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On Reflection… part 1
David Bohm and Jiddu Krishnamurti were right in posing that the incoherence of thought is our greatest challenge. Some thirty years later the burning question is; why has their legacy not borne fruit? What did they miss? What's gone wrong?
By miss, I don't mean to imply negligence on their part or that their capacities were too limited. Two less limited people would be hard to imagine! But, they were immersed in their time; subject to assumptions they could not see; everyone is. What might these have been?
Another place to look is at the traces left by those who have set themselves the task of following in their footsteps. Krishnamurti was adamant that he not be fetishized either during his life or after his death; but…, in a sense, this kind of thing is almost inevitable. When someone makes such an impression by the quality of their insights and the lights of their character it is hard not to find ourselves erecting some sort of monument.
Of course, this has been true of every seer and saint, prophet and sage. What strikes us in their case is that they spoke to the dynamics of projection and transference directly. They prepared the possibility for us to look at the root of all that seems so inevitable and tragic and messy and perhaps even heroic at the heart of human suffering. They addressed the role of thought in all its various forms and guises in the creation and perpetuation of, to put it rather mildly, our difficulties.
What has continued to impress itself on my own meditations on thought and our predicament has been the gap between how clear their illumination was and how, even from inside the space of clarity this carves out for us, how difficult it has been to make any sort of headway on the matter. This is neither a trivial nor a superficial concern. They provided us with tools, powerful tools of great subtlety; but still, in the end, they do not – not that they were ever intended or expected to be able to – remove us from our difficulties. Our predicament lies in the way we end up falling into new, and much too often, the same old pitfalls; precisely the pitfalls their insights warn us about and that would give us the chance to gain traction in order to find our way.
What has happened in many cases to those of us attempting to follow in their path, I would say, presents as a failure to fully grasp what they were saying; shows our lack of capacity to match their own tremendous sense of perspective. We appear to have fallen into such obvious traps as absolutism and perceived necessity as justifications for urgency and a closing off of the radical openness that was central to their contributions. This failure is not in the original work. They were quite clear. The record, written and verbal, consistently rejects shortcuts.
Still, it is not a matter of assessing blame. It is a testament to the pernicious nature of the beast. Thought can always find a way back into the citadel of false-certainty which it strives to maintain and defend. The other kind of error, or maybe that's too strong and weighted a term, let's say question, points to the journey one embarks on in attempting to break out of this fortress. The abyss of uncertainty, the need to acknowledge, and then expand, and acknowledge again: How much we do not know; how far do our unexamined assumptions go? How little do we understand how weak and ultimately how confusing our expectations of being able to know anything are? How might we orient ourselves in a way that will allow us to act on our insights in ways that work, that actually move us towards what we wish to believe to be a beneficial result?
Now this is not something they failed to forsee. The fault is ours, in our lack of consideration of just how deep this whole mess goes. This continually expanding sense of disillusionment is just what is needed. It does not take us away from what they have left us to work with. It is the very meat of the proposition they laid before us.
But…, if all of our errors are understandable and, in a significant sense, unavoidable, and; if their blind spots were beyond their great powers of perception to uncover and may remain undiscoverable – Perhaps because we are not at a far enough remove from their situation? – How do we proceed?
We might begin by assessing where we are and reflecting on how our perception of this situation may itself be mistaken. What persists is a sense that we are in a time and place where the difficulties they faced have only deepened. Disasters they anticipated are now upon us. The means to convey, to share, to find a suitable reservoir of attention and will so that we can put in the work required appears to have almost disappeared.
A quick example of what I mean: Take a look at any of the interviews David Bohm gave on television during the seventies or eighties. The conditions that existed then to make room for such a character to be present in such a situation before an interviewer and before a general audience – even of Canadians! – with a deep and broad enough reservoir of attention. And…, I can't help but call it, enough seriousness of purpose to want to participate, to listen…. None of this appears available today. This message of hopeless disvision and erosion of seriousness has been endlessly driven, beaten, into us: There is no room for such consideration in our public sphere.
I have to confess I am at a loss to imagine a circumstance in which it would be possible to join into an inquiry on these questions, to meet what I assume to be the basic criteria of essential conditions to allow for such an investigation within what I can imagine as a plausible, "real-world" scenario.
Now I do appreciate that what I'm describing is akin to the hopelessness of vertigo one might feel descending into unconsciousness as the result of an overdose, or some accident. A situation in which a growing sense of our danger is met by a quickly diminishing capacity to do anything about it. This is what a death throe feels like. This is what it's like when options narrow to the point of death.
But then, I also appreciate that the very limitations imposed by the incoherence of thought lead us to perceive things in this way. This is a symptom of what ails us; of what they so ably laid out for us to examine; until we do arrive at the point when all of our options have really been closed off….
David Bohm spoke of how thought generates, manifests, its own reality. Thought sets social "realities" that create hard, physical realities. Institutions and patterns of behavior that arise in thought are shaped in thought's inherent, incoherent likeness. They then generate, manifest, the physical conditions under which we live. It has recently struck me that this effect has now infected the Earth entire. Even near-space has been stamped by the violence inherent in the power of thought. Thought has colonized the whole planet.
"But now it's different…." This cry of exceptionalism is so often raised as the ultimate defense agaisnt any consideration that consequences will finally come home to roost; whatever applied in the past just cannot affect us! Perhaps this phrase can have another sense? One that cannot be so easily dismissed. There has never been a time – except perhaps when cyano bacteria poisoned the atmosphere, releasing oxygen and killing off most of the anoxic life of that age – when the whole planet has been contaminated by the actions of one species in the way we have, through the power of thought now, contaminated the Earth.
Bohm made a distinction, one I have also always felt to be significant, between destructive power and violence. Violence, as Bohm pointed out, is an undue use of force. Not any use of force. When vulcanism acts on a continental scale to bring on a great extinction it is not an act of violence. A great force has been unleashed. Destruction is one of its consequences, but none of it has been the result of an undue reaction to some imagined slight. When the incoherence of thought perpetuates an escalating cycle, escalating cycles upon cycles, of undue force; force put into motion by the mechanism of fear and delusions of certainty and security; it brings about a mass extinction in an act of incalculable violence.
This has never happened on Earth before.
To me, this realization has been an inseparable aspect of what characterizes our moment. We would not have found the perspective Bohm and Krishnamurti discovered and explored if they had not lived at a time when this situation was imminent. Our possibilities are inextricably linked to the intractability and immanent nature of our predicament. This, "This time it's different!" is not an excuse. It is a fact. And it holds within it the possibility of any chance to meet what confronts us.
This does up the ante in ways we can barely imagine and in ways we'd rather not consider. But, as I've said before, to the individual facing a mortal situation there has never been a difference between one's own personal end and the kind of finality encompassed by the term extinction. Old Louis was not exceptional in his claim, "Apres moi? Le deluge!" It's just that in his case rending his head from his body did not lead directly to "Le deluge" for all of us. Our end may, most likely will, already has been, a time of mass extinction.
None of these factors really touch upon the core of today's question, why is it so difficult to imagine a path passing through our moment, building upon their work? If anything all this does is show, once again, how powerful the incoherence of thought can be; and, how caught in its thrall, we are relatively powerless.
When asked why we should make the effort when it does seem, did seem even then, to have such a slim chance of success; they both insisted that in the end we do it because it is the right thing to do. In the end, outside of time and contingency, this is all we can ever expect to find as a reasonable, a fitting, response to making an effort to dissipate delusion and attend to, to witness, what is true.