What Does It Mean To Be Serious?

From Krishnamurti’s Book COMMENTARIES ON LIVING 3

Sitting on the oxcart with a long slender stick in his hand was an old man, so thin that his bones were showing through. He had a kindly, wrinkled face, and his skin was very dark, burnt by many suns. The cart was heavy with firewood, and he was beating the oxen; you could hear the slap of his stick on their backs. They were coming from the country into the town, and it had been a long day. Driver and beasts were tired out, and they still had some distance to go. There was froth around the mouths of the oxen, and the old man seemed ready to drop, but there was stamina in that wiry old body, and the oxen would go on. As you walked beside the cart, the old man caught your eye, smiled, and stopped beating the oxen. They were his oxen, and he had been driving them for years; they knew he was fond of them, and the beating was a passing thing. He was stroking them now, and they continued to move at their ease. The old man’s eyes told of infinite patience, and his mouth expressed weariness and endless toil. He wouldn’t receive much money for his firewood, but it was enough to get by. They would rest along the roadside for the night, and make a start for home in the early morning. The cart would be empty, and the return journey would be easier. We went down the road together, and the oxen didn’t seem to mind being touched by the stranger who was walking beside them. It was beginning to get dark, and presently the driver stopped, lit a lamp, hung it under his cart, and went on towards the noisy town.

Next morning the sun rose behind thick, dark clouds. It rained very often on this big island, and the earth was rich with green vegetation. There were immense trees everywhere, and well-kept gardens full of flowers. The people were well-fed, and the cattle plump and soft eyed. On one tree there were dozens of orioles, with black wings and yellow bodies; they were surprisingly large birds, but their call was soft. They were hopping about from branch to branch, like flashes of golden light, and they seemed even more brilliant on a cloudy day. A magpie was calling in deep-throated tones, and the crows were making their usual raucous noise. It was comparatively cool, and walking would be pleasant.

The temple was full of kneeling, praying people, and the grounds around it were clean. Beyond the temple was a sports club, where they were playing tennis. Children were everywhere, and among them walked the priests with their shaven heads and the inevitable fan. The streets were decorated, for there was going to be a religious procession the following day, when the moon would be full. Over the palm trees could be seen a great stretch of pale blue sky, which the clouds were rushing to cover. Among the people, along the noisy streets, and in the gardens of the well-to-do, there was great beauty; it was there everlastingly, but few cared to look.

The two of them, a man and a woman, had come from some distance to attend the talks. They could have been husband and wife, sister and brother, or just friends. They were gay and friendly, and their eyes declared the ancient culture that lay behind them. pleasant-voiced and rather shy out of respect, they seemed surprisingly well-read, and he knew Sanskrit. He had also travelled a bit and knew the ways of the world.

‘We have both been through many things,’ he began. ‘We have followed some of the political leaders, been fellow-travellers with communists and known at first hand their appalling brutality, gone the rounds of the spiritual teachers, and practised certain forms of meditation. We think we are serious people, but we may be deceiving ourselves. All these things were done with serious intent, but none of them seem to have great depth, though at the time we always thought they had. Both of us are active by nature, we are not the dreamy kind, but we have now come to the point when we no longer want to “get somewhere”, or participate in practices and organizational activities that have very little significance. Having found in such activities nothing more than lip service and self-deception, we now want to understand what it is you are teaching. My father was somewhat familiar with your approach to life, and he used to talk to me about it, but I never got around to investigating the matter for myself, probably because I was ‘told’ – which is perhaps a normal reaction when one is young. As it happened, a friend of ours attended your talks last year, and when he recounted to us something of what he had heard, we decided to come. I don’t know where to start, and perhaps you can help us out.’

Though his companion hadn’t said a word, her eyes and her manner indicated that she was giving full attention to what was being said. Since you have said that you are both serious, let us begin from there. I wonder what we mean when we talk about being serious? Most people are serious about something or other. The politician with his schemes, and in his attaining of power; the schoolboy in his desire to pass an examination; the man who is out to make money; the professional man, and the man who is dedicated to some ideology, or is caught in the net of a belief – they are all serious in their own way. The neurotic is serious, and so also is the sannyasi. What then does it mean to be serious? please don’t think I am quibbling, but if we could understand this thing, we might learn a great deal about ourselves; and after all, that is the right beginning.

