Two birds, inseparable companions, cling to the self-same tree. Of these, one eats the sweet fruit and the other looks on without eating1.
When we contemplate the mystery of the origin, existence and ultimate destiny of the universe, we ask the perennial questions, 'What is a human being in this universe, and what is the meaning of human life in it?' These naïve, child-like questions are ever with us in the background of our minds as brooding presences, whether we choose to be aware of them consciously or not. Most of the time we do not articulate them consciously, plunged as we are in the midst of the affairs of our lives, planning and nurturing our hopes, fears, desires and ideals, trying to be in control of our destinies, or more modestly, of our destinations.
Perhaps this state of being immersed is inevitable. We are plunged into the centre of the medley called life, in which there is always a sense of incompleteness. We sense that we are on the point of turning a corner—a turning that will bring about a sense of completeness and wholeness in our being. Yet we never seem to turn that elusive corner. There are always unsolved problems of practical import, unresolved issues of relationships, fears of what the future has in store for us. A sense of a radical incompleteness haunts us. We hope to improve, make efforts and even perhaps succeed in some measure in improving our relationships and in settling practical matters. We even feel that with growing experience, our understanding of life has improved. We pay attention to our fears and in some measure, come to terms with them. But still, we feel that even these better states of mind are only a mask for a deeper unease that pervades our being. A sense of incompleteness, a residue, remains. And in the meanwhile,
And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.2
'But surely,' you might be tempted to protest, 'all this is an exaggeration. Millions of people do lead very full and fulfilling lives. Parents all over the world overcome all kinds of hardships to bring up their children, educate them and help them secure a good foothold in society. Millions world-wide find fulfilment in building honourable careers, and in marriage and family life. Many dedicate their lives to working for worthy causes to help those who are in dire need of help. All this effort involves the exercise of our full human faculties, and does give a real sense of meaning to life. There are also the exceptional people who are specially gifted in the fields of art, science, music and literature, whose achievements are honoured by society. Hence, to say that the lives of the generality of human beings are pervaded by a sense of futility and meaninglessness would be a gross exaggeration.'
Yet, even admitting all this, who among us is a total stranger to the 'blank misgivings of a creature moving about in worlds not realized'? 'Hope springs eternal in the human breast,' and what is hope if not a sign of incompleteness? We are incomplete beings yearning to be made whole, dogged by a sense of unease and restlessness.
Even scientific truth, under whose aegis we live in the modern world because of the technological success that it delivers, can give us only representations and explanations of phenomena, but explanations cannot appease our hunger for meaning. Explanations and representations give us conceptual truth, which is the coherence of our concepts with what we call 'reality', but we are asking for the coherence of the whole of being with the whole of that reality. What we ask for is existential living truth, and not merely the explanatory truth of concepts. Scientific explanatory theories give us life-saving therapies and techniques, for which we are grateful. But what we are asking for are the life-giving waters.
When we take these thoughts sufficiently to heart, and when we begin to doubt the efficacy of our ideals, life experiences and systems of knowledge to give us the meaning and wholeness we seek, we may begin to look in a different direction, and our eyes may happen to alight upon the beautiful metaphor from the Upanishads quoted at the beginning of this article. In this metaphor, the two birds symbolize the two primordial aspects of our being, the one which is immersed in Nature and in Society, and the other aspect which stands apart, not engaged in any activity but only watching. It is the silent Witness of all that is going on.
The first bird, which eats the sweet and bitter fruit, has much in common with us. Like us, she not only eats the sweet and bitter fruits of life, but she also 'knows' many things. She or he knows how to build a nest expertly (witness the skill of the tailor bird which can build nests that can withstand the severest storms). She knows when and whom to select as a mate after the courtship display, how to brood over the eggs, how to feed the chicks and how to teach her fledglings to fly. As we go up in the ascending scale of evolution, we find a corresponding ascending scale of consciousness and 'knowledge' in the higher animals, as for instance in dogs which save their masters from dangerous situations, and chimpanzees which can use sticks as tools for some purposes.
While we find this gradually ascending scale of consciousness and 'knowledge' in the process of evolution, we also find, when we come to the human being in this process, that there is an abrupt break in the gradual ascension. The bird and dog 'know' many things, but we alone know that we know, are conscious that we are conscious. It is our self-awareness, our knowledge that we know, that makes the crucial difference between human beings and all other sentient beings.
We are amphibious beings who are part of Nature; but we have, unlike other sentient beings, no given fixed nature. The other beings, though they 'know' many things, know only as per the modes of knowing given to them by Nature. They act, not by choice, but mostly according to the instincts of 'flight or fight'.
