The Power of Now
I was really looking forward to reading Eckhart Tolle’s, The Power of Now, first published in 1997 and recommended by Oprah.
At just under 200 pages, I thought that I would spend my Sunday afternoon sitting back and enjoy taking in some of the wisdom of Eckhart and move onto A New Earth, one of his more recent books, the next day. Was I in for a surprise! It took me almost a week to read through it. Now, I consider myself at least of average intelligence, but it was as if I was reading Latin to start with. As if I jumped beginner and intermediate stage, straight into advanced ‘Enlightenment’ training.
Sentences like “ It is life in its undifferentiated state prior to its fragmentation into multiplicity. We call it the Unmanifested, the invisible Source of all things, the Being within all beings” - English, please – that took hours to sink in – if it actually did.
But I pushed ahead and about halfway through, once I started to understand the language that is Eckhart; I really got hooked and ended up appreciating what I read.
If you are like me; we spend our time either trapped in the regret-filled past or anxious about a future we cannot control. Yet at the same time, we also cling to the hope that we can somehow improve our lives, become happier and find enlightenment, even though we might have no clear idea of how to do so.
At the heart of Tolle’s philosophy is an emphasis on living in the present moment as a way to avoid most of the pain that we usually experience. To this end, the book focuses on the connection between the mind and suffering, offering a variety of perspectives on the numerous self-destructive ways that we use our minds.
The Power of Now has helped me improve my life, including my relationships with my family and others, and, crucially, it increased my awareness of the impact of my ego; improved my self-esteem and helped me understand the power and importance of living in the now.
The three most powerful points I took from the book were;
Try to live in the present! Stop clinging to the past and stop fearing the future
The ego wants to be the most important part of you and knows no limits, so if you let it gain control, it will bring you much suffering.
To truly live in the present, you need to separate your mind from your body
Focus on the present and greatly improve your life.
Many of us want to find inner peace and improve our lives. We’re seeking; in a word – enlightenment, yet we don’t know which steps to take to find it. Eckhart advises that the first step may be easier than we imagine. We tend to live in the past and in the future. One moment we’re reminiscing or regretting, the next we’re planning or worrying. Meanwhile, we neglect the one moment that is fully available to us: the present. Now.
Only the present is important because nothing ever occurs in the past or future; things happen only in a continuous stream of present moments. Whenever you feel something, that feeling is experienced in the present, because your senses, according to Tolle, can only give you information about this specific moment. So when we say that something happened in the past, that’s not quite true: it actually happened in a single, present moment; even if it was in 2015.
What we call “the past” is really a collection of once-present moments that have passed. Likewise, “the future” is made up of present moments that have yet to arrive. As this suggests, there are no advantages to worrying about the future or dwelling in the past, but there are many to living “in the now.” If you manage to achieve that, you’ll experience no major problems, just small ones that can be dealt with as they arise.
So try to live in the present! Stop clinging to the past and stop fearing the future, and you’ll see how dramatically your life will improve.
How we experience pain
Pain, according to Eckhart, is nothing more than a self-created inner resistance to external things that you cannot change. You experience pain when you are unsatisfied with how things are, yet don’t feel powerful enough to change them. This manifests itself, on an emotional level, as a negative feeling. Because you think so much about the past and the future, but can live only in the present, you have no means to change many things that you’re unhappy about. So you develop an inner resistance to the way things are – which you experience as pain.
Control your ego.
Eckhart asks the reader if you ever have wondered why some people seem to sabotage themselves even though nobody wants to be miserable - why are so many people unhappy? The culprit is the ego – a part of your mind that controls your thoughts and behaviour without you noticing. Since it cannot easily be observed, most people don’t know the extent to which the ego controls their life. For example, you might be driving on the motorway happily thinking of your upcoming holiday when all of a sudden someone cuts in front of you.
