A few months back I read an article about a female weightlifter who was forced to rearrange her life due to the unexpected demands of a son diagnosed with autism. Wailing and screaming and smearing his own shit on the walls on a regular basis, this kid, as much as she loved him, stretched the limits of her parental affection.
"This is not what I signed up for," she told her pastor.
"This is exactly what you signed up for," he said.
What does that mean, exactly? That a lifetime of caring for a non-responsive child incapable of reciprocating affection is what she secretly had in mind all along? Or is there a deeper, more philosophical layer to be discovered within the seemingly glib answer provided by her pastor?
Eckhart Tolle's book A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life's Purpose reminded me of this woman's story.
I guess you could call it a 'new-age' book (if that term is even still in use), seeing as it concerns itself primarily with questions revolving around life, living, and the ultimate meaning of everything. Oprah picked it for her book-club, and even extended her reach by doing a series of an online, interactive interviews and seminars with Tolle.
It's actually quite a fascinating examination of two facets of human existence that we all too readily take for granted: the nature of time, and the nature of our own ego.
Let's take the first one -- time.
We tend to live either in the past or the future, constantly re-running previous mistakes (or victories) in our mind, or else longing for some yet-to-arrive moment that will magically land us in that place where we know we truly belong.
As Tolle points out, though, the reality is that we live in a constant stream of 'now'. There is only ever this moment, a continuous, free-form flow of 'present tense'. There is no 'future' to get to, because we only experience life in the present.
Consider this extended quotation from the book:
"...There are three ways in which the ego will treat the present moment: as a means to an end, as an obstacle, or as an enemy...To the ego, the present moment is, at best, only useful as a means to an end. It gets you to some future moment that is considered more important, even though the future never comes except as the present moment and is therefore never more than a thought in your head. In other words you are never fully here because you are always busy trying to get elsewhere.
When this pattern becomes more pronounced, and this is very common, the present moment is regarded and treated as if it were an obstacle to be overcome. This is where impatience, frustration and stress arise, and in our culture, it is many people's everyday reality, their normal state. Life, which is now, is seen as a "problem", and you come to inhabit a world of problems that all need to be solved before you can be happy, fulfilled, or really start living -- or so you think. The problem is: For every problem that is solved, another one pops up. As long as the present moment is seen as an obstacle, there can be no end to problems. "I'll be whatever you want me to be," says Life or the Now. "I'll treat you the way you treat me. If you see me as a problem, I will be a problem. If you treat me as an obstacle, I will be an obstacle."
...A vital question to ask yourself is: What is my relationship with the present moment? Then become alert to find out the answer. Am I treating the Now as no more than a means to an end? Do I see it as an obstacle? Am I making it into an enemy? Since the present moment is all you ever have, since Life is inseparable from the Now, what question really means is: What is my relationship with Life?"
Admittedly a little abstract and hippy-dippy, Tolle's thoughts nevertheless resonate. How do we approach the present moment, since that's all we will ever have?
Tolle's approach to the Ego is equally fascinating (at least to me).
We tend to to take the Ego for granted. It's the part of ourselves that wants and needs, desires and craves recognition, or achievement, or a constant state of more.
But what is it, exactly? What is this 'self' that we strive so hard to protect?
Eckhart recommends, essentially, taking a step back from your thoughts so you can become aware of your own consciousness.
"...I usually congratulate people when they tell me "I don't know who I am anymore." Then they look perplexted and ask, "Are you saying it is a good thing to be confused?" I ask them to investigate. What does it mean to be confused? "I don't know" is not confusion. Confusion is: "I don't know, but I should know" or "I don't know, but I need to know." Is it possible to let go of the belief that you should need to know who you are? In other words, can you cease looking to conceptual definitions to give you a sense of self? Can you cease looking to thought for an identity? When you let go of the belief that you should or need to know who you are, what happens to confusion? Suddenly it is gone. When you fully accept that you don't know, you actually enter a state of peace and clarity that is closer to who you truly are than thought could ever be. Defining yourself through thought is limiting yourself."
Ah, yes, but Western society pretty much demands that we 'define' ourselves from the get-go of life, and this definition gains the most currency when it is solidified as power and strength to the nth degree. We exist in a continuous stream of antagonism in which we are told that in order to succeed, we must be better than others. When others fail, we win. That seems to be North American ethos. We must 'succeed' by harnessing our energies towards some future moment that may or may not arrive, one that is usually attained by ensuring others are not as agile as ourselves are left by the wayside. The present moment is nothing more than an obstacle to be overcome so that future 'happiness' can be ensured, independent of others, fixated only on our own longings and craven wants.
"...The world will tell you that success is achieving what you set out to do. It will tell you that success is winning, that finding recognition and/or prosperity are essential ingredients in any success. All or some of the above are usually by-products of success, but they are not success. The conventional notion of success is concerned with the outcome of what you do. Some say that success is is the result of a combination of hard work and luck, or determination and talent, or being in the right place at the right time. While any of these may be determinants of success, they are not its essence. What the world doesn't tell you -- because it doesn't know -- is that you cannot BECOME successful. You can only BE successful. Don't let a mad world tell you that success is anything other than a successful present moment. And what is that? There is a sense of quality in what you do, even the most simple action. Quality implies care and attention, which comes with awareness. Quality requires your Presence..."
