What did Krishnamurti mean by 'The Observer is the Observed'?

This is a topic that has often perplexed me. There are some contexts in which I understand what Krishnamurti means by ‘the observer is the observed’ straightaway, but there are other times he uses this phrase and I find myself completely baffled.

‘The observer is the observed’ can refer to at least a couple of different things.

First of all, it can refer to a process in the content of thought. For instance, when K says, envy is me, greed is me, the observer is not different from his/her envy/greed. The realisation of this ends the content.

But there are other times when ‘the observer is the observed’ apparently refers to the absence of distance, of time-space, between the mind and the sunset, between the mind and the stars. The realisation of this does not end the sunset or the stars (as it does with contents of thought), but rather enhances perception to its acme. (Indeed, this topic probably shares a certain amount of common terrain with the ‘pure attention’ thread).

Krishnamurti also often talks about ‘observing without the observer’, which can sometimes confuse things a little because by ‘the observer’ he generally means the movement of memory, of image-making, and not the quality of actual observation (which can only exist when ‘the observer’ is absent).

And if the observer is absent, then how does the sentence ‘the observer is the observed’ make sense anymore? And yet sometimes he says that when the observer is absent, then the observer is the observed.

So I thought it may be worth refreshing one’s understanding of this topic by looking at several (10) extracts from Krishnamurti on the subject, and perhaps discussing some of them in the thread.

The observer is not different from that which he is observing… The fact is, there is no opposite except physically… The fact is, one is violent and jealous, and so on.

Now, can you observe the fact without its opposite, which thought has invented? … In that observation, the observer is the observed.

(Chapter 2, Mind without Measure)

I am not different from violence, greed or hate or jealousy. Suffering is me, but we have separated anger, jealousy, loneliness, sorrow, as something separate from me so that I can control it, shape it, run away from it; but if that is me, I can do nothing about it but just observe it. So the observer is the observed.

(Chapter 10, Mind without Measure)

There is then no division between the observer and the thing observed.

It is not that you - the observer, the thinker - are in sorrow and are looking at that sorrow, but there is only the state of sorrow.

That state of undivided sorrow is necessary, because when you look at sorrow as an observer you create conflict, which dulls the mind and dissipates energy, and therefore there is no attention.

(Talk 8, Saanen, 1964)

Have you noticed when you have looked at yourself there is the observer, the thinker, the experiencer, different from the experience, from the thing seen, and the observed? There is a difference between the observer and the observed. In that division there is always conflict. The observer is the past, which is the ‘me’, the prejudices, the experiences, the knowledge, the whole structure of time, which is the past. That past looks at ‘what is’, which is the observed. Now, is the observer different from the thing observed?

We have accepted that this division is a natural thing - you understand?

To put it very simply: envy is the common lot of most people. Becoming aware of envy, then the entity that says, ‘I must not be envious’, the two are different. Right? But are they different? Are they only the observer is the observed? If this is realised really deeply then there is a release of a totally different kind of energy.

(Rome, 1973)

Look, I am angry, there is anger. At the moment of anger there is no observer. Look at it. At the moment of your happiness, there is no observer. Only a second later, says, ‘How happy I have been’. At the moment of anger there is no observer, only a second later there is the observer who says, ‘My anger was justified’, or, ‘I mustn’t be angry’. Right? …

At the moment of enjoyment, at the moment of great delight, there is no observer. That delight has moved, gone. Then you remember that delight. Right? The remembrance is the observer. Right? …

Look, sir, you’ve hurt me, you have hit me. At the moment of that [there is no observer] - you follow? - then the memory of that remains. Right? Then I say I must hurt you back. So the memory is the observer

You’ve had sex, and at the moment of it there is no observer. Later on, the image, the picture, the remembrance, the imagination is the observer… Because you have a remembrance of something that was pleasant. That remembrance is the observer who says, 'I wish I could have that again’…

Look, sir, for an instant there was an observation without the observer. Right? It happens to all of us, it’s not something mysterious. Now, what takes place, after that? Once, for a second, five seconds, or a minute you observe without the observer, which is the past - you observed. Right? Now, what then takes place, next? …

You have a memory of that, haven’t you? And then you say, 'I wish life could be lived that way’… The ‘more of it’ is the observer who says, 'How delightful that was, I must have more’…

Q: I watched a movie on television - there’s no observer at that time.

