Krishnamurti

Attention: The most basic form of love

ants on a leaf

On my son Narayan’s sixth birthday, I gave him an ant farm. He spent hours watching with fascination as the little creatures magically created their network of tunnels. He even named several, and followed their struggles and progress closely.

After a few weeks, he pointed out the ants’ graveyard, and watched with wonder as several of them dragged the bodies of their dead comrades and deposited them there. The following day, when I picked Narayan up after school, he was visibly distressed: on the playground, the kids had made a game out of stepping on ants. My son couldn’t understand why his classmates were hurting these friends he so admired.

I tried to comfort him by explaining that when we really spend time with any living beings—as he had with the ants—we find out that they are real. They are changing, animated, hungry, social. Like us, their life is fragile and they want to stay alive. His playmates hadn’t had the chance to get to know ants in the way he did, I told him. If they had, they wouldn’t want to injure them either.

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Whenever we wholeheartedly attend to the person we’re with, to the tree in our front yard, or to a squirrel perched on a branch, this living energy becomes an intimate part of who we are.

Krishnamurti wrote that “to pay attention means we care, which means we really love.” Attention is the most basic form of love. By paying attention, we let ourselves be touched by life, and our hearts naturally become more open and engaged.

We care about this awakened heart because, like a flower in full bloom, it is the full realization of our nature. Feeling loved and loving matters to us beyond all else. We feel most “who we are” when we feel connected to each other and the world around us, when our hearts are open, generous, and filled with love. Even when our hearts feel tight or numb, we still care about caring.

In describing his own spiritual unfolding, Ghandi said, “I hold myself to be incapable of hating any being on earth. By a long course of prayerful discipline, I have ceased for over forty years to hate anybody. I know this is a big claim. Nevertheless, I make it in all humility.”

When we look at our own lives and at the history of humanity, we realize that hatred, anger, and all forms of dislike are a pervasive and natural part of being alive. Aversion arises because we are so deeply conditioned to feel separate and different from others. As Ghandi found, only by dedicating ourselves to some form of intentional training can we dissolve this tendency, and embrace all beings with acceptance and love.

For Mother Teresa, serving the poor and dying of Calcutta was a practice of viewing each person as “Christ in his distressing disguise.” By doing so, she was able to see beyond the differences that might have hardened her heart and to serve with unconditional compassion each person she touched.

Through meditation practice, as we train ourselves more and more to pay attention with an engaged and open heart to see past surface appearances, we too begin to recognize a perennial truth: we are all connected to one another; our true nature is timeless, radiant, loving awareness. With this realization we feel our belonging with ants and redwoods, hawks and rivers. By deepening our attention, we are naturally moved to take care of this living world–our inner life and all those we touch.

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How we use effort to get to a state of effortless meditation

A person's lower legs and feet mid-jump, appearing to hover over grass.

From time to time I’ll hear people saying that meditation shouldn’t involve effort. For example, Krishnamurti said, “All effort to meditate is the denial of meditation.” And I just stumbled upon a website that decried the “arrogance” and “ignorance” of those who say that meditation involves effort, because “Effort is the antithesis of meditation.”

It’s clear, though, when you look at the Buddha’s teachings, that he encouraged us to make effort in meditation, and in our lives generally. His last words, in fact, were “With diligence, strive on.”

And in my own meditation I find I have to make effort all the time. I have to let go of compulsive thinking, steer my awareness back to the body and the breathing, correct my posture, adjust my attitudes.

One section of the Eightfold Path — one of the Buddha’s key teachings — is “Right Effort.” Right effort is counted as being part of the meditation (samadhi) section of the path.

Right Effort, in the context of the eightfold path, is seen as one of three pivotal aspects of practice, along with Right View and Right Mindfulness. Every aspect of practice depends upon effort, mindfulness, and view.

Effort, mindfulness, and view are described as three states that “run around and circle” all other practices. For example, if you want to practice Right Speech, you first have to be mindful of your speech. Without mindfulness, there is no possibility of any practice. You also have to have a discriminating awareness (or view) of which speech activities are unskillful and cause suffering, and which are skillful and lead us away from suffering. And then you actually need to make effort to abandon unskillful speech and to cultivate skillful speech. So on every step of the path, effort is involved, along with mindfulness and view.

Right Effort is usually defined in terms of the Four Right Efforts, or Exertions. These are:

  1. The effort to prevent the arising of unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen.
  2. The effort to abandon unskillful qualities that have already arisen.
  3. The effort to cultivate skillful qualities that have not yet arisen.
  4. The effort to maintain and increase to fruition skillful qualities that have arisen

Of course we can make either too much or too little effort. There once was a monk called Sona, who was considering giving up monastic life because his efforts weren’t paying off. Just as he was wondering whether he should return to his family, the Buddha appeared to Sona. (This was described as the Buddha “magically” appearing, but I think we could take this as the image of the Buddha appearing in Sona’s mind as he debated with himself.) The (imagined) Buddha asked Sona:

“Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the lute?”