Success as 'a successful present moment'? This is not what we are taught in school. Success means getting, hording, accumulating, crossing the line first, leaving others in our wake.
Yet, in the midst of illness, we see that Tolle's words make sense. When one is stricken, there is nothing to 'get'. You are immobile. You are inert. All you can do is exist in the moment, independent of anything else. In a world where most believe that those with the-most-toys-at-death win, such a notion is, indeed, almost revolutionary.
Part of his approach to the 'moment' I find somewhat fascinating, if only because it's simplicity hints at a larger complexity. There is our inner purpose and our outer purpose, Eckhart believes, and most of us are obsessed with our outer purpose.
For example: Let's say you want to cross the room to open the window because it's a little bit hot inside. If asked the purpose of crossing the room, most people would say: "Well, I'm doing it to open the window." Eckahrt says, in essence, no. You are crossing the room to cross the room. That's your inner purpose. Your outer purpose is to open the window; your inner purpose is to be present in the moment, and in the moment you are crossing the room, so that thus becomes your purpose.
Another example: You are ordering food at a restaurant, talking to a waiter or a waitress. Your outer purpose is to order food; your inner purpose is simply to connect with the person you're talking to. The ordering of the food thus becomes a by-product. When you are seeking to connect, regardless of the intent, then life itself becomes that much more smoother, and enjoyable, and fulfilled.
The problem lies in our ego, that aspect of our consciousness that wants to be loved (or feared). Some people's egos are plain to see, based on their cars, their looks, their expressions, their demeanor. Others are more covert, but we all have them, these egos. The secret is that everybody feels insecure inside, uncertain of life, but we have to pretend that we're not, and so the more we achieve, the more we can show others that we are not insecure, even though we are. We are slaves to this desire for prominence. All squabbles, conflicts, games and wars are founded upon this notion: In order to feel good about myself, I must prove that others are inferior. If I fail to do so, then that must mean I am inferior. So I need to train harder, work harder, to prove that this is not so.
And what is this strange, constant voice that is doing all the talking? That ego in the back of our heads. But if you are aware of that voice, conscious of its insistence, then that is the first step in rendering it moot. There is the awareness (the ego), and the awareness behind the awareness (your true being).
Or perhaps I should say, 'Being', with a capital 'B'. As Tolle states:
" As you long as you are unaware of Being, you will seek meaning only within the dimension of doing and of future, that is to say, the dimension of time. And whatever meaning or fulfillment you find will dissolve or turn out to have been a deception. Invariably, it will be destroyed by time. Any meaning we find on that level is true only relatively and temporarily.
For example, if caring for your children gives meaning to your life, what happens to that meaning when they don't need you and perhaps don't even listen to you anymore? If helping others gives meaning to your life, you depend on others being worse off than yourself so that your life can continue to be meaningful and you can feel good about yourself. If the desire to excel, win or succeed at this or that activity provides you with meaning, what if you never win or your winning streak comes to an end one day, as it will? You would then have to look to your imagination or memories -- a very unsatisfactory place to bring some bigger meaning into your life. 'Making it' in whatever field is only meaningful as long as there are thousands or millions of others who don't make it, so you need other human beings to 'fail' so that you your life can have meaning.
I am not saying here that helping others, caring for your children, or striving for excellence in whatever field are not worthwhile things to do. For many people, they are an important part of your outer purpose, but outer purpose alone is always relative, unstable and impermanent. This does not mean that you should not be engaged in those activities. It means you should connect them to your inner, primary purpose, so that a deeper meaning flows into what you do..."
Is this 'inner' primary purpose' to be found in constantly doing more, getting more, working more?
What of the weightlifting mother, the one with the autistic child? Her dreams of a loving, nurturing bond between herself and her child have been shattered. There is nothing for her to do, get or work towards for her child, because he will always be alone in his own little bubble.
But she has the present moment to live within, and perhaps that is enough. As Tolle quotes the secret to life from the mouth of a mystic: "I don't mind what happens to me."
You are exactly where you are supposed to be, because there is nowhere that you are supposed to go.
Tolle's work is not for everybody. It requires a belief system that is non-dogmatic, beholden to no single religious or spiritual principle, and it's out of step with what today's cultural mores deem relevant. And it is, of course, more than a little, well, flaky.
But I'm more than a little flaky, too, so I appreciate his desire to expand human consciousness. And I'll probably write a bit more about this book in the near future, so -- you've been warned!
As the title suggests, there is a 'new earth' we are all unconsciously developing. And if you believe in evolution (as Tolle certainly does) than where are humans headed? What are we evolving towards? Surely he-who-conquers-most-and-survives-with-the-most-toys-and-the-hottest-
trophy-wife can't be the point of it all. If we started as fish in the ocean, then made it up onto to land, then transformed into apes, then transcended into humans, well, what's next? This can't be the end of consciousness.
Perhaps in ten thousand years our distant ancestors will look back on us with great mirth, at these stressed, anxiety-ridden individuals so obsessed with proving our own significance through ultimately silly and pointless ritualistic games and facades. Everyone practically panicked with pride, locked into the past, terrified of the future, ignoring the present moment that truly connects us with each other, not realizing that life itself is exactly what we signed up for, and everything else is an ornament.