K: Quite right… Sir, when you watch the movie, a film, what is taking place?

Q: There is no observer.

K: Wait, wait, sir, look at it, there it is. It’s not there, but… (laughs) There it is, you’re watching it - what takes place? It’s an exciting scene.

Q: You’re completely absorbed.

K: You’re absorbed, aren’t you. Wait, go slowly. Go slowly, sir. You are absorbed by that incident, by the things that are happening on the screen. Right? … You are absorbed. That is, the film drives out all your thinking, all the observer, because it’s so exciting, if it is exciting - as the boy is absorbed by the toy. Now life isn’t that film.

Q: At that moment it is.

K: Wait, sir - because that’s an escape. You’re being absorbed by something outside of you.

Q: There is no ‘you’ escaping.

K: Sir, you are absorbed, aren’t you?

Q: There’s no observer. There’s no you that’s absorbed.

K: Wait, sir, go slowly. You are absorbed, aren’t you, by that scene.

Q: The statement is loaded because you say, ‘you’ are absorbed.

K: No, no. The scene is so exciting that you for the moment cease to exist. Right? Put it ten different ways. What has taken place there? That scene has pushed away all thinking, for the time being. Right? When you have finished with that film and gone home, it is what you are at home what we are talking about, not about the film…

Q: Well, can we discuss it together, because I’m saying that at that time there is no observer.

K: Quite right.

Q: And we reached that point in conversation.

K: Quite right, I agree with you, sir.

Q: Now, my next question is, are we talking about something more than…

K: Much more, much more.

Q: That’s what we want to know.

K: (Laughs) That’s what I mean. Much more. My life is not at the cinema, my life is not consumed by a book, my life is not absorbed by looking at a mountain, my life is what I am. They may absorb me for the time being, but I am back to myself when that is not. I am talking about myself when that is not…

So I am asking you now… is there not an observer who is different from the thing he observes? … Look, you have a mirror - when you look at yourself in the mirror what takes place? The image is not you. Right? And the image is [also] different from you inwardly; [that is] though it is you [who] look at it, at yourself in a mirror, inwardly there is [also] the image-maker… there is the image and the maker of the image.

(Discussion 1, Saanen, 1972)

K: Can [there be an observation] without the outsider or the observer, the witnesser; which means the observer, the person who perceives, is not the observed the observer?

C: Say that again.

K: I can’t repeat. I’ll put it another way. There is a perception of you sitting there and I sitting here. When I see you, you have been introduced to me and so on, I remember all that memory of it, it is the observer. Can I look at you without the observer? Without the knowledge of you? You understand? Of course I can.

A: I think we have to go slowly there, it is a great step.

E: Yes, you can.

K: Of course. Therefore the observer is the observed.

E: Yes.

K: There is no separation. There is separation only when there is the observer different from the observed.

B: Absolutely.

E: So that is an observation.

K: That is real observation without the observer. The observer is the past, memory, knowledge, experience. All the observer is the past. Can I look at something without the past? Of course it is possible.

(Discussion with Scientists 1, Brockwood, 1984)

We have looked at everything—at the tree, at the cloud, at the wife and the husband, at the girl and the boy—as the observer and the observed. Please do give a little attention to this.

You have observed your anger, your greed or your jealousy, whatever it is, as an observer looking at greed. The observer is greed, but you have separated the observer because your mind is conditioned to the analytical process; therefore you are always looking at the tree, at the cloud, at everything in life as an observer and the thing observed. Have you noticed it?

You look at your wife through the image which you have of her; that image is the observer, it is the past, that image has been put together through time. And the observer is the time, is the past, is the accumulated knowledge of the various incidents, accidents, happenings, experiences and so on. That observer is the past

Now can you look without the observer? Can you look at the tree without the past as the observer?

