What does it take to fully awaken, to open up and receive life– to really see and hear and life beyond the usual limitations imposed by our fearful little “I”? What if all we want is to be able to concentrate a bit better on the task in front of us, to be able to listen more deeply and be a little bit less numb?
Strange as it might seem, there is a clue given in the famous Victorian novel Jayne Eyre. I’m thinking of the scene where young Jayne talks with saintly Helen Burns, her only friend in Lowood, the low and miserable institution for orphans where she has been abandoned by her family to be abused and starved. Helen has been unfairly punished and humiliated by a horrible teacher, yet she rises above the insult: “Life appears to me to be too short to be spent nursing animosity, or registering wrongs. We are, and must be one and all, burdened with faults in this world: but the time will soon come when, I trust, we shall put them off in putting off our corruptible bodies; when debasement and sin will fall from us with this cumbrous frame of flesh, and only the spark of the spirit will remain—the impalpable principle of life and thought, pure as when it left the Creator to inspire the creature; whence it came it will return….”
No doctrine of sin or karma for Helen Burns. She admits that she “holds another creed, which no one ever taught me….” Close to death from consumption, the girl understandably wants to make eternity “a mighty home—not a terror and an abyss.” She can clearly distinguish between the criminal and the crime and “revenge never worries my heart…injustice never crushes me too low; I live in calm, looking to the end.”
This is nothing at all like Jane, who will go on to live a long and eventful life. Jane tells Helen that she has no problem accepting her own natural inclination to strike back or at least resent those who hurt her. Helen assures her that this will change, “as yet you are a little untaught girl.” But Jane begs to differ: “But I feel this, Helen: I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly. It is as natural as that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it deserved.”
Helen reminds Jane that Christians and civilizations do not hold this view (although she herself is a heretic). She sounds like Buddha (and MLK for that matter) when she cautions Jane: “It is not violence that best overcomes hate—nor vengeance that most certainly heals injury. She tells Jane to read the New Testament and learn how Jesus spoke and acted, loving his enemies, blessing and doing good to those who hated and cursed him. This is the ultimate example of how to live a nonviolent, transformative, selfless way of life.
Yet we ordinary humans must be someone before we can be no one. We must make constant efforts to know and accept ourselves in all our parts, not just our best thoughts. An attitude that is allowable for an angelic and rather one-dimensional character on the brink of very early death, is for the rest of us “spiritual bypass.” To open to life, we must open to our inner untaught little child. We must sense and feel what we are in our body and feelings, not just our thoughts–not acting on every angry impulse but seeing what we are without judgment.
“There is an essential energy that is the basis of all that exists,” writes Madame de Salzmann, Gurdjieff’s closest pupil. “I do not feel it because my attention is occupied by everything contained in my memory—thoughts, images, desires, disappointments, physical impressions. I do not know what I really am. It seems that I am nothing. Yet sometimes something tells me to look, to listen, to seek seriously and truly.”
What if we boiled our spiritual practice to listening–inward and outward. What if for a short time we stopped our endless inner activity–the way we compete with ourselves in the name of spiritual practice and self-development, forever correcting and directing ourselves. What if we just stopped all that, as if it was our last moment. What if we allow ourselves to be still and listen. When we listen mindfulness and compassion, every voice can lead us back to that essential energy.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life,” said Steve Jobs at a commencement address delivered at Stanford University in 2005. “Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason to follow your heart.”
Living with nothing to lose, going for broke, gambling, taking that one leap over the chasm to freedom or out the prison window—all these things point toward a state of intense concentration. The key is not thinking—or not thinking from our usual ordinary egocentric place.
As we usually are, we are thinking all the time, constantly creating images and applying them to what we see. But this is not deep seeing. It is merely looking (as the artist Jane Rosen describes it in the “Seeing” issue). Looking is labeling. It comes from a place of separation from what we see. It comes from the surface of our mind. There is judgment involved.
And yet there are special conditions and times when the attention is not dominated by the thinking, not not cut off from the sensations of the body, from the feelings. There are times when we are not hypnotized by thoughts about my desires, attachments, times when we realize that the attention—and that we ourselves–are capable of more and meant for more.
This realization usually brings a great stillness. Suddenly we see without naming, without separating. Yet in order to maintain this open, undistracted attention we must accept our true nature, excluding nothing, rejecting nothing, judging nothing, observing ourselves and life without comment.
Sometimes, we don’t make the usual distinctions. Sometimes the separation between the life inside and the life outside falls away. We see the way artists do. We see that seeing itself is a creative act. Our deepest wish is to go on seeing, receiving life, being part of it. Years ago, a friend of mine had reason to believe she was dying. The funny thing about it, she told, was that she lost all interest in herself. She grew interested in life. Suddenly, everything seemed miraculous, the way the sun hit the wall, the doctors’ white coats, the doctors, everything.
It turns out there are more terrifying things than dying—and worse things than being a spirited, untaught little bad girl like Jane Eyre. There is the possibility of passing your life hypnotized by thought, never touching your true passions and feelings—and consequently never opening the whole package you have been given. You are gifted with multiple ways to be attentive, to connect with life. Discover and explore them all. Pull yourself together. To concentrate comes from a word that means to come from the center. “Sati” or mindfulness means to re-member, to become a whole. Live a whole life.
“Your time is limited. Don’t waste it living someone else’s life,” said Steve Jobs. Come down out of the attic of your mind and inhabit this life.