But with the appearance of the human being on the scene, there arises a consciousness of time, of a time which has passed and a time which is to arrive, or of time which is passing and arriving at the same time! There appears also the notion of choice of action, that of a freedom to act in one way or another. And with the sense of time passing comes also the consciousness of a death in which all life has to end. With this development, a new entity not found in the rest of the animal kingdom, that of a self-aware being, has entered the world.
We see here the nature of the break between the self-aware human being and other sentient beings. While all other beings have their fixed, given and defined natures according to which they act, the self-aware consciousness is open and free; it has no defined structure. It is not an object among other objects. On the other hand, only through awareness are objects known at all. In our pair of birds, the one which calmly looks on, without getting involved in any action, is the symbol of this awareness.
It is from such a consciousness that we claim that we are separate from whatever we are conscious of. I as a knower am separate from what I know, and also from what I think, for thinking and thoughts are also objects in my consciousness. I am the knower of things and the thinker of thoughts. I can deploy my thoughts to know the nature of things. Thus, I as a thinker am in full bloom as a being separate from my thought which I can use, control, deploy. It is through this ability to deploy thought for human purposes and to store knowledge in human collective memory that human cultures and civilizations have grown and flourished.
The self as fiction?
However, it is here that Krishnamurti proves to be the stumbling-block in our path. He challenges the very notion that such a self separate from its thoughts, desires, ideals and so on, exists. (By 'thought' Krishnamurti means that complex movement of thoughts, desires and volitional impulses which are active in us). In fact, he asserts that such a self is a fiction, there is no self which is separate from its contents. 'The thinker is the thought'. Neither can this so-called 'thinker' control the thoughts it has. The situation is reversed. 'The controller is the controlled'. It is the thoughts which control the putative controlling self.
When we hear the assertion 'the thinker is the thought' for the first time, our immediate reaction may be to reject its claim. We may say, 'How can this be true? My thoughts may delude or mislead me, but surely, even then, how can it be denied that I who am deluded am separate from the thoughts which delude me?'
I may say this with greater or lesser vehemence depending on my involvement in this issue, but while I am responding or reacting in this manner, something else has happened, unnoticed by me. In denying the truth of Krishnamurti's assertion, I have become the denier of that assertion. An image of myself—a self-image—has arisen in me as the denier of the assertion. In fact, I have become that image. This self-image has usurped the place of that self-aware consciousness in me, which is the mark of humanness. I have become 'occupied territory,' occupied by the thoughts of assertion and denial. Instead of my deploying and being in control of my thoughts, these thoughts and the self-image engendered by them are now controlling my being and what happens in it. 'The controller is the controlled'.
'Why and how does this happen?' The simple answer is that I am not grounded strongly enough to maintain myself in that open, free awareness which is the distinguishing mark of humanity. 'Human kind cannot bear very 5 much reality' —the reality of openness and freedom which self-awareness brings. And because I am too weak to maintain myself in openness, which is a free undefined state, I rush to define myself, to give myself an identity. In this self-definition I find safety from freedom and openness. Between two aspects of my being, of being involved in thoughts, emotions and actions versus being fully aware of what is going on, I have opted for the former alone, and forgotten the latter.
Krishnamurti's statement about the identity of Thinker and Thought has thus given us a deep insight into our habitual way of functioning in the world. In meeting life, it is not we as conscious free agents who are doing so, but the thought-feeling-volition complex which is doing it. Both in dealing with practical issues and in responding in human relationship, it is the self-image which is active. It is our first line of defence (or attack, if it comes to that) and herein lies the seed of all the conflicts which are endemic in society. Given that the self-image is a custom-built, highly personalized structure carrying all the memories, experiences, thoughts and impulses with all the accumulated energies that these elements carry, conflict in the nexus of all these highly differentiated and individualized self-images which we call society, is guaranteed. And when individual images coalesce into the collective images of nation, community, race, colour, ideology or religion, as they inevitably do (as a collective self-image provides an even stronger source of identity than an individual image can), we understand what Krishnamurti means when he says 'War is the spectacular outward projection of our inner conflict.'
When we scrutinize this whole process closely, paying attention to its structure and formation—both at the individual and collective levels—and see it in all its details, we see through its deceptive nature also. We see that the self-image, both individual and collective, which has obscured the clarity of our self-awareness, is a thought-fabricated entity. A feeling of great relief comes over us; a weight has rolled off our chests and we breathe more freely. Why? By seeing through the nature of the self-image, we have regained the clarity of the original human self-awareness. We have returned to the other essential aspect of our being, namely, of clear, silent awareness, which marks humanness uniquely. In the light of this self-awareness, we have had the insight that the obscuring self-image, which prevents us from seeing clearly, is not such a substantial entity after all. We are now aware that thoughts form only a part of our being (even if we include in the term 'thought' all the feelings and volitional impulses which invariably go with it). Our being is not exhausted by the 'thought-feeling-volition' complex which is active within it. We are clearly aware of the existence of the complex in the field of our consciousness, as part of the contents of our being. The part cannot usurp the place of the whole being. This part has now been seen for what it is. As such it no longer has the power to hold us in thrall. We can look through it and past it.
