"People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."
Krishnamurti's insistence that transformation requires no time is very central to his overall message. Yet this concept of immediate change is so contrary to our normal experience that it is usually put on the back burner as we inquire into the more accessible aspects of his teaching.
Along with space, time is probably the most fundamental component of our reality. Nonetheless, questioning the nature of time is something that has occupied philosophers and scientists alike. Saint Augustine of Hippo, an early Christian philosopher, wonders in his Confessions: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it to one that asks, I know not.” (Confessions, Book XI).
In his considerations, he begins with the assumption that only the present is "real" in the true sense of the word, seeing that the past no longer exists and the future is yet to be. He then goes on to dissect what we mean when we talk about "the present". For the present to exist it has to have a certain duration, but one that cannot be subdivided any further. We call this a "moment", the base unit of time. However, having duration also means that the moment must be comprised of distinct parts. These parts cannot all exist at the same time, but must be temporally separated, even if the separation is miniscule. So by proving that the present cannot be extended, Saint Augustine concludes that it is indeed without duration, a razor's edge between the past and the future, which in the extreme would completely disappear. The only conclusion that one can draw from this line of reasoning is that time does not actually exist.
Calling into question the duration of a moment may seem like the intellectual gymnastics of people who have too much time on their hands, but it certainly introduces doubts about the nature of time and, as a consequence, about our perception of reality itself. Could it indeed be that time is something particular to human consciousness?
If we look at the "sensation" of time as it manifests in the mind, it is clear that it is closely linked to the faculty of memory. Because we remember having existed, the past takes shape as something real that extends behind us. Memory also operates to create the present. When we say "I exist now", it translates to "I know who I am and I recognize the world around me". All this depends on having accumulated knowledge. When we project the future through our plans and aspirations, it is again memory grinding away. In essence, memory is responsible for the feeling of physical and psychological continuity, for the sensation of being in motion - moving from the past, through the present and into the future.
Space and time are real for the man who is yet imperfect and space is divided for him into dimensions, time into past, present and future. He looks behind him and sees his birth, his acquisitions, all that he has rejected. That past is being continually modified by the future which is ever being added to it. From the past man turns his eyes to the future where death, the unknown, the darkness, the mystery, await him.
From Darkness to Light, 1929
Does time then exist independently, or is it a by-product of the movement of memory? Intuitively speaking, we feel that time exists whether or not we are there to acknowledge it, but the fact of the matter is that this can never be verified, since the verification would itself require the employment of memory.
If we try and picture an existence without time, we might be inclined to imagine being marooned on a desert island with no chance of ever being rescued. A living death of sorts. Whether we realize it or not, our sense of vitality depends on time. Without time we would find ourselves cut off from the possibility of change, the promise of the future, which we thrive on.
Do you think a leaf that falls to the ground is afraid of death? Do you think a bird lives in fear of dying? It meets death when death comes; but it is not concerned about death, it is much too occupied with living, with catching insects, building a nest, singing a song, flying for the very joy of flying. Have you ever watched birds soaring high up in the air without a beat of their wings, being carried along by the wind? How endlessly they seem to enjoy themselves! They are not concerned about death. If death comes, it is all right, they are finished. There is no concern about what is going to happen; they are living from moment to moment, are they not? It is we human beings who are always concerned about death - because we are not living. That is the trouble: we are dying, we are not living.
From Think on These Things | Chapter 17
We instinctively assume that the stretch of time ahead of us that we are so anxious to prolong, is what separates us from death. Krishnamurti, however, turns this on its head. The construct of a future, he says, is what introduces death and mortality in the first place. A bird, innocent of such fabrications, lives life to its fullest, however long or short its life may be.
What we call "life", then, is to Krishnamurti a dreadful existence in an abstract world built on memory and sustained by the movement of thinking. Intrigued as we are by his references to a non-abstract world devoid of time, we are quick to identify the problem as being the relentless movement of thought. Anyone who has tried to put a wedge into this continuous stream of occupation, knows how difficult it is, if not impossible.
Why does the mind do this, why does it always strengthen the past by saying, "I have been guilty, I am guilty, it is terrible to be guilty, how am I to get rid of this guilt" - why does it do it? Does it do it because the mind needs to be occupied with something? You understand? It needs to be occupied, whether with god, with smoke, with sex, with something, it has to be occupied, therefore it is afraid not to be occupied. Right? And in occupation with the feeling of guilt, in that feeling there is certain security. At least I have got that thing, I have nothing else but at least I have got that feeling of being guilty.
From Reflections on the Self | August 1st 1973
Our various forms of occupation seems to serve the single purpose of keeping the abstract world of thought afloat. Whatever we are occupied with at any given time becomes all-important and occludes any awareness of the fact that it is only the constancy of thinking that matters and not the details. It is somewhat like riding a bicycle. You can't stop pedaling or you'll fall. In like manner, without thinking the abstract world would collapse.
Why is it, though, that this understanding that there is a more devious mechanism at work is unable to stop the process of thinking? Consider what is involved in understanding. Understanding first identifies what is wrong, and then devises a course of action to bring about the appropriate change. Being in conflict with "what is", it harnesses thought - our problem solving tool - to resolve the contradiction. So ultimately, instead of ending thought, understanding has the opposite effect of generating more thought. It is quite a discovery to see that understanding might actually be the "root of thought". In fact, all our thinking might just stem from our particular compendium of "understandings".
If you examine, you will see that your mind and heart are held in a series of standards or values. Being so bound, the mind is always giving further values, establishing further standards, and is ever sitting in judgment. Until the mind frees itself from this continual process of attributing values, it is never fresh, new, never creatively empty, if I may use that word without being misunderstood. For in creative emptiness alone is there the birth of truth.
New York City | Third Talk in the Town Hall, March 15, 1935
We resort to our "series of standards and values" to interpret the world and to respond to its challenges. Albeit unconsciously, our thoughts are imbued with a certainty that we have accurately apprehended things as they are. To put it another way, even if the particular content of the thought is insecure or skeptical, there is an underlying feeling that the insecurity or skepticism is totally warranted.
Assuming that by transformation Krishnamurti means terminating the abstract world created by memory and thought, then it follows that this transformation cannot be the result of an understanding. This is because as we have seen understanding itself is the source of thinking, the building block of the abstract world. Krishnamurti introduces the concept of insight - a phenomenon that has no precursor and which therefore precludes understanding or experience. Unlike understanding, insight has no purpose and therefore no will to effect change. Like life, it just is.
At this point the narrative becomes rather difficult. We borrow words from Krishnamurti to try and fathom the nature of insight; for example, the word "abandonment" with its sense of complete withdrawal or "leisure" to convey lightness and absence of investment. But anything that can be formulated will, in an instant, crystallize into understanding. That is why reading Krishnamurti or engaging serious, diligent dialogue can take us up to here but no further. From this point on, the collective inquiry must end. Any further action, if indeed, that is what is required, would have to be taken without the benefit or understanding or experience, our own or anyone else's.
One can live effortlessly, in a way that cannot be arrived at through effort; one can live without this incessant struggle for spiritual achievement; one can live harmoniously, completely, in action - not in theory, but in daily life, in daily contact with human beings. I say that there is a way to free the mind from all suffering, a way to live completely, wholly, eternally. But to do that, one must be completely open towards life; one must allow no shelter or reserve to remain in which mind can dwell, to which heart can withdraw in times of conflict.
Oslo, Norway | Talk in University Hall, Oslo, September 5, 1933