When Do You Exist?

Brief Notes on Self-Awareness, Gurdjieff, and Krishnamurti

Numerous photographs of Sri Paramhansa Yogananda in meditation show him to be in what appears to be a semi conscious state.

Not everyone lives in the kind of culture that allows a withdrawal from normal life in search for a guru, as was rather more common in India during the life of the Paramahansa Yogananda. Perhaps it’s not even necessary to do so; life experiences are often enough to at least present us with a chance to ask the important questions. This is a starting point for philosophical work, and every family seems to have at least one wise person to whom questions can be directed. I had two in both of my parents, but for the deep and universal issues, my father was perhaps the most abstract and curious role model.

Of course, everyone should have a philosophical father of some kind, and I suppose many people discover that they do, in moments of unexpected experience. My own father was a man of ideas about everything that anyone could find intriguing. Perhaps it arose from his profession, because other architects like him seem to have developed such a perspective out of the need to shape the physics of spaces to the ideals of people who gather within them. As it happens, the attempt to accomplish almost anything in life often finds itself in the state of inquiry with some larger idea.

One time, we were driving somewhere and he found that we suddenly had to change a flat tire. He was almost excited by this possibility, rather than seeming frustrated at the intervention of an unexpected chore. When I asked what was so special about this trivial and unpleasant task, he said that “the trivial is an opportunity to confirm the profound.” I did not understand what he meant. We had been deep in the study of certain philosophers, in a journey that took us over twenty years of rewarding and sometimes difficult exploration. Here, staring at the flat tire, my father asked himself or me (hard to tell), “What would Krishnamurti or Gurdjieff think if they had to replace a flat tire?” This is what you get with my father. I think of Erik Erikson’s definition of “crisis” as “a point of heightened vulnerability and potential.” And surely Krishnamurti and Gurdjieff, these two unusual philosophers,  would also see every aspect of what any experience brings as a way to confirm much about the universe because, as above, so below. Our flat tire encounter was one of the more interesting philosophical comparisons that I remember discussing with anyone, because as it happens, all philosophy is an encounter with coordinated effort, which is what changing a flat tire is as well. It’s never just about turning lugnuts.

G.I. Gurdjieff


Jiddu Krishnamurti


More broadly, the world view of both G. I. Gurdjieff and of Jiddu Krishnamurti present an intriguing overlay of two profound kinds of insight. Both thinkers delved deeply into the nature of consciousness, self-awareness, and the human condition, but their approaches and emphases illustrate contrasts, and similarities, that every student of personal growth will navigate at certain points in life. Perhaps it is because everything for these two thinkers revolves around the defining nucleus of self-awareness. And without self-awareness, it is impossible to work consciously with the world in which, for however short a time, we are compelled to busy ourselves.

Any thought about self-awareness immediately turns to the theme of freedom in an unfree world, – can you be free without being aware of yourself? Gurdjieff once famously said that “Without self-knowledge, without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern himself and he will always remain a slave.” Freedom and being are not standalone situations here; they are interdependent. And they are also possibilities rather than guarantees, rewards, or gifts given to us for the mere fact of being alive. Gurdjieff focuses on the importance of self-knowledge and of understanding one’s inner mechanisms before you can accomplish any desirable transformation (“You can not do. You must first merely observe, and only afterward there is the possibility of change,” he would often say). And yet, he also makes clear that such self awareness, while necessary, is not sufficient. Gurdjieff sees self-awareness only as a (hard-fought) step – the ability to see oneself honestly becomes a tool for liberation from the mechanical existence that defines normal, undisciplined life.

Gurdjieff was tough on his students; he didn’t suffer illusions, and neither did Krishnamurti. Both men were rather severe but very present to the problem of being fully conscious without relying on mystical forces. This idea, that we are most mechanical, most predictable, most vulnerable when we are least aware of ourselves, is undeniably humanistic, as it consequently denies that a God beyond the self exists (God would be that Force preventing us from being predictable, vulnerable, mechanically lifeless).