‘I am serious,’ said his companion, ‘in wanting to clarify my own confusion and it is for this reason that I have gone around seeking the help of those who say they can guide me towards that clarification. I have tried to forget myself in good works, in bringing some happiness to others, and in that effort I have been serious. I am also serious in my desire to find God.’

Most people are serious about something. Negatively or positively, their seriousness always has an object, religious or otherwise, and upon the hope of attaining that object their seriousness depends. If for any reason the hope of attaining the object of their gratification is removed, are they still serious? One is serious in achieving, in gaining, in succeeding, in becoming; it is the end that makes one serious, the thing that one hopes to get or to avoid. So the end is important, and not the understanding of what it is to be serious. We are concerned, not with love, but with what love will do. The doing, the result, the achievement, is all-important, and not love itself, which has its own action.

‘I don’t quite understand how there can be seriousness unless one is serious about something,’ he replied.

‘I think I see what you mean,’ said his companion. ‘I want to find God, and it is important for me to find Him, otherwise life has no meaning; it’s only a bewildering chaos, full of misery. I can understand life only through God, who is the end and the beginning of all things; He alone can guide me in this welter of contradictions, and that’s why I am serious about finding Him. But you are asking, is this seriousness at all?’

Yes. The understanding of living, with all its complications, is one thing, and the search for God is another. In saying that God, the ultimate end, will give meaning to life, you have brought into being – haven’t you? – two opposing states: living, and God. You are struggling to find something away from life. You are serious about achieving a goal, an end, which you call God; and is that seriousness? perhaps there is no such thing as finding God first, and then living; it may be that God is to be found in the very understanding of this complex process called life.

We are trying to understand what we mean by seriousness. You are serious about a formulation, a self-projection, a belief, which has nothing to do with reality. You are serious about the things of the mind, and not about the mind itself, who is the maker of these things. In giving your seriousness to achieving a particular result, are you not pursuing your own gratification? That’s what everyone is serious about: getting what he wants. And is that all we mean by seriousness?

‘I have never before looked at it in this way,’ she exclaimed. ‘Evidently I am not really serious at all.’

Don’t let’s jump to conclusions. We are trying to understand what it means to be serious. One can see that to pursue fulfilment in any form, however noble or stupid, is not to be really serious. The man who drinks to escape from his sorrow, the man who is after power, and the man who is seeking God, are all on the same path, though the social significance of their pursuits may differ. Are such people serious?

‘If not, then I’m afraid none of us are,’ he replied. ‘I always took it for granted that I was serious in my various undertakings, but now I am beginning to see that there is an altogether different kind of seriousness. I don’t think I am able to put it into words yet, but I am beginning to get the feeling of it. Will you please go on?’

‘I am a bit lost in all this,’ put in his companion. ‘I thought I was understanding it, but it eludes me.’

When we are serious, we are serious about something; that is so, isn’t it?


Now, is there a seriousness which is not directed towards an end and does not build up resistance?

‘I don’t quite follow.’

‘The question in itself is quite simple,’ he explained. ‘Wanting something, we set about getting it, and in this effort we consider ourselves to be serious. Now, he’s asking, is that really seriousness? Or is seriousness a state of mind in which end gaining and resistance do not exist?’

‘Let me see if I understand this,’ she replied. ‘As long as I am trying to get or to avoid something, I am concerned about myself. End-gaining is really self-interest; it is a form of indulgence, blatant or refined, and you are saying, sir, that indulgence is not seriousness. Yes, that is now quite clear to me. But then what is seriousness?’

Let’s inquire and learn about it together. You are not being taught by me, Being taught, and being free to learn, are two entirely different things, are they not?

‘Please go a little slowly. I am not very bright, but I will get it by perseverance. I am also a bit stubborn – a sober virtue, but one that can be a nuisance. I hope you will be patient with me. In what way is being taught different from being free to learn?’

In being taught, there’s always the teacher, the guru who knows, and the disciple who does not know; thus a division is forever maintained between them. This is essentially an authoritarian, hierarchical outlook, in which love does not exist. Though the teacher may talk about love, and the disciple assert his devotion, their relationship is unspiritual, deeply immoral, leading to a great deal of confusion and suffering. This is clear, isn’t it?

