Monday, November 6, 2017

Me and my life. Me and my life. Will you shut up about that. It’s not important.

For several months, I’ve been listening to the lectures of Eckhart Tolle on You-Tube* trying to understand what the heck he’s talking about and see if I can use any of it to improve my experience on this earth.   Eckhart came to world prominence with his enduring bestseller The Power of Now. Like many, I was enthralled for two reasons:  the book brilliantly documents how ignorant I am and the spiritual discipline presented is impossible to follow or understand.  Eckhart has an answer for this.  He says, “Some of you will say, ‘What the heck is he talking about?  I’m bored.’  You are not ready.  That’s all right. You’ll be back in a few years.”

I like Eckhart.  He is not robust like Tony Robbins.  He is likely to slump. He wears a beige sweater vest.   He is pale. We can’t even imagine what he does when he leaves the stage. Maybe he has a cup of tea and one of those miserly English sandwiches with some butter and one thin slice of ham.  (Memo to the Brits.  World War II rationing is over.)  Eckhart’s jokes are only funny because we don’t expect him to understand our everyday life.  He is likely to mirror our lives with statements like this:  “You tell yourself, ‘I’m finally happy, I’ve found my soul mate.’ After a few months, the soul mate has become annoying and you wish he or she would go away.” Eckhart laughs at our attempts at happiness.  His laugh comes out as a strangulated snicker.

I like Eckhart’s backstory. It is the best backstory for predicting huge adult success. Childhood was morose and troubled. His parents quarreled.  Eckhart was academically brilliant but experienced crippling suicidal depression. I am interested in anyone who has crippling depression as opposed to bearable, low energy depression like the rest of us.  As a young adult, Eckhart talks about “being drawn into a void.” Imagine being sucked down into.  A. Big. Black. Hole.

"I couldn't live with myself any longer," he wrote.  "And in this a question arose without an answer:  who is the 'I' that cannot live with the self?  What is the self? I felt drawn into a void! I didn't know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and the fearful future, collapsed.  It dissolved.  The next morning I woke up and everything was so peaceful.  The peace was there because there was no self.  Just a sense of presence or being-ness, just observing and watching."

Tolle went for a walk in London the next morning and found that "everything was miraculous, deeply peaceful." (Reminiscent of St. Paul's  instantaneous conversion, being struck by blinding light on the road to Damascus.) Eckhart stopped studying for his doctorate and for a period of two years spent much of his time sitting "in a state of deep bliss" on park benches in London "watching the world go by." **  He bunked in a Buddhist Monastery or slept outside.  His parents thought he was crazy.  Friends began to come to him for advice and counsel and out of these years of meditative awareness, he wrote The Power of Now.

The Power of Now was not immediately successful.  In 2000 Oprah recommended it in O Magazine and the reliable Oprah effect catapulted the book onto the New York Times bestseller list.  Oprah tries to Oprah-fy Eckhart and offers podcasts wherein she prods the slumped, slow to answer spiritualist with her hyper excited questions.  (An aside on the power of Oprah.  She has convinced both Deepak Chopra and Eckhart to partner with her on packaged offerings that she often gives for free to the world.  So far the only person that has said NO to Oprah is Jonathan Franzen, the novelist, who caused sequential strokes at his publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, by refusing to put his book, The Connections, in Oprah's Book Club. ***)

So.  A little clarity.  Eckhart's big point is that the self that our minds have created and is kept in motion by habitual thoughts and memories - the person who hated eggplant and was picked on in grade school and was good at math and had no date for the prom but won a scholarship to Dartmouth is NOT WHO WE ARE.  We are not the sum of our past.  And as for the future. Oh boy!  Eckhart thinks this is the biggest fraud of all.  There is no future we can count on.  No future that will deliver realization of our hopes and reams.  Ideas like that make him snicker at our foolishness.  "Who you are has no history, no past.  It isn't what your mind tells you you are." Put simply:  Me and my life.  Me and my life.  Shut up about your life.  It has no importance.  We are undifferentiated consciousness that holds our history but is much, much more.  And this consciousness (aka bliss) is available at any moment.  In fact it is only available in this moment.  Now.  See?  What the heck is he talking about?

There is one marketing flaw with Eckhart's message.  Consciousness and awareness and getting rid of your adorable self do not sound like an exciting payoff for giving up our customary egoistic  addictions.  Eckhart isn't "selling it." The simple states of being do not excite our imagination. The only glimmer of fun that he offers is that if we live in the NOW and pay attention to NOW life will be easier.  Life will unfold in a good way.  

When asked "How do we achieve this awareness, the stillness, the presence?" Eckhart suggests that we go outside and observe the beauty of nature.  We might also observe our breathing or tune in to our bodies.  He tells us not to complain when the traffic light is red or the supermarket line is long but instead to study our surroundings.  To be present.  Hmm.    I am a restless, shallow breathing indoor person.

Despite this imperfect, confused review of the man the New York Times dubs the most important current spiritual figure, I believe Eckhart has something important to teach me and if I stick with it, I, too, will have an epiphany.  By the way, Eckhart doesn't say that his message is original.  He frequently quotes the Bible, A Course In Miracles, the Bhagavad Gita, Meister Eckhart to bolster his message.

Here are a few of Eckhart's accessible practices I try to incorporate into daily life.

The best way to treat any event (good or bad) is to acknowledge that it happened but not to color it with judgment and emotion.  When my hot water heater broke and there was water in the basement, I said, "Oh, look.  My hot water heater broke."  I called a good plumber who installed a new one the same day.  No hand wringing and whining.

Surrender to what is.  When you argue with what is, unhappiness, anger, despair arises.  The mind is always telling you this isn't right, I don't like what's going on, I don't like the way I'm being treated, why does this always happen to me.  It's that pesky mind.  Eckhart implores us to surrender to what is without letting the mind interpret everything as good or bad.  It just is.

The idea of surrendering appeals to me.  I imagine holding out my wrists for the cuffs and then I become someone else's problem instead of my own.  Someone else has to make decisions and also feed and clothe me.  I like that for a change.

Don't look for happiness in some future event. As a writer, it's easy to imagine happiness waiting for you when you type "the end" but I know that never happens.  I imagine happiness will be waiting when I get rid of everything I own and move to a pristine space without any of the clutter and repair problems that currently exist.  That won't happen either.  So Eckhart has a point.

It's not my intent here to go through or judge Eckhart's entire teachings. I have a feeling this understanding has to be an "Aha!" moment that arrives without strain.  Right now I don't get it all but I'm better off doing as much as I can.

*How did we do anything before You-Tube?

** The importance of the park bench as an iconic place to sit and mull life over has been overlooked.  The park bench is the place to recover from ignorance, depression, guilt.   Whenever I sit on a park bench, I  (along with Forrest Gump) take a deep breath and think.  The park bench deserves a post.

*** I like Oprah but she often co-opts complicated ideas and turns them into overpronounced sound bites.  Oprah says Eckhart changed her life. I believe her.

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