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What A Dead Eastern Mystic Can Offer Our Polarized Times

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Jiddu Krishnamurti is known for spreading the spiritual teachings of the East across the Atlantic in digestible form through his writings and public talks. In more recent years, his videos have posthumously resurfaced all over YouTube. In bridging the gap between the analytic pragmatism of western thought and the oracular profundity of Eastern mysticism, J. Krishnamurti formulated a philosophy that can help navigate the paradoxes and convolutions of modern life. 

The late Indian philosopher was first discovered as a child on the beaches of the Adyar river by the leader of the occultist religious group The Theosophical Society, Charles Webster Leadbeater, who saw in the boy “the most wonderful aura he had ever seen, without a particle of selfishness in it.” It was prophesied that Krishnamurti would become a spiritual leader and a great orator and was subsequently taken from his impoverished background and groomed to be the new World Teacher of the Theosophists. His entire upbringing was spent in preparation for his role in leading the group, but as his conscience developed in ways that went against the grain of the established belief system Krishnamurti grew distant from the Theosophists. He rejected his role as a spiritual leader and eventually broke with the organization, before dissolving it in its entirety while he was still a young man. In the accompanying speech, he proclaimed:

“I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path. This is no magnificent deed, because I do not want followers, and I mean this. The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. I am not concerned about whether you pay attention to what I say or not. I want to do a certain thing in the world and I am going to do it with unwavering concentration. I am concerning myself with only one essential thing: to set man free. I desire to free him from all cages, from all fears, and not to found religions, new sects, nor to establish new theories and new philosophies.”

Krishnamurti was concerned primarily with the amelioration of human suffering by understanding the nature of thought. Although his work covered a wide variety of subjects, three major precepts leapt out at me. 1) The disorder of the world is a reflection of the disorder in ourselves, and if we can see the invisible thread that runs between ourselves and the world around us (which is to say, other human beings) in all of our interactions, we can limit the suffering we contribute to others. I am the world and the world is me; there is no separation. 2) The mind is always creating time, conjuring an image out of fragments of the past and our projections of the future - avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, anticipating the next thing and the next thing  - and therefore we are always living somewhere other than here and now - the only place where anything ever happens. Thought creates time. 3) The image we hold at the center of our minds is “me”. Our identity, the self, the center, is formed through the mechanical process of thought, which means that our whole sense of who we are is almost always removed from the reality of our immediate experience. The “me” is always of the past, encompassing a relatively small portion of the total field of our consciousness. We are so much more than what we think, literally. 

To those familiar with eastern religion, this is just another way of articulating a set of attitudes that have probably been around for thousands of years. But many of Krishnamurti’s insights conspicuously go against the grain of modern culture and can evoke a slew of knee jerk reactions from culture warriors and political pundits alike. The prospect that our inner state of being is of comparable importance to our outward condition is particularly apt to incite vitriol. For example, by telling people to go within before proceeding without, or even to say that the within is inextricably linked to the without, we can come across as either selfishly indifferent to the suffering of the world or as advocating a kind of pseudo-spiritual bootstrapping argument that invariably blames the victim. People who are oppressed don’t have the privilege to look inwards! - the line might go. 

The notion that we should change ourselves before we change the world was more or less the central argument made by the psychologist Jordan B Peterson (clean your room!), a soundbite that has garnered no shortage of push back. But Krishnamurti went onto insist that changing ourselves is changing the world (as does Peterson, though that part of his argument is often ignored), which challenges anyone who, regardless of their political identity, is hellbent on seeing our society as an endless battle between unmistakable good and absolute evil that must be fought daily (most often on social media). The notion that the world is a reflection of our psychological condition might sound callous when uttered in a harsh inflection, sounding as though we are avoiding responsibility for the world around us, but in my experience, the effect is precisely the opposite. To recognize that what happens in our mind and heart is not fundamentally separate from what is occurring out in the world does not mean that we acquiesce to our circumstances, nor does it mean that our circumstances don’t matter. I would go further: this observation actually reinforces the sense of responsibility necessary to make real change happen. We can absolutely strive to change society for the better while also seeing that we are society, that the conflict we see in the world relates to the conflict in ourselves. Indeed, our attempts to improve the world will likely be made in vain unless we first understand our relationship to it.

Further criticism of Krishnamurti and his teachings, many leveled against him in his lifetime, questioned whether his insights actually applied to the mundanity of daily life that we all trudge through and whether his denial of religious authority was simply replaced by his own form of authority. The author Helen Nearing, who had a clandestine romance with Krishnamurti for years, accused him of being unduly influenced by his privilege and protested that his attitudes were conditioned by his pampered upbringing. 

