Padraic Rohan’s Column
Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986): “Man, the human being, has done everything to bring about a radical change, and yet, fundamentally, man has not changed at all. We are what we have been for two million years! The animal is very strong in us. The animal with all its greed, envy, ambition, anger, ruthlessness still exists deep down in our hearts and minds. Through religion, through culture, through civilization, we have polished the outer; we have better manners é perhaps a few of us have better manners. We know a little more; technologically, we have gone very far. We can discuss western and eastern philosophy, literature; we can travel all over the world. But inwardly, deep down, the roots are very firmly embedded.
“Seeing all this, how is one é you as a human being and I as a human being é how are we to change? Certainly not through tears, intellection, not through seeking an ideological utopia, not through external tyranny é nor through self-imposed tyranny. So one discards all this, and I hope you have also discarded all this. To discard one’s nationality, to discard one’s gods, one’s own tradition, one’s beliefs, to discard all the things that we have been brought up to believe in, is a very difficult thing to do. We may intellectually agree, but deep down in the unconscious there is the insistence on the importance of the past to which we cling.”
Born near Madras into the Brahmin caste in the midst of British imperialism, his father was a rent collector for the colonial authorities and a devout Theosophist, and his mother died when he was ten. After her death, the family moved to the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society (TS) at Madras, where the father became a secretary.
At age 13 or 14, shortly after the move to Madras, he was ‘discovered’ by a leading member of the Theosophists as the “vehicle for the World Teacher.” (WT) This Theosophist apparently declared that K had the most beautiful aura he had ever seen. The Theosophists (the leaders, anyway) were rich Europeans and Americans who believed that Jesus, Buddha, and Sri Krishna were all manifestations of the Lord Maitreya, a “master” who lived on the “astral plane” and could be communicated with by clairvoyants during sleep. Apparently Maitreya lived with other masters in a perpetually young human body in a ravine in Tibet. Theosophists were waiting for the coming of the WT, the messiah (or, rather, a body for Lord Maitreya to possess) who would lead humanity out of suffering.
A strict spiritual hierarchy was essential to the TS. The leaders would dole out ‘initiations’ based on messages from the masters. K took his first initiation at age 15, and immediately started holding sessions with other Theosophists where he passed on what the masters had told him.
Almost immediately after K was recognized as the vehicle for the WT, his father surrendered legal guardianship of K and his brother, Nitya, to Annie Besant, the president of the TS. A new organization within the TS was founded with the sole intent of preparing the way for the WT, called the Order of the Star in the East (OSE), of which K was made the head. He was then taken to England where he learned to live as an aristocrat. There followed a nasty scene where the father attempted to regain custody; the TS dragged it out in court until K was legally an adult.
K struggled in early adulthood, losing faith in the masters and in the role he had been cast. To make a long story short, he had a three-day transformative experience in 1922. He was ‘out of his body’ for most of this time, crying out from intense pain in his head, neck, and spine. The slightest noise or touch caused extreme pain. He came to call this his “process”; it was at its most intense for several months in 1924, and it continued on and off, with greater or lesser intensity, through to the end of his life. There are various accounts of this process, all agreeing that K wasn’t there, that someone or something else was speaking through him and protecting him. He also spoke in his native Telugu tongue during these times, completely forgotten or blocked out by his ‘normal’ consciousness. Apparently, this process caused him to virtually lose his memory. K claims that he has no distinct memories of Nitya, whom he was extremely devoted to, (he died when K was in his thirties) and says that only the ‘essentials’ of knowledge and memory remained with him. He also developed a habit of speaking of himself in the third person.
Ultimately, he dissolved the OSE and resigned from the TS. On August 3, 1929, at the annual gathering in Holland, he spoke before around 3000 people:
“I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect…I do not want to belong to any organization of a spiritual kind…If an organization be created for this purpose, it becomes a crutch, a weakness, a bondage, and must cripple the individual, and prevent him from growing, from establishing his uniqueness, which lies in his discovery for himself of that absolute, unconditioned truth…You have been accustomed to being told how far you have advanced, what your spiritual status is. How childish! Who but yourself can tell you if you are incorruptible?…For two years I have been thinking about this slowly, carefully, patiently, and I have now decided to disband the order, as I happen to be its head. You can form other organizations and expect someone else. With that I am not concerned, nor with creating new cages, new decorations for those cages. My only concern is to set men absolutely, unconditionally free.”
His connections with his mentors and friends were obviously strained when he broke from Theosophy. He corresponded extensively with Emily Lutyens, something of a surrogate mother for him in the TS, and tried to downplay the break with the TS and not get sucked into conflict with his former followers. She accuses him of denying being the WT, and he responds, “You know, Mum, I have never denied it.”