Most of us, because we are controlled by our ego, would snap out of that ‘happy thought’ and instantly turn to rage with some flashing light, hooting and perhaps a few suggestive finger signs to follow. ‘How dare he’ – are thoughts coming up, as you feel your ego is being attacked. The person who is in control of his ego would think very differently. It would tell you, that you do not know that person’s circumstances – perhaps he is late for an interview or on his way to hospital to witness the birth of his first borne. With your ego controlled, you happily continue daydreaming about the upcoming holiday.
Why does the ego do this? Because it depends on your misery for its continued existence, it obstructs happiness at every turn, acting against your own best interests. The existence of a destructive part of your mind that produces misery would explain why so many people suffer, despite nobody actively wanting to live an unhappy life.
Some people just love the drama as well. Whenever two or more egos come together, drama always ensues. While people may want to live together peacefully, their egos make them annoyed at trivialities and cause them to overreact. If you find yourself suddenly in a fiery debate over the toothpaste tube being squeezed in the middle rather than from the bottom up, this is probably the work of the ego.
The ego leads you into situations of conflict with others and makes you unhappy with your current situation so that it can gain control over your behaviour and thinking. The ego is a destructive part of the human mind. It wants to be the most important part of you and knows no limits, so if you let it gain control, it will bring you much suffering.
To have a richer life, separate yourself from your mind and focus on your body.
The ego’s power is just one of many reasons that it’s important to separate yourself from your mind and pay closer attention to your body, says the author. Many great teachers have spoken about the importance of focusing on the body rather than the mind. Why is this? Because the mind is responsible for pain. It produces pain by continually bringing up memories of the past, or by planning for the future, occupying your entire life with regretful memories and anxiety-ridden future scenarios. In doing so, it prevents you from living in the present. The result is that since you can’t alter the past or the future, you constantly worry about things you can’t possibly change. And that leads to pain.
Clearly, we need to find a way to diminish the mind’s power and reduce some of its control. How do we do this? Eckhart answers; by shifting our focus from the mind to the body. Your body knows what’s best for you. By listening to your body, you can get a very clear sense of what is important in your life. Jesus spoke often about the importance of the body, and used it in many proverbs; for example, “Your body is a temple.”
How to free yourself from pain.
After you realise that your mind is causing you pain, preventing you from truly living in the present, you need to detach yourself from it. How?
To separate yourself from your mind, you must become fully conscious of it and the power it has over you, otherwise you’ll never understand the countless small and subtle ways it influences your thinking and behaviour – and therefore your happiness.
An example given in the book asks the reader who wants to observe his mind: “What will my next thought be?” If you focus fully on that question you’ll see that it takes a while before the next clear thought arrives. Through observing, you’ve managed to create a gap in the flow of thinking. If you do that often enough, you’ll start to notice how much you are normally occupied by the continuous flow of the mind. And you’ll have found the primary tool for interrupting your mind and thus separating from it.
Try to exist in a state of permanent alertness.
While you get better at separating yourself from your mind, you can try adopting another technique; Eckhart calls this - active waiting. This is a special kind of waiting state, like when you’re aware that something important or serious could happen at any moment. In such a state, all of your attention is focused on the now.
When you get into a state of active waiting, there’s no time for the daydreaming, planning or remembering that usually distracts us from the present. While in this state, you also pay attention to your body because it has to be ready for anything to occur. As we’ve already seen, this focus on the body is also crucial to living in the present.
For example, Zen masters used to sneak up to their pupils, who had their eyes closed and then attempt to hit the waiting student. The waiting forced the students to fully concentrate on their body, and thus they were able to sense the approaching masters and evade their “attack.”
Many spiritual teachers recommended this state of waiting to their pupils because they believed it would lead to a good life. Eckhart gives the example of when Jesus was asked by his disciples what they should do to live a good and peaceful life, he advised them: “Be like a servant waiting for the return of the master.” Since the servant doesn’t know at what hour the master will come, he is in a permanently alert state. He does not make great plans for the future and is constantly aware of his surroundings to make sure he doesn’t miss the master.
Impacts of living in the now.
