AH, THERE IT IS

I submitted my first newspaper column (to the Cumberland Times) thirty-three years ago. I had just turned 40 and, as I recall it, the column was full of imagined forthcoming changes. It was one of those “smell the flowers along the way” essays. I fancied that having reached the symbolic half-way point in my life, I would now start emphasizing “being” more than “doing,” the inner life over the outer…. 70’s talk, still hanging in there.

At that time I was an avid J. Krishnamurti reader. Some say he was an enlightened master, like a Buddha or a Christ. I knew at minimum that he was way further along the spiritual path than I was. His books were influential in the shape my life was taking, and none more so than Notebooks. I rate it above his other books in that it contains the only passages where he talks about his daily life, things like riding in a car and stopping along a highway to watch a sunset.

Simple details, and not so simple in the way that the outer world merges into his “being.” No big surprise. You Are the World is my second favorite Krishnamurti book, but in Notebooks he lets the reader see into his process, his daily practice.  Like another favorite writer of mine, Henry Thoreau, he lived deliberately, waited alertly for everyday life to appear to him as sacred. For example, after a slow day where nothing much seems to have happened, he might see a crow on a tree branch, bathed in the light of the sky behind it, and he would say: “Ah. There it is.”

It’s a common human trait to think that when something is clear to you it should be clear to everybody. In Krishnamurti’s lectures, which often included some back and forth with the audience, he was sometimes impatient that a questioner couldn’t see what he saw. Just see it! he almost says. Right now! It’s a part of him that I don’t like so much.   For one thing, to know that everyday life is sacred would mean that you saw yourself as part and parcel of that sacredness. That’s a pretty deep dive into self-awareness that Krishnamurti has obviously taken.

The human capacity to live our lives at the same time that we are aware of living our lives, yes, that’s a great gift. As far as we know, no other creature has it but us. But it’s a gift with a nasty edge to it, as the negative connotation of “being self-conscious” reveals. (Think of self-consciousness as the ugly cousin of self-awareness.) Indeed, self-consciousness can be downright crippling, because most of us don’t like ourselves deep down. Thus being aware of ourselves entails judging ourselves harshly, and then, because it is painful, driving that self-condemnation underground, or projecting it onto others. Either way it means not being aware of ourselves, rejecting this special gift evolution has brought forth, which more than any other gift defines what we like to think is our superiority over other animal life.

It’s a problem expressed as far back as the myth of Adam and Eve, who, after they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge (knowledge of self), became ashamed of their nakedness and covered themselves up.  But back then, so the myth goes, it was just two people having run amuck; now it’s approaching eight billion covered up people telling all kinds of lies, performing all kinds of mischief.

For Krishnamurti to arrive at the above described “there it is” moments, obviously required self-awareness as opposed to self-consciousness, and presupposes that he was at peace with himself deep down. The reader certainly feels that peace, but here’s another thing I like about Notebooks: Krishnamurti’s peace is anything but placid. In the first half of the book, he talks about his daily excruciating headaches. He doesn’t complain, but the reader knows they are murder. If I remember right, they come in the afternoon and devastate him for a couple hours.  Certainly he doesn’t psychoanalyze them.   They just are. Like the sunset, or the crow, ah, there it is, also — the headache.

Then about half-way through, he says he isn’t going to talk about the headaches anymore. Obviously they don’t go away, but he never refers to them again. The book seems to lose some of its piquancy for me, once the headaches are left out of it.

Nonetheless, those headaches have given me a lot to think about over the years, above and beyond Krishnamurti’s provocative thoughts.

. . .

Needless to say, turning 40 in and of itself didn’t dramatically move my life in the direction of “being,” as I was hoping it would. I still had far too much “I” in me, too much wanting to “be somebody” — to be somebody through doing, through achievement, through looking good in the eyes of the world, through the approval that looking good might bring my way. And, let’s face it, ambition, whether it’s gross or subtle, is in the opposite direction from the sacred.

“The moment we want to be something, we are no longer free,” Krishnamurti observes.

In short, you even can’t strive for a higher life without that very striving being in the way.  Paraphrasing Thoreau in Walden, nature often hides from the poet or philosopher who approaches her with expectation, but reveals herself unexpectedly to the hunter or fisherman.

On the other hand, sloth won’t get you anywhere worth going either. Look at pictures of Krishnamurti. Or Thoreau. They were both pretty skinny. And skinny is something you have to work at.

I mean skinny in the largest possible way here. Say that I’m in one of my smoking phases. Now I’m very unlikely to have any “there it is” moments at all. If I’m on the verge of one, I smoke a cigarette instead.  Same thing if I’m too busy. Or if I’m eating every time I think about food, or killing time talking about sports, or watching too much television, or buying too many things, or checking my e-mail several times a day — any of those lame conditions that can take me over, if I’m not ever vigilant.

But then who keeps themselves perfectly thin without taking pride in being perfectly thin. And now we start to see the level of difficulty we are dealing with, once we have spiritual goals. You can’t get there by trying. You can’t get there by not trying. And we start to understand what Jesus meant when he said that small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life [a sense of the sacred, what else?], and few there be who find it.

. . .

Back briefly to Krishnamurti’s mind-bending headaches. Besides the psychological complexities, there’s also just plain pain to factor into any spiritual searching. Emotional pain. Physical pain. Cancer wards. Torture chambers. Broken hearts. The death of loved ones.  In the Christian tradition, the conclusion of our model of a perfect life is Christ on the cross. No place to run. No place to hide.

Smell the flowers along the way amidst all that? Ah. There it would be.

Is it any wonder that, for as long as we can, we hold our breath and settle for less?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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