Sona of course replied that he had.

The (imagined) Buddha went on:

“And what do you think: when the strings of your lute were too taut, was your lute in tune and playable?”

“No, lord,” replied Sona.

“And what do you think: when the strings of your lute were too loose, was your lute in tune and playable?”

“No, lord.”

“And what do you think: when the strings of your lute were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your lute in tune and playable? … In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should find the right pitch for your energy, attune the pitch of your faculties, and thus begin your reflections.”

How do we know when, like Sona, we’re making too much or too little effort? The thing is that for our effort to be “right” effort it needs to be combined with mindfulness and right view. Mindfulness allows us to notice what the results of our efforts are, which right view lets us know whether those efforts are helpful or unhelpful, and whether we’re making the right kind of effort.

For example, if your mind lacks mindfulness, and you’re simply drifting, lost in thought, then you’re not exerting enough effort. If you’re feeling a sense of despair about your practice, then you also probably don’t have enough effort. If you’re getting tense and uptight, then you’re making too much effort. If you’re in a state of elation and aren’t very sensitive and kind to others, then you’re probably making too much effort. If you’re giving yourself a hard time, you’re trying too hard. It’s our mindfulness and our “view” that let us know what’s going on and whether it’s helpful.

You need to keep noticing what’s happening around your effort; what’s happening as a result of your effort. When we do that, our effort is more likely to be balanced.

The word “effort” and the related word “work” sometimes give the wrong idea. We can think of work and effort as being joyless activities. So when I talk about working in meditation, and putting effort into our practice, I like to flank the words “work” or “effort” with the terms “rest” and “play.” There needs to be a relaxation of any unnecessary effort — the effort that goes into making the body tense, or that goes into endless thinking, for example. So around our effort there needs to be an attitude of restful, mindful, expansive awareness. And the effort we make should ideally not be forced or unnatural, but light and playful. Meditation can become a joyful exploration: “Where can I go today?”

Yes, there may be times when we have to struggle (to stay awake for example) or have to forcefully restrain ourselves from doing something that we think is grossly unhelpful (for example when we repress the urge to say something unkind) but these should increasingly be unnecessary as we retrain the mind.

Now, it is possible to get to a point in our meditation practice where we don’t need to make any effort. The mind clears and becomes still, joy arises, and we’re simply present to our experience as it unfolds. The positive factors we’ve been developing in the mind reach a kind of critical mass and establish themselves stably. It seems that you’re not meditating — that your meditation is simply doing itself. It doesn’t seem that “you” are doing anything. But to get to that point we need to first put in some effort — usually a lot of effort. On the way to effortlessness in meditation, we find that we generally have to use a subtler and subtler kind of effort. We start to realize that any effort we make creates a kind of disturbance in the mind, and so we refine our effort. One image I love is of catching a feather on a fan; we have to make effort to catch the feather, but if you move too quickly you’ll blow the feather away. But we still have to make an effort — at least for a while.

As Shunryu Suzuki said, “Strictly speaking, any effort we make is not good for our practice because it creates waves in our mind. It is impossible, however, to attain absolute calmness of our mind without any effort.”

It’s not really possible to short-cut this process, and jump straight to effortless meditation. Eventually we get to the point in meditation where effort is in fact unnecessary, but to get there we need to use an effort that is balanced, mindful, and, where possible, playful.

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Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti

I once had a disturbed young man come to a meditation class I was teaching in Edinburgh. As we’d gathered and during the meditation instruction I’d noticed that he was unusually intense and that he had noticeably poor personal hygiene, but in most ways he seemed like a fairly typical young man.

In the discussion following, however, his conversation started to veer off into more bizarre areas. He’d had “cosmic” experiences during the meditation session — experiences whose details I no longer recall but which sounded very off-balance. His girlfriend was apparently an Iranian princess. He was being shadowed by various security forces. Later still, as we were winding up and preparing to leave, and he was able to talk to me more or less alone, his conversation became more delusional still. He had developed special powers through his spiritual practice and could make things happen in the world around him. As we talked a housefly smacked noisily into the glass door we were standing beside. “See!” he said, excitedly. “I made that happen.”

He was obviously ill and suffering, and I experienced that pang of knowing that there was little or nothing I could do to help.