‘Frighteningly clear,’ he put in. ‘You have abolished at one stroke the whole structure of religious authority; but I see you are right.’

‘But one needs guidance, and who will act as a guide?’ asked his companion.

Is there any need for guidance when we are constantly learning, not from anyone in particular, but from everything as we go along? Surely, we seek guidance only when we want to be safe, secure, comfortable. If we are free to learn, we shall learn from the falling leaf, from every kind of relationship, from being aware of the activities of our own minds. But most of us are not free to learn, because we are so used to being taught; we are told what to think by books, by our parents, by society, and like a gramophone we repeat what’s on the record.

‘And the record is generally very badly scratched,’ he added. ‘We have played it so often. Our thinking is entirely second-hand.’

Being taught has made one repetitive, mediocre. The urge to be guided, with its implications of authority, obedience, fear, lack of love, and so on, can only lead to darkness. Being free to learn is quite another matter. And there can be no freedom to learn when there’s already a conclusion, an assumption; or when one’s outlook is based on experience as knowledge; or when the mind is held in tradition, tethered to a belief; or when there is the desire to be secure, to achieve a particular end.

‘But it’s impossible to be free of all that!’ she exclaimed.

You don’t know if it’s possible or impossible until you have tried.

‘Whether one likes it or not,’ she insisted, ‘one’s mind is taught; and if, as you say, a mind that’s taught cannot learn, what is one to do?’

The mind can be aware of its own bondage, and in that very awareness it is learning. But first of all, is it clear to us that a mind that’s blindly held in what it has been taught, is incapable of learning?

‘In other words, you are saying that as long as I merely follow tradition I cannot learn anything new. Yes, that much is clear enough. But how am I to be free of tradition?’

Not so fast, please. The gatherings of the mind prevent the freedom to learn. To learn, there must be no accumulation of knowledge, no piling up of experiences as the past. Do you yourself see the truth of this? Is it a fact to you, or just something I have said, with which you may agree or disagree?

‘I think I see it to be a fact,’ he put in. ‘Of course, you don’t mean that we must throw away all the knowledge that science has gathered, that would be absurd, The point is, if we want to learn, we cannot assume anything.’

Learning is a movement, but not from one fixed point to another, and this movement is impossible if the mind is burdened with an accumulation of the past, with conclusions, traditions, beliefs. This accumulation, though it may be called the Atman, the soul, the higher self, and so on, is the ‘me’, the ego, the self. The self and its maintenance prevent the movement of learning.

‘I am beginning to understand what is meant by the movement of learning,’ she said slowly. ‘As long as I’m enclosed within my own desire for security, for comfort, for peace, there can be no movement of learning. Then how am I to be free of this desire?’

Isn’t that a wrong question? There is no method by which to be free. The very urgency and importance of being able to learn will free the mind form conclusions, from the self which is put together by words, by memory. The practising of a method, the “how” and its discipline, is another form of accumulation; it never frees the mind, but only sets it going in a different pattern.

I seem to understand something of all this,’ he said, ‘but so much is involved, I wonder if I shall ever really get to the bottom of it.’

It’s not as bad as all that. With the understanding of one or two central facts, the whole picture becomes clear. A mind that’s taught, or desires to be guided, cannot learn. We now see this quite plainly, so let’s go back to the question of seriousness, with which we started.

We saw that the mind is not serious if it has some end to be gained or avoided. Then what is seriousness? To find out, one must be aware that one’s mind is turned outward or inward in order to fulfil itself, to gain or to become something. It’s this awareness that sets the mind free to learn what it means to be serious; and to learning there is no end. To a mind that’s learning, the heavens are open.

‘I have learnt a great deal in this brief conversation,’ said his companion, ‘but shall I be able to learn further without your help?’

Do you see how you are blocking yourself? If one may say so, you are greedy for more, and this greed is preventing the movement of learning. Had you been aware of the significance of what you were feeling and saying, it would have opened the door to that movement. There is no “further” learning, but just learning as you go along. Comparison arises only when there is accumulation. To die to everything that you have learnt is to learn. This dying is not a final act: it is to die from moment to moment.

‘I have seen and understood, and goodness will flower from it.’