At one point or another, most of us have asked, What is the purpose of life? Maybe you’ve wondered – aloud or to yourself – how some people manage to find sustained happiness. Maybe you’ve mused over problems you’ve seen in society, and pondered possible solutions.
In his book - What are you Doing with you Life, originally published in 2001, Jiddu Krishnamurti will show you some responses to these fundamental issues. What you won’t find, however, are easy answers – in fact, it’s likely you’ll find some things here disconcerting and provocative. For instance, what if “sustained happiness” doesn’t exist? What if looking for a “purpose” in life is the wrong way to go about things? What follows will challenge and inspire you – and more.
The three most powerful points I took from the book were;
Your conditioning stops you from seeing things as they are.
To transform the world, you must transform yourself. Happiness is fleeting – and the sooner we learn this, the happier we’ll be.
Intellect is not intelligence.
Your conditioning stops you from seeing things as they are.
Stop a moment and consider the way that you perceive the world. Consider, for instance, the way you see love. From the moment you were born, you were subjected to ideas about love that shaped the way you think of it. For you, perhaps love is epitomized by a picture of a happy couple on their wedding day, or a bunch of flowers given as a surprise gift.
No matter what, you’ve been conditioned to see love in a particular way, depending on your social, economic, and cultural background. But this means that your perspective may be very narrow, and the complex truth of love may be lost on you. Your conditioning stops you from perceiving the world in all its complexity. Life is constantly in flux, but because of the way you see the world, you tend to think of it as fixed. Your mind is tethered by your cultural background, belief systems, and dogma.
To see how life continuously changes and evolves, you need to be able to change your mind and your perspective along with it. If you don’t attune yourself to life’s subtle, continuous changes, you won’t see the full picture – just your own tiny, static snapshot.
For instance, if you were to watch a flower bloom and change, your description of it would vary from one day to the next if you were to be truthful about that flower. Life is just like that – it requires intimate attention.
To look at life more truthfully, you have to free your mind from all the grand theories and systems that try to explain it in its totality. This is the hard part. For instance, maybe you think of yourself as a socialist, a capitalist, a Christian, or a Hindu. If you adhere to an ideology or religion, any number of situations will be forced to fit your worldview, even if what they’re telling you contradicts your belief system.
So how do you attune yourself to the world? You must watch the way your mind moves very carefully. You must observe its workings, almost as if you were watching from the outside. Only then will you begin to understand how your conditioning limits the way you see.
In this way, you’ll begin to understand yourself and your relationship to the world. That’s the first step toward grappling with the many problems we face – problems that are always changing and evolving, just like life itself.
To transform the world, you must transform yourself.
Imagine a revolution. Inspired to fight against injustice, the people come together to challenge a system that’s rigged against them. They stage a general strike, and bring everything to a halt. They overthrow their government and the elites who benefited from things as they were. They propose a new constitution, with a whole suite of new laws designed to make things fairer, to lift up the downtrodden, and to put an end to violent conflict.
That’s what many people imagine when they hear the phrase “transform the world.” According to the author, though, things will never change if this is what we’re waiting for. As we saw above, relying on big ideas and grand theories can prevent us from seeing the world clearly. It can also prevent us from effecting any positive change. If we’re always waiting for some great revolution or spiritual transformation to improve the world, we miss the real truth of the matter – that is, that change comes from within us, not from outside us.
The world is made up of many individuals interacting with each other. Rather than politics or religion or any other grand system, our problems begin at this level – with the individual. It is not fascism, capitalism, or religion that has caused us trouble, but a disorder of the individual mind.
Whether we’re looking at economic inequality, war, or psychological illness, the self is the cause. According to the author, the main problem is the very construct of the individual self, which is isolated and set against everything else in the world. As individual “selves,” we desire power, position, and influence of different kinds – and those things create all the problems we see around us. By striving for individual gain, we create all the disorder in the world.
So, in the author’s opinion, we must escape from the “I,” or the ego, to move forward. But it isn’t possible to force yourself out of this egotistical way of being simply by thinking hard about it. What you must do, above all, is learn to observe the workings of your mind. Then, through simply watching yourself closely, you should be able to tell when your ego is making you act in a destructive manner.
Happiness is fleeting – and the sooner we learn this, the happier we’ll be.
Happiness: we’re all seeking it. After all, isn’t the pursuit of happiness the whole point of life? Whether obtained through love, career, or family, happiness is the ultimate aim of everything we do. The trouble is, it’s hard to find happiness that lasts. And when we’re looking for it, it always seems to stay hidden.
So what’s the trick to seizing happiness?
When we’re children, happiness comes easily and simply. We delight in life without trying: We find happiness in playing games, running, swimming, or the abundance of new sensations that we find in nature. But the older we get, the harder it is to experience that kind of spontaneous enjoyment. So we seek it out through other, more complicated means – by possessing another person, perhaps, or by pursuing prestige and power.
The problem is, as soon as we’ve obtained the thing we’re seeking – whether that’s a spouse, a beautiful house, or a top job at a big company – our enjoyment turns to fear of losing it. You might recognize the pleasure you felt while falling in love, but then feel the terrible fear of that love ending, or of becoming too dependent on it. What was simple and beautiful turns into a mixture of fear and resentment.
As we get older, seeking out happiness becomes something of a curse. A part of our search for happiness is also a search for a kind of security – like being held permanently in a warm hug. We want to feel a constant sense of psychological well-being. So we look for it in relationships with other people, through family, marriage, and friendship.
But the truth of life is that there is no lasting security. Life is fleeting, and we are all essentially alone. Not even our parents, partners, or closest friends can provide that security for us, as they’re alone, too. So what can be done? In the author’s view, the only way that we can avoid this disappointment is to stop searching for lasting happiness. This involves getting beyond the very idea of a self that wants happiness to last. If you can live moment to moment, with the knowledge that nothing lasts forever – that everything, including happiness, is passing – then you will be truly happy.
