A few years ago, I would have scoffed at Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now and put it down after the first page. Any book that talked about Being with a capital “B” was surely not worth my attention, a waste of my intelligent, rational mind.
Today, I’m in a humbler place. I’m not so sure I’ve got it all figured out, because I’m not 100% happy. I still roll my eyes when I drop in on overly mystical yoga classes, but I have started meditating and practicing mindfulness.
So when I picked up The Power of Now, I could tolerate a little bit of the Being talk – because the message was appealing, and not altogether illogical. By living in the present and practicing acceptance, Tolle says, anyone can cultivate an undercurrent of peace and bliss in their lives. And we can all do that right now.
“You ‘get’ there by realizing that you are there already,” says Tolle. “There is nothing you can ever do or attain that will get you closer to salvation than it is at this moment.” Well, then.
Did I lose you yet? If not, let’s take a look at these claims one by one.
Living in the present
Even the most rational among us have to accept that the present is all there is. You never exist in the past, or in the future; every moment is the present. Beyond that, any idea we have of the past or the future is likely skewed by our interpretation: maybe we look nostalgically on the past, or we envision a depressing future.
“You can always cope with the present moment, but you cannot cope with something that is only a mind projection – you cannot cope with the future,” Tolle says.
For Tolle, living in the present – the Now – means eliminating unproductive thoughts about the past or future. Sure, he acknowledges that we have to plan and set goals, but he warns against the kind of distracting thoughts that keep us from being fully present with a conversation with a loved one, or the singing of the birds, or the feeling of our bodies. If we worry about the future even after we’ve done everything we can to prepare for it, we’re wasting time. If we harp overly on the past, we may start to construct a narrative about ourselves: we’re an “anxious person,” a “smart person,” a “failure.” We forget that the present is a blank canvas.
Another example of not living in the present is something I’m guilty of: “waiting.” You look toward some goal, some future moment in time when you’ll finally reach happiness, and forget to enjoy the present.
“If you then become excessively focused on the goal, perhaps because you are seeking happiness, fulfillment, or a more complete sense of self in it, the Now is no longer honored. It becomes reduced to a mere stepping stone to the future, with no intrinsic value,” says Tolle. “Your life’s journey is no longer an adventure, just an obsessive need to arrive, to attain, to ‘make it.’ You no longer see or smell the flowers by the wayside either, nor are you aware of the beauty and the miracle of life that unfolds all around you when you are present in the now.”
He adds, “It is not uncommon for people to spend their whole life waiting to start living.” Carl Jung once spoke to a native American chief, who saw the tense faces of white people and asked, “What are they seeking?”
When our minds seem to run away from us, we can look to children or animals, who completely engage themselves in the joy of the moment. In complete seriousness, Tolle writes, “I have lived with several Zen masters – all of them cats.”
Just as, logically, the present is all that exists, we should also accept it – because it exists.
“Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment,’” says Tolle. “What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to something that already is?”
Yet we go through life with so much resistance, if we take a moment to notice it. We complain when things don’t go our way – fighting them. We stay home watching TV and feel lazy, resisting our decision. We get stressed and hate the feeling of constriction and tension in our chests.
Tolle’s acceptance isn’t the passive kind, where you just say, “That’s the way things are” and do nothing. He acknowledges that you might decide to act – in just a moment. First, you have to take a good look at reality, and realize that it is. It’s the clay that you have to work with, the default conditions. Then you can do what you have to do, but without the burden of resentment and bitterness.
What’s wrong with this picture?
It’s easy to critique Tolle by attacking the idea that anyone is deserving and able to achieve peace and bliss. What about a serial killer, or someone who just lost a spouse? Are our character, our family, our achievements of so little value that they don’t count? Do we all deserve perfect self-esteem?
Like many things about The Power of Now, it comes down to interpretation. The way I interpret what Tolle’s saying is that we all have access to the very profound feeling that I am enough, and life is okay. I am alive, and whatever happens to me, I have the power to accept it and decide how to deal with it – internally and externally. It’s like we’re all constructing buildings – some more beautiful than others – but this sense of peace and bliss is our common foundation, if only we choose to lay it. “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place,” Tolle says.
The harder idea to accept is Tolle’s assertion that we are not our minds. If you can observe your mind, he says, then the “you” doing the observing must be something other than your mind. To Tolle, that’s the real you – the you that is beyond thought or emotion. It consists in the energy and life force of Being.
But whose mind is it, or what is the mind, if not us? I’d prefer to see the mind as one part of us, and not always the most life-enhancing part. Our minds can torment us, distract us, get us carried away on spirals of obsession or despair. But I can’t go so far as to accept that that’s not part of who we are.
In the end, it’s hard to argue with Tolle, because he doesn’t mean to be taken literally. He actually says that some sections of the book don’t convey information, but rather speak to our inner essence in an attempt to conjure up those feelings of peace and bliss, of recognition. This assertion – while frustrating – also makes it easier to look beyond Tolle’s talk of things like “Being,” the “pain body,” and the immortality of our essence. As I interpret it, those are just mental tactics that help conjure up the right feelings and get us in the right mindset to deal with the emotions of life.
Have I lost my mind in taking this seriously? My confident, hyper-rational college self would think so. But in reading the first few chapters of The Power of Now, I felt a sense of relief. Happiness – or peace, as Tolle prefers – is not only possible, but possible now. It may not be easy, but it is simple. And we get there by being aware of what’s happening around us and inside us, and saying yes to it.
Interesting – as someone who thinks about literally everything, I’ve struggled with shutting up the “let’s figure this out” impulse and being better about listening. The reason that you are not your mind makes sense to me is that there is information we can’t break down in a logical way, information about who we are, how we are best aligned, and what feels right and good to each individual. That information comes in the language of the heart, and isn’t really something you can rationalize, though lord knows I’ve tried.
One thing that getting high just once will accomplish is proving that your brain is not designed for happiness. It’s possible to feel that way temporarily but your brain can’t sustain it. If we were designed by an all powerful, all good God, that’s the way we could feel for long periods of time. Instead, your brain is designed to eventually become accustomed to the things that make us happy. People we love, jobs we love, accomplishments, possessions no longer make us happy after a while. Most people I know say that having kids is immensely rewarding but from time to time, that’s a drag too. People develop tolerance for drugs. I wonder if the best we can do for happiness is experience as many pleasant, new things as we can.
Or, try something new as soon as something gets boring.