Conditioning

There is a widespread belief that unless you reward children for doing good and punish them for doing bad, they will go off the rails. Or: children are born off the rails, and must be put on and kept on the rails by incessant encouragement and punishment, rewards and warnings. Either way, they must be continually or almost continually controlled. Christianity used to have this belief – that we are all born in sin, and can only be saved if we do and don’t do ABC, and if we think and believe XYZ. Punishment: eternal torture. Reward: eternal bliss. Both a measure of how little the Christian chiefs thought of ordinary folks’ ability to get it right spontaneously, or under their own steam, or using their own unaided or innate intelligence. It is a legacy, this belief in control, in conditioning, but in its  essentials it is more widespread than Christianity, and older. It is the basis of education world-wide, with few exceptions. It starts in babyhood. We could learn a lot from our children. But most times I see a parent with a child, it is the parent either ignoring them or teaching them something, telling them what to do, telling them off for something. Though once a mother told me about her identical twins when they were children, how she was watching them on the beach, playing and communicating, and she had an overwhelming feeling that she was watching “two marvellous beings.”

It is both a moral thing and an intelligence thing. Most parents most of the time want their child to get on, to compete. That’s “realism”. It is as if they though their child would be nothing, useless, bad, unless they whipped or cajoled or persuaded or bribed him or her into shape. They seldom allow their child to just be.

I once heard a mother express worries about her baby daughter because she’d gone quiet and appeared to be just staring into space. “You’re going all dreamy again,” said the mother in a worried, slightly disapproving tone. The baby was just learning to speak, and seemed to be a few months behind other babies in the process, and the mother was fretting over this quite a lot. From where I was standing I could see that the baby was looking upwards and over my shoulder. I turned round and could see that she was looking into the distance at the sky and a hawthorn tree covered in blossom. This mother loves her baby. The baby is doing OK. She is happy enough, she smiles, and so on. But her mother, like many mothers and many fathers, looks at the world and thinks: how is my baby going to survive? How is she going to succeed? How is she going to compete successfully? Going dreamy isn’t going to help. So the mother conforms. She does what she needs to do to shape her baby, direct her, induce her to conform. And so she is playing her part in creating and maintaining the very world she is having to make her child adjust to. And that is why the whole of human society is on this well-oiled downward slide to destruction. Not just destruction in the future. We are destroying ourselves now. And we are destroying life on the surface of this planet. It is madness. If we continue like this there will be little left but desert and a few hardy little organisms. But what else can a parent do?

Do you remember what the world looked like when you were a child? What are your very earliest memories of the natural world? Children don’t need to be taught to appreciate the beauty of the natural world. They may not have words for it, but they see it and feel it. It is virtually instantaneous. The process of education and upbringing, far from enhancing this inborn quality or ability, actually destroys it. It is a quality of mind. Children are very sensitive, and as they grow up they lose this sensitivity, to different degrees. Show a child a flower, or a butterfly, or a kitten, or a fish.

Children are taught to think, to use words, to think with words, to think in words, naturally. Human being are the language animal. We are all fixated on words. Our brains are wired for language. I can remember at school arguing with a friend, saying that human beings are only conscious because they have language. Without language, they would have no consciousness, like animals. This was what being my father’s son, and cramming for science exams, had taught me. My friend said that when he looked at his cat and watched her playing and responding, there was no doubt in his mind that she was very conscious. This word fixation stayed with me through my three years at university, and for about a year after that struggling with work and changing jobs 4 times. Then I just dropped it. The influence of various books, probably, and friends. I realised I had been trying to become an efficient machine. Fortunately, I failed completely. And now I wanted to be human, to live, nothing more. What was I reading at that time? Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer etc.), George Orwell (1984, Down and Out in London and Paris, and lots of essays. And then, more importantly (for me), John Cowper Powys. And more importantly still (for me), J.Krishnamurti. I was reading and reading, desperately looking for a way out of my problems. I felt utterly stifled, full of anxiety and depression. Horrible, looking back on it. Trying to escape from my word-prison by reading words.

It was J.Krishnamurti who made the difference. I was in my early twenties, living alone in a drab little bedsit in West Hampstead, working at Swiss Cottage public library. I first heard of K from a book called The Books in My Life by Henry Miller. There’s a chapter on him in there. A few days later, walking north up the Finchley Road from the library, I went into a bookshop, and for some reason, maybe the manager had become a K fan recently, there were two tables entirely loaded with books by K, mostly hardbacks published by Gollancz. I picked one up, opened up a page at random, and started reading. Immediately I thought to myself, “This is it!” This was what I’d been looking for. I didn’t understand a word of it. It would be about six months before any real understanding crept into the situation. But somehow I knew, from something about the way the words succeeded one another in the few sentences I glanced at. Almost as a child sees a flower and sees the beauty of it without having to be told how. I bought a couple of books and took them to my bedsit. (The bookshop disappeared more than 40 years ago. I think there is a restaurant there now.)

I became a Krishnamurti bore. I mentioned him to everyone I knew. And yet I just got worse. I mean, my suffering got worse. And I could see that people thought I’d become somewhat unhinged, or somewhat more unhinged. But I still “knew”. And I didn’t altogether give up. But bad bouts of depression started, short but frighteningly intense, almost unendurable they felt, and they became more frequent. A feeling in my guts. And I’d fight against this feeling. That’s the way of civilisation and culture. You don’t like something, so you fight it. You try to control it. Along with Orwell, Miller, Powys and Krishnamurti, I’d been reading the German philosopher Nietzsche, and he was a mental fighter, by god he was, and I could sense him urging me on as if I were his football team. Even the comparatively gentle William Blake – poet, artist, visionary – was a mental fighter. My somewhat less gentle father was a mental fighter, and had been a physical one too, having recently retired from the army with the rank of Colonel, and had been awarded a Military Cross for risking his life to save some men under his command in Italy towards the end of World War 2. Everything I knew said MAKE AN EFFORT! Everything I knew said FIGHT!

And then, after six months of this… But that’s another story. I’ll tell it on my own blog at some stage.

          James Turner

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