“Because our perception is ‘stained’ by our emotions, memories, views, and knowledge, we cannot touch the true nature of what we observe.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
Within the tradition of Buddhism are bodhisattvas: those who seek enlightenment for the sake of all. A bodhisattva consciously aspires to awaken bodhicitta, the “mind of love,” ready to accept pleasure or pain with equanimity with the goal of bringing happiness to other beings.
While all of us have the ability to be bodhisattvas, within the Buddhist tradition, particular bodhisattvas are held up as examples. One bodhisattva with whom Westerners may be familiar is Kuan Yin whose name literally translates to observer of sounds.
To be bodhisattvas, therefore, we must also be observers: of others in order to offer compassion and, as a foundation, to our own feelings and thoughts so that we may observe correctly.
Jane Austen understood this. Throughout all of her fiction, characters wreak havoc through their lack of observation. Elizabeth Bennet fails to see that Darcy is falling in love with her. No one but Fanny Price notices the inappropriate and ultimately dangerous flirting of Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram. And Emma fails to observe, well, pretty much everything.
Within the novel Emma, though, we do find a model observer—who ultimately also demonstrates the difficulty of mindful observation: Mr. Knightley.
While Emma receives adulation from all around her, Mr. Knightley recognizes that Emma has faults and makes mistakes that, in a sort of anti-bodhisattva fashion, are bound to make others unhappy.
When Mr. Knightley realizes that Emma’s matchmaking scheme for her friend Harriet will ruin Harriet’s chances with a kind, genuine man who wishes to marry her, he scolds Emma soundly, noting the problem of skewed observation. He tells Emma, “your infatuation about that girl blinds you.”
Using his powers of observation, Mr. Knightley warns Emma off of her matchmaking scheme for Harriet with Mr. Elton: “from his general way of talking in unreserved moments, when there are only men present, I am convinced that he does not mean to throw himself away.” Mr. Elton plans to marry well, not to someone of Harriet’s rank. Mr. Knightley knows this through his careful listening.
He also uses his observations to the benefit of others, for Mr. Knightley’s telling Emma about her rude behavior toward someone of lower social status awakens compassion and observation within Emma.
But even Mr. Knightley misses in his observations when led by his feelings. Like all in town, he is duped by the secretly engaged couple, for Knightley is blinded by his own jealousy.
Convinced that Frank Churchill is wooing Emma and that she is willingly accepting his attentions, Mr. Knightley fails to see that Frank is merely using Emma as a shield to hide his true feelings for another young lady. Mr. Knightley also misreads Emma, who plays with the idea of being in love with Frank, but she never has any real affection for him beyond a superficial friendship.
Overwhelmed by his jealousy after Frank is particularly flirtatious with Emma, Mr. Knightley runs off to London, returning home hurriedly in the rain when he learns of Frank’s engagement to another. Expecting to find a disconsolate Emma, he goes to comfort her.
Our narrator tells us, “He had found her agitated and low.—Frank Churchill was a villain.—He heard her declare that she had never loved him [Frank]. Frank Churchill’s character was not desperate.—She was his own Emma, by hand and word, when they returned into the house; and if he could have thought of Frank Churchill then, he might have deemed him a very good sort of fellow.”
Even one of Austen’s most observant characters loses those powers of observation when caught by his own story.
As Austen wrote in her novel Persuasion, “How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!” In this case, how quickly we see things when that is what we expect to see.
Instead, like Austen, let us observe with clarity and, like Kuan Yin, with compassion.
Photo provided by Kathryn Duncan