This is a presentation given by Cory Fisher (Archivist and Publications Director of the Krishnamurti Foundation of America) at the Explorations Conference 2019. You can watch the full talk above. We selected some highlights:
Why Be Free from the Known?
Why do we ask this question? What kind of mind asks the question: “Why be free from the known?”
To be free from the known could mean many different things, and what it means really depends on the quality of the mind that asks the question. It seems that, ultimately, the question of freedom from the known is in a class of questions different than most questions that we ask about ourselves because it is a question that points directly to the structure of ourselves. So it is not a question of who or what we think we should be, but it is a question of the very structure of what we are and how that interacts with the world. In that sense, it is a very different question than it may appear to be initially.
Along with the scientific and philosophical components to this question, hopefully, there is another component that is more intimate to us. There is somehow something about this question—and I think that’s why we’re all here—that is important to us in our daily lives. There is a reality to this question that goes beyond philosophizing about how one should live, but on the ground, in daily life, what is the activity of our lives.
To start, “We take conflict for granted.” Conflict is something that, in general, seems to be the basis for a lot of the activity of our lives, both internally and externally.
There is a sense somehow that knowledge fills a space between us, and though that could be an evolutionary shortcut that may help us to relate in some ways, it could be a shortcoming that may inhibit us from relating in others. That’s something that I notice is a recurring theme throughout this presentation: What may be a shortcut for the brain in some ways is a shortcoming in others. And that I think is a key component to our question: Is it possible for the brain to be free of the shortcomings of its shortcuts?
To a brain that is evolutionarily built to use these shortcuts to relate to its environment and those around it, knowledge can be very valuable. But the environment and the people in it are constantly changing. There is not anything that is static, except for our knowledge about what we are and where we live.
We know from studying the brain that it tends to see what it expects to see, and this is because the brain is uses its previous knowledge as a way to predict and interact with the world.
If the brain is conditioned to see what it expects to see, does it always see what it needs to see to have the right information to respond directly to what is going on?
You, Me, & the World
Quote by Krishnamurti
Could our personal problems and the problems of the world have a common element? At the root of these problems, there is a brain that attempts to solve them but this brain is caught in what it knows, what it is seen before. Can it actually meet a problem that it is never seen before? The problem may be personal, or may be global—but the question is how knowledge acts in the present, in the world, both personally and globally, and if there is a common element in how knowledge functions.
We’ll unpack it more when we go into knowledge more specifically, in Krishnamurti’s work, there are different classes of knowledge. Some classes of knowledge are functional and absolutely necessary. So there is never at any point a complete denial of the fact that knowledge has a very real place in the life of human beings. But, particularly in regard to how we relate to one another, knowledge seems to be problematic. Not only in terms of ‘yesterday’ knowledge—that you said something to me yesterday that hurts, and I carry that with me, and that informs our relationship—but also in terms of our evolutionary knowledge about who is a part of you and who is not a part of you, or who is allowed in your group and who is not allowed in your group.
So it is not only a personal, short-term kind of knowledge but a really long-term, relational kind of knowledge that we may not even realize is functioning because we are built to be related in this way. As social beings, we have developed to take so many cues and to relate to one another through so many different kinds of information, and that information is stored to make future predictions. Yet, in terms of our direct relationship with one another, this predictive knowledge may overstep its functional boundary and restrict our actual relationship.
Knowledge & Freedom
This slide is not really defining what Krishnamurti meant by these terms, but it is more about pointing out that, when Krishnamurti spoke about the ‘known’ and ‘freedom,’ he’s speaking about them in quite a different way than we commonly do.
We could define knowledge as the sum total of the organism’s software to function in an environment. It is the accumulation of experience. Personal and impersonal. Often in Krishnamurti’s work, the known is synonymous with the past. This suggests a component of how we interact with our world in the present is directly influenced by what we know about ourselves and about our world from the past. All of our experiences from the past are constantly informing how we interact with the present. In this way, knowledge is a physical thing that functions in the world. It lives in the brain and in the body. Therefore knowledge isn’t just a functional, dictionary-like reference; it has a feeling component. And that really comes into play when you realize how it acts in the present, and how it directly affects our relationships.