The art of living
Now we feel that we have stepped out of a stale, conflict-ridden atmosphere into a purer air and clearer light. Spiritually we breathe more freely in an open, bracing atmosphere. As we look around we look at the world and at life with fresh eyes, from which the dust, or at least some of it, has been wiped. Every element in our experience—Nature, people, our relationships, and the thought-feeling complex itself (for it is still there, though with a reduced potency)—is now seen and felt with a keener sensibility. These elements, which are contained within our conscious being, stand out in clearer outline and more vibrantly. This is no rosy prospect; conflicts and disharmonies continue to exist. But because some clarity has been gained, we have more energy to face them. Our energies flow out towards all the elements in life more freely and spontaneously. In short, we feel more alive.
We appreciate Nature's beauty more vividly, and we are also aware of its impersonal 'ruthless aspect,' such as life feeding on life, and the pains our own bodies have to undergo. In our relationships with people we do not claim to be free of the self-image—far from it. But because we have had some insight into its genesis and nature, it has somewhat less of a hold over us. Since we know that our point of view in any given situation is bound to be a relative one, and so are the points of view of others, our relationships have an open quality which they lacked earlier. Even in situations in which we confront closed, self-image driven views, we try to remain open. The determination to remain open has the potential to change the quality of the relationship. In fact, we are aware that the self-image is a permanent presence in us that cannot be completely done away with. But in this very awareness lies our strength.
Krishnamurti was sometimes questioned about what the social efficacy of a few persons engaging in self-inquiry of this sort could be, but those were wrong questions. The issue is not one of utility or efficacy. This is simply what we do and 'this' is the 'art of living'. Art is not 'for' any consequential outcome, but something practised for its own sake, for the meaning which is intrinsic to it. And this answers our original question about the meaning and purpose of life. These, we now realize, cannot be sought in the realm of explanations, or in any type of consequence-based activity. Meaning and purpose can only come unsought as we fully exercise the self-aware consciousness which is the original mark of humanity.
When we do this, the art of living becomes real for us. The medium in which this art works is the whole field of relationship, which is life. Two major themes in this art are those of peace and harmony. Now we realize that peace and harmony can only come as spontaneous expressions of this art, and not through external moral prescriptions and exhortations.
But what of that second bird on the tree? Have we forgotten her? No, for it is only through her 'actionless-action' of silent Witnessing of all that goes on in Nature, Mind and Society that we have been able to understand their structure. This whole analysis has been enabled only by her silent witnessing. She is the symbol of our essential nature, that of a fully aware consciousness. This, we venture to say, is what Krishnamurti meant by the term 'Observerless observation'. We are under no illusion that such a pure observing state is a goal that can be attained once and for all—far from it. Rather, it is the neverto- be reached zero point, the spiritual analogue of the notion of the 'limit' in the differential calculus which is forever being approached but is never reached. We are aware that such an observation has to be maintained again and again against the pull of our unconscious thoughts, feelings and urges.
We need to forestall also one possible misunderstanding which could arise as a result of undertaking this inward journey—the misunderstanding that this inquiry amounts to a radical devaluation of the role of thinking in the life of humanity. Of course no such simple-minded conclusion is intended. Here we are making an important distinction between thought and thinking. The former is the thought complex building the self-image out of our past experiences and obscuring our awareness. The latter is an activity undertaken in the light of full awareness in the present, responding to whatever is present. This distinction is clear in Krishnamurti's teachings. It is the human capacity for unbiased thinking about the structure of the world and of our experience in it that has given us the great scientific and technological, artistic and cultural achievements of which we are the beneficiaries. It is thinking that is unbiased yet passionate, detached yet involved, and open yet critical, which has given us these achievements.
Having started with one striking metaphor involving a pair of figures, we may fairly end with another pair, that of Rodin's thinker and of the meditating Buddha. Rodin's thinker symbolizes thinking at its best—unbiased and impersonal—and to him we owe all the benefits of culture, art and science. The meditating Buddha symbolizes pure Witnessing, the actionless-action of self-aware consciousness. And we may venture to assert that unless Rodin's thinker sits at the feet of the Buddha, there will not be an end to conflict in the human world.
1 The Mundaka and Svetesvatara Upanishads.
2 Ezra Pound.
3 William Wordsworth: Ode On the Intimations of Immortality
4 Alexander Pope: Essay on Man