(more rumination on my “presence” practices, thinking out loud to try to make sense of my (lack of) “success”; unless you’re on a similar journey, or know me personally, you may want to give this “diary entry” a pass)
my synopsis of a key idea from The Power of Now, from this 2010 post
As I reported recently, I’ve been preoccupied for the last while with an attempt to be more “present”, or, more simply, to just be, in the now, instead of caught up in my mind and emotions (lost in the past or the future). For me this is all about finding a way to cope better with fears and anxieties that have left me largely unconscious and incapable of dealing with stressful situations that inevitably arise in everyone’s life.
I have a strong intuitive sense that this will prove to be the fourth major belief/worldview shift in my life, and probably the most important one. Since I’m impatient, I’m looking for a quick way to get there (or perhaps more correctly, to get here). I’ve tried Liberation Unleashed, a method of “just looking” to see the illusion of the self. I’ve tried the runaway best-seller meditation app Headspace, and a variety of guided visualizations and binaural beat meditations. I’ve briefly tried two personal coaches to break through the cognitive dissonance I’ve struggled with. They’ve all been helpful, and have worked very hard to understand and guide me to a personal breakthrough, but (perhaps prematurely) I have at least temporarily set these approaches aside in favour of those that seem more intuitively suited to my way of thinking, and shifting.
Mostly for now I have returned to the meditation and other practices of Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti. I don’t think either of these gentlemen has any particular special insight into helping people achieve epiphanies of “enlightenment”. What I like about reading and listening to them is that they speak my language — they seem to have been through similar life experiences to my own before they “suddenly” realized how to be present, and they use vocabulary that resonates with my own and does not rub me the wrong way.
Eckhart for example eschews talk of “mindfulness”, “personal growth” and “God”, and speaks instead about presence, the illusion of self and of time, and the destructiveness, insanity and mental illness created by civilization culture. I especially like this excellent short video of his that summarizes his book The Power of Now, a central thesis of which I summarized five years ago when I first read (and rather unsympathetically reviewed) the book, as follows:
Ego would appear to be an unintended and unfortunate consequence of the development of the brain to the point where it began to mistake its processing of thought and feelings for our consciousness, and we have been in a fight with our egos ever since. Whereas most “present” creatures handle stress instinctively, and let it go quickly, we “too smart for our own good” creatures have become consumed by our egos, ever ready to cycle viciously through negative thoughts and stories and feelings to the point we become unconscious of what is real, and end up traumatized and trapped in and by our minds and reactive feelings.
So I am now re-reading The Power of Now, with what I hope to be a more open mind. Eckhart’s own breakthrough came at a personal nadir in his life, a time of suicidal crisis, and he suggests that many people won’t ever have the will to realize the illusions of self, mind and time without an existential crisis to precipitate it — for many it’s too much of a hurdle, he suggests, until and unless you have almost nothing left to lose.
Here’s my diary of thoughts as I have been working my way through it:
- People I know who have achieved this “there is only the Now, and one Consciousness” realization say that it is scary — when your ego “dies” it is as if you are dying, they say, and there is nothing left to hold on to. Although I am a fearful person, I do not sense this; perhaps I am so unaware that I can’t see just how threatening to my ego this realization really is. Or perhaps my egoic mind is so firmly in control it doesn’t see any threat of “me” achieving any such realization.
- I still recall my most vivid experience of presence over 40 years ago, standing under a streetlight in winter with softly falling snow, and writing that my greatest desire was to achieve a similar state, all the time, that was paradoxically “at once very relaxed and very aware”. Friends told me then that such a “euphoric” state was unsustainable and expecting to achieve it all the time was naive and setting myself up for disappointment. Yet Eckhart uses almost identical words to describe the state of presence, and says it is “our natural state”.
- Much meditation teaching is about noticing your thoughts and letting them just pass until they become less frequent and allow a space for presence (or mindfulness or enlightenment or whatever expression you prefer) to emerge. But I think in times when I am not present I am more “spaced out”, even numb, than preoccupied with thoughts and reactive emotions — the opposite of presence, a state that is mindless and not in a good way (what Eckart calls “extreme unconsciousness”). Perhaps I am just unaware of the thoughts that preoccupy me, especially in times of stress and escapism. Or perhaps it’s my coping mechanism for stress — to just zone out, in a desensitized state akin in some ways to depression but without the deep suffering that accompanies depression. For some people, I suppose, highly stressful situations can “force you into the Now”, and if so I envy those who find danger makes them more alive, more present; in my case it seems to lead to the opposite.
