What does it take to find our path to a greater, richer life? What do we need to do to open up and let the magic in? It is entirely possible to spend most of our limited time not really inhabiting our own life, just a blur of thought and memory gliding over the surface of things like a ghost without really touching in. This is a horrible fate when you think about it. What is the way out? Lately, I’ve been the journeys of great child characters, of Harry Potter and Jane Eyre.
Like Harry, Jane is an unwanted and unloved child, grudgingly taken in by an aunt who has no intention of helping her find her way in the world. When we meet her, she is tucked away behind curtains, imagining the world based on the pictures in a History of British Birds, and on scraps of fairy tales she hears from a maid, or later from the then-popular novel Pamela. In short, the world Jane lives in is very, very limited but she doesn’t feel limited. She feels intensely interested—and her awareness of herself having an interest that is a world beyond her grim immediate surroundings is part of the intensity and the interest. Don’t you remember that feeling? I remember being a little girl standing on the shore watching ships with international flags pass by on the St. Lawrence River. I remember learning the flags of different countries and feeling a thrill of connection I couldn’t describe. Even though I was small and stranded on the shore in Northern New York, there was something large in me—vast, even–something that could encompass a ship that came all the way from Sweden.
Bronte describes young Jane hiding behind velvet drapes, finding the pictures and stories profoundly interesting, even though her understanding and feelings are extremely undeveloped. There is something about that special way of being interested that is an important clue about what it takes to find a path–in a certain state there is no separation between the subject and the object of our attention. There is a state in which the objects of our attention are swinging door, inviting us into a deeper knowledge of our true nature, into a deeper way to be alive. Last Sunday in our local meditation group, we spoke of this in modern terms, as flow.
Most of us know those luscious moments when we move from the shore to the river, from surface of things to the depths, when we move merely looking and labeling to opening up and receiving—to becoming part of what we see. How do we get there? This was spoken of a great deal in the “Seeing” issue of Parabola. We’ve talked in this blog about those moments when you are so confounded that you give up–on a writing project or an artwork or on life. This moment of abandoning hope of thinking up a solution can feel like facing our true inner poverty—or even like going up into the attic and confronting crazy Mrs. Rochester. All our thoughts and images and memories are just mice running round and round in our brain, leading us nowhere.
I think of this as a koan moment, a moment of being stopped in our tracks. In “Seeing,” the artist Jane Rosen describes intentionally giving her students conflicting directions on drawing, so that “their minds are so busy trying to figure it out, that something more essential can come out and it goes I’ll try. “ Plain, honest, sincere, artistic, “tenacious of life,” Jane Eyre is a personification of that little impartial person Rosen describes who comes out to see and draw when the personality just won’t serve.
The journey of Jane Eyre (and Harry Potter, and all children—or the lucky ones) is a journey from isolation to being part of a much greater life.
What would it be like if we approached our lives with a spirit of investigation, if we were keenly interested in investigating the nature of our connection to life so that we could discover the role we are meant to play? Yes, I am proposing that the thought (or, better, attitude) experiment of living as if we are Harry Potter or Jane Eyre. I remember doing this sometimes when I was young, don’t you? Looking at life with an intense and happy interest, seeking the role I might be able to play.
Out walking one winter day, Jane Eyre (who has survived her horrible childhood to become an educated young woman) came upon the dark and brooding Mr. Rochester. His horse slips on the ice and he sprains his ankle, compelling him to ask her to help him back to his horse. Jane doesn’t yet know who Rochester is (the master of the estate where she works as a governess) much less the impact he will have on her life. Yet Jane feels that something has changed. “My help had been needed and claimed: I had given it: I was pleased to have done something; trivial, transitory though the deed was, it was yet an active thing, and I was weary of an existence all passive.”
In other words, having a greater life, a magical life doesn’t just depend on Mr. Rochester showing up. We have to being open—and being active inside. Growing up to live conventional worldly lives, we are used to living on the surface. We are oriented towards the outside, leaning forward to grasp what we need or to defend ourselves. Yet there are times when we are in a different relationship with life. Another way of life begins not when we decide we are strong enough and accomplished enough or rich enough to give but when we have nothing left to take. When all we want to do is receive life with empty hands. Then life can pour in.
At those moments, I begin to realize that what I may really be in my essence is not an isolated and inviolate little “I” at all, but part of something immense and essential. It may turn out that we really are connected to those British birds, those ships passing on the St. Lawrence, to all that we see. The secret is knowing that all those things that interest us are doors that swing inward, inviting our own deepest experience to be part of what we see.