Conditioned Arising: Self-Environment Relations

Excerpts from the book Psychoanalytic and Buddhist Reflections on Gentleness: Sensitivity, Fear, and the Drive Towards Truth

“Gentleness may appear in the company of fragility, on the one hand, and of destructiveness, on the other. For the gentle person, one of life’s missions is to disentangle the knot into which these forces are tied and to know her gentleness: to tell it apart from fragility, to set both free from destructiveness, and to find gentleness a place where it can be tenderly held, while it serves as a basis for growth. For this to occur, prolonged exposure to truth, open-eyed faith, and devotion are required; but also the right kind of response from the environment.

The environment consists of material and mental aspects, and the latter include elements experienced as internal and elements experienced as external. In the next pages I consider attention as an environment: the ways in which its qualities constitute an intra-personal and an inter-personal space, with particular features that either support or don’t support gentleness, that either support or don’t support processes of healing and growth.

Conditioned Arising: Self-Environment Relations

Our environment is our zone of living. We breathe it, we eat it, we absorb it, we take it in. We breathe into it, empty ourselves into it, seep into it, resonate with it. The environment takes part in our becoming, and we participate in its creation. Psychoanalysis describes these processes in terms of the dynamics between introjection and projection. The Pāli Canon tells us that we are sustained by material nutriment and by immaterial nutriment. The material nutriment is what we consume in the form of food and drink. The immaterial nutriment is of three kinds: contact with our surroundings, that is, the impressions left on us by our incessant encounter with objects from all sense spheres; the accumulated residues formed by past reactions, which along with the current sensory input feed our stream of consciousness; and this stream of consciousness, from which the reactions in the present moment arise. In one fascinating discourse, “the discourse on the knowledge of the beginning” (DN 27), the Buddha tells how material, once ingested, slowly changes the body’s physical characteristics, how these physical characteristics affect the mental activity of the owner of this body, and how this mental activity, in its turn, leads to changes not only in this creature but also to changes in the environment and in the food it produces, which as it is ingested goes on changing the body’s characteristics, and so on. Our food, whether material or immaterial, is important; and between inside and outside, between matter and mind there is a constant process of exchange. 

Let us think, for example, about some of the building blocks of the self. Let us consider the memories, which the self conceives as its property (Bion 1970), those that play such a significant role in creating the self’s experience as an essential phenomenon with an enduring core. After all, those recollections, those ostensibly solid possessions, fixed in time it would seem, this luggage that the psyche carries along in spite of its ongoing transformations, in spite of the ongoing transformations of the body and of life’s circumstances – are not really that stable and unchanging. It would therefore be interesting, in this context, to probe the process set off by memory’s non-solidity in its encounter with the world.

Recent research has been discussing the re-consolidation of memories, a process whereby a memory, whenever itcomes to mind, temporarily enters a state of instability, a state of plasticity in which it can be updated and reconstituted (Besnard, Caboche and Laroche 2012). Like everything else in the mind, memory is neither solid nor static: it is “a dynamic process undergoing continual reorganization as a function of the ongoing experience of the organism” (Przybyslawski and Sara 1997). The original memory – if one wishes to refer to it as such – was created in the past; but remaining active, its impact on the present continues. Recollection is a present event in every sense of the word, and a present event is always open to change. And so memory is not some autonomous possession, but a time-dependent constructive process, which goes on taking in and assimilating new information (Hupbach et al. 2007).

Memories are traces left in the mind by past experiences. They consist of the complex of sense impressions received and perceived by the mind, the sensations it experienced and the reactions these triggered. From a Buddhist perspective, the mental luggage involved in memories can be taken as “kammic residues”: patterns of attitude and reaction (saṅkhāra) 1 linked to patterns of perception (saññā) 2 and sensation which emerged in the mind in the course of its history of experiences. Experiences that evoked powerful and prolonged reactions get deeply engraved. Experiences that trigger feeble reactions register as light touches. Experiences may be pleasurable, traumatic or casual, and reactions may be conscious or unconscious. Either way, when the present circumstances awaken residues left behind by past events, they surface in the form of present experiences.

A present experience is an active experience, and an active experience is one that is being shaped depending on the encountered conditions. An important element of these conditions (the most important, it seems to me) consists of the qualities of the internal and external environment of attention. A residue associated with an experience of danger, which is resurrected in circumstances marked by a sense of safety, will assimilate some of the qualities of this safety, then to return to the mind having been affected by them, at least somewhat. A residue associated with a bad sense of self, shame that evolved from ongoing exposure to contempt or criticism, and arises in an inter-psychic domain characterized by love and acceptance, will absorb some of this love and acceptance and change as a result, no matter how minute the change and even though it may, for the time being, remain concealed. This is especially the case when the process is attended by awareness of the experience. Then the safety, acceptance and love that accompany the moment of recollection are bound to be more significantly absorbed by the system and to gradually change the way experience is organized, and as a result, the concomitant behaviors and habitual patterns.

