The first time I read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, I thought it was total crap. Okay, maybe “total crap” is an exaggeration. But definitely impossible, impractical and, worst of all, unpleasant. Not thinking about the future? Just paying attention to the Now? Sounds like the fast track to loserhood.
As a person struggling with depression and using any non-substance-based strategy I could think of to manage it, the advice sounded particularly terrible. I could do without past obsession pretty well–never have been much of a grudge-holder. But I needed–depended on–obsessing about my future. The future is when I would have everything I wanted: kids, a house, a great career. My plans for things to come and my determination to work hard towards them were pretty much what I lived for.
Stop thinking about the future? Stop thinking at all? Won’t that take away my hope, my reason for living?
The second time I read The Power of Now, I understood the concept a bit better. Oh, I don’t have to stop thinking entirely. I can think without being neurotic, and with long breaks. That actually sounds pretty cool.
Maybe I’ll try that someday. First, I have stuff to get done.
The third time I read The Power of Now, I finally had a breakthrough. The book taught me how to meditate, and how to absolutely love meditating. And now, it’s one of my very favorite books.
That’s another story, though. For today, we focus on this whole fascinating not-thinking thing, particularly whether or not it can help with depression.
Some people call it no-mind meditation, and I don’t think I’m the only one who’s ever cursed Eckhart Tolle or another teacher for telling her to try it. Being completely “present,” without plans or goals, as Tolle calls it, doesn’t come naturally to us human-types. In fact, it goes against pretty much our entire biology.
We think. We assess. We assume. We make decisions. Sometimes all in less than a single second. It’s one of our strengths and one of our weaknesses. But apparently, we can learn to overcome it.
But do we want to? And if so, how much thinking is the right amount, especially when you’re trying to overcome depression?
There’s no one right answer, but here’s my experience.
Achieving or attempting to achieve the so-called “no-mind” state helps us greatly. It makes us happier. It definitely eliminates depression. The problem: oh my goodness, it takes a lot of time. Unless you’re committed to Buddhist-like meditation sessions on a daily basis, your results may be very slow to come.
I love meditation. I definitely like to take breaks from thought, and when I have obsessive or anxious mind patterns, I realize it’s time to chill a bit. I clear my head by repeating a calming mantra, doing The Work or doing a “brain dump” on paper, and these techniques usually work pretty well.
But soon after that, I’m back to thinking.
And I’m okay with that.
Don’t get me wrong: on a bad day, I could use a lot more of this no-mind stuff. But on a good day, a lot of my thinking isn’t so terrible. It’s not the anxiety-producing stuff we all know is unhealthy. It’s just thinking–just plain old planning, reading, writing and working. Sometimes I even manage pleasant, pointless pondering. Today, for instance, I found myself lost in contemplation about the economics of private dentistry practice. Important? Not really. Interesting? Just a bit. Stressful? Well, not to me. On a good day, a lot of my thinking is like that. It’s not particularly harmful, or particularly anything.
It’s just thinking.
Of course, I also do the did-I-say-something-wrong what-does-she-think-of-me-now type stuff. But when I catch it, I’m often able to refocus pretty well.
One fine day, I’d love to experience the state of no-thought Tolle talks about. But I don’t plan to meditate for thirty years to get there.
Summary and highlights from The Power of Now:
In The Power of Now, enlightened spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle discusses his method for increasing spiritual awareness and inner peace, namely through maintaining a state of continuous meditation.
His teaching, briefly: You are not your mind. Your life is not the past or the future, as those states exist only in the mind. You and your life are what is right now. When you learn how to hold your mind in the present moment on a continual basis, enlightenment will occur. (And if you learn to do this part or much of the time, you’ll at least have a lot more peace and joy.)
There are many portals leading to the Source. They include:
- The eternal Now (this is the main portal);
- Dreamless sleep;
- Cessation of thinking;
- Surrender (“the letting go of mental-emotional resistance to what is”);
- Being “in touch with the energy field of the inner body”;
- Disidentifying with the mind;
- Silence and empty space. (“You cannot think and be aware of space—or silence, for that matter.”)
It’s not necessary to use all these portals, just one.
Note that love isn’t a portal. It’s what’s inside the portal.
On the body portal:
Tolle suggests we make a practice of continuously keeping part of our attention focused on the body and the energy that makes up the body. “Body awareness keeps you present. It anchors you in Now.” Keep part of your attention on “the inner energy field of your body. To feel the body from within, so to speak.”
- “The body can become a point of access into the realm of Being.”