Now a spiritual teacher in his own right, K attracted large audiences to his talks. His message cannot really be encapsulated, but it involves an exploration and understanding of ‘what is’, what is actually happening; a rejection of outward authority; and direct experience of the unknown, wordless, un–nameable. What struck me most when I first read his words was his ability to throw me back on myself. There was no ‘hmm, interesting…’; only the shocked stillness of seeing the new, the unexplainable, in his words. He has a remarkable ability to to break down the activities of the self, to expose all that is hidden.
He speaks of the conditioning of early childhood, the conformity and nationalism, the indoctrination into particular religions, cultures, classes. Our belief systems and ideologies can range from the crude to the sophisticated, but he maintains that all action stemming from belief creates division, confusion, and sorrow.
“The mind has an idea, perhaps pleasurable, and it wants to be like that idea, which is a projection of your desire. You are THIS, which you do not like, and you want to become THAT, which you like…This struggle is considered necessary, spiritual, evolutionary, and so on; but it is wholly within the cage of the mind and leads only to illusion…The struggle towards an illusion is the disintegrating factor. All conflict, all becoming is disintegration. When there is an awareness of the trick that the mind has played on itself, then there is only ‘what is’. When the mind is stripped of all becoming, of all ideals, of all comparison and condemnation, when its own structure has collapsed, then the ‘what is’ has undergone a complete transformation.”
K says that no real change is possible without this inner transformation of the mind, that everything else is merely modified continuity. The desire for change is just like any other desire; however noble, respectable, or base, all desire is self-centered, and all desire searches for gratification.
He speaks of a ‘choice less awareness,’ in which all desire is watched passively. All will, attempt, effort is simply watched. Obviously many desires conflict. What do I want more, this or that? A continual process of comparison and judgment arises. And much of the time, desire takes the form of not-wanting, escaping from pain. This field of desire, which includes thought, is the root of conflict.
He brings up an interesting question: do other animals suffer in the same way we do? When an ant gets injured, does it suffer in the same way that we do? The self as we know it doesn’t exist with an ant, which isn’t to say that an ant doesn’t feel pain or struggle to survive. But the self as we know it is this field of desire, this movement of thought-feelings.
I remember being a child, when this field of desire was relatively empty. If my belly was full and I felt safe, there really wasn’t anything else I wanted. This quality of openness, clarity and innocence, this direct experience of what is, with all of its crazy movement…it existed without any concept, without labels. It was unknown. There was no interpretation or identification (or very, very little), just a direct communion. These experiences come and go, and granted, they’re now memories, part of this field of thought-feelings.
But this perspective is important. Through our early conditioning, education, adolescence, and throughout our lives, we keep adding, accumulating in our minds: we store memories, we develop language, we define ourselves and our environment, we set goals, etc. But as these (sometimes essential) patterns get created and entrenched, something far more important is happening. An entity gets created that is supposedly separate from this field of thought-feelings. ‘I’ think this, ‘I’ want that, ‘I’ see you…what is this I? Most assuredly, it isn’t separate from this feeling, this want. It IS this desire, this feeling, this thought, this perception. But somehow, this observer, this thinker, is created that thinks it is different from that which is observed, thought, experienced.
K says that this happens because we crave permanency and security. Seeing the crazy movement of our feelings and thoughts, we seek constancy in beliefs in gods, an afterlife, a lifestyle without disturbance. We are scared of the craziness, and we try to escape it by building walls in our minds and hearts.
And when there is insight into the self, when there is passive ‘choiceless awareness’ of this total movement of thought-feelings, something different is happening. The I is not. There is communion with the unknown, that which cannot be described or named. We can call this state creativity, freedom, wisdom, love, truth, god, or whatever, but for the fact that this labeling is part of the field of desire. Whatever exists in the field of desire is known. I am just this bundle of thought-feelings, and any attempt to pursue it, define it, capture it, is still a movement of the self. To try to achieve the new, the unknown, to follow any pattern to it, is an illusion and breeds suffering.
We’re scared of ourselves, of things as they are. We want to resist, to improve, to create better beliefs, to be certain, to be safe. We try to approach this state through ambition, discipline, religion, drugs. And in so doing, we create more division, conflict, and confusion. All of our efforts to deal with this problem are really just escapes.
“We all know what it is to be lonely: an aching, fearsome emptiness that cannot be appeased. We also know how to run away from it, for we have all explored the many avenues of escape. Some are caught in one particular avenue, and others keep on exploring; but neither are in direct relationship to what is. You say you know how to deal with loneliness. If one may point out, this very action upon loneliness is your way of avoiding it. You go out for a walk, or sit with loneliness until it goes. You are always operating upon it, you do not allow it to tell its story. You want to dominate it, to get over it, to run away from it; so your relationship with it is that of fear.