It is important to reiterate that there are aspects of knowledge that are absolutely necessary to survive. You need to know how to get home. You need to know your name. You need to know who you are related to. You need to know how to eat, what to eat. This is functional knowledge. This kind of knowledge is not called into question in terms of Krishnamurti’s work, and we’ll go into that more when we unpack what knowledge is.
Freedom, in the way that Krishnamurti speaks about it, is an ending—which is not how we commonly look at freedom. Freedom, defined this way, is the end of conflict. I think that’s one of the cruxes of why the question of freedom from the known is so important. We take conflict for granted as a force in our lives, but Krishnamurti’s proposal is the possibility of ending conflict.
Krishnamurti says freedom is denied by desire. Often, and especially in our society, freedom is seen as an ability to choose what you desire. The more choices you have to avail yourself of what you want or desire is seen as a kind of freedom. This is antithetical to what Krishnamurti is speaking about with regards to freedom, because the freedom to choose is in itself conditioned by what you’re conditioned to choose. It is a subtle but clear distinction: for Krishnamurti, your “freedom” to choose is a direct consequence of how you’re bound to your choices that you’re conditioned to make. So in Krishnamurti’s sense, this is the opposite of freedom.
Quote by Krishnamurti
Krishnamurti’s notion of consciousness is in many ways analogous to what he means by knowledge and the known. This is very different from our common understanding of what consciousness is, and the difference is exactly the difference to our common understanding of knowledge.
In our common definitions of consciousness and knowledge, there is always an assumed entity that consciousness or knowledge belongs to. In Krishnamurti’s work, this is not the case. This assumed entity that consciousness or knowledge would belong to is itself built out of the consciousness and knowledge that it presumes to own. There is never a distinction between the owner of the knowledge and the knowledge that it owns. That in itself is a whole, a sum total that is itself knowledge. The same with consciousness. So, consciousness itself is the sum total of the content of the movement of your mind, which includes what you think you know, but also the one that thinks it knows.
This distinction between knowledge and the one who knows is what we’ve grown up with and developed through— an entity separate from and aware of what it knows and how it feels, that can act on and deal with what it knows and how it feels. The claim here is that, that very essential distinction is the root of why knowledge can be conflictual and divisive. Krishnamurti suggests this distinction may very well be incorrect but is not seen or observed or understood in this way. So it continues to act and has power not only because of its assumed reality but because of its inability to be directly perceived.
Past & Present
Quote by Krishnamurti
What gives knowledge its power but also what gives memory its utility is the fact that it functions in the present. Knowledge is not a dead thing that lives in the past that you can recall when you desire; it is an active process so deeply ingrained into who you are and how you interact with the world. It functions and revitalizes itself actively in the present.
Again, there is no full blanket denial of the fact that knowledge is valuable. But the reason knowledge is valuable and the reason that memories are valuable is that they actually act in the present. You remember where you live right now so you can go there now—which is a very functional, real, living value to what memory is. But at the same time, this shortcut to memory is its shortcoming. So, you remember what happened yesterday between you and a friend, and that remembrance may color and affect how you relate to them today. And that may, in turn, affect how you relate to them forever. And those memories may not be the best way for us to relate to one another. So there is a value and a danger in how knowledge acts.
Security & Order
Quote by Krishnamurti
The brain constantly seeks security and order: a constant navigation of one’s experience to turn negative experiences into good ones and good experiences into ones that last. There is a constant manipulation of one’s experiences to maintain a certain order. There may be a kind of security that has nothing to do with the manipulation of one’s experience, and that seems to come out of an understanding of the limits of knowledge. To see that knowledge is the factor of your own manipulation of your experience may be a different kind of security that’s founded in something that’s beyond your own limited experience of your past.
What is Freedom?