I’m no mental health professional, but his behaviors reminded me of what little I knew about schizophrenia and so I suggested as kindly as I could that he might be misinterpreting his experiences and that he might want to talk to a doctor about what was going on. He was clearly having problems with his mental health, but here’s the thing: according to the Buddha, so were the rest of us. “All worldlings are mad,” he said.*

“Worldling” is a translation of “putthujana,” which is simply anyone who isn’t enlightened. That’s me, and you. The Buddha had his own ideas about what constitutes mental health, and by his definition anyone who isn’t well on the way to Enlightenment is insane. Quite how literally he meant it when he said “All worldlings are mad” is hard to say, but when he looked at ordinary people like us going about their daily business he saw a world out of balance — and a world that by necessity is out of balance, because it is composed of those same off-kilter individuals.

He had a term for this imbalance, which was viparyasa in Sanskrit, although the less-well-known Pali equivalent vipallasa is a bit easier on the tongue and the eye. Vipallasa means “inversion,” “perversion,” or “derangement.” Specifically, in using this term the Buddha was talking about the ways in which we misunderstand the world we live in, and the ways in which we misunderstand ourselves. Just at the young man at my meditation class was constantly misinterpreting what was happening (“See! I made that happen”) so too do the rest of us live in a virtual reality of delusion, confusion, and distortion.

What’s more, we largely share the same delusions, which means that we don’t even realize that our minds are disturbed. And thus, as Krishnamurti suggests, it’s possible to think that we’re spiritually and mentally healthy because we share our mistaken values and understandings with those around us. Collectively, our ill minds create a society that is itself ill, and we consider ourselves healthy because we see our values reflected in our fellow worldlings.

When I think of the vipallasas in modern life I’m overwhelmed by examples, but the one that springs most to mind is to materialism. We keep thinking that the answer to our sense of existential dissatisfaction is to buy more stuff: more stuff, and better stuff. I guess I notice this most with gadgets, but for other people it’s houses, furniture, shoes, clothes, or cars — none of which I care about at all. I get a new gadget — the shiny MacBook Pro I’m writing this article on, for example — and I feel a sense of pleasure just looking at it. It’s better, faster, prettier than any computer I’ve had before. But then what happens over time? Newer, better, faster, prettier computers come on the market, and I start comparing my machine unfavorably with them. My gadget starts to look a bit old-fashioned (after only six months!), less cool, less capable. It feels less fast. And I’m no longer so happy with it. I now start to hanker after something new.

And I’ve been through all this craziness before. (Don’t they say that insanity is doing the same time over and over and expecting a different result?) Even knowing that I’m on a materialistic treadmill doesn’t entirely blunt the craving for a new computer, although to give myself credit I live without a television and rarely make impulse purchases. But on some level I really believe that the answer to the discomfort of my cravings will arrive in a box carried by a UPS truck.

I work with these cravings in my meditation and in my daily life, because the Buddha suggested that there was a better answer to the problem of craving. His advice was that we need to look deeply at our craving itself, and to realize the many levels of delusion that come packaged with it. The new gadget (or pair of shoes, or that lovely sweater, or sexy car) doesn’t contain a magical ingredient that will make us happy. The object of our craving is impermanent and therefore incapable of giving lasting satisfaction.

Our craving itself is impermanent! We can watch cravings arise and pass. As we watch them come and go, choosing not to act on them, they begin to develop an unreal appearance. As we start increasingly to see through them we no longer take them so seriously, and they become weaker and less frequent. And in the end we come to see what the Buddha himself saw, which is that the answer to the problem of our cravings is not acquiring the object of our cravings but letting go of craving itself.

It’s through abandoning craving that we will finally find peace, that we’ll come back to our senses, stop seeing things in a distorted way, and find true health and wellbeing. And having done that, to whatever degree, we can look around at the imbalance that surrounds us — really seeing it — and then compassionately reach out to others so that we can help them bring about their own healing.


* I’ve since learned that this quotation is not from the Buddha, but is ultimately from the commentator Buddhaghosa. You can read more here.

Also the quote, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” seems to be a condensation of something Krishnamurti said in his “Commentaries on Living, Series 3” (1960): “Is society healthy, that an individual should return to it? Has not society itself helped to make the individual unhealthy? Of course, the unhealthy must be made healthy, that goes without saying; but why should the individual adjust himself to an unhealthy society? If he is healthy, he will not be a part of it. Without first questioning the health of society, what is the good of helping misfits to conform to society?” Thanks to reader George Coyne for supplying the full quotation.

The condensed form used in the title of this article seems to have first been attributed to Krishnamurti by Mark Vonnegut in “The Eden Express” (1975). Misattributed or inaccurate quotes abound on the internet.

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