That is, when there is the observer, then there is space between the observer and the observed—the tree. That space is time, because there is a distance. That time is the quality of the observer, who is the past, who is the accumulated knowledge, who says, “That is the tree”, or “That is the image of my wife.”

Can you look, not only at the tree, but at your wife or your husband, without the image?

You say something to me which hurts me, and the pain of that hurt is recorded. The memory of that continues and when there is further pain, it is recorded again. So the hurt is being strengthened from childhood on.

Whereas, if I observe it completely, when you say something which is painful to me, then it is not recorded as a hurt… To observe the pain completely without recording it, is to give your total attention at the moment of the pain.

(Chapter 3, The Awakening of Intelligence)

Q: I would like to understand the significance of a space in which the observer and the observed are not.

K: We only know the space as the observer and the observed. I look at this microphone as an observer, and there is the object which is the microphone. There is a space between the observer and the observed. This space is distance, distance being time. There is the observer and the distance between him and a star or mountain. You are asking what the other space is, which is not this. I cannot tell you; I can only tell you that as long as this space [between] the observer and the observed exists, the other is not.

(Talk 10, Sannen, 1966)

Observe for yourself a tree, a flower, the face of a person; to look at any one of them, and so look that the space between you and them is non-existent. And you can only look that way when there is love…

When you have this sense of real observation, real seeing, then that seeing brings with it this extraordinary elimination of time and space which comes about when there is love.

(Chapter 10, The Awakening of Intelligence)

In ancient China before an artist began to paint anything - a tree, for instance - he would sit down in front of it for days, months, years, it didn’t matter how long, until he was the tree. He did not identify himself with the tree but he was the tree. This means that there was no space between him and the tree, no space between the observer and the observed, no experiencer experiencing the beauty, the movement, the shadow, the depth of a leaf, the quality of colour. He was totally the tree, and in that state only could he paint.

(Chapter 12, Freedom from the Known)


The Observer (self) is the observer that arises from the meeting of motive & memory, or fear & knowledge.
An entity/feeling we could call the “needy judge”.

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I become aware that that I am idly thinking…thought arises that I am ‘inattentive’ and should be attentive…that is the observer, the past…

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I think K’s “Observer is the Observed” stems from this dissociative experience K wrote about:

“On the first day while I was in that state and more conscious of the things around me, I had the first most extraordinary experience. There was a man mending the road; that man was myself; the pickaxe he held was myself; the very stone which he was breaking up was a part of me; the tender blade of grass was my very being, and the tree beside the man was myself. I almost could feel and think like the roadmender, and I could feel the wind passing through the tree, and the little ant on the blade of grass I could feel. The birds, the dust, and the very noise were a part of me. Just then there was a car passing by at some distance; I was the driver, the engine, and the tyres; as the car went further away from me, I was going away from myself. I was in everything, or rather everything was in me, inanimate and animate, the mountain, the worm, and all breathing things.”

More details on this at: 98 Amazing Quotes By Jiddu Krishnamurti That Will Change Your Thinking (thefamouspeople.com)

What did Krishnamurti mean by ‘The Observer is the Observed’?
I think that most of us including myself are not clear about that statement.This is a good place to learn about it. Just saw this thread , haven’t read any feedback yet.

Sometimes delusions are more helpful than truth.
If everytime I blinked, the world seemed to dissapear, that would be most impractical.
If everytime I turned my head the world seemed to rotate, that would totally make me fall over.

If I could hear the little bones vibrating in my eardrums, rather than the illusion of sound “over there” that my brain is creating based on those vibrations, that would be most confusing.

If my brain is telling me that a truck is driving by in the world “out there”, it would be a bug (glitch) to perceive that what I think is happening out there, is an image being produced in here.
Perception of everything that is actually going on can be most unhelpful.