- These days I am very impatient with myself. All this work I am doing, coming at it from every conceivable direction, and still not getting anywhere! What’s the matter with me? This reminds me of the struggle I have had trying to learn to do other “simple” things like swimming and dancing, that lead to nothing but failure and self-annoyance. Is lack of capacity to notice, to be attentive, behind all of these failures? If so, how can I move past this incapacity? Will learning to be present be the key to turning all these failures around?
- I keep thinking/feeling that meditation should be a joyful experience, but for me it is just work. It would be easier to persevere if it gave me a few glimpses of joy.
- I’ve written before that I think there are two kinds of presence, one intellectual (when you are “really on” presenting to or helping people) and one instinctual (when you are feeling connected to all-life-on-Earth), that don’t ever seem to co-exist. Is this a personal thing? A male thing? My sense is that the latter is the kind of presence I am seeking, but the former seems more “useful” and appreciated. Some people equate this (latter) sense of presence with disengagement and detachment from people/human society; are they right, or does intuitive presence bring “un-attachment” that actually makes you more helpful to others, more capable of intellectual presence?
- Perhaps it’s a romantic belief (I don’t think we can ever really know), but I’ve always sensed that wild creatures (as opposed to domesticated creatures, including humans) live in a state of perpetual presence, except when stress forces them briefly into “clock time”, after which they “shake it off” and return to a still, relaxed present state. This suggests to me that achieving presence is not transcending the level of consciousness of wild creatures, but rather freeing ourselves from the uniquely human disease of being possessed by our egoic mind and (what Eckhart calls) our emotional pain-body, feeding constantly on each other. It’s not a “higher” level of consciousness we aspire to, but rather just getting back to the lost level of consciousness wild creatures experience all the time. Or rather, reconnecting with that one universal consciousness that they (unlike us) have always been connected with.
- I am disturbed and dumbfounded by the vast majority of comments and questions in videos and on forums stemming from Eckhart’s (and others’) teachings. They suggest to me that almost all of these readers either (1) are so inarticulate they can’t convey coherently what they have come to believe, or (2) don’t really understand in the least what these teachers are saying, and are just blindly nodding and parroting out of (I’m guessing) some desperation to believe in, or follow, some ‘saviour’. I guess this makes me insensitive; it also makes me very cynical.
- An exercise that seems to work for me is focusing attention on my body’s organs and even (imagining) its trillion cells, each part of the staggering complicity called me, functioning without the need for or help of my mind. The knowledge that none of these is really “separate”, that all are inseparable parts of a greater whole, is helpful in starting to realize that “I” too am just an inseparable part of a larger whole, that there is no “I”, no self, that self-control is impossible, and fear-for-self and self-ishness are foolish.
- As a fanatic crossword solver, I was intrigued that Eckart uses crossword puzzles (along with games, sex, food, shopping and other compulsions) as examples of how “our mind uses us as its slave”. He does tend to vilify the actions of the mind and the pain-body of negative reactive emotions, as though they were somehow ‘deliberately’ harming us in their own ‘self’-interest (though carefully avoiding using words like “evil”). I appreciate that he’s exaggerating this to point out just how challenging it is to escape the grip of these self-reinforcing occupiers of our attention. Why should a mind or pain-body “fear its own death” if it’s just an illusion, a construct? I think what he means by personifying the conjurers of our thoughts and reactive emotions is that it is their ‘nature’ to look for patterns and “make sense” of things, and to disregard/deny anything that doesn’t fit those patterns. In this regard I am perhaps more charitable than Eckhart, since I believe this pattern-making is inherent in the evolution of large brains, and it is really all in the cause of trying to help, trying to warn us of imbalances, threats and dangers to our (constituents’) health. The vicious cycle by which thoughts and reactive emotions reinforce and perpetuate each other is an unfortunate and unintended consequence of this evolution of large brains. That unfortunate consequence has produced the accelerating sixth great extinction of life on Earth. Evolution inherently makes mistakes; no one is to blame for that. Likewise, we are unlikely to overcome that evolutionary error and achieve Eckhart’s “Whole New Earth” — he may have a brilliant understanding of the ways of the human mind, but he is clearly not a student of complexity or he would have chosen a more sombre and less hyperbolic title for has latest book.
Well, that’s where I am now. If you’re still reading this, thanks for your attention, and I hope you’ve found it interesting, and maybe even helpful.