Conditionality is one of my favourite subjects for investigation and I have learned a lot over the years by teasing apart the role that conditions play in much of our lives and activities from the things that we feel we are responsible for. This post has been inspired by my real life practice, in this case noticing how much of what I took for granted as ‘habit’ or as routine has changed simply because I have moved to a new house.
It was more than four weeks since my time became fully occupied with the final preparations to move house and then the immediate demands of settling into a new home until I sat down to write a blog post again, and while partly this was because there was a lot to do both immediately before and after we moved house, another reason was a simple change in conditions – I didn’t have a desk set up until three weeks ago.
Then it took another three weeks to finish the post because I had to fit it in between now working full time and the endless stream of small and large jobs that need to be tackled in a new house in much need of repair. But while life so frequently gets in the way of our best laid plans, often we see it as a failing on our part that we didn’t continue with our usual routines despite having other, pressing things to deal with.
Something like not having a desk might seem like a pretty small detail, and I am surprised by how impactful it has been, yet not having a desk or table to work at seemed to make it harder to remember to sit down and write a blog post. I still don’t have my writing things set out as they had been in my old house, and my Dhamma books are still in boxes. Something about the absence of these things seems to have an impact on my sense of writing being something that I often do. Perhaps the presence of a specified work space is all it takes to act as a reminder that there is work to be done, and a place to do it in, because without it I easily forget that I write. Having a desk, it seems, is a surprisingly important condition for me writing blog posts.
In the past I know I would have taken this very personally though. If anything went wrong or went off schedule I blamed myself, and I always found it very easy to frame this as being due to some personal failing. But these weren’t generous interpretations; they were harsh and judgemental, and on top of this they also reinforced a sense of self and ego – when I thought like this everything was always about ‘me’ in one way or another. If you follow a Buddhist practice then this kind of self-criticism is a habit you will need to learn to let go of, because criticising your self is also creating a sense of self too.
Building senses of self is not in line with Buddhist practice, but the practice of the Brahmaviharas is a particularly useful one to break this habit because it requires us to think kindly of everyone, including ourselves. When we use generous mind states to take the blame out of the equation, this helps us look at any situation in a more measured way, and this opens up the opportunity to understand just how much of what goes on in life is due to our actions and agency, and how much of it is instead simply because of the presence of the right or wrong conditions.
Conditions and conditionality are a crucial part of Buddhist theory to understand because they are the core element of the teachings. Dependent origination, or dependent arising as it is also called, is the Buddha’s unique framework to explain the cause of suffering and therefore the means for liberation too. While dependent origination is a very complicated subject, and even the Buddha describes it this way in the suttas, it is, I think, a key teaching that will translate into release from suffering when we start to really understand it.
There are twelve steps in the chain of dependent origination:
Ignorance, fabrications, consciousness, name and form, (sense) contact, feeling, craving, clinging, becoming, birth, death, suffering.
The easiest part of the chain to look at is contact, feeling, craving and becoming, and this is the part of the process that I write about the most often. This part of the chain works like this: a sensory phenomenon makes contact with one of our sense organs, which provides the requisite condition for a feeling to arise. That feeling will be either a pleasant one, an unpleasant one, or a neutral one.
Once the feeling has arisen, this provides the requisite conditions for craving to then appear. When we meet with a pleasant feeling it is quite normal for us to want more of it, this is craving. That craving for the feeling to persist creates the conditions for clinging to arise – having got the pleasant feeling and wanting more of it, we become reluctant to let it go, and so we cling to it. This clinging it is then the requisite condition for becoming, which is the moment where we create a sense of self or a sense of identity around our clinging to the feeling.
This part of the chain is crucial in understanding why so much of our experience cannot be taken to support our sense of self, because everything we experience is only there because the previous step in the chain was fulfilled. This means that whatever we think or feel in any given moment isn’t coming up because there is a self who is experiencing it or creating it, but instead is the result of a chain of reactions. Even that momentary sense of self that pops up when we attach to a feeling is again just the result of a chain of reactions, and it appears pretty late in the chain so how can it be a real self? Where was it during the previous steps?
Dependent origination is a theory that we can think we understand on an intellectual level but really, we need to observe this process occurring in real time when we practice because when we do we can really start to make sense of what the Buddha’s teachings on not self really mean, and we can act in the moment to let go of whatever ideas are causing us suffering.
But the part of the chain of dependent origination I write about less often, and the part that is probably the hardest to understand because it doesn’t seem to run in an intuitive order is where we find some other useful elements of conditionality that help us to unpick our tendency to make everything that we experience about our selves. Name and form, for example, points to the requirement to have a human body and a human mind for all of the rest of the chain of dependent origination to happen, and within this step we can also include such things as the laws of physics.
There are many thing that simply cannot ever happen because the conditions of being in a human body won’t allow it. Now that I am an adult I am very, very unlikely to grow another 12 inches or 30cm taller, nor am I likely to grow a third arm – human bodies just don’t do those kinds of things. We take these kinds of limitations for granted but they point to the fact that every aspect of our lives is subject to one kind of condition or another, and yet our first reaction is often to point the finger at our selves as the cause.
