‘The Theosophical Society decided Jiddu Krishnamurti was the messiah who would save humankind. Awkwardly, Krishnamurti came to believe this was bunkum’
The world of “spiritual teachers” has more than its share of charlatans and buffoons. But it’s hard not to respect Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Indian-born mystic who died in 1986. As an adolescent, he was taken under the wing of the Theosophical Society, whose leaders decided he was the new World Teacher, the messiah who’d save humankind. Awkwardly, however, Krishnamurti came to believe this was bunkum. In 1929, aged 34, he called a meeting of the organisation created to prepare the planet for his arrival – and disbanded it. Organised religion, spiritual gurus: he rejected it all. “Truth is a pathless land,” he famously declared: if you’re following someone else, you’ll never find it. It’s amusing to imagine the crestfallen expressions on his acolytes’ faces, much as one relishes the thought of modern-day conservative Christians meeting the penniless, dark-skinned Jewish socialist who founded their faith.
Krishnamurti went on to give countless talks at which he frequently implied that his audience shouldn’t be wasting their time listening to spiritual talks. But perhaps the most striking was a 1977 lecture in California. “Part-way through this particular talk,” writes Jim Dreaver, who was present, “Krishnamurti suddenly paused, leaned forward and said, almost conspiratorially, ‘Do you want to know what my secret is?’ ” (There are several accounts of this event; details vary.) Krishnamurti rarely spoke in such personal terms, and the audience was electrified, Dreaver recalls. “Almost as though we were one body we sat up… I could see people all around me lean forward, their ears straining and their mouths slowly opening in hushed anticipation.” Then Krishnamurti, “in a soft, almost shy voice”, said: “You see, I don’t mind what happens.”
This line is a litmus test. Try it on your friends! The new-agey ones may nod knowingly, but many will find it objectionable. It evokes the self-help cliche of “acceptance”, which sounds like a counsel of despair. Surely the greatest breakthroughs of human history – the end of slavery, votes for women, the eradication of polio – wouldn’t have happened if people had simply elected not to mind? The advocates of acceptance reply that it isn’t the same as resignation. To “accept” the way things are is to stop resisting reality; to stop using positive thinking to try to pretend things are different. Put like that, acceptance seems like a precondition for change, not an obstacle to it.
But Krishnamurti’s words go deeper. The trick, I think, is to take his comment not as an instruction about how you ought to think, but a bare description of a psychological truth: if you didn’t mind what happened, then you’d never have any problems. That’s undeniable: “having a problem” and “minding something” are the same. It’s a restatement of the Stoics’ insight into human distress: no event can trigger upset without a belief that it’s undesirable. (“Things themselves have no natural power to form our judgments”: Marcus Aurelius.) It needn’t follow that you should never mind what happens. Instead, it’s a wake-up call, a reminder of how problems arise: by minding. Personally, most of what makes me anxious or annoyed is indescribably more paltry than slavery or pandemics. It’s bad drivers, noisy neighbours, imagined slights. It’s a liberation to remember that there’s an alternative: often, one can choose not to mind instead.
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