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Jane Austen’s Moral Universe and Karma
“Instant Karma” videos on YouTube can be quite interesting. Usually someone is engaged in risky or illegal actions and is rewarded with injury, arrest or even death. When I watch ‘Darwin’ Awards videos, my first thought is, “this guy or woman (it’s often a guy!) really didn’t have to do this! Why are they acting so willfully oblivious to consequences?” Consequences are another name for karma, which refers to the universal law of ‘action and reaction’ or, “what goes around, comes around.” Essentially, karma is a function of universal justice. It’s like a mirror used to give us a better view of our behavior. We know Jane Austen took civility very seriously. Heroines (and heroes) learn about the duty to be civilized human beings. Considering the lack of karmic awareness in the modern world–maybe even in her time–Jane wrote about the personal dealings between a variety of high and low characters and the varieties of consequences–either tragic or comedic. In her novels, and in the timeless spiritual text, Bhagavad-Gita, we learn about acting with the understanding of an essential connection between souls. The basis of our connection with all other beings comes from our connection with the Supreme Being, who is the source of our existence. As they say, “we are all connected.” This understanding of the equality of all spiritual (conscious) beings is the basis of metaphysical science. The yogi focuses within and finds real pleasure within the self (B.Gita 5.21). Jane had grasped this truth of inner consciousness. Through her art, she shared this principle of seeing with intelligent vision, the equality of all souls. On a plaque at Winchester Cathedral, where Jane’s remains lie, is a quote from Psalms: “She openeth her mouth with wisdom and on her tongue is the law of kindness.”
This idea of equality of all beings was the basis of the Declaration of Independence, “…all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights…” This conception is different from recent demands for ‘equality’ based on the body because it is futile to attempt to prove physical equality when the fact is that bodies are all different. Any mundane test you can devise will clearly show that we are, empirically, unequal in terms of intelligence, physical strength, artistic talents, mathematical ability, etc. Yet spiritually we are all equal and to practice yoga –and yoga means ‘to connect’– is to see everyone equally and this is the rational basis for being civilized towards others. My teacher writes about this ‘equal vision,’ called, samatvam in sanskrit, and the problem with the current social trend of ‘identity politics.’
“Samatvam, spiritual equality, requires and inspires true compassion, beyond the attachment and hatred that usually infect political and social causes. Such causes, based on duality, sew the seed of future hostility even as they address present conflict.”
A Comprehensive Guide to Bhagavad-Gita-by HD Goswami (pg.68)
A civilized society demands something more important than polished appearances and exhibitions of wealth. It places importance on respecting others. Jane Austen shares the same message in her novels. In Sense and Sensibility, there is a profound transformation in the heroine’s (Eleanor’s), younger sister, Marianne, who was rather clueless about civilized behavior and had a great intolerance for other points of view. She also nearly destroys hers physical body by a reckless policy of uncontrolled emotions. Eventually, Marianne comes to value Eleanor’s exceptional behavior and she finally, thoughtfully confesses, “I compare [my behavior] to what it ought to have been. I compare it with yours.” At this point, Marianne becomes a heroine–yay! So there you have it. Jane Austen is providing all her dear readers with characters like Marianne (one of my favorites) so that we can feel inspiration to change–even if we are also beginning our journey with somewhat extreme views or sensitivities (called ‘sensibilities’ in Jane’s day). How do such characters work to change us? They influence us because in a Jane Austen novel, such well-written and famously realistic characters provide not just interesting reading but also a powerful tool for affecting our psychology. This is natural since, if we can appreciate a character as complex and flawed and basically, real enough, then we can be sufficiently affected. Assuming that we are not ‘dull elves’ and have introspection enough, we can catch at Austen’s message and it becomes natural for us to make critical associations and comparisons. This inspires changes to happen in our feelings, mind, motives and behaviors–and it affects the quality of our lives.
Today, every has heard of karma. All mundane actions create a reaction, either good or bad. When we act selfishly or immorally we create bad karma–of course good actions also create good karma. Rule #1: The more wisdom we painlessly adopt, the less suffering from inpulsive actions. For example, when Lizzy Bennett first detects the serious error of her first impressions concerning both Mr. Darcy, and Wickham, she declares, “Until that moment, I hardly knew myself!” When challenged by the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Lizzy courageously sticks to her guns and declares that she owes it to herself to pursue her best life, without reference to the demands of anyone unconnected to her. As they say, “You go girl! Knowing the self helps us to not believe or follow the many narcissistic people who are only after their own self-interest and who only want to sell you the latest gadget or to dominate and exploit the world. This consumer culture is built on confusing people as to their real self-interest.
Austen meant to educate and enlighten us about actions and reactions so that by the end of any novel, those who are paying attention get a clear picture of the most common delusions which oblige mortal beings to suffer undesirable results–and the happiness of those who act wisely. We cannot but be sorry that Lydia Bennett chooses to abandon moral principles and her family. And also we cannot but appreciate that Lizzy and her eldest sister, Jane, also receive (and deserve) the better results of their more exalted behavior. Elizabeth tells Jane, in Pride and Prejudice, “Until I have your goodness, I cannot have your happiness.” So karma is real and we can learn about goodness by reading Bhagavad-gita (and of course by reading Jane Austen’s novels!). Like a scientist we can discover the distinction between real and false roads to perfect life–and if we are not happy then there must be a reason or an error of judgement in our thinking and actions. We keep learning and adjusting our lives until we reach wisdom, self-knowledge and rational happiness and contentment.
