Seeing Through Self: David Bohm & Krishnamurti's Ego

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Quantum physicist David Bohm (1917-1992) was a protégé of J. Robert Oppenheimer and liked by Einstein. So impressed was Einstein, that he referred to Bohm as his successor. As for Bohm, he had deep interests outside science. This led to the day when Bohm met J. Krishnamurti and began studying under him until the two men had a falling-out.

First, though, background on the physicist. In his work on plasma, Bohm was headed for a Nobel Prize before being blackballed by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy Red Scare era of the 1950s. As a naive Berkeley graduate student he had attended Communist party meetings for a few weeks, and joined the party before losing interest and dropping out. Loyal to his friends, as a Princeton professor he refused to give names before Congress and pleaded his Fifth Amendment rights. Under pressure from a wealthy donor, Princeton University let his contract lapse and refused to renew it. Eventually he became Professor of Theoretical Physics at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Jiddu Krishanamurti (1895-1986) was raised by Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater to become the prophesied world teacher of the Theosophical Society, headquartered in Adyar, Chennai, India. As a young man, Krishnamurti turned his back on the Society and all organized religion, insisting that no dogma or doctrine could lead down the spiritual path to awakening. Ironically, he developed a profitable world-wide following, with his business headquarters in Ojai, California.

Alert to body and mental states since a child, Bohm had experiences for which he sought explanations. In both his physics and in his life, his momentum carried him in quest of a way to understand the universe as a whole. In other words, he did not see separation between science and life as people lived it. As part of his quest, he proposed a dialogue, now called Bohmian Dialogue, in which groups of people talk together to explore their assumptions of thinking, meaning, communication, and social effects. This, he felt, could bridge gaps of understanding so to help people communicate disparate views. Nondualist teacher Toni Packer, engages her sangha in a form of this discourse. The dialogue was an expression of his belief that if only they could understand their lives, people would see how all was part of a seamless web. Wholeness and The Implicate Order, one of his books, reflects this belief. Because of his view, he was drawn to Krishnamurti.

Bohm allowed that Krishnamurti might be on to something he, Bohm, could not discern. Just as he believed in dialogue to gain understanding so he allowed that perhaps some people do have realizations to which most are not privy. This was partly due to his own understanding, for Bohm argued that at the most primitive level we perceive movement. Motion, both scientifically and conceptually, is prior to the idea of a separate space and a separate time. In Bohm’s The Special Theory of Relativity (1965) he demonstrated an Einsteinian world in harmony with our deepest modes of perception. As we grow, we learn to separate the world into that reflected by classical physics. To get at a true understanding of physics, one had to peel away the layers of cognition that present a divided world. Krishnamurti, he thought, could help him in this deconstruction.

Just as Einstein had to reconceive the world, Bohm believed he had to do so also. Like Einstein in bold departure from the conventional, Bohm took the leap to unconventional vantages. In his life, Bohm had experiences he could not explain with common sense, and so to understand the universe as a whole, he became Krishnamurti’s disciple. Krishnamurti told Bohm to “start with the unknown,” by which he meant Bohm should see where knowledge arises. In Krishnamurti, Bohm believed he found a description of the problems of normative consciousness. Krishnamurti wrote, “When man becomes aware of the movement of his own thoughts, he will see the division between the thinker and thought, the observer and the observed, the experiencer and the experience. He will discover that this division is an illusion,” that self is fiction. Krishnamurti explained that the thinker is merely a powerless thought. As their relationship developed, Bohm helped Krishnamurti refine his teachings so that they gained in precision what they lost in poetry.

