It is a truism barely contestable that explanations, however clear and rational, lead only to clear and rational outcomes. While these are necessary in the field of knowledge, they remain, at best, a superstructure: they supply the scaffolding but not the building. And, most intimately—and most urgently at this time—it is with the building that we are concerned. We have lived too long on the surface of things.
In January of 2017 a group of us met at the Study Centre in The Valley School, Bangalore. It was a representative group—sixteen persons all told—with experienced teachers from the KFI schools and its sister schools. Unlike regular study intensive sessions with frequent exposure to videos and audios of J Krishnamurti, this was a coming together with a difference.
Its focus was attention. The question came up: “What are we doing if, in spite of good intentions, we operate by thought? What will a student leave our schools with if all he/she has learnt is within that field?” There is a case to be made—indeed, a pressing need—for looking afresh at what else may be to hand. This, it was suggested, was attention. It is readily available at all times and places; indeed, in a sense, it is sitting there waiting (Fr. attendre = to wait). But it also implies that we stretch to it—another etymological function of the word. So, while it is waiting, it makes a demand of its own: we need to look where it is pointing. It is pointing to the present moment, the full stretch and implication of it.
There is a correlation, surely, between thought and action. Meeting someone for the first time, they are apt to ask, “What do you do?” In fact, more than anything else, we are defined by what we do. And what we do derives from what we think, as does the socio-cultural matrix in which we were born and to which we have adapted. It is part of the process of narrowing down that is commonly, and correctly, called conditioning. Tacitly or willingly, we have accepted it. But, what if there were a different way, one that did not treat thought as basic—the building block of our too unsolid life—but rather as a necessary tool, good in its place but in no way the whole? And are we really aware, in the marrow of our bones, how fragmented, divisive and destructive thought is when it tries to take on the work of the whole? There has to be a different way.
Attention is a good place, and a good word, to start with. One can be aware, but what if one is not? By contrast, one can pay or give attention— the word itself has an active component. Am I aware of the shape of the room I am in, of the wind in the trees, the call of a bird? Is it part of my learning, like the pattern of my thoughts? Very modestly, I am beginning to see that thought is just part of my environment: it is not the be-all and end-all of everything. At the same time I am cultivating another faculty, perhaps far more important: observation. I know that thought has made an imprint on my brain, be it sensation, emotion, memory, knowledge or experience—they are all part of the same circuitry—and that it is out of this thought-matrix that I react. I am the prisoner of my own past; moreover, I am not alone: this is the human condition, universally.
Attention—a good thing in itself—naturally and easily leads to observation. In observation I see things clearly—things, perhaps, I had never seen before. For unlike thought, which is time-bound and time-binding, observation in its pure sense is free of time; it is not part of the circuitry. What I see/learn at this moment is for this moment only. It is not to be stored for future reference: it is purely and simply what it is. And the mind that sees it is, for that moment, free; it has begun the task of freeing itself. What greater lesson can the young person learn? Indeed, what greater lesson can any of us learn?
A moment of suspension is required, which is not merely the pause of reflection, necessary as this may be in its own time and place. Rather, it is a moment of arrest: I stop in my own tracks, so to speak; I am held above my reactive momentum. Don’t ask, for the time being, “Who does the holding?”—which introduces a new element, a new fragment. There is no inevitable agent in the process, and to see this is to gain insight into the process. The ways of thought are ancient and devious, and one of its extra-functional features is to give us information about itself. It actively prevents us from breaking new ground by presenting what is new in terms of the old, thus destroying the freshness of the new. This is why the moment of suspension is the key because our inveterate tendency is to use the old, the known, as the criterion for assessing the value of the new. At the practical level, it is sensible; at the psychological level, it is lethal.
The traffic of thought is an old traffic: it moves predictably along wellworn ways. Attention, by contrast, is always new. It enters the equation the moment it is given, and it subtly alters the play of things; instead of the causal, the plotted, the predestined, there is an opening up of unlimited potential, the capacity not merely to survive and to manipulate, but to flower in goodness and to awaken intelligence. What we may call the Attention Curriculum is the, as yet, very tentative approach to something of infinite magnitude.
It is also applicable in daily life. By constant attention to our thoughts, feelings and behaviour, we create more and more the climate of change; we create for ourselves the opportunity to delve deeper and wider into ourselves. This is not a self-isolating activity; on the contrary, since consciousness is common, the learning that takes place is not for me alone. I realise my bond, my commonality, with others. And this state of heightened awareness itself helps spread the leaven of a ‘working’ consciousness. It is the move from closed to open, from static to dynamic.
Thought asks, what next? But attention does not. It’s very dwelling on the present, the what is, loosens what is and, in fact, transforms it. And it is towards a transformed, and transforming, consciousness that Krishnamurti’s teachings constantly tend not only because the current crisis demands it, but because it is an organic process in itself. We are like chrysalises born to be butterflies, but solidly encased within the shell of our conditioning. This conditioning—this ‘I’, this ‘me’, this ego—is the product of thought down through the ages. It is also the more immediate product that I call myself and that is real-unto-itself, the ‘I’ that almost everybody lives by. I am called upon to see the falseness of it and, in consequence, go beyond.
Luckily, this is not a projection, nor is it something I have to wait for. No, I can begin it here and now—the dwelling-place of attention and awareness. In so doing, I open the door to the potent mystery of things, something before which the intellect is silent and must be silent for the mystery to be. This is not some far-off, mystical goal: it is woven in with the tissue of daily life.
Can one gather together a group of people whose focus is attention as the basis of learning and who see that the relationship between the two is crucial? For, if attention brings learning, learning too is of the moment: it is not the accumulation of knowledge, the stored fact. And, by the same token, the fact itself is not the same: it is in and by itself, in the very observation, undergoing a mutation, a change of state. There is no longer a division between the observer and the observed, but the transformation of the one is the transformation of both. What was distant and separate is intimate and whole.
Surely, this relates to integration, a key concept in that succinct masterpiece, Education and the Significance of Life. But, if we start with fragmentation, how can we be whole? The whole contains the part—but not the other way round. The part can never become the whole. The whole, however, has room for the part; indeed, the part is integral to it.
“The proof of the pudding” was that we did meet, that “the eating” was sweet and that the topic belonged to all. That it can be reworked and expanded, I have no doubt: it needs only goodwill and a common focus. That it could serve as the basis for a course in teacher education seems equally clear, and that great originality could come from it. The important thing is to have teachers who have seen for themselves the crucial importance of attention—a state of mind or balance of being, into which and through which experience may flow.