There Is No Activism There Is Only Proprioception of Thought

By Matthew Capowski

NOTE: In physiology the term proprioception refers to the capacity of the body to have self-awareness of its own movements.  David Bohm introduced the term “proprioception of thought” to refer to the possibility for thought to become aware of its own movements as well through direct perception.

We could say that practically all the problems of the human race are due to the fact that thought is not proprioceptive.

– David Bohm (Source: On Dialogue, 1996)

And we think the crisis is outside of us; it is in us.  The crisis is in our consciousness.

– Jiddu Krishnamurti (Source: Conversation between Jiddu Krishnamurti and Jonas Salk in Ojai, California, March 1983)

Things can be different than how they are.  Conflict can be ended.  But not through the application of thought.  Every form of activism, and every theory, plan, group, or organization I delved into assumed that we could organize thought in such a way that would bring about the change we wanted to see.  It was not until I encountered David Bohm and Jiddu Krishnamurti that it became crystal clear that the desire to change society had to fall away completely.  Any movement of desire is still part of thought.  It is perception, not thought, that is fundamental.  I wondered why no one else had ever pointed this out to me.

Thought cannot solve any human problem, for thought itself is the problem. The ending of knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom is not of time, it is not the continuation of experience, knowledge. Life in time is confusion and misery; but when that which is is the timeless, there is bliss.

— Jiddu Krishnamurti (Source: Commentaries on Living Series I Chapter 83 `Time’)

Now, I say that this system [of thought] has a fault in it — a ‘systematic fault’. It is not a fault here or there but it is a fault that is all throughout the system. Can you picture that? It is everywhere and nowhere. You may say “I see a problem here, so I will bring my thoughts to bear on this problem”. But “my” thought is part of the system. It has the same fault as the fault I’m trying to look at, or a similar fault.  We have this systemic fault; and you can see that this is what has been going on in all these problems of the world – such as the problems that the fragmentation of nations has produced.  We say: ‘Here is a fault.  Something has gone wrong.’ But in dealing with it, we use the same kind of fragmentary thought that produced the problem, just a somewhat different version of it; therefore it’s not going to help, and it may make things worse.

– David Bohm (Source: Thought as a System, a book that transcribes a seminar held in Ojai, California from November 31 to December 2, 1990)

Thought is conditioning.  We are deeply conditioned and generally unaware of this conditioning.  This conditioning permeates all our thought, emotion, and actions and creates immense confusion and incoherence.  The lack of attention to this conditioning is what prevents it from being cleared up.

It is imperative, absolutely essential for the future of humanity that we are concerned with the brain which is conditioned. If one is aware of that, then we can proceed to ask whether it is possible to free the brain.

– Jiddu Krishnamurti (Source: Mind Without Measure Talks in New Delhi 1st Public Talk 30th October, 1982 `The Root Cause of Confusion’)

When we start to perceive this conditioning, this incoherence, we externalize it and do not see thought’s role in creating it.  Thought melds with perception and this melded end product is seen to be perception but not thought.  It’s a mess, and no action from this mess will clear it up.  We need to stop and give attention to what is actually happening.

Our confusion then multiplies because we use thought to attempt to solve the difficulties it has created:

…thought has developed traditionally in a way such that it claims not to be affecting anything but just telling you the way things are.  Therefore people cannot see that they are creating a problem and then apparently trying to solve it.  Let’s take a problem – what problem do you like? Pollution? Ecology is not in itself a problem.  It works perfectly well by itself.  It becomes a problem because we are thinking a certain way, by breaking things up, and each person is doing his own thing.  Therefore the ecological problem is due to the way we think.  Thought thinks pollution is a problem “out there” and it must solve it.  Now that doesn’t make sense because simultaneously thought is creating all the activities which make the problem in the first place and then creates another set of activities to try to overcome it.  Thought doesn’t stop doing the things that are making the ecological problem, or the national problem, or whatever the problem is.