I’ll tackle each criticism as such. First, it is certainly true that we can’t untangle the intricate web of our own personal problems by telling ourselves in a gentle tone that “I am the world” or that “my ego is an illusion”, because those are just concepts that don’t necessarily correspond with how we honestly feel at any given moment. It is crucial that we feel what we are feeling, jargon be damned. But Krishnamurti was crystal clear on this, which is why he prescribed to a practice of continual self-inquiry - which can be exercised at any moment - over esoteric programs or procedures that tout the arrival of some spiritual destination in the future. If our practice is too complicated to describe to someone who doesn’t share our sympathies, we are probably overthinking. 

As for his rejection of religious authority only to be replaced by his own unconscious desire for power, it’s important to remind ourselves that anyone whose work is ensconced in advising other people how to live will almost certainly experience some degree of transference (a psychological term meaning the projection of our unconscious longings onto another person) among their devotees. This seems unavoidable, and it is not prima facie evidence that his views are in any way hypocritical or are not worth taking seriously. Such points of attack tend not to address the actual content of his arguments. 

Speaking to the implication that privilege could have distorted Krishnamurti’s perspective, well, it really just goes to show how this line of argumentation was not invented by social justice warriors in 2014. Saying that a person is informed by their privilege sidesteps the question of whether they are informed correctly or incorrectly. The problem with the privilege line is that it literally can’t be refuted: I can just fling that allegation at anyone whose views I intuitively dislike rather than inquiring into what it is that inclines me to dislike them, and the more they protest that label the more it just looks like an expression of privilege-based fragility. It’s a non-sequitur that is all too readily and conveniently employed. 

Does it really matter whether someone expressing a particular idea happens to be privileged (bearing in mind that anyone in a position to reach an audience is hypothetically privileged)? The focus on privilege often seems like a last resort used to shame someone whose views we would prefer not to take seriously. Unfortunately for the privilege caller-outers (who, according to the Hidden Tribes study, are some of the most privileged of the bunch), it is unlikely that we can successfully redistribute privilege in a tenable way, as there are far too many various forms of privilege that could play a part in our lives. For instance, we can’t take someone’s white privilege and give it to a person in poverty or give another person’s health privilege to someone who grew up in a single-parent home. Unless there is a deeper significance underlying the emphasis on privilege, such as an attempt to elicit deeper gratitude for our relative advantages or to shed light on a particular blindspot that carries socio-political weight, it can be disregarded in good faith. 

None of this is to suggest that Krishnamurti was without flaw. He was a person, and people are, generally speaking, very flawed. In fact, an entire book was written called Lives In The Shadow With J Krishnamurti in which the author, while still defending the merits of his work, does expose some unbecoming specimens of Krishnamurti’s private life. The criticism that he had an airy “above-it-all” quality about him and had been chilly to people who had served him well is probably true and is not entirely surprising to me. Nonetheless, it would seem to be a feature of modern culture to use the personal shortcomings of a public figure as a cudgel to nullify the ideas which they espoused, whether or not there is any apparent correlation between the two. That doesn’t make sense to me. I could be a total asshole, and what I’m saying could still be true. Saying that I am an asshole carries no meaning in respect to the views that I’m expressing. This looks an awful lot like the tendency in human perception to anthropomorphize ideas and personalize the impersonal, bringing them into the realm of the ego where we are more comfortable. This is particularly pronounced in the media space, where narrative reigns supreme and reality is so easily manipulated to fit the story we are trying to tell. It bogs us all down, and it is one of the many reasons why the teachings of Krishnamurti are so needed today: We need to parse the individual from the idea if we are concerned with the truth of things.

Much ink has been spilled over the decline of religion in the western world, and I would not be the first to suggest that the religion shaped hole in our collective heart is currently manifesting insidiously in our culture. Human beings need a guiding principle to tolerate suffering, and if that is not provided by a structured religious practice it will likely be replaced by some other ultimate value. Whether that be a political ideology, workaholism, intellectual pursuits, or our own self-image projected through social media. Krishnamurti offered a different kind of path: cultivating the capacity to be alone with the inner workings of our experience rather than either tracking back to the religions of old or succumbing to postmodern nihilism. This might be put under the unbearably cliche umbrella of “I’m spiritual, not religious”, but maybe that is more than just an empty turn of phrase if we make it a conscious effort. 

In any case, it is not obvious that we can trackback to past traditions, even if we wanted to. Too many hypocrisies have been revealed. I would wager that much of the chaos we are seeing at present has to do with the absence of a genuinely religious feeling in our day to day lives - the capacity to be still and observe the phenomenology life without caving in to the compulsion to create a personal identity out of what we see - and if we could supply that quality in a way that jives with contemporary life, then maybe we could better navigate the unfolding tectonic economic and technological shifts that are flooding the gates of our world.