I could have rounded on myself for not remembering to write a blog post by making it about me and my imagined short comings – perhaps I might have accused myself of having a poor memory for example. But where does a poor memory come from? If the reason for it is the way my brain is wired up, then there’s really no point blaming myself is there? This particular human body that I have might have come with a poor memory – that would be the condition that caused things to be forgotten, not my personality or my sense of self.
If the reason for me forgetting to write was that my brain prioritised other activities because I had just moved house and needed to do some work to make it habitable then again it isn’t down to any kind of moral weakness on my part, nor is it my ‘fault’. The mind make some things a priority and that keeps those things in our awareness, everything else gets pushed into the shadows so it doesn’t distract us from what we have deemed to be the most important. This is another condition that we have to work with, the way our minds and senses work together to process and prioritise information.
The Buddha spells these kinds of basic limitations of our physical and mental conditions out in what is taken to be self in what is seen as one of his earliest teachings, the Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta (SN 22.59):
“Form, monks, is not self. If form were the self, this form would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible [to say] with regard to form, ‘Let this form be thus. Let this form not be thus.’ But precisely because form is not self, form lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible [to say] with regard to form, ‘Let this form be thus. Let this form not be thus.’” 
In this passage and in the rest of the sutta he points out to us how misguided the endless process of attaching a sense of self to everything we encounter is because in reality we have little direct control over these things. If we did, the Buddha says that we could simply say ‘let form be thus’, we could just click our fingers and grow a foot taller, or sprout a third arm, or suddenly have a photographic memory. We all know that these things can’t happen, but it is not so often that we fully recognise the wider implications of this. Form is not self, it does not come from the self, it cannot be controlled by a self, and it cannot support a lasting sense of self. This means that anything and everything to do with physical form is not I, me, or mine, and that we shouldn’t take either the praise or the blame for anything that is due to the conditions that come with form.
So my memory is not self, I have no direct control over it, it doesn’t come from self and it isn’t shaped by self, so every time I forget something the Buddhist approach would be to look for the conditions that contributed to making that happen. But while this can be liberating, we need to stay on our toes because it is easy to slip into using this element of the teaching to facilitate avoidance, disassociation, and to excuse unskilful habits.
Waving your hand at everything dismissively saying ‘it’s not my fault, it’s all just conditions’ can be an act of denial when it is done without wisdom and without good intention, and ironically can reinforce your sense of self instead of unravelling it. In contrast, when you act with wholesome intentions you have no reason to deny anything because you accept everything as it is, including accepting that your unskilful habits sometimes mean that you want an easy excuse to not engage with uncomfortable realities.
This does sound like it contradicts what I have already said about using conditionality to make things less personal, but I think the difference here is a subtle but important one – when we have wisdom and act and think with good intentions we see the presence of those unskilful habits, but we don’t take them personally so we accept their presence. We have no reason to make excuses for them because we don’t see them as being indicative of who we are. They are simply habits, latent tendencies; some of them we have learned from other people and some of them we have developed ourselves over time. They have arisen out of conditions and because of that we have no need to deny them, in fact we need to get them out in the open so we can understand how and why we have come to do something in a particular way. Our habits are also conditions and ones that we need to factor in.
Conversely when we do take our habitual behaviour personally we make excuses for it, or we find ways to downplay its importance, such as saying ‘it’s all just conditions’ which sounds like we are engaging with the rules of conditionality when really we are pushing some conditions to the front to help to bury some of the conditions we don’t want to have to admit to.
As always in Buddhist practice there is a fine line to tread, we shouldn’t blame ourselves for every little thing but likewise we shouldn’t use conditionality as a blanket reason to distract from our unskilful behaviours. But I would say since Westerners often have a strong tendency toward self-criticism, to begin with many of us need to use the Buddha’s theory of conditionality to unpick our constant attaching of self to everything that we encounter because that will give us some much needed respite from our intensely critical minds, the rest will come in time.
Looking at conditionality in this way will also help us to develop the Brahmaviharas too because we stop making things so personal, either about ourselves or about other people too, which allows us to better meet our own and other people’s behaviours with grace and generosity. The teaching of not self doesn’t just start and end with whoever you think you are, it also includes everyone else in the world too – everyone else is just as not self as you are. Everyone’s actions are dictated by conditions just the same as yours are; when you can bring the actions of conditionality to other people then you really open up the field to letting go of judgemental attitudes and bring in real kindness, compassion, and acceptance.
The teachings on conditionality sound very logical, and it is easy to pick them up on a purely intellectual, conceptual level and think that you understand them but this kind of theoretical knowledge doesn’t automatically translate to changes in behaviour or attitude. That only comes with direct, experiential knowledge, with observing conditionality at work in real time and seeing in that very moment that the thought or feeling that you are clinging on to has arisen purely because of a chain of conditions – and that therefore you can simply let it go.
That is where the liberation in the practice is to be found, in seeing through your misperceptions in the moment you are experiencing them and feeling the release that comes with letting go of whatever you are clinging to, and whoever you have become in that moment. So I could have made a lot of suffering for myself about not writing a blog post but instead I recognised that there were a lot of new conditions in place that got in the way, and that is a much calmer experience than blaming myself for not sticking to my old routine. It might not sound like much, but really this is what the practice is about, about meeting life and all its vagaries in a more peaceful way.
 Pañcavaggi Sutta: Five Brethren (SN 22.59), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.059.than.html