For the past few weeks I’ve been absorbing and digesting another reading suggestion from one of my Temple’s leaders: Jiddu Krishnamurti’s treatise re-examining our experience of consciousness, and suggesting a radical alternative to conventional ways of thinking; as Krishnamurti puts it a “revolution in the psyche”. Krishnamurti is regarded as one of the most important Spiritual thinkers of the twentieth century, with over a hundred books to his name. His determination not to subscribe to any existing institution (religious, philosophical or even national) gives a glancing demonstration of the nature of his thinking; that we are confined by tradition, and instead we need to re-examine our lives in order to find the true nature of reality, true peace, and true happiness.

Freedom From The Known was first published in 1969. It is a dense and wide-reaching philosophical tract, which I’ll admit took a good deal of time to both read and piece together in my understanding. What follows is an overview of what struck me as the important currents of the text, as deeper analysis would require a huge amount of explanation and essentially result in paraphrasing the whole book! What I will say is if anything I write about here interests you, read the book yourself; Krishnamurti is a far greater communicator of ideas than I am. I’ll be examining the book in two parts, the next to follow in a few days.

The book is broken down into chapters with core themes, leading into one another to form a persistent structure or narrative to his inquiry, which I will follow here. The first chapter is about the nature of human beings. Krishnamurti rejects religious and philosophical traditions which have subdivided and isolated humanity. He suggests our reliance on traditional modes of thought has “broken” our minds to the extent we must know “unlearn” in order to reach the truth. He tells us that “to understand yourself is the beginning of wisdom”, but by “yourself” he doesn’t mean this broken notion of an isolated individual, but that of human beings in general. We perceive ourselves as subset of this single self, “the whole”, a concept which reminds me of Plato’s forms. Because humans don’t know everything but fear both what they know and what they don’t, they invent philosophies and religions to ‘fill in the blanks’. This habitual mode of escapism leads to horrendous crimes, of which human beings as a whole are guilty.

“Truth has no path, and that is the beauty of truth, it is living. A dead thing has a path to it because it it static, but when you see that truth is something living, moving, which has no resting place, which is in no temple, mosque or church, which no religion, no teacher, no philosopher, no teacher can lead you to – then you will also see that this living thing is what you actually are – your anger, your brutality, your violence, your despair, the agony and sorrow you live in. In the understanding of all this is the truth, and you can understand it only if you know how to look at those things in your life. And you cannot look through an ideology, through a screen of words, through hopes and fears.”

You are, therefore, responsible for guiding yourself.

We like to think of our experience of reality as having both an inner and outer life, but in reality these two things are functions of a single thing – everything. All we need to produce Krishnamurti’s revolution is to see that all is one, without the layers of philosophy we’ve piled on top of this. We’ve done so because it devolved us from responsibility; if we fail, we can blame the system. True change is something we must actively do; we must throw off all authority and act from freedom. One question I had at this point was that does this not lead to moral relativism, allowing for all kinds of weird and wonderful permutations of what “freedom” means? Can my freedom not impinge the freedom of others? Does the serial killer not believe they are acting from “freedom”?

The second chapter is on the nature of “others”, as we experience them. We crave the herd, primarily because being alone requires us to confront our current, imperfect state of being. In a very Taoist sense, “We” exist only in relation to “everything else” – by cutting ourselves out as distinct, we define the rest of reality at “other”. As Krishnamurti mentioned earlier, we are not static but moving, changing things. Our past is static, so not relevant to our true nature. So to is the declaration “I understand!”, which suggests we have stopped learning and become static: “A confident man is a dead human being”, he asserts. Our concepts condition us in certain ways, tying us down and making us static. Anything outside our conditioning disturbs us, leaving us callous, rigid and cold.

The third chapter describes this conditioning further. In order to perceive it, Krishnamurti suggests we must give full “attention” (akin to mindfulness in this context, and opposed to concentration – kind of a wide angle view, rather than a narrow focus), rather than our conventional, fragmentary mode of perception. “We live in fragments. You are one thing at the office, another at home; you talk about democracy and in your heart you are autocratic; you talk about loving your neighbours, yet kill him with competition; there is one part of you working, looking, independently of the other.” He therefore suggests this understanding must come all at once, rather than “piece by piece”. This sounds hard! But I suppose this is what we aim for in meditation, a total wide angle on our nature, and a putting down of all fragments.

The fourth chapter focuses on pleasure. He draws a distinction between pleasure, which is conceptual and rooted in memory, and joy, which is immanent and rooted in the present. Thinking about joy conceptualises it into pleasure. Krishnamurti suggests we can be denied pleasure, but never denied joy – this helped me to gather the idea more fully. This reminded me of Nietzsche, when he wrote “Did you ever say yes to pleasure? Then you also said yes to pain. All things are linked, entwined, in love with one another.”

The fifth chapter moves on to fear; like pleasure, fear is always conceptual in nature, “fear of” something. Fear comes about when our preconceptions or plans get confounded, and is the movement from static certainty to more natural, fluid uncertainty. Fear is a by-product of thought: “Thought, which is always old, because thought is the response of memory and memories are always old”; old and therefore static, past, and irrelevant. Similarly to how he described our desire to be part of the herd as a way of overcoming our fear of confronting our true nature, he considers thought to be something we try to constantly occupy ourselves with just so we don’t have to face the problems of our imperfect nature which lies beneath it.

Fear usually exists as a function of our past, because we perceive it through the gauze of preconceptions we view the world through. We should instead examine the fear as it truly is, in the present moment. Because we try to be static observers, measuring the world in comparison to preconceptions, we become nothing more than bundles of dead and static memories. We can choose, however, to become living and active observers, fluid and open to life. We do this by moving from “this thing scares me!” to “I am afraid!” or even “I am fear!”. This is a little like the Cartesian project of radical doubt, in which by stripping away anything he could doubt Descartes reduced his experience of reality right down to “I think, I exist” – more honest would have been the statement “there are thoughts”, and similarly Krishnamurti’s project takes things down to their most basic, and therefore truest, nature.

Chapter six focuses on violence. He suggests most of us delight in violence in some sense, even if that’s only in disliking someone, holding violent thoughts or intentions. As part of this we must try and examine anger dispassionately, rather than thinking of it as sometimes justified and sometimes not. Deciding not to be violent in any way may have negative consequences for us including possible imprisonment, but if we are committed to rejecting violence we should be OK with that. This echoes Thoreau’s point in his essay Civil Disobedience, that “under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Krishnamurti suggests we must “go deeply” to penetrate beneath the condemnation in our minds, espousing the Jedi virtue of focus: “You can penetrate deeply only if your mind is as sharp as a needle and as strong as a diamond”, a passage which had echoes of the notion of the sword of attention in The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. We must examine things as they are, rather than in some imagined isolation or a conceptual “ideal” form – and at the same time, we must decide to either live without violence or not – “there is no try”. I can think of another Jedi who would approve of this notion…

(…to be concluded)