Thoughts from a seminar: Association and Different Identities

Yesterday when I was presenting a seminar as part of our course block, I talked about three of the factors of conditioning. These are object relation, association and predominance, which are listed in the Abhidharma (which David talks about in Zen Therapy).We did various exercises to explore what these factors really are and how they operate in practice.

Perhaps Im obtuse but I suddenly realised that these factors are actually the mechanism which lies behind another phenomenon which I often talk about in therapy - namely that we have more than one identity (or self) each of which is conditioned by different sets of circumstance.

In other words as we move through life we encounter objects which have strong rupa energy for us, ie which are powerfully associated with our sense of ourselves in some way. When we encounter such an object, a chain of association is then set up which reinforces that particular facet of self which was evoked by the first object. Thus one powerful rupa starts a chain of other linked perceptions which reinforces one particular identity. This is described in the theory of association which suggests that there is a tendency for us to find our senses drawn to one object on the basis of what immediately preceded it. Each perceptual objects conditions the next perceptual object because the senses are warmed up to that 'theme' if you like.

This might be something like, say, getting a poor grade in an exam. The poor grade conditions, perhaps, an unconfident identity and the person feels unworthy, incompetent or whatever. They then pick up other signs which confirm that 'identity' as a bad student - maybe noticing other people who have done better or recalling other instances of failure, or even noticing other things altogether like how dirty their house is, or how bad they are with money. In this way the sense of inadequacy builds. Yet that same person might on a different occasion be triggered into quite a different identity by a different 'rupa' object - say someone praising them, conditioning a confident self, or a walk in the country conditioning a self who loves the outdoors or going to a party, conditioning an outrageous exhibitionist who loves dancing and flirting with people. We all have a huge range of possible ways of being, often clustered into quite different 'selves'.

Predominance then describes the mechanism which can underlies this process. Our original experience of being 'caught' by a powerful rupa is probably a reflection of an issues which is predominating in our minds and therefore conditioning our perception of everything. Conversely, being entranced in a particular set of rupas/identity creates predominance, or at least invites one pre-existing set of samskaras to predominate. Thus our current sense of self is a reflection of our current preoccupation, but also the things which our senses encounter influence this because thay may themselves set up the predominant 'rupa'.

All a bit technical, but it is always satisfying to pull together different areas of theory. We evidently do move between these different, distinct identities, and these building blocks can explain why in terms of Buddhist psychology. Exciting!

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