On the conditioned nature of my mind

All my ancient twisted karma,

From beginningless greed, hate, and delusion,

Born through body, speech, and mind,

I now fully avow.

–repentance verse (from San Francisco Zen Center chant book)


At the risk of ordaining some local deities (which, as I’ve said, I think about every single time discussions of psychology or neuroscience come up in Dharma circles) I’ve just got to share some thoughts about (you guessed it!) psychology and neuroscience.  Recently, I came across the Project Implicit website (here.)  It’s an online demonstration of some of the work that’s been done by psychologists Brian Nosek, Mahzarin BanajiAnthony Greenwald and their collaborators about our implicit associations.  I was vaguely familiar with their findings—I’m pretty sure I’ve read popular reports of these studies, or similar ones—but I found the experience of actually taking the tests to be powerful and unsettling.  A week or two has gone by since I first poked around the site, and it’s still on my mind.

I’m no expert on their work, but they’re out to measure implicit, subconscious bias in people and they have a quick Internet version of their tests that anyone can click on and take.  The tests are set up to measure implicit associations in many, many cateogires–race, ethnicity, gender, religion, politics, disability, and many more.  The tests themselves are absolutely ingenious, in my opinion–they’ve found a way to instruct us in the operations of our minds that is both valuable and heartbreaking.

For a test about race, for example, they will flash various positive words (Joy, Love, Peace, Wonderful, Pleasure, Glorious, Laughter, Happy) and negative words (Agony, Terrible, Horrible, Nasty, Evil, Awful, Failure, Hurt) on the screen, along with pictures of black faces and white faces.  The instructions will vary as the test goes on—one is instructed to link the negative words with the white faces, say, and the positive words with the black faces.  Then you’ll be instructed to do it the other way—positive words, white faces and negative words, black faces—all as fast as you can.  You go through various rounds of this.  What they measure is the variation in time that it takes to match words and faces.  The assumption is that it will take slightly longer to match concepts that aren’t matched in our subconscious understanding—it seems intuitively clear that it’s easier (quicker!) for me to connect the word “calm” and a picture of a flower than the word “calm” and a picture of a car crash, especially if I’m going as fast as I can.  If in fact that’s measured for a few rounds, it would be fair to say that I have an implicit association between “flower” and “calm.”  (Or at least a stronger association between “flower” and “calm” than between “car crash” and “calm.”)

Their findings about race when they apply these tests are unsurprising, if painful.  In the U.S., most white people and roughly half of black people have a preference for white faces over black faces (again, an easier time—a faster time—connecting the white faces to the positive words).  I took the test twice, and had that outcome myself both times—a deeply disappointing demonstration of my own racism, my own bias.

The actual experience of taking the test is powerful.  It begins very easily.  You’re instructed to push one button for the category “good” on the left side and another button for the category “bad” on the right side, and then one by one various words are put on the screen.  It’s very simple, very quick—my fingers fly over the keys.  Click, click, click.  “Hurt?”  Bad.  “Love?”  Good.  Nothing to it.

Then it switches.  Push one button for the category “African-American” and one button for the category “European-American” and one by one, various faces come onto the screen.  Click, click, click.  Again, straightforward.

Then it gets complicated—push one button for European-Americans OR good and another for African-Americans OR bad.  Faces and words come up one after the other, and I could feel my mind beginning to stumble, beginning to swim, switching categories from white to black to good to bad.  Then the other way—one button for African-Americans OR good and another for European-Americans OR bad.  As I went through the various rounds of the test, it really took an enormous amount of concentration to try to remember the constantly-shifting instructions.  Occasionally I would hit the wrong button, and a red X would come on the screen.

Through all of this, too, I had a growing nervousness—this growing worry, growing shame–that this activity was revealing (going to reveal) something about myself that I would much, much rather not acknowledge, rather not take responsibility for.  I had the distinct feeling that I didn’t want to be doing this.

The Dharma point here is important on so many levels, I think, for my understanding of the bodhisattva path.  For me, it’s a small window into my karma and my perceptions.  It’s about the deeply, deeply conditioned nature of my mind.  It’s about the way my perceptions are fundamentally unreliable, even as they’re all I have.  So I’ll start there.  I confess and repent of my racism.  I confess and repent of all my limited, biased, conditioned views.  But also (this is so important) the unconditioned is not the absence of conditions, not some mysterious place where there are no conditions.  (What would that even look like?)  The unconditioned is found precisely in the conditions of our life.  Nirvana in samsara.

The temptation for me when I’m confronted with my limited, conditioned nature is to try to leap away, to some sort of unconditioned perception, some sort of pure mind.  But the unconditioned isn’t separate from the conditioned, can’t be separate from the conditioned, even as it’s the ground of the conditioned, the ground of our life—and even as the bodhisattva path only takes place, can only ever take place, in the horribly limited (beautifully limited) realm of our conditioned, mysterious human lives.

In morning service the way I’ve been taught it, after the repentances come the refuges.  I avow my karma—I acknowledge all of my endless, heartbreaking limitations—and then I step forward, just as I am, and throw my whole life into the house of Buddha.

Some days it seems like enough;  some days–especially when I acknowledge the pain of my biased, limited views–it doesn’t.


3 thoughts on “On the conditioned nature of my mind

  1. I had so much the same reaction to taking the Project Implicit test. I was so tied up and confused taking the racial test that the “score” of “slightly biased” was a complete relief. I asked my younger nephew to take the test. He and his wife both scored no bias. But when I asked how they felt taking the test, there was no response. Did they struggle? I don’t know. I struggled. And I need to remember my struggle.

  2. Dear Precious Jiryu,

    I think that there is a distinction to be made between ultimate and relative bodhicitta. Through ultimate bodhicitta we have a intuitive understanding of non-separation, and through relative bodhicitta we cultivate love and compassion. I have noticed that people who follow the mindfulness-only school have a hard time controlling their emotions and being kind and compassionate. Recently I have been practicing loving-kindness meditation along with tonglin and chenrezig tantra. This is so much fun and so rewarding. I can go up to almost any person on the street and establish a connection. The practice of tonglin is very difficult and I cry often. I still am unclear as to why the mindfulness-only school believes that human beings require mindfulness only.



  3. I took the test awhile back and it does seem like a well-designed reflection. Even though my skin is white, the results were that I was biased toward darker skinned people. I think this is from my years of hitchhiking. I had better experiences with brown men than white ones and learned to feel more relaxed with them.

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