— David Bohm (Source:  On Creativity: 1996)

The grievances held by activists are all grievances about unintelligence or in different words grievances about when the incoherence of thought and knowledge dominates.  Which is really to say we are talking about thought that is not proprioceptive.  The activist is equally caught up in this incoherence, as I was and still am.  Thus the problem is not bad guys, corrupt governments, or evil corporations, but rather it is the activity of thought.  And this activity that is going astray, that has a systemic fault, is operating inside each one of us.  We can no longer externalize this problem, which is not to say we ignore heinous acts from distorted individuals or groups.

The real crisis is not these events which are confronting us, like wars and crime and drugs and economic chaos and pollution; it’s really in thought which is making it – all the time.  Each person can do something about that thought, because he’s in it.  But one of the troubles we get into is to say, “It’s they who are thinking all that, and I am thinking right.” I say that’s a mistake. I say thought pervades us.  It’s similar to a virus – somehow this is a disease of thought, of knowledge, of information, spreading all over the world.  The more computers, radio, and television we have, the faster it spreads.  So the kind of thought that’s going on all around us begins to take over in every one of us, without our even noticing it.  It’s spreading like a virus and each one of us is nourishing that virus.

– David Bohm (Source: On Dialogue, 1996)

And as David Bohm rightfully pointed out, it’s not accurate to view these difficulties as problems.  We are used to dealing with practical and technical problems and there thought has a place.  Such thinking we then apply to the human problems like division, greed, nationalism, exploitation, etc., where this thinking in terms of problems does not apply. With a practical problem like how to build a better bridge we can compare against past knowledge and experiment until we find a better way and then plan, implement, and test that new way.  But with something like two groups of people at odds with each other because they believe in different things, that division is constantly being generated by the activity of thought.  One cannot then use thought to plan their way out of thought.  Like the example of the ecological problem referenced earlier, the only solution is the cessation of the incoherent activity of thought building a false structure it then defends absolutely.  A problem is a problem when you can do something about it.  A false structure, a persistently false appearance, you can have no interaction with – except for seeing through it, that is, seeing the false as false. This cessation of thought is not brought about by more thought but rather by attention to the processes and activities of thought itself.  A deep sensitivity to the process of thought, and not just its content, is what is being called for.

In regards to planning David Bohm noted:

I think therefore the attempt to make a plan to change society is not going to work, because society is the result of what it means to us, and the plan will not change what it means.


This point is crucially significant for understand psychological and social change.  For if meaning is something separate from human reality, then any change must be produced by an act of will or choice, guided perhaps by our new perception of meaning.  But if meaning itself is a key part of reality, then, once society, the individual and their relationship are seen to mean something different from what they did before, a fundamental change has already taken place.  So social change requires a different, socially accepted meaning, such as in the change from feudalism to the forms that followed it, or from autocracy to democracy, or to communism, and so on.  According to the meanings accepted, the entire society went.

– David Bohm (Source for the above two quotes: Unfolding Meaning: A Weekend of Dialogue: 1985)

This brings us to yet another subtle point.  If we cannot plan our way out; if we cannot rely on a series of steps in a succession of time, then what is the way out?  Just now it was touched on – a change in meaning – but then the question becomes how does one change meaning, and again it will be a matter of perception and not thought or will.

What it comes down to is we really need to understand thought.  Not understand thought as an idea or concept but to through direct observation of its activity.  That observation is without conclusion or image.  This is arduous.  One must take interest in every moment, and trace the movements of every thought.  As David Bohm and Jiddu Krishnamurti pointed out endlessly, thought is doing all kinds of things that we aren’t aware of.  So then we need to be aware of thought’s activities.  And when the word thought is being used here it means so many things.  Thought runs wide and deep and is not separate from feeling and emotion nor is it separate from the whole of knowledge of human kind and every symbolic and physical thing we have produced.   Everything depends on understanding the ways of our thinking.

