing and tennis shoes.

So is the goal of my meditation to get rid of conditional thinking? Absolutely not. But practicing under these guidelines has provided me insight into when I am acting conditionally, and when I observe these actions over time I’ve found that I can then work to better understand why I am taking actions that in some cases may be causing more harm than good.


Originally published in the Weekly Calistogan, June 2016