In Winchester cathedral, on a wall near Jane Austen’s remains, there is a lovely quotation from Psalms, “She openeth her mouth with wisdom and on her tongue is the law of kindness.’ We know that she wrote with wit, humor and irony but also much truth and wisdom, that the heroines dropped tiny doses of philosophy (combining the words “philo” or “love of” with “sophia” or wisdom). We get truths even from the mouths of flawed characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett begins to understand herself as she pieces together the cause of her past prejudice which blinds her to Mr. Wickham’s duplicity and to Mr. Darcy’s worth. She analyzes herself in this way:
Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.” –Elizabeth Bennett, Chapter 36
It can be challenging to face our flaws and to really know ourselves and besides that we have to deal with the effects of the modern world. Honestly, when does modern social media or any media promote wisdom? If we trust the mundane propaganda and these materialistic leaders who often try to lead us further from the truth in their quest for a bigger slice of the ‘pie’ then what force is there to bring us back from the edge of complete illusion? Where do we find knowledge related to consciousness? From what I can tell, people are now far from being interested in this kind of knowledge, due to misunderstanding themselves to be the body. Modern entertainment, to keep up sales and ratings, fills our heads with sex and violence and keeps us far removed from philosophical contemplations. People are also slogging so hard that they are almost too tired and stressed to stop and think about what real peace would look like. It’s very sad to see entire populations so misled. Here we are, these amazingly beautiful eternal beings and yet we are bombarded by advertisements that urge us to believe that the temporary things of this world will satisfy us. How can we become a little more rational and really know ourselves, and what can save us from such perverse ‘truths’? The heroine Elizabeth admits that she ‘hardly knew herself,’ and we hardly know ourselves.
Consider the probabilities of errors in ‘knowing ourselves’ when at virtually every moment we are encouraged to be as narcissistic as possible, to think of ourselves as perfect and flawless. For example, universities now coddle students in so-called ‘Safe Spaces’ because some of them, like infants, still believe that they are the center of the universe and are unable to encounter anyone holding a different opinion from their own–and if they do hear someone with a different opinion than their own it becomes a medical emergency. Jane would not approve of this kind of lame narcissism, where students are entering a place of learning with an intolerant attitude towards new ideas. What is happening here and how does society become so warped and manipulated? Well, don’t forget that we listen to ads telling us that we are perfect (or we will be perfect if we just buy their products). Our rational faculties are being weakened, controlled and blinded by vanity. It was, “vanity working on a weak mind” that misleads Harriet in the novel, Emma. Absorbed in vanity, weak minds see no value in philosophy and are easy targets for the flattery of advertising agencies, social media and, not least, the pressure to conform. Purchasing what we hope will gain us social acceptance, we find frustration and dissatisfaction. The soul is sadly, starved for true knowledge and real happiness. Again, how do we return our minds to a state of objectivity and the force of honest evaluation of ourselves? For truth seekers, there is spiritual practice.
Yes, spiritual practice and the reading of Jane!
I’d like to compare finding the path to self-knowledge to Lizzy Bennet’s finding out where she would ‘be at’ as they used to say. In Pride and Prejudice, the heroine, Lizzy, often torments herself to the point of ‘an headache’ while trying to make out Mr. Darcy’s character. Then she got the important letter from Mr. Darcy. Before the letter she was positively consumed in thoughts about his apparent incivility, and after the letter she is finally able to do away with all her ignorant notions and prejudiced ideas and sort out her heroes from her villains. Mr. Darcy’s good information gave her the roadmap to finding her way back to the truth, and to finding her way to happiness. She even declares, “Til this moment I never knew myself.” Exposure to the truth is such a cathartic experience! From this moment Lizzy “could only think of her letter”…and of course the happy ending follows. When one gains this knowledge of self understanding, the effect is something like being obsessed by the happiness of knowing. Otherwise, like Lizzy, before her letter, the mind spins us round and round, and we never arrive at a solution
My own teacher-mentor introduced me to dear Jane and it changed my life. Before that, I had persistent yet vague intuitions in the department of self-understanding and knew that my life was not proceeding in a positive direction yet I had no idea how to actually live and to change my consciousness. It was like being stuck on that train “going nowhere. I was sincere and did a lot of praying yet there was a bad experience with a bad teacher-mentor and there were also people who tried to convince me to give up my search. They only wanted to control and exploit me and were not my friends. I sometimes compared my experience to poor Catherine Moorland in Northanger Abbey, who was tormented by the conniving (Isabella and John) Thorpe siblings who were shamelessly manipulating her. After a while she became aware of their schemes and was able to escape them. In this world there are many who have similar agendas, despite being educated. Northanger Abbey teaches us that we may have to fight against such people to attain our freedom and that we must appreciate and search out good society. Catherine stays the course and finally comes to recognize the truly ‘heroic’ characters (Mr. Tilney and his sister), and the ‘happily ever after’ followed, of course. There is a relevant verse from Bhagavad-gita (Ch. 2. verse 41) which says that those who are sincerely following this path of self-knowledge are ‘single-minded’ and their ‘aim is one.’ It is the focused determination of the yogi (or yogini in the case of ladies engaged in this process).
Like many Americans, I had a desire to be rational and scientific about existential questions and yet science cannot explain consciousness. Bumping into this meditation practice and meeting my teacher was truly my good fortune. Now, I am so interested in Jane Austen’s novels and the spiritual science of yoga that is found in the teachings of Bhagavad-gita. Both books are gifts that help us gain better awareness of ourselves. The honest scientist must be open to a serious exploration of consciousness, and to a rational journey into higher consciousness. I hope you are enjoying my blog and if you are then please take a minute to subscribe.