- “The body that you can see and touch cannot take you into Being. But that visible and tangible body is only an outer shell, or rather a limited and distorted perception of a deeper reality. In your natural state of connectedness with Being, this deeper reality can be felt every moment as the invisible inner body, the animating presence within you. So to “inhabit the body” is to feel the body from within, to feel the life inside the body and thereby come to know that you are beyond the outer form.”
- “If you saw an angel and mistook it for a stone statue, all you would have to do is adjust your vision and look more closely at the ‘stone statue,’ not start looking somewhere else. You would then find that there never was a stone statue.” But there was an angel in its place. The statue is only a vague representation of what truly there, but it does in fact point the way.
How to meditate using the body portal:
- “In your everyday life, you can practice this by taking any routine activity that normally is only a means to an end and giving it your fullest attention, so that it becomes an end in itself. For example, every time you walk up and down the stairs in your house or place of work, pay close attention to every step, every movement, even your breathing. Be totally present. Or when you wash your hands, pay attention to all the sense perceptions associated with the activity: the sound and feel of the water, the movement of your hands, the scent of the soap, and so on. Or when you get into your car, after you close the door, pause for a few seconds and observe the flow of your breath. Become aware of a silent but powerful sense of presence. There is one certain criterion by which you can measure your success in this practice: the degree of peace that you feel within.”
- “To become conscious of Being, you need to reclaim consciousness from the mind. This is one of the most essential tasks on your spiritual journey. It will free vast amounts of consciousness that previously had been trapped in useless and compulsive thinking. A very effective way of doing this is simply to take the focus of your attention away from thinking and direct it into the body, where Being can be felt in the first instance as the invisible energy field that gives life to what you perceive as the physical body.”
- “Direct your attention into the body. Feel it from within. Is it alive? Is there life in your hands, arms, legs, and feet — in your abdomen, your chest? Can you feel the subtle energy field that pervades the entire body and gives vibrant life to every organ and every cell? Can you feel it simultaneously in all parts of the body as a single field of energy? Keep focusing on the feeling of your inner body for a few moments. Do not start to think about it. Feel it. The more attention you give it, the clearer and stronger this feeling will become. It will feel as if every cell is becoming more alive, and if you have a strong visual sense, you may get an image of your body becoming luminous. Although such an image can help you temporarily, pay more attention to the feeling than to any image that may arise.”
- The feeling of your inner body is formless, limitless, and unfathomable. You can always go into it more deeply.
- Please open your eyes now, but keep some attention in the inner energy field of the body even as you look around the room. The inner body lies at the threshold between your form identity and your essence identity, your true nature. Never lose touch with it.
Other ideas of note:
- On emotional pain: “Focus attention on the feeling inside of you . . . the pain-body. Accept that is there. Don’t think about it—don’t let the feeling turn into thinking. Don’t judge or analyze. Don’t make an idiot of yourself out of it.”
- On identity/ ego: “The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and educational [accomplishments], appearance, special abilities, relationships, personal family history, belief systems, and a political, nationalistic, racial, religious, or other collective identification. None of that is you.”
- “The ego’s needs are endless. It feels [continually] threatened . . . lives in a constant state of fear, want. Once you know how the basic dysfunction operates, there is no need to explore all its countless, manifestations, no need to make it into a complex personal problem.”
- On defensiveness: “Watch out for any kind of defensiveness within yourself. What are you defending? An illusory identity, an image in your mind, a fictitious entity.”
- On the mind: “The mind in itself is not dysfunctional. It is a wonderful tool. Dysfunction sets in when you . . . mistake it for who you are. It then becomes the egoic mind and takes over your whole life.”
- On removing the identification with mind: “Time and mind are inseparable. Remove time from the mind and it stops.” Therefore, remain in the Now and you will remain separate from ego.
- On meditation: “The moment you realize you are not present, you are present.” . . . “Whenever you are able to observe your mind, you are no longer trapped in it.”
- “Try a little experiment. Close your eyes and say to yourself, ‘I wonder what my next thought is going to be.’ Then wait for it alertly. You’ll notice it takes a long time to have a thought. As long as you are in a state of intense presence, you are free of thought.
- On illness: There is no illness in the Now. The belief in illness, the label and the past and& future of it, is what “keeps the condition in place, empowers it, gives it a continuity in time.” Only time makes it real.
- Become transparent to things you don’t like. Let them flow through you. Don’t react.
- “Make the Now the primary focus of your life. Whereas before you dwelt in time and paid brief visits to the Now, have your dwelling place in the Now and pay brief visits to past and future when required to deal with the practical aspects of your life situation.”
- “Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.”
- “Whenever you are able to observe your mind, you are no longer trapped in it. Another factor has come in, something that is not of the mind: the witnessing presence.”
- “The pain that you create now is always some form of nonacceptance, some form of unconscious resistance to what is.