Basically, by freedom, Krishnamurti refers to the process in which the brain’s responses to contemporaneous events are not necessarily influenced or conditioned by the known, but this is specifically in relation to what is deemed psychological knowledge—freedom from this entity that assumes it has the ability to act upon knowledge and the state of the mind.
Functional Knowledge vs Psychological Knowledge
Quote by Krishnamurti
Often, Krishnamurti talks about the right place for knowledge, which seems to be born of an understanding of the limits of functional knowledge and where knowledge and its action tends to move in the direction that becomes psychological. So memories and ideas are stored as an entity that can then work on ideas and memories and the brain. And this entity, this psychological being, is where knowledge becomes dangerous. Somehow there is a misinterpretation of what action is, especially in terms of my own ability to interfere with my experiences and my mind. And this is essentially what Krishnamurti is pointing out as psychological knowledge.
To zoom in to this entity, we could say that: what is psychological is the movement of desire and will, that there is a constant activity of the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure, and the totality of this movement of the mind is what we typically refer to as “psychological.”
So it is not to say that “psychological” is anything separate from physical, but more that there is a subset of knowledge that is rooted in an activity born of desire that is deemed psychological. It is not necessarily not physical; it has more to do with this activity of a ‘me’ that feels it is an actor in the realm of knowledge and experience.
A key component of this actor in the realm of experience and the reason that it has a tendency to create conflict is called many things—psychological time, the factor of becoming—but it is basically this: You have a certain experience, and feel that experience is unsatisfactory, so, out of that sense of ‘unsatisfactory-ness’, there is a projection of what the experience should be or would be or can be and that projection is something that this psychological being can move towards within its own bounds. This movement within the confines of my experience, between what is and what should be is Krishnamurti’s definition of psychological time.
This presumed entity within knowledge “acts” as it projects a future state that it can move towards. Here, what we assume is action is merely a kind of reaction that is born out of what we already know and understand about ourselves.
Freedom Is the End of Becoming
Quote by Krishnamurti
Krishnamurti points to freedom as being the ending of this process of moving from something that is occurring to something that should be or would be occurring. It is the ending of a movement of desiring or any sort of aversion to what is occurring.
“Freedom means the ending of the observer, because the observer is all tradition, established order, social acceptance, morality. It is the ending of the self. The images I have about myself, and then when the brain is free, only then is there supreme intelligence.”
“Freedom is the ending, completely, of becoming something.”
Freedom isn’t a state that’s achieved within which new kinds of experiences happen; it is the ending of the necessity for experiencing at all. It is the end of the necessity for certain kinds of experiences versus others. Often, when we attempt to observe or look, the observer or the looker has some quality of judgment or interpretation of the experience. So what freedom is, is when there is absolutely no critique or preconceived condition upon any kind of experience, moment to moment.
Negation is the denial of this activity of projection altogether. To see that moving towards anything requires that I know something about it from the very beginning. The truth is that in moving towards anything [psychologically], I’m only moving towards my own projection of what I assume is at the end of my goal. This process of negation is to see this whole activity and consistently deny it as it attempts to move. So negation is the denial of reaction against what is.
There is a possibility of the mind that sees that if it is attempting to move in any direction, it is choosing for or against certain experiences. So that choice in itself is already built into the program. Is it possible for there to be no choice at all? This absence of choice is related to this non-projective movement. There is an active quality to being aware of what is going on, and without choice, there is no movement away or against what is occurring.
This move brings us to what Krishnamurti speaks about in terms of perception, and I think this is one of the most interesting bits and something that is difficult to understand in our common terms because really what Krishnamurti means by perception is that, the act of perception is itself the value of perception. What is perceived is not important. There is something about perception itself that has value in and of itself because it is not related to or dependent on what is perceived.
Freedom and perception really are not two things; they are not one before the other but freedom and perception are themselves one action, and Krishnamurti proposes that real action itself is perception. It is not what is perceived but the very act of perception which is not based on previous knowledge, that has value, and that value itself is because it is an action of itself.
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