‘But before you think about something which you do not know, you must find out what thinking is, must you not?’ -Jiddhu Krishnamurti
We looked last time at the limits of thought and at the distinction between thought and intelligence. Millions, or more probably billions, of thoughts and words have been devoted through the ages to what might be considered the meaning or purpose of our lives. But the outcome of all this enquiry is that there is no transcendental truth that can be expressed in language or which can be the subject of thought, at least not if that language or thought is to respect the commonly acknowledged requirements of rationality.
Of course, much in both western and eastern philosophy will continue to provide a guide to how we might live. In this there is not merely consolation, but practical assistance in achieving a life which is as free as possible from fear and negative emotions. Many of us will find this sufficient for our purpose. Others may not. For some freedom from suffering, however desirable, is not enough. They carry a hope, belief, or suspicion, that there is something beyond conceptual thought which is worth possessing more than anything else, something perhaps intimated in childhood, or in poetry, in music or in nature. Those who do so have a further, perhaps a final, recourse.
This is typically summarised in the single word ‘religion', but that word covers a variety of contrasting phenomena. One is founded on faith, belief in a god or some other transcendental principle. Another is choosing a way of living which has an overriding ethical component. Yet another might involve adherence to a tradition, and an identification with the founder of that tradition.
In the history of the last four millennia (and more) religion has manifested itself in both irrational and rational guises. Yet the literal meaning of religion is to bind, to bind the disparate threads of one’s life into a unified and coherent vision, to impose on (or invite into) the complexity and disorder of our everyday existence some unifying element, a respite from, or alternative to, our fragmented natures. Seen in this way, religion might be rational as well as, no doubt sometimes, irrational. What much religious thought has in common, however, is the notion that freedom from suffering is not the only goal (indeed for many religions suffering is a required condition). There is an even greater prize, namely a realization of one’s ‘true’ nature.
If one wants to explore the limits of religious thought and language it is not practical to attempt anything approaching a summary or comparison of different traditions. The field is simply too vast, and interpretation too contentious. However, I think we can gain an insight into these limits by examining one thinker mentioned in the previous blog, namely Jiddhu Krishnamurti, known throughout most of his life simply as K. One reason for choosing K is the fact that he is a figure of the current age, dying only in 1986 at the age of 90. Also helpful is the fact that there is very little tradition to complicate or conflate the relatively simple ‘message’ that he wished to convey.
By any standards K’s story is a remarkable one. It includes his birth into a poor Indian family and his ‘adoption’ as a child by one of the more esoteric brands of nineteenth and twentieth-century religious thought. Whilst a young man K was regarded by some as a Messiah, yet he rejected such claims and severed himself from those who made them on his behalf. He then spent the next sixty years conducting what amounted to a world lecture tour as sage, luminary and philosopher.
The fact that K lived so recently enables us better to examine his relevance to modernity. What we know of him that can be demonstrably proven is what he said and what he wrote (and what others have collected together of his lectures and discussions). Many of his talks can be seen on YouTube. Yet outweighing all of these features is the fact that K’s message was perhaps one of the most radical ever presented, requiring an absolutely fundamental shift in human consciousness and underpinned by a revolutionary analysis of what man is and might be. His focus was on the religious mind, and what would be the characteristics of such a mind.
Even so, K denied that he was a teacher or that he had a doctrine that contained a content which others might follow to their advantage. In particular, he denied that there was a path to ‘truth’ which could be followed. His teaching is based much less on adherence to a tradition or way of life than on the observation of what he saw within him and around him. He stressed the importance of observing life free from conditioning. In this sense, therefore, K does not begin from a foundational position. The truth is not given or revealed but is inherent in his (and in his view every other human being’s) original nature.
K undoubtedly experienced the world with a heightened sensitivity. From childhood he exhibited an extraordinary ability to simply look at natural objects, to such a degree that some mistook his pre-occupation with such objects for, or thought it evidence of, imbecility. As a child he would sit for hours in the shade of a tree simply watching insects and reptiles scurrying around on the grass in front of him. As a child he attended closely to what he found in the natural world, and this focus formed the basis for his outlook as an adult.
Throughout his adult life K saw attention to ‘what is’ as the most important skill to cultivate. He denied there was any value in abstract principles that had not been tested against the real world. He invoked a number of maxims over a long teaching career, but none was more fundamental to his thinking than his contention that ‘values are brutal things’. He rejected all the ‘isms’ not only of the twentieth century but also of the past. He believed that once someone identified themselves with a religion or a political conviction they had ceased to be open to the world and had voluntarily renounced their connection with their fellow human beings. Whilst he had a radical interpretation of what was wrong with humankind and how to put it right, he saw the remedy as lying not in a theory, whether of nature or of mind, but in observation of what men and women did and thought.
