Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

Organizations, Authority, and Compassion

My heart broke on September 11. The anguish that came from watching, helplessly, as thousands of people died in pain and fear before my eyes, gutted me.

I have the precious luxury of being able to speak about these things without having been touched directly by the events of that day or of the days that followed. No one I know was killed that day. So far, no one I know has suffered from exposure to anthrax. No one I know is currently involved in the bombing, or is being bombed. I do not have to sift through the rubble, in New York, Arlington, Pennsylvania, or (now) Afghanistan and Iraq, looking for the dismembered body parts of friends and family members. Who am I to speak, then? What possible validity is there in anything that I have to say against the desire for justice through revenge and war?

I don’t pretend to have any. But please hear me out.

Even as I watched the attacks live on TV, I thought to myself about not just the pain of the victims, but of the attackers too. The pain and rage that they felt — or were taught to adopt as their own — was strong enough to drive them to plan methodically, over an extended period of time, their own deaths, and the deaths of hundreds of other fellow human beings in a terrifying way. I could imagine sitting in a sunny room in the Tutorial School talking about these concepts with Richard. But there was no one else that I could imagine doing that with, on that day, where I was. I wished that I could have been there with you all.

The strongest feeling for me lately, as my thoughts begin to settle, has been resentment. I deeply resent the selfishness of the people — and the organizations that control them — who are killing and damaging people in pursuit of their agendas. I am angry that we were all being subjected to something that is interfering with our own personal journeys, that there are institutions out there dedicated to altering the courses of our lives.

Not just anger at the terrorist network that seeks to disrupt the United States. Also, anger at our own government and corporations, and the religions that treat other people with the same wanton disregard as we have now been forced to experience. The imposition of the institution on the individual is a form of rape. It is the use of force and power to subjugate one individual to another’s will. It is exploitation. But we individuals are also guilty of delusion when we give those organizations the right to exert their influences over our lives. We are willingly seduced.

So what’s my problem with organizations? In 1929, Jiddu Krishnamurti made a speech in which he dissolved the Order of the Star of the East, the organization that had brought him to Europe to be the World Teacher. Krishnamurti didn’t think much of that idea. He said did not want disciples. He told them that to subjugate themselves to an organization was the same as abandoning their souls. He told them:

I do not want to belong to any organization of a spiritual kind, please understand this. I would make use of an organization [that] would take me to London, for example; this is quite a different kind of organization, merely mechanical, like the post or the telegraph. I would use a motor car or a steamship to travel, these are only physical mechanisms [that] have nothing whatever to do with spirituality. Again, I maintain that no organization can lead man to spirituality.

The distinction he made between “spiritual” organizations and “merely mechanical” ones raised a profound question for me. What is right organization? (That’s the way Krishnamurti might have phrased the question.) Why do we invest in organization (that is to say, in institutions) so much of ourselves that we become identified with them and give ourselves over to them? What is the right use of organization? What is the wrong use of organization? Do we know?

I do not think that we pay enough attention to the question of organizations and institutions in our lives. I wonder if we are truly aware of the extent to which we subject ourselves to their authority. We act as part of them and pay dues and they take their lifeblood from us in the form of loyalty, money, trust, faith, and in extreme circumstances, our lives. Even the staff of the steamship organization that took Krishnamurti to London experienced the same jealousies, competitions, coercions, fears that we do.

At the heart of wrong organization is authority. A wrong organization is arranged analogous to the human body; it must have heads and feet. Wrong organization builds itself around authority and acts to carry out its will. That means everyone else must play a role too. I play my part and pay my taxes, and do what I am expected to do. It creates a dependence on ritual and identity and differences and mediocrity. Am I better than someone else? Does someone have more than me? How do I get more? Wrong organizations set up boundaries, and tell us that on the other side are dragons.

People think that the opposite of wrong organization is anarchy. “What if everyone else decided that they would stop obeying authority too?” they scold. “If everyone did what they wanted to, who would make the food and ship it? What if the plumber decided that he didn’t feel like fixing the broken water main that day?” These are silly questions, because they assume that a few people drop out but the rest of the system, the whole approach, remains unchanged.

