An objection to J. Krishnamurti is his apparent reliance on an autonomous will, on an individual effort that transcends society, culture, and ideology. Such an effort is beyond average people, and others are content with their power and possessions that they would assume themselves to be in control of their environment. Can anyone really transcend socialization, experience, and the psychology of habit?
But Krishnamurti argues, in his 1958 talk, “The Individual and the Ideal”:
Though environment conditions the individual, he can always free himself, break away from his background. The individual is the maker of the very environment to which he becomes a slave; but he has also the power to break away from it and create an environment that will not dull his mind or spirit.
But a grand autonomy is not what Krishnamurti is arguing when he cites the necessities of the individual to liberate himself or herself from one’s environment. We cannot free ourselves from experiences, language, concepts, thoughts, or material conditions. Rather, Krishnamurti is focusing on the totality of the environment we cultivate by design or default, and the degree of our conscious awareness of what we are doing. Within this sensory realm, the individual can work towards a distinction, a refinement, of the mental state.
Krishnamurti insists that the mass of humanity and our relationship to people, property, ideas, and beliefs is a flowing phenomena, ever-changing. It regularly presents “new rulers, new phrases, new priests, new doctrines.” One may go further in identifying society and its activities as a spectacle, a spectacle of spectacles mesmerizing the masses, distracting them, placating their instincts, thus allowing the powerful to go on with their control unimpeded.
The question for the individual who senses the nature of society, then, is not how to make this societal phenomenon congenial to the individual but how to get out of its way, to avoid being mesmerized and absorbed.
To do this, Krishnamurti espouses a new morality, not ethics or ideals based on authority handed down (because that has clearly failed to bring sustainability, conviviality, justice) but to begin anew with a thorough examination of the mind, being a thorough examination of the present moment.
“Our present morality is based on the past or the future, on the traditional, or the what ought to be,” says Krishnamurti, here alluding both to the authority of established traditional morality and to an extrapolation of ideologies that present a plan towards which to work. A dialectic between exchanging the past with the future is the only method known to contemporaries. And it does not work. It does not work because the past is embedded in the present, and the future is a projection of the opposite of the past — which is, in fact, our present. Hence our projected future is merely the opposite of what is our present reality. As Krishnamurti puts it, “The ideal, the what should be, helps us to cover up and avoid what is.”
We must give up the ideal future as much as we give up the troubled past. We must focus the mind on the present and the present relationships of the mind to existence. This relationship may be to people, to land, to nature, to personal habits. Krishnamurti explains this approach simply, gently, and logically. The approach is not a new one, of course. Zen demands that we stop hating ourselves and others (the past) but also stop trying to enlighten ourselves (the ideal) — just pay attention to the present moment. Gautama Buddha advised that we stop chasing after teachings and doctrines and simply pay attention to the present moment, which entails attention to the mind and all its accretions, fears, sorrows, contentments, dullness, acuteness, weariness.
As is well known, Krishnamurti did not want any given sect or system to lay claim to method, but he sought to refine philosophical thinking so that it would be available to all.
What results from attention to the present moment, a form of contemplation or meditation, is an individual who is capable of pursuing self-sustaining thoughts, actions, and plans. What is done rightly in the moment naturally continues into the next moment, and onwards. This is what Krishnamurti would present as a requisite to a discussion of society and the world. Taken up fully, the actions of such a individual would ripple out from their life to those of others, like Gandhi’s saying of being the change we want to see in the world. Only thus would the fiction of “society” be transformed. As Krishnamurti says,
Whether you begin near or far, you are there. Without understanding yourself, whatever you do will inevitably bring about confusion and sorrow. The beginning is the ending.
Ethics begins not with a set of inherited commandments or established caste or class system, or even a set dependence on certain technologies and economics, but with the mind, and what the mind of an individual can do with the present moment.