After following the previous steps, you should now able to live in the present, and are no longer completely dependent on your mind. But how will that change your daily routines; for example, your relationships? Eckhart explains that it’s extremely difficult for a “normal” person to share their life with someone who lives fully in the present. The ego of the non-present person feeds on problems, while the person who is present, calm and at peace is experienced as a threat. The non-present person’s ego reacts by creating further problems – for instance, by insulting the other, debating a trivial issue to disrupt the peace, or continually referring to past incidents to pull them out of the present. Why would they do that?
Eckhart answered with an analogy: just as the darkness cannot survive near the light, it is difficult for a person still controlled by the ego to be near a person living in the present for very long. Strong opposites cannot exist in close proximity. If you place a candle in the darkness, the darkness disappears. If you put water on fire, the flame extinguishes.
But if you do it correctly, living in the present can also greatly improve your relationship: you’ll be able to stop judging, criticising or trying to change your partner, and instead, see him or her as an independent person.
If you live in the present, then living with you can be very difficult for your partner. It can even become a new test of your relationship. In the long run, however, it can offer a great opportunity for positive change – for both your partner and for your relationship.
Not all pain is avoidable
While it’s true that most pain is self-created, that doesn’t mean we create all of it. A good example of unavoidable pain is that inflicted on you by those who are still controlled by their destructive mind. Another example is the death of a loved one. Since you cannot lead everyone around you to enlightenment, and that death, for now, is inevitable, this pain is clearly unavoidable. So what can be done?
When you experience something traumatic, which causes you real pain, you should just accept it for what it is. For example, if you lose a beloved person to death, you will of course mourn and feel sadness. But if you’re able to accept this as something that simply is and cannot be changed, then you’ll avoid needless suffering.
Being sad is a natural feeling, says Eckhart; something you don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed about. Things are as they are. Accepting this means that you do not waste your time constantly wishing that things were different.
By being present you will be able to avoid most of the pain in your life, but not all of it. Furthermore, living in the present does not mean ignoring or suppressing pain. Instead, it provides you with the inner strength to accept such difficult and painful facts of life.
Surrendering to the present does not mean living a passive life.
Inner peace is a nice thing to have, but when your outer life situation is bad, inner peace is not worth very much. Does accepting the present automatically lead to a passive way of living in which you are not mindful of or willing to change anything that troubles you? This one of the questions from a student of Eckhart. He answers; not necessarily. Living in the present is an inner process of feeling and insight, and doesn’t entail you having to develop a passive external behaviour. For example, if you’re stuck in the mud, you don’t simply tell yourself that you always wanted to be stuck in the mud. Instead, you can try, without panicking, to free yourself from it.
Living in the present can even provide you with new resources, and new ways to solve problems. It’s certainly true that living in the now can bring you new forms of strength and determination because you don’t waste your inner resources creating problems. In fact, by living in the present you actually see no problems – only individual, manageable situations that you can solve, one by one. This makes you much more effective.
Living in and accepting the present does not mean you commit to a passive life, or that you choose to not even try to change it for the better. Rather, by focusing on the present, and keeping the past and future in their place, you are more able to see clearly whatever it is that’s actually wrong at any given moment, and you also have the strength to change those things for the better. The best way to improve your future is to focus on doing your best in the present.
What I took from it...
Do not focus on the past or the future! Live in the present and try to separate yourself from the over-thinking mind. Following this method will reduce your suffering and improve your life.
The questions this book answered:
1) How can I make my life better?
By focusing only on the present – and ignoring the past or future – you can greatly improve your life.
A part of you needs pain to survive, and it creates most of the pain you experience.
2) What is the connection between mind and suffering?
The “ego” is a part of your mind that stops you from being happy.
If you want a richer and almost painless life, separate yourself from your mind and focus on your body.
Observing the mind without judgement is the best way to separate from it, and thus free yourself from pain.
Try to exist in a state of permanent alertness.
3) What effect will this have on my life?
Living in the present can be hard for your partner, but it can also improve your relationship.
Not all pain is avoidable: surrendering to the present does not mean ignoring sad or hurtful feelings.
Surrendering to the present does not mean living a passive life.