Conditioning is like branding


While conducting a funeral service, Nigam realized a very particular conditioning that had eluded him for so many years.

The funeral service I was allowed to hold in a church today revealed something that I have never consciously experienced: that our religious teachings offer only dead rituals that have nothing to do with religion.

Before the funeral service began, the church was filled to the last seat and people crowded in the rear gallery. Apparently, I had overheard the chime, because when I asked the female sacristan about the time, it was already two minutes past the set time. All I said was, “Then we start immediately,” and before I knew it, she was already pulling on the rope of the bell next to the sacristy door, which usually announces the priest’s arrival. As in a reflex, all mourners rose from their seats and stood there as if the Holy Spirit were about to float down to the altar.

Church worshippers

I was utterly perplexed and didn’t know how to respond. Do they want to remain standing during the entire funeral service? How am I supposed to get them to sit down? For a moment of intense shock, I felt completely helpless. But then I quickly caught hold of myself again and waggling my hand signalled that they should sit down again, which they did instantly.

For a Catholic, it is a deep-seated reflex – hearing the sacristy bell means standing up. No one has any further thoughts about it because this practice has been trained into them by the Church since childhood. Later, when I prayed at the request of the bereaved the Lord’s Prayer, which starts with “Our Father…,” these two words were sufficient for the prayer to be automatically played off like a record. Only the last part, which begins with the words “For thine is the kingdom…” was a bit tentative and I had to help a little. That last part was implemented by the Catholics only in the 1970s as a sign of ecumenism with the Protestants. And this change, almost fifty years ago, can still be felt as a small stumbling block!

I had never noticed any of this before. Whenever Osho entertained us with his humorous stories from India, I never applied them to myself. So often he made us laugh with his stories that every Indian falls down before a real or make-believe saint and touches his feet, because they were conditioned like that from an early age. Today I saw for the first time that we in Europe are also conditioned in the same way – only the outer occasions and forms are different.

The believers of a church or sect are like Pavlov’s dogs, and each community has its own conditioning. The same also applies to nations and to all kinds of identity-creating communities. The conditioning is like a branding that indicates the affiliation to a certain herd. And it is strange that you don’t notice your own conditioning and that of your own herd; one only perceives the conditioning of another herd as different and strange.

Why have I never noticed my own conditioning? It’s probably too scary to see one is just a robot. Perhaps it is a grace of nature that she protects us from the frightening image of ourselves and shrouds us in pink fantasies. I think it was Gurdjieff who said that man would go mad were he to see the truth about himself.

Continued meditation causes an imperceptible distancing from traditional self-images and identifications. The further one dissociates oneself, the more harmless the old identifications become, so that one suddenly recognizes things one had never noticed before.

An amusing exchange with the undertaker (who was not present in the church) followed after the service, when I told him the whole story. He laughed out heartily as I have never seen him laugh, and then spluttered: “So they were all behaving like soldiers?”

“It was exactly like that,” I answered.

Nigam TNGerman-born Dhyan Nigam took sannyas in Pune in 1990 and now lives in a small town near Munich. A former professor at university in Munich, he is now retired. For the last four years he has been holding funeral speeches, predominantly for people who do not belong to any religious denomination.

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