The two eventually had a falling-out. In this, Krishnamurti is instructive as to why some gurus lack credibility among serious, professional researchers of consciousness. One problem has to do with the explanations of the gurus. Many offer simplistic, even foolish, explanations for what has been termed “the higher consciousness.” Of Krishnamurti, David Bohm wrote Donald Schumacher, “More deeply, what is wrong with the ‘teachings’ is the prevalence in them of ‘always, forever, totality, sacred,' [and so on]. These words not only cannot be justified by the actual observation of fact, more important they radically disorganize the mind and fix it in a static and fragmented mode of activity.” (Infinite Potential, F.David Peat)

Bohm also became disenchanted with the man because he saw Krishnamurti manipulating words so he could never be challenged as mentor, a behavior common to some gurus. According to them, they never speak in error, but always from the absolute. Confronted with absolutisms, how can a student's relative perspective be anything but wrong? In my mind, Neo-Advaitan and fundamentalist Ramesh Balsekar, rife with contradiction, is a prime example.  He claimed nothing can be done to awaken. You either get it or you don't. This in itself is one more concept, too narrow for the universe of human experience.

There was the public guru and the private man. Bohm felt betrayed to learn Krishnamurti slept with Nandini Mehta, the wife of Rajah, Krishnamurti's best friend. Here was no man of high moral purity. The private man was vain, prone to anger, and cruelty toward friends, as well as a compulsive liar.

His trust shattered, Bohm fell into deep depression, his third and final one. In a mental hospital, suffering thoughts of suicide, he underwent fourteen episodes of shock therapy before he recovered and returned to work at the university. He died at age 75 from a massive heart attack.

Despite their falling out, Bohm remained a believer that Krishnamurti was on to something. His guru had spoken of the ending of thought, at which point the mind becomes quiet so that, in silence, understanding is transformed, and one becomes Witness to what arises, both inside and outside, and at some point the Witness collapses so there is no longer an inside and outside, a seer and a seen. They become One without a Second, for there can be no second if all is one.

Still, toward the end of his life, Bohm began to question Krishnamurti's explanations. He asked, “What is it that observes this nondualistic state? What is it that observes consciousness?” He speculated that this new mode of consciousness might be merely another variation of thought.

What Bohm did not grasp is this: one's true nature.  There can be seeing without a perceiver, which is outside perception but indelible when full awakening occurs.. Whatever the language, whatever the religion, or lack therof, whatever the narrative, whatever the century, this remains as the universal feature, however it is recalled in words.

As for no-self, a "lower level" discovery, in a way neuroscience  provides materialist support for Krishnamurti, who said the self cannot be found when looked for.  What people call self cannot be located by fMRI  in the brain and is assumed to be another layer, an overseer function of neurons that had some kind of evolutionary value. Of course this absence comes as no surprise to nondualist masters. The self is an illusion: Zen roshis urge students to investigate to discover its fiction. That is a step along the way to realization, perhaps leading to liberation.

Bohm finally conceded that mental investigation would not yield an answer. Scientific reason and doubt worked in other realms but not in this. He allowed that perhaps, just perhaps, something else had to happen, something beyond his control through reason and objective investigation. That, of course, is the nub of it, for something there indeed is beyond our control and it can be realized for some when they come to even see doubt as another mental impression, at which point liberation, or freedom from suffering, as it is called, might occur.

As for ego, a sense of self, it never wholly goes away, as evidenced in Krishnamurti, whose ego somehow justified improper or immoral behavior.  To lose egoic identity is the point, and that is what Bohm did not grasp, perhaps because not fully realized by Krishnamurti, who spoke in sweeping terms about loss of self, rather than dis-identification as self. That is, anger, fear, whatever, will always arise. Stories will still be told: I like this; I don't like that; this sucks; that doesn't.  The mind tells stories but release comes when it is seen, clearly seen,  that there is no story-teller.   

Bohm was right about Krishnamurti's behavior and rather rambling talk but another man was concise in describing the human malaise.

Terence Gray (1895-1986) wrote extensively about what was behind it.  Gray was an Irish aristocrat, Eton and Oxford graduate, Egyptolist, and theatrical producer, whose cousin founded the Royal Ballet. He maintained a stable of racehorses, with his horse Zarathustra winning the 1957 Ascot Gold Cup.

In later life, he grew tired of it all, and turned to India and Ramanah Maharshi, among other teachers. Along the way he became Wei Wu Wei, meaning Action Non-Action. About freedom, Wei Wu Wei said this:

“Why are you unhappy?

Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself—and there isn’t one.” 

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