It sounds to me Douglas as though you have swallowed Hoffman’s ideas - or ideas very similar to his - hook, line and sinker. That is, you continue to present ordinary perception as an impossible, improbable even, confabulation of the mind; when in reality it is an extension of basic sentience that evolution has improvised to enable different organisms to survive and thrive in an objectively real world filled with other organisms.

Vision and sound are co-creations involving both the organism and its environment. Sights and sounds do not appear ex nihilo, from thin air: they are reflections of actions and events taking place in an objectively present intersubjective world (available both to our immediate awareness and the physical senses).

If every investigation into psychological thought or observation/perception is going to be influenced by this philosophical view of yours, then maybe you should set up a thread and hammer this view out until it is clear for everyone what it is (or isn’t). Wouldn’t this be reasonable?

Yes. This is probably at the extreme end of the perceptual fact K was pointing to when talking about the observer being the observed. It fits well with the 9th and 10th extracts:


Yes. But I swallowed it long before I knew Hoffman ever existed. Of course, what we mean by “Hoffman’s ideas” might not be exactly the same for you and me.
If we were being charitable, we could also say that I am presenting the current scientific consensus (neurology) regarding how the brain produces conscious experience (see Anil Seth)

In my understanding these models are in line with (do not contradict) what you say below :

The reason I agree with Hoffman/Seth is due (afaict) to my early, rather simplistic knowledge of K and ch’an buddhism combined with a weird (non drug related) experience that happened once (on and off for about 10 days whenever I sat down to relax) long ago : I felt like the objects of my awareness (mainly sounds) and I were the same - I was the things out there.
I am reminded of the experience when I hear people describing similar experiential states (eg. being one with the universe - whatever they actually mean) and also the bit you quote here :

There is a difference, isn’t there, between explaining current scientific theory and presenting or putting forward a particular spin on current scientific theory?

So, for instance, it is the current view in science, based on neuro-scientific research, that any sensory experience involves a combination of objective external causes, direct sensory feedback (via the senses), and the brain’s immediate and active processing of these sensations.

The aspect that you emphasise is the brain’s active processing of perceptual events. Depending on how one understands this, one can have a fairly moderate view that the brain’s processing of sensory experience is broadly (though not exactly) continuous with what there is to be experienced objectively in the world (the world ‘out there’); or one can have a more or less extreme view that the brain’s processing of sensory experience results in an illusion (i.e. Hoffman’s view).

Anil Seth’s view is more modest than Hoffman’s, but - whether to promote booksales, or because this is a helpful way of capturing a certain aspect of sensory perception - Seth has talked about the brain’s perception of the world as a “controlled hallucination” (because the brain makes predictive assessments of sensory information based on its own constantly updating calculated algorithm, which is itself the outcome of its own long evolutionary set of experiences). Seth talks about how

We never experience sensory signals themselves; we only ever experience interpretations of them.

We talked about this on the ‘pure attention’ thread, where I discussed this as being part of the brain’s perceptual cognition. However when you use language such as


you can see that by giving emphasis to the language of hallucination and illusion - as you have done in your various comments - this would be an extreme or one-sided interpretation of what ‘the brain’s interpretation of sensory information’ itself signifies!

This is something that may be worth looking at independently of any abstract neurological theories of perception.

(This is because a theory is an attempted interpretation of the experience, and will - if we are not careful - inevitably colour our understanding of the experience.)

I have heard other people who go on meditation retreats say similar things.

There seems to be a broadening of the field of our subjective experience of the world (what goes on ‘inside the skin’), so that the boundaries between one’s discrete sense of first-person experience, and the world ‘outside the skin’, becomes quite porous, or even continuous.

This sounds very much like a taste of what DeNiro was sharing in her post, and - as you say - fits certain aspects of what Krishnamurti talks about regarding the observer being the observed.

Part of our conditioning is to desire super normal experiences i.e enlightenment. It’s the process called ‘becoming’ (hope). We get convinced that there is a way we can be, which is better than the way we are; that ‘freedom’ is something to attain, that it is, not as K suggests, at the beginning…it is insidious that having divided ourself psychologically from the world, our attempts to find ourself back in unity with it, fortify the myth that there ever was any division in the first place, that there is a ‘divide’ to be overcome!