Transformation versus Transcendence

Gurdjieff often portrayed the self with all of the petty insignificance of a prop in a movie in which “everything happens,” and by definition, we cannot be accorded a special place in the cosmic Scheme of Things: “The real ‘I’ is the master, the one who knows and sees, the ruler. But there is no such master. Everything happens. ‘I’ does not exist. This is illusion.” In other words, this “I” has filled a real body with false ideas about itself. And by describing the self as having an illusionary nature, Gurdjieff seems to have denied the possibility of a unified, permanent self entirely. Of course, this idea of an eternal self (in a temporary body) is a theme common to many spiritual traditions (and, again, is a core belief of Humanism). Gurdjieff would surely deny that life is “spiritual,” because in our mechanical state of understanding, we cannot understand what “spiritual” means. I found this stoicism very empowering – it can be distilled down to this: we have only ourselves to blame if things don’t work out, or improve.

But it is also disheartening in some unwelcome ways. By proclaiming that the possibility of creating an “I” (fully self-aware and disciplined in understanding) is the only goal to which the sincere consciousness seeker should aspire, we accept that reality only exists in some important way when we are able to create transformation. But without the presence of a greater Deity, life itself – including all possible change – loses any feeling or sense of transcendence. Transformation is merely change from one thing to another; transcendence is the creation of new consciousness that accompanies that change. Knowing that gaseous clouds become rain, for example, only represents a transformation of state from one thing and another. It is what science, the system of transformations, tells us. But the Hopi believe that as their elders die, their spirits leave in the form of clouds, and when the clouds return, they become rain, which causes corn, the Hopis’ primary meal, to come to life. Thus, in this return, the Hopi do not merely see “clouds” but whole and familiar spirits of the departed who have been honored in lasting memory, and hence have returned to seed new life to the community. This is not a transformation, it is a transcendence, as the believer is changed to embrace this greater fullness of being. This distinction is crucial in one more way: God may transform man, but only man may transcend himself. The point is that transcendence can only take place from within, whereas transformation may come from anywhere. If Gurdjieff denies the idea of God, it is because he expects that all personal transcendence should be inspired, driven, managed entirely by one’s own personal, human will. To rely on anything else is to defraud the continuous journey of transcendence with delusions of a divine shortcut (I am documenting rather than either defending or discounting this view).

In this, Gurdjieff seems to ring notes that are harmonious to those of Krishnamurti, whose phrase “The ‘I’ is nothing but a series of experiences” reveals that he, too, sees the self as a construct, rather than as an unchanging entity. The question of “who I am” has been perhaps the most important mystery in both Eastern and Western philosophy, and the West has often answered that question by turning to some irreducible force, either to God or to the idea of unembodied existence in the first place. That is what Descartes reached for when, after removing everything that was superficial to the self, he was left with the Cogito, the concise term for his Latin utterance, “Cogito ergo sum” – “I think therefore I am.” Thoughts, which cannot be “found” in the body, nevertheless create the self.

Before we become too reductionistic, let us admit that Krishnamurti stopped all of this speculation about a real self versus a false self by overcoming the contrast of existence versus non-existence entirely. This contrast makes us choose between self versus god, between questioning what is versus what isn’t, posing the question to be or not to be. To refuse this contrast between multiple choices  confirms that the very idea of an opposition is itself an illusion. In his typically terse manner, Krishnamurti’s explanation for this illusion of contrasts was simple: “The observer is the observed.” This is what Saint Francis once said, “What I am looking for is what is doing the looking.” This establishes a kind of self-awareness that is deeply rooted in the non-dualistic tradition for which reality is not divided in any form. The division between the observer and the observed, therefore, is illusory. And the approach is not to join a school, either: “Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect.” Here, Krishnamurti famously emphasized the importance of individual discovery and the rejection of structured paths to spiritual understanding, contrasting with Gurdjieff’s more systematic approach. So whether to use a method, or to find a solution some other way, and continue on your path, it is not about  “a correct way” to change a flat tire, except with self-awareness. That was what my father said as we jumped back into the car and sped off that evening, because you must exist in whatever you do.

More on this later. Thanks for being here.

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