Intellect is not intelligence.
What do we mean by “intellect”? The word evokes images of university dons, scientists working to solve complex problems, and straight-A students. The definition of intellect is thought functioning independently of our emotions – a kind of analytical or deductive thinking. Intellect is also something that can be trained in a particular direction. Modern education does just that, in fact. Through education, you can train your intellect to be sharper at mathematics, physics, or economics, for example.
However, according to the author, if you use only your intellect, you won’t gain a full understanding of the world. To engage with the world, he argues, you must use your full intelligence. So if the intellect doesn’t equal intelligence, what exactly is “intelligence”? Well, it’s the ability to feel as well as to reason – with feeling and reason existing together in harmony. A purely academic understanding of the world, then, isn’t one that engages the intelligence, as it neglects feeling.
How do you engage your intelligence rather than just your intellect? According to the author, you should cultivate a quiet mind. If you really want to understand something properly, whether that’s a person, a painting, or a city, you must quiet your thoughts. If you rationalize and analyze with a busy mind, you’ll miss the whole of something. Truth comes when you don’t grapple for it – it’s subtle and elusive. If you’ve got a loud internal monologue, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to perceive something in its entirety.
But how exactly can you escape your thoughts? Surely that’s impossible? Again, this comes through a deep awareness of your mind. You should recognize that your intellect is a product of your conditioning and education, rather than simply an instrument that reflects the truth of the matter. All of that conditioning causes you to rationalize and analyze in the way that you do. In recognizing this, you’ll be able to put some distance between your intellect and the thing you’re perceiving. And you might just begin to see it truthfully for the first time.
When you’re bored, you should lean into your boredom, rather than try to escape it.
You’re bored. You feel dull and uninspired. So what do you do? You rent a movie, you go for a jog around the block, you call a friend and see if he wants to go out for a drink. And what if you’re bored with your whole life? You change it – you find a new job, take up a cause, travel around the world. You try to run away from the boredom.
But what if this is exactly the wrong thing to do? What if your boredom is telling you something more fundamental about who you are? If that’s so, then you need to confront it and learn more about it. If you’re bored, it’s best to try to understand it, rather than immediately escape it. Anything else you do will just be an attempt to escape this boredom; it will be no more than a distraction. And is simply distracting yourself enough of a reason to do something – especially something significant, like taking up a political cause or changing your career? No – of course it isn’t. In fact, a great deal of harm can be done that way.
So just stop a moment, and be bored. It’s OK. Then look into yourself and ask, Why am I bored? The truth is that, often, we ourselves have become dull. We’ve exhausted ourselves with work, with activity, and with suffering.
Then, when you have grasped this, you should sit with it. Don’t escape it. Allow your mind to confront the fact that it feels tired, uninterested, misshapen. By doing this, you’ll be able to live with those feelings – they’ll just be what they are, and not the terrible things that used to hurl you into frantic activity.
If you can face your boredom and understand it for what it is, you’ll begin the process of healing. If you can’t, you’ll simply keep trying to distract yourself, going around like a hamster on its wheel. Finally, you must understand that constantly pursuing things to escape boredom will just lead to more boredom. Once you’ve acquired something – whether it’s a person who interests you, a top job, or lots of money – you’ll quickly get bored with it. Understand this, and you may learn to be more comfortable in yourself.
The purpose of life is life itself.
What is the purpose of life? That’s the million-dollar question! Many have asked themselves this over the centuries. Philosophers, religious leaders, and gurus of various stripes have dipped their quills in ink, bent over their manuscripts, and tried to come up with a satisfactory answer. Many other ordinary people have racked their brains in a similar fashion. Perhaps you’re asking yourself the same question right now. Well, according to the author, the question itself is the wrong place to start.
We look to thinkers and successful people, and we believe that by following their lead we’ll find purpose. We look to the experience of others who came before us, as well as our cultural traditions, to give our lives shape. Our minds are full of different examples of living, which we use as models for our own lives.
We do all of this because we need some sort of road map, some sort of definition of what a purposeful life looks like. But we spend so much time following examples of what life should be like that we fail to see the true significance of what it actually is. Life is something that happens to us – intimately, personally. There is no authority that can help with that.
If you’re always looking for another justification for life, you miss what is already extraordinary enough. When you ask yourself what the purpose of life is, it’s likely that your life, as it is, is dull, tawdry, and repetitive. If you believe, for instance, that the purpose of life is to “find God” or to “become successful,” then it’s probable that life is something you’re looking to escape from, rather than embrace.
Rather than seeing life as the pursuit of a distant objective, it’s important to look at what’s transpiring before your eyes right now. If you detect something wrong with your life when you pay close attention to it, you should try to understand just why that is. Only by confronting your confusion, sorrow, or fear can you escape your longing for purpose – for certainty. Life, in itself, is extraordinarily rich, mysterious, and beautiful. And life, in itself, should be enough.
What I took from it.
The only way to change the world is to begin with yourself – no revolution or grand political theory can solve the crises you see around you. Recognize that the way you’ve been conditioned stops you from seeing the world clearly. This means that you’ll have preconceptions about fundamental things – like the role of happiness in your life or psychological security – that will cause you disappointment if you’re not able to see through your conditioning. Finally, life as it is is extraordinary enough; “purpose” is superfluous.
Observe yourself thinking – and note your conditioning. Next time you have a passionate opinion about something, be it political or personal, pause. Then try to reflect on precisely why you might have reached an opinion like that. What is it about you – your cultural and economic background, your nationality or your sexual orientation – that might have contributed to that opinion? Does that make you look at that opinion differently? Can you see the other side? Might you even be wrong?