Maybe we can be simple and straightforward about all this Douglas?

Whenever Krishnamurti is talking about perception or observation one can take for granted that he is talking about the *common-sense experience (see note below) of seeing and hearing, or what we usually call sense-perception. E.g. that one can both see :eye: a bird :bird: sitting on a tree branch :deciduous_tree:, and listen :ear: to the sounds :notes: it makes.

And one can assume in relation to this that he is taking for granted the perceptual cognition involved in the brain’s :brain: processing of visual and auditory data; and that when he talks about the interference of thought he is talking (at least primarily) about psychological memory and psychological thought only.

So, for example, any neurological theory we might have about the nature of sense-perception is itself a movement of abstract thought, which is included in psychological memory/thought. So when Krishnamurti asks us whether it is possible for there to be a perception in which thought and memory are absent, it includes all psychological thoughts, memories, theories and abstractions.


*When he talks about the observer being the observed in the sense indicated by DeNiro’s example, or by the example in extract 10 of the Chinese artist, K is clearly pointing to a form of perception that goes beyond ordinary ‘common-sense’. But in the way he talks about such states of perception, it seems clear he takes this to be an extension - or a deepening/intensification - of ordinary common-sense sense perception.

Would you feel comfortable accepting this way of using K’s language concerning observation/perception?

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Otherwise whenever we talk about, for example, seeing a tree :deciduous_tree: without any image (of thought) interfering in the perception of the tree :deciduous_tree:, we will have to continuously clarify that

  1. by ‘image’ we do not mean what happens to the eye :eye: and brain :brain: when light hits the retina :eye: and changes into signals processed by the brain :brain: so as to create a coherent perceptual cognition that makes sense of the visual percept (‘tree’);


  1. by ‘thought’ we do not mean these complex perceptual cognitions taking place in the brain :brain: whenever there is a sense-perception.

Do you see what I mean @macdougdoug ?

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Our physical separation from the other ‘things’ is not in question, it is the psychological separation: the ‘I’ / self thinking : ‘I am not that’? ‘I am the observer and that is what I am observing’. (The ‘self’ is not necessary to keep us from bumping into things.)

If freedom is not “something to attain”, and is “at the beginning”, the PC brain is choosing not to be choicelessly aware by choosing to believe what is true and false instead of perceiving directly, and the the PC brain needs to awaken to what it is doing.

Doesn’t this mean we are dreamers talking about waking up, comparing degrees of wokeness? Would any of us know a fully awakened brain if we came into contact with it?

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I think that K might have had one of those…but like you say, how would we “know”?

It’s interesting that this points to one very clear way of understanding both of K’s famous statements:

We are the world’, and ‘the observer is the observed’.

In this usage the statements refer to an intensification and broadening of the field of perception, so that it becomes global, holistic.

And yet it’s also interesting that these very same statements can refer to a quite different situation: the presence of contents of thought, like fear, envy, sorrow, loneliness, etc. E.g.

‘You are not separate from the violence, conflict, misery in the world’, and ‘Sorrow is you, envy is you’, etc.

In this latter case, the perception associated with the statements refers to the ending of this content (when the observer is the observed); or to bringing about a sense of responsibility, and even felt culpability, for the thought processes of wider society (when it is seen that I am the world).

Do you see the distinction here @danmcderm ?

Until (or if) it is seen that ‘you’ are the world, there could only be speculation about ‘responsibility’, ‘felt culpability’ etc. You as self is one thing, you as the world points to something less personal, more universal? You as awareness itself? You as silence, intelligence, love?

I think that’s why we’re all here. It may be that unconsciously, the brain knows it’s dreaming and should probably wake up, but it’s been dreaming for so long, and since human society is built on dreams and perpetuated by dreamers and believers, and we can’t imagine what being awake might actually be, we can neither desire or fear awakening because dreaming is all we know. As the saying goes, Better the devil you know…