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Filed under Karma and Yoga and Jane Austen
Your Best Life – Control the Mind
We all have a little difficulty with our minds occasionally. Anyone who has ever been unable to make a relatively easy decision because their mind kept bouncing back and forth between options knows the feeling of having a ‘monkey’ mind. Something like a bad hair day but having more to do with a glitch in the self-control mechanisms. Someone got it right in a funny song that calls the uncontrolled mind a, “24/7 obscene phone call.” According to wisdom traditions, it is the job of the intelligence to sort and prioritize the almost continuous flow of options being presented by the mind. Almost like a child, the mind requires constant observation and guidance. It also requires the oversight of sufficient intelligence, in order to hold it steady. This is not impossible for anyone engaged in bhakti-yoga. A yogi gains self-control over the senses as a natural result of purifying the intelligence. The yogi is said to have ‘single-minded’ intelligence and yet it requires sincere effort to achieve. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is stated that the mind is more difficult to control than the wind, yet it can be trained by constant practice and ‘detachment.’ For years and lifetimes even, we have been the slave of the mind and its focus on objects of the senses, almost relentlessly and so yoga is the way.
To begin to understand mental self-control we have to think about how the mind, an amazingly impulsive thing on some occasions, has no sense of the practical or the rational. Only the intelligence has this power of discrimination. The mind offers ideas and options every waking hour of the day and you may even find–at least I do–that the mind is “waiting for you” when you wake up in the morning. The mind is what drags you to the chocolate cake and pizza…for breakfast. It’s the, “I wanna…” or the, “I don’t wanna…” voice in your head, when you know, perfectly well, that this or that behavior is bad and yet your mind seems to be drawing you into doing it. On the other hand, picture intelligence as sort of ‘James Bond 007,’ that operates by making a cool analysis of a situation and choosing the best-calculated plans. We all want to function like this! We often regret impulsive acts yet when we use our intelligence the outcomes and choices are generally much more beneficial for attaining happiness. Philosophers and yogis know this. Mind control is most easily accomplished by yoga practice. It is by spiritual awareness or, as Jane Austen would say, ‘self-knowledge,’ that we come to the point of ‘single-minded’ intelligence, and we also come to the detachment needed. Spiritual practices, done regularly, counteract the mind’s serious attachment to sense gratification. To put it simply, yoga helps us develop the needed determination to make choices that prioritize intelligence! The only alternative is to abandon our lives to the quasi-insane mental platform–not a great plan for a good life. Here’s a story that might illustrate, in a simply way, what I mean:
I was once camping in a beautiful national park and was thinking of diving into a crystal blue mountain river. It was a perfect day and it was all gorgeous scenery. Anyone could see that a dip would be refreshing. Unfortunately, my mind was noisily protesting, “I don’t wanna!” Surely the water was cold yet so what? It was rational to seek the coolness of the water on such a warm day. Yet there was my mind…acting up and staging a protest even up to the nano-second before I hit the water. “Noooooo!” …splash! It was so amusing to get this chance to catch the mind “in the act” and what the heck was it all about? What was up with all that mental noise? It was loud. It was obnoxious. And it was the same sort of mental commotion that was going on in the minds of the many people whom I saw standing nearby. Everyone seemed to be staring at the beauty of that blue water and yet no one was going in. Finally, one man approached the river in his swimming trunks. He stood nearby, poised on the edge of the water, and obviously trying to will himself to dive in. He appeared frozen in indecision. I had just come out of the water and, seeing his predicament, I called out, “You want dive into that beautiful water, right?” He agreed without taking his eyes off the water. I began to coach him, “Pay no attention to that voice in your head.” “Just ignore it and dive in.” He thought for a moment, then he did just that! In a few minutes, and after a few more dives, he thanked me repeatedly and expressed his happiness at not missing out on the experience. To have helped another person having problems with their mind really struck me. I realized in a very personal way that all living beings have this problem of being beleaguered and paralyzed while ‘stuck’ on the mental platform. We can do something about it, too!
If nothing else, the story above is proof that the mind can be a big party-pooper and will, if unrestrained, lead us around based on impulse and immediate gratification. Just remember that the mind does not ‘think.’ This is why it can sabotage our life and even prevent happiness. The intellect is necessary for making good choices, especially when we are choosing relationships. This is a big Jane Austen theme. In Pride & Prejudice Elizabeth’s youngest sister, Lydia, sadly ruins her life by choosing the wrong man. Her parents do nothing to restrain her wildness. After month of having “nothing but flirtation and officers in her head” she is set on a course for disaster. It is true that Lydia is quite young, only 15, and she is described as having strong ‘animal’ spirits which means that her physical desires will all the more rule over her. Unfortunately she is not given instruction as to how to think ‘seriously’ on topics which will lead to a good life. It is sad to think of anyone making choices that lead to a less-than pleasant future. Many people are very sorry that Lydia makes the worst possible choice in running away with Mr. Wickham. The wise see that some choices create a sort of path of “no return” because some behaviors have enough force to irreversibly destroy our freedom of choice. In some terrible cases, people develop an addiction to drugs and can no longer choose to use them or not. We can understand then, that consistently making good choices is important to having a good life, which centers on a life of freedom.
