About the time of the Gulf War -- fall 1990, I believe -- I attended a series of lectures about Islam, hosted by the local Ethical Culture Society. The lecturers were Muslims from the local community. I had been struggling with negative feelings about Islam and hoped some knowledge would be curative.
I remember in particular one lecturer, a physician born in Afghanistan who was an all-around likeable fellow. Among other things, he explained to us that the word jihad, which was in the news at the time, refers to religious "struggle" or "effort," not "war." "And you know," he said, "I've found that the hardest struggle is with yourself."
Wow, could I ever relate. With that sentence, all my negative ideas were washed away. The speaker was no longer a worrisome stranger but a fellow spiritual struggler.
I thought of that lecture today when I came across a quotation by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from the book The Art of Happiness: "So, actually the practice of Dharma is a constant battle within, replacing previous negative conditioning or habituation with new positive conditioning."
This really is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. It's fine to study sutras and meditate and engage in all manner of esoteric training, but these things are there to support the constant battle within. Otherwise, you're just going through the motions.
"Negative conditioning or habituation" can mean a lot of things. Here's a fairly innocuous example -- awhile back I met a middle-aged woman who was being constantly scolded and corrected by her mother. And mother wasn't even there; I'm not sure mother was even still alive. But in the course of an afternoon the woman revealed all manner of things her mother hadn't allowed her to do, and which she dutifully did not do to that day.
When it was time for dinner, and the group was choosing a restaurant, she informed us that she couldn't go anywhere where the food was very spicy, because mother didn't allow her to eat spicy food. And I wanted to say, but your mother isn't here. You can do whatever you want. But of course her mother was there, living and scolding perpetually in her daughter's head.
That's an extreme example, perhaps, but to one extent or another we all struggle with fears and limitations imposed on us when we were younger. And we dodder off to old age bound by conditioning, replaying those old tapes. This can be true even for those of us who rarely dwell on the past. That conditioned understanding of your life and yourself is so much a part of your inner landscape you may not consciously notice it. You may think it's just the way things are, and there's nothing to be done about it. But there is.
Mindfulness is really good for recognizing the conditioning and habituation as conditioning and habituation, and when you recognize it you can begin to release it. It doesn't happen all at once. Sometimes it may seem hopeless, like melting a glacier with a book of matches, or sweeping the sand off a vast beach.
But sometimes the sun comes out to melt the glacier, and sometimes a strong wind blows away the sand. So don't give up the struggle.