The opposite of wrong organization is not anarchy, but relationship. With another person, with one’s environment, and with one’s self. You can’t relate to a religion, or to a state. You can’t even relate to “many people;” in a group, you are really relating with each individual person but in a more complex way. Da Free John said that the only question that matters is: “Avoiding relationship?” Wrong organization allows us not only to avoid relationship, but to never ask whether we should be avoiding it or not. And it allows us to let someone else make those decisions for us.

In his speech, Krishnamurti said, “You use a typewriter to write letters, but you do not put it on an altar and worship it. But that is what you are doing when organizations become your chief concern.” Organization is a tool, like any other tool we have and use. In my previous dispatches I have discussed some of those. And like any tool, there are times and ways that it can be used safely, and times and ways that are incorrect and dangerous. Right now we are seeing the extreme effects of wrong organization, and those effects have consumed many people, and it looks like they will consume even more people before they run their course.

So what is right organization? What does it look like? How do we use it? How do people get together without falling into the traps of authority, coercion, striving, and fear? For one thing, right organization is a complex, dynamic, spontaneous thing. The participants come and go, and the structure changes from moment to moment. It is constantly being born and dying. The relationships of the participants change constantly. Its goal is not its own perpetuation or survival, or the maintenance of tradition or ritual. It thrives on the uniqueness and validity of each member, not on their conformity and role-playing.

That seems to indicate a whole other concept of looking at “progress.” After all, how different would things be today if NASA had decided to just give up going to the moon? And not just the accomplishment itself, but all the technology and household appliances that resulted from that research? Just shy of a hundred years after learning how to fly, we are still finding new ways to use airplanes to cause misery and pain. Some progress! We have become used to thinking of organizations as the engines of progress, of new discoveries.

The only progress I am interested in is people on their personal journeys towards awareness, and the stories of the journeys expressed in music, paintings, poetry, sculpture, dance, narrative, you name it. Right organization is the community that supports each one of us on those journeys and listens to the stories we bring back.

(The full text of Krishnamurti’s speech to the Order of the Star of the East is available at the website of the Krishnamurti Information Centre. I have drawn comfort and confidence from his wise words.)



One Comment

  1. […] Post Hoc: When I was at The Tutorial School, we had a guest speaker (an artist, maybe the father of one of the students) who brought with him a set of interlocking rods that he assembled and reassembled in various ways while he talked to us about the nature of structures. As he built triangles, squares, pyramids, and cubes, he asked us to think about how and why each structure was inherently stable (like a triangle) or collapsible (like a square). Then he asked us to try to predict how certain structures would collapse based on the arrangement of the rods. The effects of what I was seeing and hearing resonated straight to the core of my being, almost like I was standing inside a giant bell as it was being rung. Then he ended by asking us to consider this: “What is the relationship between structure and love?” Well, that pretty much vaporized what was left of my cerebral cortex. When I got home I was so exhausted that I fell into a deep, deep sleep for a few hours. Then, for whatever reason, I woke up and grabbed a blank piece of paper, pencil, tape, ruler, and scissors. In a few minutes I sketched, cut out, and assembled a four-piece tetrahedron consisting of a central octahedron and three small tetrahedral “corners.” (To this day, I still have it.) No big deal for an architect; but I had never before, nor have I since, been able to simply wrap paper around empty space quite so easily. Not only that, the artist’s question became my own personal koan. Pretty much everything that you read on Sotto Voce is a dispatch from somewhere along the quest to understand it. While I may have been overreaching with the idea of vessels as “the seventh simple machine,” there is no doubt that the enclosing power of physical and conceptual vessels (even names, labels, and time-ordered narrative descriptions define the boundaries of a concept or concepts) is an important part of the whole issue of Right Organization and Right Relationship. This diary entry ties in to some of the issues discussed in the Tutorial School Dispatch on organizations, authority, and compassion. […]

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