I have been staying at a guesthouse in the countryside for the last week. This morning as I was lying in bed, I watched a mouse run out of my bedroom, into the kitchen, and disappear somewhere out of view. I didn’t jump up or get excited, but seeing the mouse definitely put me on edge. When I finally got up, I stepped cautiously across the floor where I had last seen her.
Quite a lot of my past week has been spent outdoors — sitting, lying, or napping on the grass. So I wondered how I would have felt about seeing this same mouse outside. I doubt I would have been alarmed and I certainly wouldn’t have been tiptoeing across the grass. Was this mouse any more of a problem in my room than she was outside? Or have I just been conditioned to expect to see her outside and not inside?
This reminded me of an experiment suggested by mindfulness researcher Ellen Langer in her book, Mindfulness. You can try her experiment yourself to understand the power of contextual conditioning. (1) Swish your saliva around in your mouth, between your teeth and over your gums. Notice how that feels, perhaps pleasant. (2) Spit some of that saliva out into a clean drinking glass. (3) Sip that very same saliva back into your mouth. Notice how that feels. Probably disgusting.
I read this experiment, but never tried it because I felt grossed out just reading about it. Although it makes no rational sense, we have been conditioned to believe that saliva is OK inside our mouth, but not OK outside of it. How odd is that? In the same way, my mouse would be expected outside of the guesthouse, but not expected or wanted inside of it.
This kind of contextual conditioning is one of the ways in which we unknowingly limit our experience. In any situation, rather than having a direct experience of who or what is coming in through our senses (including thoughts), we apply rules and categories learned in years or generations past to create a concept we can then easily categorize and save for similar situations. Of course, we do this all the time and it helps us make sense of a very complex world. My ability to recognize the furry blob with legs scurrying across the floor as a harmless mouse was a result of my conditioning (also known as learning) about mice. We like to categorize and label the elements of our world so we can understand and manage them.
But there is a down side. Mindless belief in our categories and labels leads to decreases in creativity, vitality and possibility. The more we believe every category and label we’ve been taught, the less novelty and choice will remain in our lives. If we believe, for example, that we should always be in a relationship, we won’t enjoy the freedom we have when we live alone. Every piece of conditioning limits possibility.
Try to imagine what it would be like to live without any conditioning at all. You might feel the way an alien creature, raised in another universe, might feel if he were suddenly dropped onto Earth. Everything would be a wonder. A mouse running out from the bedroom would be a wonder. And if I’m honest, I did experience excitement and joy, along with nervousness, when I saw the mouse this morning. Had I been conditioned differently, I might have believed that a mouse in one’s room indicates good luck for the next year, or that I will come into a lot of money. Who knows!
With mindful eyes, I can see that a small beige creature moving along the floor is just a small beige creature moving along the floor. In that moment, she has the potential to be anything or do anything because she is not limited by my mind’s labels and categories. Maybe she will stop, turn around, and tell me about her most recent trip to the moon. Just because it hasn’t happened before, doesn’t mean it can’t happen, just that it hasn’t happened yet.
“WE CAN NEVER KNOW THAT WE CAN’T DO SOMETHING; WE CAN ONLY KNOW THAT WE HAVEN’T YET DONE SO.” — ELLEN LANGER, MINDFULNESS
One of the gifts of mindfulness is freedom from our cognitive, social, and psychological conditioning. I’m not suggesting that we throw away our categories, labels, or our cultural ways of understanding the world around us, simply that we recognize when we are choosing to apply them. Our contextual conditioning can’t possibly represent the whole truth of life. Each label, context, or category is a unique lens through which we choose, moment by moment, to view this complex world of wonder. If we grasp them too tightly or believe they are The Truth, we may never know the full extent of what is possible in our lives.