Philosophers are hard to come by these days. They can't be found in sandles around the Square, reading poetry in cafes, or teaching classes at Harvard. But one came to Lowell House last week and no one noticed.
Jiddu Krishnamurti came to Harvard not as a prophet, a mystic, nor an expert on yoga (all of which he was labeled in an advertisement) but rather as one of those rare men who can change your life. A "mutation of the mind" was his prescription. "A radical change in the psyche and a new awareness."
Like most of the students who came to listen to him that evening, I was up for a new angle; I figured it would probably be a Leary-like "tune on, drop out" line.
But Krishnamurti was different. He wasn't beat, and he didn't look like a mystic in his three-piece suit. He just sat there, unanxious, looking at his hands until the room fell silent.
In the beginning I couldn't follow him; it really didn't seem worth the trouble. He was talking about the similarity between perceiver and perceived; both of them, he maintained, were the same. It all sounded like an interminable string of titles out of the East Village Other -- "The Cosmic Unity," "God is Oneness," "Subjective-Objective False Duality." That was my introduction to "the new awareness." I was bored.
But then he stopped talking about what it was, and began telling what it wasn't. Somehow, it made sense. Awareness is not something which can be injected. It can't be achieved through long hours of meditation. It is not simply the accumulation of more information. You can't work towards consciousness; you've just got to be aware.
"The Theory of the Center," a popular conception of modern prophets, describes consciousness as starting from a central point (the ego) and working towards larger horizons. Krishnamurti takes issue with the basic premise of this theory (the distinction between inner and outer worlds) and insists that "if you try to expand the center, you remain a captive of its boundaries. No matter how far you go, your consciousness will always be limited."
"The new awareness" dissolves all boundaries. The distinction between self and the outer world disappears, and with it, all conflict. (For people who are unaware, conflict is the rule of life. Men are filled with anxiety, they fight each other and suffer. For them the world is a set of grueling competitions, a constant struggle for self-esteem and power.)
But I was still skeptical. What was the escape from the rat race Krishnamurti described? A retreat from the cold outside to an equally barren monastic existence?
Just who was this guy who came to Harvard to tell students about the futility of academic competition? If we all stopped struggling there would be no one to bake cookies and wash windows. Who would keep the world going while we sat and enjoyed total consciousness?
There developed a gulf between myself and the speaker. As far as I knew he was a marked man, chosen at a tender age by a sect of mystics to become a saint. He had been proclaimed the Messiah (by one Mrs. Annie Besant), but refused to play the role out of humility. Perched on one side of his chair, his legs glued together at the knees and the ankles, he looked as if he were squeezing over to make room for a bigger man. Definitely monk material, I decided.
But Krishnamurti dispelled his other-wordly appearance with a pragmatic approach to "the new awareness." One doesn't have to become a monk, he argued. "All that is required is about two hours a day dedicated to complete consciousness, and you will be able to look at your boss with a new perspective." It is not a retreat from the real world which is necessary, but rather a new vitality.
For me the question remained whether the world was a bleak as Krishnamurti made it out to be. Aren't there moments of pleasure and happiness?
According to the philosopher, no one knows happiness -- absence of conflict -- until he becomes aware, and awareness is impossible in a world of pleasure-seekers. "Don't get me wrong," Krishnamurti said, "I don't mean this in any puritanical sense." There are instants of unutterable pleasure, he admitted, but how long does such a moment last in the sexual act? Before one makes love, he continued, one anticipates the pleasure; afterwards there is only the memory and longing.
As students, we had all become attached to our make-love-not-war slogans, and here was a 60-year-old radical telling us that making love would end in making war. But did his euphoric state of awareness really exist, or was he putting us on?
Krishnamurti described looking at a leaf (most quasi-philosophers usually aim at larger objects like a tree, but our man was being more selective). "While looking at a leaf my attention is distracted by other images which flash through my mind," he said. By following these images to their conclusion, Krishnamurti clears his mind of the day's debris and returns to the leaf with all his powers of concentration. He is convinced that if a man did this with every idea which crossed his mind during the day, he would have explored everything in his unconscious. He would have no dreams.
I left Krishnamurti where I found him, in a leather chair surrounded by students eager to impress him with their knowledge of obscure Indian cults. Not until a few days later did I realize what an impact he had made on me. I was walking through the Yard when I happened to be struck by the slender, bright-white spire of Mem Church slicing the dark sky. I stopped, looked, and tried to concentrate. "What the hell are you doing standing like a fool gazing at the sky?" I asked myself. There was an embarrassing silence. Then it started raining and I went inside.