Dave’s Desk@Ditch: Old Words for a New World

“One of our great problems must be to know what is freedom, and the need to understand this problem must be fairly immense and continuous, since there is so much propaganda, from so many specialists; there are so many and various forms of outward and inward compulsion, and all the chaotic, contradictory persuasions, influences, and impressions. 

I am sure we must have asked ourselves the question: what is freedom? And as you know, everywhere in the world authoritarianism is spreading—not only at the political, social, and economic levels, but also at the so-called spiritual level.” 

Upon first glance, one might think that this passage was gleaned from a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, or from a prominent historian making the rounds of a book tour, given its relevance to our current state of affairs, but that’s hardly the case. 

It is an excerpt from a compilation of talks titled: “To Be Human,” given by the late J. Krishnamurti, internationally recognized as one of the greatest philosophical and spiritual figures of the 20th Century. The irony, of course, is that these words were spoken decades upon decades ago.

Throughout this particular lecture, Krishnamurti delves deep into the topic of freedom; primarily that of a cognitive nature. Prior to launching into a series of examples supporting his position, he declares: “First, I think we must realize that our minds are really not free. Everything we see, every thought we have, shapes our mind. Everything about you influences what you think. Can we not see that fact—that all thought is conditioned?” 

On several occasions, he challenges his listeners “to move away from every form of influence and see if we can go deeply and discover if there is a state of being which is not the result of influence.” 

Additionally, he likens the process to a virtual war, stipulating: “Life is a battle of ideas, a battle of influences, and your mind is the field of that battle.”

By postulating this, he has in fact, presented us with few options, if any, when reflecting upon the choices we make. It’s a similar premise shared among some of the more current and popular academicians, such as neuroscientist Sam Harris or philosopher Dan Dennett. 

Harris, who takes it one step further when discussing free will (a subject upon which he frequently references during his weekly podcast, Making Sense, in addition to devoting an entire book to the field), whereby it is the illusory nature of Krishnamurti’s model that most people find difficult to accept.

Dennett, in his book “Brainstorms,” concurs with this deterministic approach by adding, “Perhaps such a denial, and only such a denial, would permit us to make sense of the notion that our actual lives are created by us over time out of possibilities that exist in virtue of our earlier decisions.” 

As a writer who contributes to several different types of media sources, it’s a concept that I’ve often wrestled with, especially when it comes to creating new content or developing fresh ideas. In essence, it is anything but new or fresh. 

As much as I attempt to construct or reframe a particular narrative, possibly even address it from a counter-perspective far from my own, its foundation ultimately dwells in my cumulative memory bank of life experiences, and therefore is influenced by everything I’ve heard, said, or done in the past. 

Indeed, some might say that’s exactly what needs to happen when one is advancing opinions or contributing content to a collective conversation on any given subject: essentially, that no two perspectives are entirely alike.

 More importantly, on a macro or societal level, the implications of such conditioned responses to serious matters can have far-reaching detrimental effects, as we’re currently experiencing both here and abroad. The outright rejection of progressive solutions to myriad issues of our time, by a large segment of the population, is deeply disconcerting. 

How interesting, that nearly a century ago, Krishnamurti observed the discourse during a similar era of discontent by commenting: “We spend our days and years in cultivating the intellect, in arguing, discussing, fighting, struggling to be something, and so on. It is very important to understand that the mind, through time, through experience, through the many thousands of yesterdays, is shaped and conditioned, and that thought is not the way out.”

Dave Davis

Dave Davis teaches preschool for the Head Start program based at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton, NY. He is also a frequent contributor to “Who Smarted?,” a popular educational podcast for elementary school children.

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