I was sitting there, doing some Silent Thinking, and then the thoughts no longer seemed attached to their meanings.
Meaning seemed to precede thought, like how the urge to say something precedes the words, or how wind precedes waves. For a moment, the thoughts dropped and there was only meaning—thoughts without symbols; literally silent thought.
Meaning is conditioning. The grade a student gets on a test doesn’t really mean anything in itself; they’re just letters. But if the student is rewarded when they get an A and punished when they get an F (operant conditioning), then those grades become very meaningful.
Pavlov used to ring a bell right before feeding his dogs. After awhile, the dogs started to salivate just by hearing the bell. By itself, that bell is just a bell. But when he used classical conditioning to associate it with food, it became meaningful for the dogs—it meant dinner was ready.
Conditioning shapes all aspects of our lives. In Buddhism, it’s called samskara. We live totally caught up in associations, blown around by the constant flux of reward and punishment. Practice is about breaking free from conditioning.
While sitting, I noticed that sometimes a lateral thought unrelated to the Dharma would rush into my mind. “Where the hell did that come from?” Thoughts don’t just pop out of nowhere—nothing does. Backtracking, I saw that I thought of something associated with that thought. Sort of like if you see a rose and then think of someone you know who loves roses. That’s classical conditioning. Then maybe you’ll frown because they’ve passed away and you miss them. Grief is a response to negative punishment (losing something or someone we find pleasant)—operant conditioning.
Everything is conditioned. Our thoughts stream one after the other because of the association between them, or they rise up in response to something around us. All our actions are conditioned responses, all of them unfolding from positive or negative emotions that compel us to attain some kind of incentive. Sometimes it’s easy to see that, sometimes the motivation might be deeper than the conscious mind can go.
Even perception is conditioned. When we’re young, we can’t tell whether something is far away or really tiny. Through experience, we learn to associate what we’re seeing with knowledge about what we’re seeing—classical conditioning. “There’s a bunch of grass between me and that person, so that means that they’re far away.”
But, really, a bell doesn’t mean we’re about to eat. Sometimes a bell rings and we find our plates are empty. A bell is just a bell. A good grade doesn’t always mean we’re going to be praised. As the ones we love get tangled up in their own dramas, a few tests will be met with an absent-minded, “That’s good.” A letter is just a letter.
There are three types of suffering in Buddhism: regular pain and unpleasantness, suffering related to impermanence, and existential despair. If you’re used to getting ice cream and a warm hug after acing a test, then you’re gonna be disappointed if you’re not rewarded like that one or two times (First type of suffering).
Then maybe you’ll notice that your parents are fighting a lot, and that all of your achievements are starting to go unnoticed (Second type). So maybe you start acting out; you might even get an F just out of spite. But they barely even notice that. “They don’t even care about me anymore. Why should I even try?” There’s the third type.
The Buddha’s realization was that impermanence slowly, painfully, deprives everything of meaning, it breaks these associations. These conditioned actions that used to be rewarding are met with silence. Then we’re left trying to find meaning again anyway that we can.
We all crave meaning, don’t we? Maybe above all else. We want life to mean something, we want our efforts and our relationships to mean something.
But Buddha said that, ultimately, they don’t. That when we play Samsara’s game, we end up turning our lives into a battle between meaning and meaninglessness, between how things are and how we think they are or how we want them to be. Who wants to waste life waging war against life?
But it doesn’t have to be like that, that’s the sunny side. Everything is upside down in our world and in our lives. Instead of looking outside for meaning, we need to look within, we need to look at the nature of this mind that decides whether something is meaningful or not, this mind that gets blown around by conditioning.
Ignorance is just wisdom with its eyes closed; hatred and selfishness are just compassion flowing in the wrong direction. An Awakening experience is a turning moment, when everything gets flipped right side up. Samsara is nothing but the circles we find ourselves walking in; nirvana is a quiet seat in a open field where a letter is just a letter, a bell is just a bell, and a rose is just a rose.