Who doesn’t like a good story? Some facts remain constant in this changeable and unpredictable world. Among them is the wish to be loved, to be safe, to be free from physical and mental suffering, to be free and at ease in this world, to know life and be known as we really are. What makes great novels great is the way they embody and convey this constant wish among humans and other beings. We root for Jane Eyre and for Harry Potter as they rise to the challenge of overcoming the ever increasing obstacles that stand in the way of the fulfillment of this wish. One reason people love those characters in particular is this wish to love and be loved—to really unfold–comes blazing out of a truly oppressed little kid who proves capable of discovering unknown powers and strengths. Both characters are stimulated into extraordinary growth. Their respective authors convey the sense we all have (at least unconsciously): that we have magic in us.
What exactly is this magic supposed to consist of? It is our capacity to drop whatever mental rock we happen to be holding, to open the grasping hand of the self and receive life just as it is. “Bronte’s sense of human personality is that it is pliant, fluid, living, in immediate (and often defiant) response to its surroundings,” writes Joyce Carol Oates. “Not that it is stable and determined.” We thrill as Jane and Harry are stimulated by circumstances to discover remarkable strengths and capacities. Our innate story sense tells us there is a way to be heroic in life that does not involve bashing our way through obstacles like a human fist—that involves being open to change.
The chief obstacle seems to be ourselves–literally, our attachment to a fixed notion of self. Looking at everything that meets us from this fixed vantage point creates a sense of separation and opposition. We label and judge everything instantaneously, scrolling through the files of memory to place things, separating our “selves” from what we see. This is a primal tendency and there is nothing wrong with it: what would happen if our cells lost the ability to distinguish between self and other? What if atoms lost their inherent sense of structure? Everything would be all shapeless and formless and void. The grand story of life as we know it would cease.
Still, we have to find a way not to be enslaved by the tendency—not to live our lives in a cupboard under the stairs, forever at a remove at a direct experience of life by what we believe we know, by what we believe ourselves to be. Our relish for books like Jane Eyre and Harry Potter reveal that we believe that we know deep down that there is something wondrous about life waiting for us—and that we ourselves may have extraordinary capacities. I just don’t feel it because I am lost in thoughts, images, desires, disappointments, physical impressions—lost in old knowledge. A famous Buddhist teacher once described the great predicament of human race in three words: “Lost in thought.”
Yet there is another way of being attentive, and we have all experienced it—at least for fleeting moments. There are moments when we are so astonished by life that we can just stand there are receive it without naming, without judging. Sometimes, this seems to come spontaneously in the wake of earth-shaking news—sometimes in the midst of a meditation retreat when we allow ourselves to be very still, yet very sensitive and alive inside. This is that rare state when we make no distinctions, when one thing is not more than another—everything is equally astonishing, equally evidence of the wild, strange miracle of life. In such a moment, there is no separation between the life inside us and outside. We are seamlessly connected and we have a role to play. We are to stand there and be astonished (as that wonderful poet and Parabola contributor Mary Oliver has written). We are to see, to receive, what is taking place. In such a moment, we realize that the brave and creative and magical act that so many of us aspire to is just this act: seeing what is taking place.
Most of us know this experience, and then we forget, and this is perfectly natural. We have to get on with the business of living. Yet a feeling lingers, a longing to know ourselves and know life in a more complete way. What to do? I think we may need to acknowledge that longing in an honest and straightforward way, like Jane Eyre yearning for the moon and the stars and adventure, and then hearing the clock strike and going in to do her job, letting” little things recall us to earth.”