One of the vexing questions in Krishnamurti’s teachings is how to become aware of the contents of our consciousness. Is there anything we can do to aid this journey of discovery, or is any question that starts with how automatically doomed to failure since it presupposes a system, a technique, or some form of authority? Krishnamurti has always skilfully dodged the how question; but, in two public talks in 1944 and on a few other occasions, he suggested an experiment in self-observation, one that can be conducted by oneself but also in an educational setting. And what better context for this than the senior social studies class, which has as one of its goals the fostering of self-awareness and self-knowledge? So, last December, I sent my students into the proverbial Oak Grove wilderness and asked them to conduct an experiment in self-observation.
Krishnamurti described this experiment on Sunday, 28th May 1944, under the peaceful shade of the oaks of the Oak Grove next to the school, while the Allied troops were fighting the Axis powers in Italy and elsewhere in the world. He told his audience that he would like to suggest a way to assist in the excavation of our minds. He pointed out that everyone knows how to keep a diary. His way was a little different: rather than keep a retrospective diary, he asked his audience to ‘try to write down every thought-feeling, whenever you have a little time’. He recognized how difficult this was because our ‘thinking is too rapid, disconnected and wandering’, but he encouraged his audience to stick with it.
Ideally, one would do this whenever one could during the day and examine what was written down in the evening. In this way, he claimed, one would gradually learn to ‘be able to follow each movement of thought-feeling’. Then, this ‘journey of self-discovery’ would give access to ever-deeper layers of the mind. As these layers were revealed and seen in the right way, with choiceless awareness—a passive and active alertness at the same time—one would understand oneself and become still. And, he said, ‘with stillness comes highest wisdom and bliss.’
Two weeks later, on Sunday, 11th June 1944, Krishnamurti asked his audience whether they had ‘tried to write as I suggested’. If they had, they would be ‘beginning to develop that mirror which reflects your thoughts-feelings without any distortion … and so self-knowledge becomes wider and deeper’, because ‘you not only comprehend the present momentary action and reaction but also the past that has produced the present’. He warned not to ‘treat this writing down as a new method, a new technique’, and to keep in mind that the essential thing is ‘to become aware of every thought-feeling’. He concluded by saying, ‘… it is this discovery, this understanding that is the liberating and transforming factor.’1
On Tuesday, 7th December, and then again on Monday, 13th December 2010, with the Irish economy in danger of becoming the latest casualty of the worldwide economic crisis, the senior class left my classroom and spread out over Oak Grove School’s beautiful, spacious, and silent wooded campus. The students found a spot to be alone, armed with a pen and paper with which to record their thoughts and feelings. Some sat in the Oak Grove not far from the same spot where Krishnamurti had outlined his experiment in self-observation in 1944. Before leaving the classroom we read his instructions together and discussed the intention behind them.
Then we read a short excerpt from the First Walk of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker:
So now I am alone in the world, with no brother, neighbour, or friend, nor any company left me but my own…. But I, detached as I am from them and from the whole world, what am I? This must now be the object of my inquiry.2
Upon their return, I asked the students to destroy the pages with their recorded thoughts and feelings and to write a short, reflective essay on the experience. At first, the exercise was not easy for students. One student wrote, ‘It’s strange to take the time to sit down and analyse your thoughts. It takes you deeper than just the first assumption you had about a certain thought… It allows for the realization that a lot of your thoughts are superficial.’ Another student found it not at all a pleasant experience: ‘Well, to my surprise, as I sat on a rock below an oak tree there was so much… it soon became overwhelming. Thought after thought, page after page, it all made absolutely no sense. I guess I had never actually tried to observe my thoughts in such a way.’ A third student was dismayed to discover, ‘how self-centred I am, when left alone with my own thoughts. I wonder if this is how others feel too. I noticed that many things that I wrote down had to do with me.’
Gradually, however, frustration gave way to learning. Students expressed amazement at the speed and seemingly random nature of their thoughts; observed that there appeared to be a link between their thoughts and the environment they were in; and noticed that by really attending to their thoughts and feelings they would sometimes end. As one student put it: ‘It provided me with the opportunity to take a step back and assess a certain situation and all of my feelings as well. It allowed me to express all my disappointment, anger, frustration, and sadness. And then, after processing all of that, I could let it go. It was over and done. The issue suddenly became insignificant.’ Several students echoed the sentiment that upon closer observation, the attachment to, and identification with thought became less pronounced or disappeared altogether.
‘Each thought is like a mouse visiting your kitchen at midnight—you may remain sleeping soundly and let it run its course, or you may worry yourself, your ego, and attack a thing of little threat, ’ a student concluded. In general, students valued the experience and what they learned from it: ‘I’d say it was something that is good to do, to sit and analyse what the hell it is you are thinking all day. It is good to let go of those thoughts many times.’ But questions remained as well. As one student put it, ‘Overall, this left me with a lot of questions and hardly any answers.’
As explorers and discoverers of our consciousness, being faced with a lot of questions and few answers is an exciting and, yes, occasionally unnerving prospect as well. Any help is appreciated on this journey of discovery. Krishnamurti’s instruction to write down our thoughts and feelings and take some time to understand them was a welcome suggestion in this regard. He proposes a how (rather than a How), and a way (rather than a Way), and, judging from the outcome of our seniors’ experiment, his way has real practical merit. Even in the space of only two classes most of our seniors reported learning about themselves and about the mechanics of thought. Whether their discoveries will lead to full liberation and transformation, as Krishnamurti claimed that May–June of 1944, under the oaks of the Oak Grove, is still another question. But as the case of the student who reported understanding and then being able to let go of a difficult issue demonstrates, just a few moments of selfobservation can have real and lasting consequences.
1. All quotes from J Krishnamurti, Ojai 3rd Public Talk 28th May 1944 and Ojai 5th Public Talk 11th June 1944. See also Bombay 8th Public Talk 7th March 1948, and New Delhi 5th Public Talk 18th January 1961.
2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of the SolitaryW alker (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), p. 27.
3. Student quotes with permission of the Oak Grove School Senior Class of 2011.