8 thoughts on “Jane Eyre Sutta #2”
So lovely, Tracy. I appreciate all of this – every word. So many truths. And I think they are so needed in this present time. Wake up! I keep telling people. Wake up! We are so asleep. It’s a painful process waking up. I fear for us if we don’t. Thank you for helping me stay awake.
I wonder if you might appreciate some of my blog postings in which I try to remind myself and others that there is so much to see when we wake up and stay awake. theshiftlesswanderer.blogspot.com
Thank you, Robin. I’ll check out your blog today!
Thank you for this beautiful article. The thoughts you so eloquently express. . .”re-mind” me that I truly have NO REGRETS in my life; for I have lived with “nothing to lose, going for broke, gambling, taking that one leap over the chasm to freedom”. . . and no it did not turn out at the present point how I had hope or planned – but this article again “re-minds” me that I truly and with the deepest passion of my soul. . .would not have it any other way.
Hi Carol, Thank you for what you share. I aim to have the feeling of truly having no regrets–good for you! Someone once asked the Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein how much they should give–since there was no set fee for teachings, everything was to be freely given, an expression of “dana” or generosity. “Give so you have no regrets,” Joseph said. That is my aspiration for life–to live generously so I can look back on it as you express, as if I wouldn’t have it any other way, as if I held nothing back.
A very rich post Tracy. My basic concern though is that you seem to minimize the problem of our emotional nature in favor of emphasizing the downside of mechanical thought.
I guess I respond to Plato and his appreciation for reason. It doesn’t fly well in New Age circles but resonates with me.
Plato believed that Man has three basic energies animating human life: Reason, Emotion, and Appetite. Reason is considered the highest while emotion and appetite are the lower passions.
The ordered soul is guided by reason so emotions and appetites follow its lead.
As we are of course, living in chaos, it cannot happen. Plato suggests that the ordered soul is what brings happiness since it is the natural state. Since we don’t have it we cannot realize it.
My concern is that when emotions lead thought, it can have a harmful effect on the inner man. Simone describes this danger in her typical laconic fashion:
From Gravity and Grace, by Simone Weil
There is a great danger in loving God as the gambler loves the game.
We must be careful about the level on which we place the infinite. If we place it on the level which is only suitable for the finite it will matter very little what name we give it.
The lower parts of my nature should love God, but not too much, for then it would not be God. May their love be like hunger and thirst. Only the highest has the right to be satisfied.[…]
God and the supernatural are hidden and formless in the universe. It well that they should be hidden and nameless in the soul. Otherwise there would be a risk of having something imaginary under the name of God (those who fed and clothed Christ did not know that it was Christ).
I believe that what often happens is that people mistake earthly emotions normal for our lower nature to actually reflect feelings normal for the higher parts of the collective soul or presence. We lack the humility you advocate to really experience our nothingness.
It is only through consciousness, a quality of the intellect that enables the higher to observe the lower, that a person can become themselves and capable of giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Reason has to acquire the help of emotional force to acquire the will capable of becoming stronger than habitual desires.
Like it or not, social force is dominated by prestige. I read people writing the most wonderful thoughts who I know are motivated by the emotional satisfactions of prestige. I know people that preach compassion because it offers them prestige for being such humanitarians. Then when the speeches no longer attract the feeling of prestige, then they are free to curse them out.
“The only people who can give the impression of having risen to a higher plane, who seem superior to ordinary human misery, are people who resort to the aids of illusion, exaltation, fanaticism, to conceal the harshness of destiny from their own eyes. The man who does not wear the armor of the lie cannot experience force without being touched by it to his very soul.” – Simone Weil
People like me will always need reason. It is natural for us. We have to learn to be increasingly reasonable. It does seem that those guided by emotion need emotional input. But like the person of reason needing to be reasonable, the emotional have to acquire emotional intelligence even at the expense of the joys of emotional justification.
Thanks for what you share. It reminds meof the Middle Path, and the precept against intoxication and heedlessness. Also, I was recently reminded by a professor that the Oracle at Delphi linked “Know Thyself” with the admonition to practice moderation in all things….a hint about knowing our limits–not just that we humans are not gods but that being our true or whole selves might involve observing inner limits as well, no excess in body, feelings or mind, coming into balance.
But as usual there is another side.
“All things in moderation, including moderation.”
― Mark Twain
Real moderation doesn’t preclude aspirtation reflecting the needs of the soul. Gurdjieff of course spoke of the need for efforts related to these needs.
Simone Weil was driven by a need for life beyond the conditioned moderation of Plato’s cave. Even at fourteen she was compelled to remember herself with aspiration sufficient to not fall asleep in the collective
Excerpt from a letter Simone Weil wrote on May 15, 1942 in Marseilles, France to her close friend Father Perrin:
“At fourteen I fell into one of those fits of bottomless despair that come with adolescence, and I seriously thought of dying because of the mediocrity of my natural faculties. The exceptional gifts of my brother, who had a childhood and youth comparable to those of Pascal, brought my own inferiority home to me. I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides. I preferred to die rather than live without that truth. After months of inward darkness, I suddenly had the everlasting conviction that any human being, even though practically devoid of natural faculties, can penetrate to the kingdom of truth reserved for genius, if only he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention upon its attainment. He thus becomes a genius too, even though for lack of talent his genius cannot be visible from outside…………”
Thanks for this. I’ve been reflecting on the real meaning of equanimity–which is the crown jewel of the 7 factors of awakening, the 7 facets of mindfulness. It means being in that state of awareness where everything is included–a state of seeing in which there is no judging, no distinction. This is a radically different way of thinking of moderation, isn’t it? It can mean observing without judgment, without excluding anything.