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.” Usually when we try (at least when I do) we see that we listen poorly. We seem to have the attention of a fly, and we are constantly judging what we see. Madame de Salzmann stresses how pervasive judgment, and how it separates us from what we see. How can we escape? The proximity of death is one way.
“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.