The absolutely amazing spiritual insight of EM Forster
by Vic Shayne, author of 13 Pillars of Enlightenment and The Self Is A Belief
I have read A Room With a View a couple of times at least. And I have seen the movie (1985) starring Helena Bonham Carter, Denholm Elliot, and Maggie Smith, probably a couple dozen times because it follows the novel so faithfully. What keeps drawing me back to this EM Forster work is the sheer number of brilliant passages that could easily have issued forth out of the mouth of an Indian sage high atop a mountain. The movie and book is a meditation that leads me deep beyond this conscious self.
Speaking of Indian sages, there has been a long line of gurus who have taught a type of meditation different from the most commonly practiced sorts. This meditation is called self-enquiry and it is performed throughout the day without the need to sit in a lotus position staring into the third eye. Instead it is centered around one predominant question: “Who am I?” This question sets off a search for who you are beyond the egoic mind and into the core of consciousness and the still silence beyond all movement and knowledge.
The egoic mind is the cause of suffering
The egoic mind is the psychologically conditioned mind, influenced and shaped by parents, authority figures, society, religion, convention, fears, teachers, culture, and so on. When the mind is conditioned it comes to believe that it is a person with all kinds of attachments, associations, and limitations. The egoic mind is centered upon a sense of self that persistently attempts to preserve and perpetuate its existence even though it knows that death will one day come.
It is this egoic self that is the cause of all suffering, because it does not recognize that it is actually the entirety of consciousness. This is because it fragments the wholeness of reality into parts. As an instrument, this is its function and default mode. It lives to avoid pain and to have pleasure, always trying to achieve, get, obtain, seek, attain, figure things out, and so on. If it knew it was already whole then there would be no impetus to try to become anything at all. The sages of India in the Vedic tradition have always known this, and some psychologists have hit upon this truth, yet offer no practice to do anything about it. It is obvious that EM Forster was clued in by virtue of what he wrote and how he wrote it.
A brief overview of the storyline
Before we take a look at a few of many, many enlightening passages from A Room With A View, let’s get a sense of what this book is all about, because it is the perfect hero’s journey (in this case it is a heroine named Lucy who is the protagonist).
A good writer understands that her main character has a conscious and an unconscious desire. This parallels the way we live our lives: We have a superficial ego-driven desire, and we have a deep unconscious desire of which perhaps even we are unaware. Lucy’s conscious desire is to do what is right and proper in Victorian society — marry a well-to-do man and repress her desires for something deep, enriching, and fulfilling. And so she intends to marry a man who fills this role, but first she takes a holiday with her cousin Charlotte to Tuscany where they quickly discover that the room they had booked does not look romantically over the Arno River — it has no view. This is the inciting incident.
In the dining hall that evening Lucy and Charlotte are complaining about their room with no view when a middle aged gentleman, Mr. Emerson, and his handsome son, George Emerson, volunteer to switch rooms with the ladies. Mr. Emerson says that he and George have a view but they’d be happy to make the switch so the ladies can have what they want.
Where the self is confronted with the Self
The Emersons are magical people. Lucy recognizes this fact, yet her conscious mind resists their way of seeing reality because it’s quite unconventional. Without pretense, the Emersons follow their hearts and wear their emotions on their sleeves while most others remain mired in duplicitousness as they surrender to the social order.
In A Room With A View we have a cast of British travelers in Tuscany, a place where the Italians live by their emotions and the English struggle and repress their inner desires to be free. Mr. Emerson and his son George find a conventional life to be a wasted life.
And now for a select few of Forster’s cherished lines…
Mr. Emerson offers a poetic reason for why he is so willing to give his room to Lucy and Charlotte. While pointing to his heart he exclaims, ‘’Here is where the birds sing, here is where the sky is blue!” He thus demonstrates the richness of an inner life where the essence of one’s being has no need for things of the external world.
And perhaps the greatest line of all, one that led me to meditate upon it for years, was also spoken by Mr. Emerson. He said, “By the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes — a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.” To contemplate this out we may return to the sages of India who have shown that there is a self and a Self; the former is the egoic self and the latter is the Self of consciousness, unbound by the ego, the mind, and the things of this ephemeral, temporary world that we agree is reality. It is the self that asks Why, trying to figure out its own existence. And then it discovers the ultimate Truth, which is a Yes.
When the attention is placed upon the Yes it is magically uncovered and the light goes on. Then the attention goes back to normalcy in this insane world and the Why reemerges.But when the mind is so consumed with distractions, even the Why does not appear.
This yes is the acceptance of all that life has to offer — the good, the bad and the ugly — for it is all us as the greater Self. But as long as the egoic mind remains in control, this Yes is transitory; it is found but then lost again — resurrected and then subsumed when the attention returns to the pettiness of “normal” life. To fully realize this is the essence of that which has been called enlightenment.
Lastly I shall share with you my third most favorite line from A Room With A View, also spoken by the bumbling but wise Mr. Emerson. He said, “We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won’t do harm — yes, choose a place where you won’t do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.” I’ll leave you to meditate upon this one yourself.
When we think of spiritual books we may be reminded of New Age teachings or Vedic philosophy, yet it seems few books come close to EM Forster’s A Room With A View because it speaks directly to the heart. Of course the storyline is one of transcendence and the conquering of the little egoic self, but it is far more than this. This timeless novel is about the highest Truth, but the message is not given overtly. Like any great guru, Forster simply points the way. It is up to the reader to take the journey into his/her own depths.
Though Forster’s plot seems simple enough, the theme is right out of the ancient Vedic texts that differentiate the egoic mind from the totality of consciousness. The room is the egoic mind, and the view lets the light of consciousness reveal what is beyond.