Many of K’s closest friends and followers were Buddhists and found in K a fruitful restating of Buddhist principles. K’s thought certainly has parallels with Buddhism in two senses. Firstly, there are many points of similarity of approach, and many Buddhist scholars who conversed with K would outline in some detail the exact nature of the consensus. Additionally, there was an emphasis on something, which when viewed in a certain light, Buddhists might view as the adoption of the skilful means, particularly the role of meditation.
K’s teaching life proper began in the 1930s, and during that decade he gave a number of talks at Ojai in California (where he had a home) and elsewhere round the world. From the outset, it is clear that his is a distinctive voice. He anticipates his audience’s question, ‘What is it that I want to do?’ Not, he says, to ask his listeners to join a society or accept certain theories, nor to imitate or follow him, but to ‘cross the stream of suffering, confusion and conflict, through deep and complete fulfilment.’ These early lectures have a strong Buddhist flavour, but he disavowed any allegiance to a system. He saw individuals hungry for ‘truth’, taking up one spiritual authority after another, but being satisfied with none; his stated purpose not to provide a system of thought but rather ‘to awaken thought’, to free it from its limitations.
K saw the origin of our problems to lie in a fundamental conflict and lack of harmony. In these early dialogues man’s conflict with the environment is emphasised as the principal cause of suffering. For him, conflict was anterior to suffering- suffering was the result of that conflict, so that unlike the Buddha he wanted to start with an analysis of conflict rather than of suffering. His definition of ‘environment’ encompassed economic and social conditions, political authority, and inter-personal rivalry. He saw the individual’s conflict with these forces as all the more remarkable because in his view the individual was itself the product of environment and was conditioned by that environment in the widest sense.
In this view suffering arises when men and women become conscious of that conflict. Most individuals react to conflict by trying to flee from it, and there are a thousand possible ways of escape, including in K’s opinion organized religion. These routes largely provided certainty for one’s position and the promise, but never the delivery, of resolution of conflict. For some individuals, however, (and potentially for all) suffering awakens intelligence, and one of the primary manifestations of intelligence is the acceptance that escape from conflict is impossible.
In his more mature philosophy, dating from the period after the end of the Second World War, K talked and wrote at great length on the phenomenon of thinking, defined as the total content of consciousness, including unconscious elements to the extent that they influenced thought and action. He began to see thinking as the origin of conflict- and he saw this is in a totally original way. It was not ‘right’ thinking as against ‘wrong’ thinking which he saw as the issue, but thinking in itself. If you think, which all humans must do to live, you create conflict, intra-personal, inter-personal and global.
Thinking is by its nature fragmentary. Our common experience is that thoughts come into consciousness and go out again in a fragmentary manner. This fragmentation extends to the coherence of mental processes at any one time and to their coherence over time. There is a sense that because our thinking is inconsistent over time, we are not the same person day after day, and therefore our identity is likewise in a state of flux.
It is necessary to make a distinction that K thought important, that between technical and non-technical thought, a distinction that replicates to some degree that said to have been made by Socrates between the genuine knowledge of the craftsman and the spurious claims to truth professed by many of his contemporaries. For his part, K acknowledged that the former was fundamental to practical living, to the professional person or indeed anyone making a living or coping with the world on a daily basis. Such is the very kind of thinking which allows an animal to better survive and replicate. The better you can adapt this kind of thinking to practical matters, the better you are likely to fare. Of course, technical thinking is necessarily fragmentary. Subject and object are divided so that the object can be manipulated, worked upon.
However, what lies outside this area of human mental activity is any thinking which is not aimed ultimately at practical matters and addresses itself to more fundamental questions of meaning and purpose- essentially to questions which ask ‘Why’ where an answer would not have any apparent consequences for practical living. K’s view was that, ‘Thought as knowledge has its right place, but it has no place in the psyche’. Moreover, in his view the fact that there is this distinction between ‘practical’ and ‘reflective’ thinking is another fundamental cause of fragmentation in human thought.
What then in this view is fundamental to the psyche, the mind as a whole, and more therapeutic than thought could ever be? The answer offered is that it is attention, or what K sometimes described as ‘total attention’, of which more in the next post.