If I’m right in saying that thought is the ultimate origin or source [of humanity’s difficulties], it follows that if we don’t do anything about thought, we won’t get anywhere.  We may momentarily relieve the population problem, the ecological problem, and so on, but they will come back in another way.  So I’m saying what we have got to examine this question of thought.

– David Bohm (Source: Changing Consciousness: Exploring the Hidden Source of the Social, Political, and Environmental Crises Facing our World: 1991)

No one is denying that thought has a place but we have grievously misunderstood the limitations of thought and how small its place is.  Thought is at the source of our difficulties.  The way we attempt to solve our difficulties is the difficulty because we use thought.  We take thought for granted in everything we do.  It underlies everything we do but we never attend to its activities.  Then thought tells us it’s faithfully reporting reality back to us and we don’t question this.  If thought is at the source of our difficulties then employing more thought is not the way out.  We need to understand what is actually taking place.

When we speak of thought we are speaking of time also.  Time is needed to carry out the intentions of thought.  A separation is implied when we invoke time: there is the present state, and some future state, and time and space in-between the two.  Time means time to become something different than what we are now.  Yet what we are now is the only thing that is real and the other is a fictional projection of thought.  When we speak of time we are also denying any kind of immediate understanding or immediate perception.  If one could not view things in terms of time then the only possible understanding or action that could take place would have to be derived from what is seen in the present moment. Action then would be inseparable from perception.

To provide some further clarification on this issue of time, consider this analogy employed by Bohm:

Imagine a stream which is being polluted near the source.  The people downstream don’t know about that, so they start removing bits of pollution, trying to purify the water, but perhaps introducing more pollution of another kind as they do so.  What has to be done, therefore, is to see this whole stream, and get to the source of it.  Somewhere, at the source of thought, it is being polluted – that is the suggestion.  Pollution is being diverted into the stream, and this is happening all the time.  You could say, in one sense, the wrong step was when people first started pouring pollution in.  But the fact that we have kept on pouring it in is the main point – it’s pouring in all the time.  Therefore, the source is not in time – not back in ancient times, when it may have started – but rather the source is always now.  That’s what we have to look into.

— David Bohm (Source: On Dialogue, 1996)

Activism in its current form always implicitly endorses both thought and time, which are not separate, in its approach to solving a problem.  Solving a problem of course implies having a notion of some end state in mind.  The confusion stems from the fact that time and thought can be appropriately used to address practical and technical problems. The human problems are rooted in thought and memory forming a center that is the self.  This centre is not apart from thought.  As Krishnamurti would say, there is only (conditioned) thought –there is no thinker.  Outwardly, technically and practically, there is a separation between subject and object that allowed time to be a convenient way of viewing things.  But inwardly, for the human problems, for selfishness, greed, divisiveness, exploitation, fear, anger, and all those other things that are at the root of the crises we create, there is no time and space between the person and their incoherence.  Again to quote Krishnamurti, “the observer is the observed”.  Our human problems are all of this quality that there is not separation between the observer and the observed, which means no time, but this is not seen.

In response to the question of why the self, ego, or I is a false appearance and  is fragmentary, Bohm and Krishnamurti stated:

Krishnamurti: Because it [the self] has separated itself from the thing it has created.

David Bohm: That’s the point, so let’s make that very clear. It has attributed to itself a center which is separate from itself, where in fact it has created the center and it is centre.

Krishnamurti: It is the centre.

David Bohm: But it attributes to that centre the property of being alive and real, and so on. And that is a fragmentation.

Krishnamurti: That is the basic thing.

David Bohm: From there follows the necessity for the rest of the fragmentation of life. Because in order to maintain that those two are different, thought must then break up everything to fit that.  And there enters the confusion, because either it separate things that are not separate, or puts together things that are different. In order to maintain the fiction that the centre is separate from thought, everything else had to be made to fit that.

