I recently read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, and I want to give you some highlights and takeaways because it made quite an impression on me.
Tolle is a spiritual teacher who, after years of emotional suffering, suddenly found peace and “awakening”. In this book, he writes about the problems with humanity and how suffering and pain can be overcome. I never identified as a spiritual person but, once I had got over my discomfort with the religious references in this book, I was able to take things from it that have really enriched my experience of life.
Before you stop reading, dismissing this as “not your thing” or “awash in spiritual mumbo jumbo” (as one critic wrote in TIME magazine), I’d remind you that the world really is sick. Mental health problems, including anxiety and depression, are on the rise, with suicide being the biggest killer of men under 50. I personally have experienced near crippling depression a number of times, and I very often have a background sense of anxiety and foreboding. Tolle notes that, unless the world can find a way of cutting out pain from our collective consciousness, we are doomed as a species.
And perhaps he has a point. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if, rather than self-medicating with drugs, alcohol and other addictions, we could actually find an inner fulfilment that was instantly attainable.
So without further ado. Lessons from The Power of Now
1. We only exist in the now. This is the fundamental premise of Tolle’s narrative. If you give the idea a chance, there is real inspiration and value to be drawn from it. The past does not exist, except when you recreate it by remembering or reliving an experience. The future is not real except in your fantasies and projections. In this sense, the only true time you can experience is the present moment – the past and future are created only in your mind. They do not exist except in your mind.
2. You are not your mind. For Tolle, the real “you” is disassociated from the active mind that rules our lives most of the time. The real you – the “silent watcher” as he describes it – is the sense of heightened presence most people only feel when their mind is shut down. This might be whilst doing something dangerous where you have to be totally alert (a car accident, an extreme sport) or when something beautiful totally captivates you (a sunset, a piece of music). You can practice accessing this state of presence more often through meditation and breathing exercises. Tolle notes accurately that, after a traumatic or near miss experience, we may often feel “I will never let myself be dragged down by unimportant things again! I am so lucky to be alive!” but that this euphoria is short lived as we quickly let mind activity resume control of our lives.
3. Serving your egoic mind will lead to feeling forever incomplete. For Tolle, our attachment to many physical (and non-physical) ideals is purely an attempt to satisfy our egos. Success, money, power, possessions, and even non-physical things like our beliefs, morality, religion and the relationships we have, are not “us”. People like to “identify” with objects or ideas because it makes them feel closer to becoming whole but, Tolle argues, this is ultimately futile because the ego will never feel complete. If you could truly find “you”, you’d realise you are already complete.
4. Identification with past or future leads to dissatisfaction. Tolle notes that many people identify more with the past or future than they do with their true self. Perhaps they have a “story” of them which they constantly relive (great things they achieved, or a victim narrative built on past suffering), perhaps they are always projecting into the future “one day I’ll make it”, “when I find the love of my life everything will be okay”. Don’t yearn for the past, and don’t let it affect what you can do today. Don’t wait for a future that will never seem as good when it arrives because something further off in the future will always seem better. As Tolle says, “Waiting is a state of mind. Basically, it means that you want the future; you don’t want the present”. And, as we know, the present is all there is…
5. Emotional suffering is caused by your “pain body”. People build up painful experiences and, if they are unable to let go of pain, then it becomes what Tolle describes as the “pain body”. This is a negative energy field which can be either active or dormant. Once triggered, perhaps by an experience which reminds the person of a past trauma, all the pain rises up again as the “pain body” becomes active. By becoming truly present and castrating the past, pain can be dissolved. However, many people resist letting go of pain because they have become so self-identified with it that it seems like a part of who they are. The next time fear, sadness, depression rises up uncontrollably, realise that it is simply the activation of the pain body and accept that it is just a feeling, it is not you.
6. Beyond Happiness and Unhappiness there is Peace. Tolle distinguishes in his book between your “life” and your “life situation”. He argues that you can find peace in your life even if you do not have happiness in your life situation. To be happy, certain things need to occur in your life situation which you judge to be positive, but acceptance of what is – rather than what you would like to be – can lead to an acceptance and peace which triumphs all. Ultimately, Tolle challenges the entire notion of positive and negative: who are we to say if an event is a positive or a negative, it is just what it is. The bias is brought to it by our minds. Resistance to what is can often be what causes the irritation, anger, or pain. If you accept that you have missed your train, rather than think “that’s typical, how annoying”, then it’s unlikely you’ll become as angry. It is the resistance that causes the anger, because you have judged that missing your train is a negative experience.
What can you do to live a better, more fulfilled life?
1. Learn to “die before you die”. At the end of one’s life, when everything is stripped away, one is forced to relinquish everything. It is at this moment that Tolle believes you realise that none of those things was really your identity. At the moment of death, nothing that mattered in life matters anymore. Learning this lesson early and, thus, dying before you die, is a way to free yourself from identification with meaningless objects or ideals which cannot really define you.
2. Smile at your mind. The next time you begin to feel a negative emotion, try to notice what you mind is doing. Chances are, you will notice a series of negative sound bites have built up, “that’s annoying”, “I’m so stupid”, “now my day is ruined”, “what must he/she think of me”. After some practice, you will realise that the thought patterns are making you much more unhappy that whatever it is that has happened. It is possible in this way to detach from what you are thinking, smile at your mind, and realise that it is just a thought.
3. Ask “what problem do I have right now?” This is Tolle’s method for challenging the mind. Most “problems” are not problems at all except in our judging of them. They are simply things to be accepted. Then you can remove yourself from it if possible, or tolerate it if not. Most “problems” however are not actually things that are affecting you right now, but the thought of things that might happen at some point in the future. When the moment to deal with the situation comes, it will be the present moment, and you can handle anything in the present moment. It’s the past and future that are impossible to deal with, because they are not real, so why torture yourself with their ghosts.
4. Focus on your breathing. There are many meditation exercises you can try (I’d recommend a great mobile app called “Insight Timer” for thousands of free guided and unguided meditations), but the simplest form is just to feel your breath flow through your body, and give it your whole attention.
There are probably many arguments you want to make to counter these points: what’s the point in life if you can’t plan, push yourself to be better etc. These are all covered by Tolle in his book. Alternatively you can drop me a note and I’d be happy to have a bigger conversation about this book and its theories!