Change of this kind is change for the better: the system, in a state of plasticity, was presented with new and good conditions, and this led to the undoing of some of the existent disarray. This is one of the main aspects of the inter-psychic attentional environment as a healing element; and the ability to benefit from it depends on the features of the internal attentional environment – on the ability of the one who wants to be healed to be aware and not excessively reactive, to digest, internalize and integrate. (It is in the nature of things that a mental organization which powerfully refuses reality, whether through massive projection or by other means, will also refuse the healing potential of the good environment.) Similarly, if the residue that registered during an experience of danger is awakened to encounter a sense of additional danger or persecution – it will reconsolidate itself in the mind once it has taken them in and will become engraved more deeply or in a more complicated manner. If the residue of shame arises in conditions of re-exposure to contempt or criticism – it is likely to absorb some of these and to go back to operate in the mind in an even more deeply entrenched way.

When working with the depths of the mind, whether through therapy or through meditation, one of the major processes is the one in which residues of the past arise in the present. These residues awaken as a result of certain present circumstances that remind the mind-body of similar circumstances it encountered in the past. Their resurrection activates the system in ways that reproduce, more or less, its earlier responses to those similar circumstances. What will determine, here, whether work is damaging or favorable is the attentional attitude these materials, once aroused, meet: A blind reactive attitude will fuel the materials of suffering and solidify them; a balanced and heedful approach will digest and eventually cause them to dissolve (Barnea-Astrog 2017a).

Fundamentally, therefore, the reactions of the mind itself are responsible for the reformation of the resurrected mental residues – they are the formative factors. But they entertain relations of dependency with the other present circumstances: physical and mental, external and internal. The event in which features of the environment touch the mind is mental nutriment as well. Danger and persecution, contempt and criticism, love, acceptance and safety – they are all potential features of the internal environment; equally they are conditions proffered objectively by the external environment, simply and truly, and which the mind either takes in or neutralizes – either to its advantage or not.

If we further increase the resolution of our examination, we will find that the process I describe here does not only obtain for the complexes considered as significant in therapeutic work, not only for these knotty, thick and heavy mental residues whose reawakening is so prominent in therapeutic dynamics and in life’s more dramatic events. We will find that at every single moment some traces of the past surface as a result of the present conditions that accord with them; and that due to their arising in the present, they become exposed to modification.

Every memory and its associated charge, every psycho-physical complex resulting from the mind’s reaction to experience, undergoes change whenever it arises. It takes in some molecules of the present and perhaps releases some molecules of the past, then to return to the mind where it dwells and operates in its new shape. When all past molecules of a memory have been dismantled, when, that is to say, the reactive charge it carried has been entirely neutralized (as a result of sufficient exposure to conditions of non-reaction and clear-eyed vision) – then it is eliminated as a suffering-producing kammic residue: It stops being an active and activating factor, and the mind is relieved of it. And to the extent that the mind is relieved of it and its likes – it is free.

If this is how things are, then we should do our best to create favorable present conditions. As therapists, teachers or parents, we should seek to create a positive external attentional environment that will support the development of a positive internal attentional environment of our patients, students and children. As meditators, as investigators of the mind, as thinking people, we should strive to cultivate our internal attentional environment: to sharpen and refine it and make it more spacious, to rid it of destructiveness and fill it with awareness, equanimity, and love. Naturally, it will flow out and also constitute a good external environment for those with whom we interact.”

Barnea-Astrog, Michal (in press). Psychoanalytic and Buddhist Reflections on Gentleness: Sensitivity, Fear, and the Drive Towards Truth. London: Routledge.


1 The mind’s reactive function, the mental intention or action (which is also kamma, or in Sanskrit:  karma). Basically, saṅkhāra is the movement towards the pleasant and away from the unpleasant, which very rapidly evolve into thirst, i.e., into craving or aversion.  As such, it is considered (together with thirst and clinging) as the fuel that keeps the cycle of becoming and suffering going.  Both the creating factor and the thing created are embodied in the term saṅkhāra: Both the mental action that produces patterns and habits, as well as the patterns and habits themselves, which prompt new action.  It is one of the five aggregates that constitute the phenomenon we call “self”: viññāṇa, saññā, vedanā, saṅkhāra and rūpa – conciousness, perception, sensation, reaction, and form or matter, i.e., the body, the corporeal aspect.

2 The mind’s perceptual, conceptual, interpretive, evaluating function. Its categorizations and evaluations are based on earlier experiences with objects it identifies as similar.

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