(Source: The Limits of Thought: 1999)

And Krishnamurti stated:

When there is the realization the activity has always been from the centre, and the centre cannot possibly reach the other goal, the other side, other dimension, whatever you like to call it, across the river, it says, ‘All right,’ finished … So I have come to that point when I realize completely, when the mind realizes completely there is nothing you can do.  All movement of thought has come to an end. Because thought said, I’ll get there, I must do this, I must investigate, I must etc., etc., and suddenly it realizes, ‘By Jove…’ … Have I reached that point when I can do nothing? That means psychologically, nothing. You understand what that means? Not a thing. That means, no activity of thought. If I’ve come to that point, actually, I’ve got it, it’s finished!

(Source: Sixth Seminar Meeting at Brockwood Park: September 1979)

Back to the subject of time:

Self-knowledge is important, but if I take time to understand myself, I will understand myself eventually by examination, analysis, by watching my whole relationship with others and so on – all that involves time. And I say there is another way of looking at the whole thing without time. Which is, when the observer is the observed. In that observation there is no time.

– Jiddu Krishnamurti (Source: 1st Conversation with David Bohm Brockwood Park June 11, 1983)

And since the future of mankind depends on the psyche [self, centre] it seems then that the future of mankind is not going to be determined through actions in time.

– David Bohm (Source: Second Conversation With David Bohm at Brockwood Park June 20, 1983)

So then what Bohm and Krishnamurti are pointing to is action not based on time.  An action not based on thought.  Something apart from thought and knowledge.  This is absolutely crucial because almost everyone has been assuming that time and thought will get us out of our difficulties but now someone else has come along and proposed time and thought are what have created our difficulties.  They call for something else altogether, something beyond time, thought, and knowledge, to meet the challenge.  The knowledge we hold is not the factor that will get us out of the present mess we are in.  Until we see this we will act from that knowledge and continue to get results we don’t intend.

You don’t have to become an activist, which again is a fragmentation of life. If we are really concerned with total action, not a fragmentary one, then total action comes with total attention, which is to see actually `what is’ both inwardly and outwardly. And that very seeing is the doing.

– Jiddu Krishnamurti (Source: Beginnings of Learning Part I Chapter 15 School Dialogue Brockwood Park: May 25, 1973)

What then should we do?  What then is called for?  Activism is not separate from life.  Activism is a by-product of perceiving thought deeply.  One cannot limit their motivation to understand what is in front of them to the confines of activism.  What is being called for is proprioception of thought. So what is proprioception and proprioception of thought? Bohm provides the following clarification:

But in fact you can get evidence that thoughts and feelings move as a processes on their own; they are not being run by “me.” They are not being produced by the me, and they are not being experienced by the me.

There is, however, some self-reference built into this whole system.  There is what is called proprioception, or “self-perception”.  Physically, a person is aware immediately that he has moved a part of his body.  If some outside force suddenly moved your arm, you could tell that that is different from having moved it yourself.  The nerves are built so as to be able to know that.  … So there is proprioception in the body – the distinction between actions which originate in the body, and those which originate outside, is perceived as a functional difference.  In this light, the notion that there is a self as a kind of centre, in the body as a centre of activity, is natural.  Animals obviously have it too, and they can make that distinction.  We can therefore say that this notion of “I” cannot be entirely wrong, or it probably would never have arisen.

The question is: how does this natural, useful distinction turn into the contrdictions of the ego? Something that was correct and useful has somehow developed in way which has gone wrong.  Thought lacks proprioception, and we have got to learn, somehow, to observe thought. In the case of observing the body, you can tell that observation is somehow taking place – even when there is no sense of a distinct observer.

Is it possible for thought similarly to observe itself, to see what it is doing, perhaps by awakening some other sense of what thought is, possibly through attention? In that way, thought may become proprioceptive.  It will know what it is doing and it will not create a mess.

(Source: On Dialogue, 1996)

In this vain my favorite expression on this subject of proprioception of thought was a brief passage by Krishnamurti:

Thought shattering itself against its own nothingness is the explosion of meditation.

(Source: Krishnamurti’s Notebook: Page 166)

For more information about proprioception of thought, see Bill Angelos’ explication on Dialogue/Meditation.