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Series III - Chapter 54 - ‘The Challenge Of The Present’
THIS LANE WENT down to the sea from the wide, well-lit road, passing between the garden walls of many rich houses. It was quiet there, for the walls seemed to shut out the noise of the town. The lane curved in and out a great deal, and on the white walls the shadows danced when the breeze stirred in the trees. The breeze was laden with many odors: the tang of the sea, the smell of the evening meal, the per- fume of jasmine, and the fumes of exhaust. Now it was coming from the sea, and there was a strange intensity. A large white flower was growing in the dark soil beside the path, and the evening was full of its fragrance. The path continued downward, and it wasn’t long before it met another road which ran along the sea. A young man was sitting beside the road, and he had a dog on a leash. They were both resting. It was a large, powerful dog, sleek and well-fed. Its owner must have considered the dog more important than the man, for the man was wearing soiled clothes and had a frightened, dejected look. It was the dog who was important, not the man and the dog seemed to know it. Dogs of good breed are snobbish, anyway. Two people came along, talking and laughing, and the dog growled threateningly as they passed; but they paid no attention, for the dog was on a leash and firmly held. A small boy was carrying something very heavy, and he could only just manage it; but he was surprisingly cheerful, and he smiled as he went by.
It was now fairly quiet; no cars were passing, and there was no one on the road. Gradually the intensity grew. It was not induced by the quietness of the evening, or the starlit sky, or the dancing shadows, or the dog on a leash, or the fragrance of the passing breeze; but all these things were within that intensity. There was only intensity, simple and clear, without a cause without a god without the whisper of a promise. It was so strong that the body was momentarily incapable of any movement. All the senses had a heightened sensitivity. The mind that strange and complex thing, was drained of all thought and so was completely awake; it was a light in which there was no shadow. One’s whole being was aflame with an intensity that consumed the movement of time. The symbol of time is thought, and in that flame the noise of a passing bus and the perfume of the white flower were consumed. Sound and fragrance wove into each other, but were two distinct, separate flames. Without a tremor, and without the watcher, the mind was aware of this timeless intensity; it was itself the flame, clear, intense, innocent.
He and his wife were there in the small room, whose only window gave upon a blank wall in front of which stood the brown trunk of a large tree. You saw only the massive trunk and not the spreading branches. He was a big, well-built man, and rather heavy. His smile was quick and friendly, but his keen eyes could show anger, and his tongue could be very sharp. He had evidently read a great deal, and wag now trying to go beyond knowledge. His wife was clear-eyed, with a pleasant face; she too was large, but not flabby. She took little part in the conversation, but listened with apparent interest. They had no children.
“Is it ever possible to free the mind from memory?” he began. “Is not memory the very substance of the mind – memory being the knowledge and experience of centuries? Does not every experience strengthen memory? In any case, I have never been able to understand why one should be free from the past as you seem to maintain. The past is rich with pleasant associations and remembrances. Fortunately one can often forget the unpleasant or sorrowful incidents, but the pleasant memories remain. There would be great poverty of being if all the experience and knowledge one has gained were to be put aside. It would be a poor mind indeed that had no depth of knowledge and experience. It would be a primitive mind.”
If you do not feel the necessity of being free from the past, then it is not a problem, is it? Then the richness of the past, with all its sufferings and joys, will be maintained. But is the past a living thing? Or does the movement of the present give life to the past? The present, with its demanding intensity and changeful swiftness, is a constant challenge to the mind. The present and the past are always in conflict unless the mind is capable of meeting wholly the swift present. Conflict arises only when the mind, burdened with the past, the known, the experienced, responds incompletely to the challenge of the present, which is always new, changing.
“Can the mind ever respond completely to the present? It seems to me that one’s mind is always coloured by the past; and is it ever possible to be wholly free of this coloration?”
Let us go into it and find out. The past is time is it not? – time as experience, knowledge; and all further experience strengthens the past. “How?”
When an event takes place in one’s life and one has what we call an experience, this experience is immediately translated in terms of the past. If one has a particular religious belief that belief may bring about certain experiences which in turn strengthen the belief. The superficial mind may adjust itself to the pressures and demands of its immediate environment; but the hidden part of the mind is heavily conditioned by the past, and it is this conditioning, this background that dictates the experience. The whole movement of consciousness is the response of the past, is it not? The past is essentially static, dormant, it has no action of its own; but it comes to life when any challenge is offered to it; it responds. All thinking is the response of the past, of accumulated experience, knowledge. So all thinking is conditioned; freedom is beyond the power of thought.
“Then how is the mind ever to be free of its own limitations?”
If one may ask, why should the mind – which is itself the past, the result of time – be free? What is the motive behind your question? Why does it arise at all? Is it a theoretical or an actual problem? “I think it is both. There is the speculative curiosity to know, as one might want to know about the structure of matter, and it’s also a personal problem. It’s a problem to me in the sense that there seems to be no way out of my conditioning. I may break out of one pattern of thought, but in that very process another pattern is formed. Does the breaking up of the old ever bring the new into being?”
If it is recognizable as the new, is it the new? Surely that which is recognized as the new is still the outcome of the past. Recognition is born of memory. It is only when the past ceases that the new can be. “But is it possible for the mind to break through the curtain of the past?”
Again, why are you asking this question? “As I said, one is curious to know; and there is also the desire to be free of certain unpleasant and painful memories.”
Mere curiosity does not lead very far. And to hold on to the pleasant while trying to get rid of the unpleasant, only makes the mind dull, superficial; it does not bring freedom. The mind must be free from both, not just from the unpleasant. Enslavement to pleasant memories is obviously not freedom. The desire to hold on to what is pleasant breeds conflict in life; this conflict further conditions the mind, and such a mind can never be free. As long as the mind is caught in the stream of memory, pleasant or unpleasant; as long as it is held in the chain of cause-effect; as long as it is using the present as a passage from the past to the future, it can never be free. Freedom is then merely an idea, not an actuality. The truth of this must be seen, and then your question will have quite a different significance.
“If I see the truth of it, will there be freedom?”
Speculation is vain. The truth must be seen, the actual fact that there’s no freedom as long as the mind is a prisoner of the past must be experienced. “Has a man who is free in this ultimate sense any relationship to the stream of causation and time? If not, then what is the good of this freedom? What value or significance has such a man in this world of joy and pain?”
It’s strange how we nearly always think in terms of utility. Are you not asking this question from the boat adrift on the stream of time? And from there you want to know what significance a free man has for the people in the boat. probably none at all. Most people are not interested in freedom; and when they meet a man who is free, they either make of him a deity and place him in a shrine or they put him away in stone or in words – which is to destroy him. But surely your concern is not with such a man. Your concern is with freeing the mind of the past – the mind that is you.
“When once the mind is free, then what is its responsibility?”
The word ‘responsibility’ is not applicable to such a mind. Its very existence has an explosive action on time, on the past. It is this explosive action that is of the highest importance. The man who remains in the boat and asks for help wants it in the pattern of the past, in the field of recognition, and to this the free mind has no reply; but that explosive freedom acts on the bondage of time. “I don’t know what I can say to all this. I really came with my wife out of curiosity and I find myself becoming deeply serious. At some depth of myself I am serious, and I am discovering it for the first time. Many of my generation have turned away from the recognized religions, but deep down there is the religious feeling, with very little opportunity for it to come out. One must avail oneself of the present opportunity.”