Krishnamurti on Solitude

Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986) was a unique figure in twentieth century thought. Born in India and educated in England, Krishnamurti reflects a confluence of Eastern and Western thinking unmatched by any similar contemporary except, perhaps, Gandhi.

Krishnamurti's Western style is evidenced in his tightly organized prose, which relentlessly pursues a given theme or topic. At times he is Socratic in his push for clarity and sometimes he is a rationalist in his Cartesian doubt and his analytical frame of mind.

But Krishnamurti is also, as an Eastern thinker, aware of a tradition of spirituality not dependent on a given system or religion. This perennial thinking underlies much of his work. Krishnamurti's concepts of consciousness, mind, emptiness, and the unmasking of culture and institutions are all strenghthened by the insights of the East. The medley of Western methodology and Eastern wisdom is felicitous and rewarding.

Within Krishnamurti's thought, solitude has its place as a methodological tool. Here he anticipates Western psychology while borrowing from Eastern tradition. We know that solitude has little place in the historical philosophy of the West, except among mystics. But Krishnamurti "rescues" solitude from mysticism and makes solitude available to all. Of course, he has seen its efficacy in Eastern traditions, but here there is little trace of solitude as strictly Eastern. This is notable because Krishnamurti is developing these themes as early as the 1930's, before Western audiences, when Westerners still knew little about Eastern thought and even less were they applying it to philosophy.

We can follow Krishnamurti's train of thought concerning solitude by beginning with what he calls "sensitivity." In Life Ahead1, Krishnamurti explains the context.

Sensitivity means being sensitive to everything around one -- to the plants, the animals, the trees, the skies, the waters of the river, the bird on the wing; and also the moods of the people around one, and to the stranger who passes by. This sensitivity brings about the quality of uncalculated, unselfish, response, which is true moraliity and conduct.

Buddhist tradition has identified this virtue as compassion, the origin of which is in mindfulness. Krishnamurti points to it as a methodology for dispelling the arbitrariness of culture and authority. Other traditions will root this virtue in metaphysics or define it as the essence of morality. But from the point of view of Krishnamurti's philosophy and psychology -- not Western but not merely Eastern, either -- mindfulness or sensitivity is a prerequisite to knowledge of self.

For the total development of the human being, solitude as a means of cultivating sensitivity becomes a necessity. One has to know what it is to be alone, what it is to meditate, what it is to die; and the implications of solitude, of meditation, of death, can be known only by seeking them out.

Krishnamurti points out not only the path of solitude as a necessity to enlightenment but also the necessity of experience rather than ritual or doctrine external to oneself. How much solitude? How much meditation? That is exactly for the individual to discover, not awating authority to sanction it or persuade the individual to pursue it.

Solitude cannot be brought about by instruction, or urged by the external authority of tradition, or induced by the influence of those who want to sit quietly but are incapable of being alone. Solitude helps the mind to see itself clearly, as in a mirror, and to free itself from the vain endeavor of ambition with all its complexities, fears, and frustrations, which are the outcome of self-centered activity.

This freedom from personal vanities cultivates a better self, a universal self. One need not be a moralist to witness the fuller humanity that unfolds in such a process. It has great fruits for the individual returning to society.

Solitude gives to the mind a stability, a constancy, which is not to be measured in terms of time. Such clarity of mind is character. The lack of character is the state of self-contradiction.

Krishnamurti is not proposing solitude for hermits and solitaries. He is proposing solitude as a method, for everyone. The result of this process is "character," or integrity, the very heart of the person, especially in a social setting. He is distinguishing solitude from isolation and from what he calls the "cultivation of detachment," (as in, presumably, Stoicism). Instead, Krishnamurti sees solitude as aloneness, but aloneness as that condition distinct from and separate from culture. We may call it alienation in existential terms, but it means separation from the social contrivances and accretions of oppressive culture around us. If we can rid ourselves of all that is merely dependent on culture, says Krishnamurti, we can become alone, yes, but also free.

You are never alone because you are full of all the memories, all the conditioning, all the mutterings of yesterday; your mind is never clear of all the rubbish it has accumulated. To be alone you must die to the past. When you are alone, totally alone, not belonging to any family, any nation, any culture, any particular continent, there is the sense of being an outsider.2

The word "outsider" is reminniscent of Albert Camus' L'estranger, the novel sometimes translated as "outsider" or "stranger." This status is alienation from culture that is not (yet) at a fruitful stage. (This is also reminniscent of Thomas Merton's use of existentialism in his Notes Towards a Philosophy of Solitude). For Krishnamurti such a person would achieve "innocence," which is the beginning of a mind "free from sorrow."

We carry about us the burden of what thousands of people have said and the memories of all our misfortunes. To abandon all that is to be alone, and the mind that is alone is not only innocent but young -- not in time or age, but young, innocent, alive at whatever age -- and only such a mind can see that which is truth and that which is not measurable by words.

Krishnamurti wants the individual to open the mind to the true nature of itself and the universe, and to use solitude to begin to accomplish the task of self-knowledge. While his concept of solitude appears utilitarian, Krishnamurti wisely sees that everyone -- hermit or civil servant -- has the task of discovering their true nature, and will benefit from the practice of solitude. For in this sense of aloneness, we disclose the essential, and the universe itself discloses it to us at every moment.

In a late journal entry, Krishnamurti wrote:

It is good to be alone. To be far away from the world and yet walk its streets is to be alone. To be alone walking up the path beside the rushing, noisy mountain stream full of spring water and melting snows is to be aware of the solitary tree, alone in its beauty. The loneliness of a man in the street is the pain of life; he's never alone, far away, untouched and vulnerable ...3


  1. Life Ahead. Ojai, California: Krishnamurti Foundation of America, 1963.
  2. Freedom from the Known. Ojai, 1969.
  3. Journal (September 15, 1978). Ojai, 1982.