“…If we can understand what is, then perhaps all of these problems will cease. Our approach to any problem is to avoid it; we want to do something about it. The doing prevents our being in direct relationship with it, and this approach blocks understanding of the problem. The mind is occupied with finding a way to deal with the problem, which is really an avoidance of it; and so the problem is never understood, it is still there. For the problem, the what is, to unfold and tell its story fully, the mind must be sensitive, quick to follow. If we anaesthetize the mind through escapes, through knowing how to deal with the problem, or through seeking an explanation or a cause for it, which is only a verbal conclusion, then the mind is made dull and cannot swiftly follow the story which the problem, the what is, is unfolding. See the truth of this, and the mind is sensitive; and only then can it receive. Any activity of the mind with regard to the problem only makes it dull and so incapable of following, of listening to the problem. When the mind is sensitive é not made sensitive, which is only another way of making it dull é then the what is, the emptiness, has a wholly different significance.”
He speaks critically of nationalism and all organized religion because it breeds a false sense of security.
“You know, ideologies have no meaning whatsoever, whether they are communist, socialist, capitalist, or religious. Ideologies é conceptual thinking with its words é have separated man and man. You all have different ideologies, and do not see clearly for yourselves the idiocy of having ideologies. They prevent seeing what actually takes place, what actually is. Why should we have ideologies of any kind, knowing how they have divided man against man, whether of Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or any other religion, each holding desperately to his belief? Why? We never question, we accept ideologies. If you question and probe deeply into this problem of ideologies you will see that they exist in order to escape from the actual.”
He walks a very thin line here.
Evidently, there was a split in his personality, probably dating from his “astral” conversations with Lord Maitreya. It’s highly probable that the trauma with his father contributed, too. There are accounts of some type of possession while giving talks to the TS in the 1920’s, in which his energy suddenly changed and he began talking like a messiah. Supposedly, Maitreya was speaking through him. It’s unlikely that these experiences didn’t condition his later ‘process.’
He reflects near the end of his life, discussing himself with Mary Lutyens (daughter of Emily Lutyens and his biographer),
“…the boy was found, conditioning took no hold é neither the Theosophy, nor the adulation, nor the World Teacher, the property, the enormous sums of money é none of it affected him. Why? Who protected him?”
He believed that he had completely overcome the influence of Theosophy, which seems to me to be patently false. I don’t deny K’s insight and connection, but there is a difference between direct experience of something and a belief about that something. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that his conditioning at the hands of the TS affected him throughout his life. He was conditioned to believe that he was the messiah, and he never really stopped believing it.
K often talks about about how experience conditions (we experience, label the experience according to how we felt, and then pursue or avoid that experience (now a picture in our head)), and how this process can inhibit understanding. No one is immune. Spiritual teachers condition themselves just like everyone else: the experience of a creative state, of the unknown, and the subsequent creation of beliefs around this experience related to one’s particular culture and childhood conditioning, whether it be a monotheistic system, Japanese kamisama, the Hindu pantheon, animistic spirits, ancestor worship, heavenly bodies, or whatever.
There is a quality of unavailability around many spiritual teachers, indeed leaders in general, indeed most everybody. How can we relate directly, commune with each other, when sharing is marginalized and forgotten in favor of a role, a mission, an agenda? This role is most certainly based on belief, and as we run in the groove of this belief, we aren’t available to the present moment. This is amplified when we put ourselves into a position to teach: we are in the ironic position of not relating directly to another, because the structure of our relationship is that of leader/follower. “I know, and you don’t. I’m going to mold you.” This approach inevitably transmits a lot of mistaken assumptions and ignorance along with (hopefully or not) whatever was originally intended. Being attached to a pattern, no matter how noble, we don’t go deeper and we don’t understand ourselves. So how can we possibly understand the person we’re supposedly teaching, and what they need?
The more recognized the teacher, the more people are needed to do the necessary administration, the more followers gather, etc. K talks a lot about the need to discover for oneself, but that didn’t stop him from running himself ragged all over the world to bring his teaching to people, to try to help people.
As I understand it, the psychological revolution K talks about is a moment-to-moment insight, a meeting of this moment new. From what I’ve read by the people close to him, K had ‘it,’ and everyone wanted it, believed in it, and so on. This is the classical guru/disciple relationship. It’s one thing for people to interpret one’s words, and it’s quite another to allow those close to you to buy into beliefs in your superiority or divinity. He constantly discouraged followers in his talks, yet he didn’t do enough to shatter these beliefs in the people closest to him.
When does imitation, the following of patterns, from childhood or otherwise, become destructive? We cannot deny the role of experience, and how we inevitably condition ourseles. Used effectively, we are better able to meet life’s challenges. K is absolutely right that the best way to relate directly to suffering is from the beginning, with proper parenting and education. He founded several schools for this purpose. But a school is simply a reactionary effort, however noble. Parenting, the real teaching, is not a model and cannot be instilled. It’s a simple case of parents having a clue: to understand the gravity of raising and educating a child, to genuinely want to do it, to have a wide range of experience, to understand the games we play with ourselves and others.
Now, lots of us think we have a clue, but the proof is in the pudding. Plans, ideals, and beliefs are all right to a point, but are ultimately inadequate to meet the challenge of life in its fullness.
Padraic Rohan was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has taught elementary school and started an outdoor adventure not-for-profit organization.