Editor’s Notebook: Bertrand and Jiddu, Alan and Eckhart
After reading all of these books, how could enlightenment possibly remain elusive? (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
We spent an afternoon in Portsmouth over Labor Day weekend. The main purpose, to the extent there was one, was to visit a record store so my daughter could add Halsey’s latest to her vinyl collection. The promise of lunch by the ocean – in my opinion the very best way to bid farewell to summer – was an unnecessary but welcome bribe.
Provided the rising sun isn’t so low that it blinds, the journey on Route 4 toward the salt air is among my favorites in the state. The New Hampshire landscape has changed a lot over the years, like landscapes everywhere, but Route 4 from Concord to the sea feels much as it did when I was a child. Lots of antique shops, lots of grand old houses, lots of opportunities to feel grateful just to be alive on a sunny day in early September.
For much of the drive the four of us sat quietly, the girls shut off from the world by way of earbuds and my wife and I plumbing our respective inward depths. When I managed to surface, briefly, I reached for the nearest words to break the silence, which turned out to be a poor recitation of some bit of wisdom I had picked up from Alan Watts on YouTube the night before. Watts has a way of making the most basic philosophical observations sound new and life-changing, and so the spiritual guidance I passed on to her, when stripped of Watts’s artful delivery, had all the weight of a fortune cookie: “Be present and focus on the journey rather than the destination” – or something to that effect. In hindsight, I have no idea why she didn’t make a run for it right then and there.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the years trying to learn from “spiritual teachers,” philosophers, theologians, and neuroscientists, reading their books and listening to their lectures. If I’m honest with myself, what I’m looking for is one line that changes everything, just a handful of words perfectly strung together to deliver neat and tidy enlightenment. Is that so much to ask?
Paul Tillich and Albert Camus helped early on, as did Ernest Becker and Eckhart Tolle. I read “The Awakening of Intelligence” by Jiddu Krishnamurti a few years back and then discovered a trove of his lectures and conversations on YouTube. Watts, who sold himself short as merely a “spiritual entertainer,” has been a staple, as has Bertrand Russell and his thin volume “The Conquest of Happiness.” There have been many others, but that’s the core group.
What have I learned from them? I’ll try to answer the question with a quick story.
The morning after our Portsmouth trip, I noticed my wife smiling to herself in the kitchen. “What?” I asked. Her smile widened and she said, with an abundance of empathy: “As I was getting ready for bed last night, I was thinking about what you were saying about Alan Watts during the drive yesterday, about enjoying the journey instead of focusing on getting to the destination. But in Portsmouth you were speed-walking the whole time, just hurrying to the next stop. You didn’t even notice that we were way behind you most of the time. You’re not very good at window shopping.”
My defensive reaction, typical for me, lasted just a second. She was right, so very right. I replayed the footage in my head: Mister Live in the Present Moment flying along the streets of Portsmouth, eyes and mind fixed on the next stop. I wasn’t spending a beautiful day by the sea with the three people I love most in the world; I was running an errand.
I can’t blame it on the gang – Bertrand and Jiddu, Alan and Eckhart – because I know they tried. This one is fully on the student; it’s clear there are more lectures that must be listened to, more books that must be read.
To lay the groundwork for the next phase of my education, I returned to “The Awakening of Intelligence” a couple of mornings ago and read this snippet of an exchange between Krishnamurti and Professor J. Needleman on whether disillusionment is a precondition for solving the great riddle.
Krishnamurti: No, I wouldn’t call it disillusionment at all, that leads to despair and cynicism. I mean the examination of all the things that are so-called religious, so-called spiritual: to examine, to find out what is the truth in all this, whether there is any truth in it. Or to discard the whole thing and start anew, and not go through all the trappings, all the mess of it.
Needleman: I think that is what I tried to say, but this expresses it better. People who have tried something and it has failed for them.
Krishnamurti: Not “other people.” I mean one has to discard all the promises, all the experiences, all the mystical assertions. I think one has to start as though one knew absolutely nothing.
Needleman: That is very hard.
Krishnamurti: No, Sir, I don’t think it’s hard. I think it is hard only for those people who have filled themselves with other people’s knowledge.
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