Jane Austen wrote about making good decisions, and her novels, though entertaining, center around her heroines’ choice of friends and marriage partners. They may initially be misled by some sort of attachment to the wrong people, yet they are sure to come to the point of intelligence, and often just in time. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett is almost duped by Mr. Wickham, who has good looks and a soft-spoken sort of manliness. Fortunately, she takes some good advice from her aunt to ‘not be in a hurry’ and this gives her just enough time to find out the truth. In contrast to Elizabeth’s cool and rational behavior, the otherwise sensible Charlotte Lucas professes ‘unsound’ ideas as to what a woman should look for in a husband and, as we find out, make no use of reason in her choice of a marriage partner. Against every finer sense of feeling, she agrees to marry the socially awkward and exceedingly irksome Mr. Collins for the sake of a guaranteed ‘comfortable’ home. She leaves all her good sense behind with this choice.
I know that some Jane Austen readers and critics will justify Charlotte’s behavior by talking about the lack of opportunities for women at that period, yet still, there is no doubt that Jane Austen did not approve of this kind of calculated approach to matrimony. We read that Charlotte was looking for man who could supply her with material stability, yet not at all interested to know the character flaws of the person she was going to marry. Her only interest was for the ‘comfortable’ home. This is blatantly nothing but a ‘taker’ mentality. In contrast, Elizabeth said that she would only be induced to marry when she had found the ‘deepest’ love. She was looking for mutual respect and friendship, not just a good situation. We are sad for Charlotte’s choice because her plan for selfish pleasure will lead her to the most impermanent happiness. This is what Elizabeth is most concerned about as she leaves the newlywed Charlotte in Kent.
“Poor Charlotte! — it was melancholy to leave her to such society! — But she had chosen it with her eyes open; and though evidently regretting that her visitors were to go, she did not seem to ask for compassion. Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms.”
Not yet, but eventually… poor Charlotte, indeed! Thus Jane is teaching what the Gita repeatedly confirms, which is that pure love is eternal and based in reality, and therefore our best relationships on earth are not simply those which supply some temporary material comforts. The Gita also defines lower pleasures as, “having a beginning and an end.” Jane hints at the truth that loving relationships are, in fact, not ‘illusory’ when we understand that we are all spiritually connected. Reality means seeing by means of the intelligence, that souls are eternal and that material objects (including our material bodies) are unconscious and temporary and thus are not to be considered a true source of happiness. Of course, we still maintain the body nicely because it is a gift and a vehicle we use to attain spiritual consciousness and happiness.
One may ask, if the first principle according to the Bhagavad-Gita, is to practice control of the mind, then what is the exact mechanism for self-control and how does it occur? The Gita (3.43) explains that the mind, optimally, works like the reins in controlling five powerful horses, corresponding to the five senses–sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. The intelligence is the driver holding the reins and the passenger is the soul, or consciousness. In the best circumstances, the soul directs the driver-intelligence, which expertly reins in the mind so as to maintain control over the five senses. A favorite example of a consistently intelligent person appears as Mr. Knightley in the novel, Emma. This hero embodies the cool and deliberate nature of intelligence and as a friend, he steps in very regularly to correct Emma’s mischief. He stands in stark contrast with other characters, even Emma herself. Again, the important point is that in all things yoga and all things Austen, there is a balanced approach and some room to safely experiment. As when riding a horse, one cannot be perpetually pulling on the reins without driving the horse to rebellion, so there’s no need to panic if you have occasional difficulties. The idea is not to repress every normal innocent inclination. In fact, for a serious urge-repressing society, look to England’s Victorian age, which immediately followed the more relaxed Regency period. My point is that the Gita and Jane Austen’s novels promote a balanced approach. In Northanger Abbey, our heroine, Catherine Moreland, a very innocent young heroine-in-training, gets into trouble when she allows her imagination to run wild–in the Gothic style of ‘fevered imagination’– with serious suspicions about the hero’s father, General Tilney. She suffers some temporary mental anguish when the hero discovers her suspicions but she begins to understand the principle of controlling the mind (and her imagination) and all turns out well.
In any case, we may occasionally indulge in chocolate cake or even staying up a little past the usual bedtime–especially when attending a Regency ball! We only desire that as far as possible the worst consequences are, well, inconsequential. As a friend, and following in the footsteps of Mr. Knightley, I do my best to combine these teachings from the Bhagavad-Gita and Austen’s novels. I find that they compliment each other very well, even though they were composed thousands of years apart and originate from very different cultures. Please join me again soon and let me know that you do enjoy them by subscribing or leaving a comment.
Filed under Karma and Yoga and Jane Austen