The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle is one of those trendy new-age spirituality books that many of you have likely heard of. I’m sure there are plenty of blog posts summarizing it and book reviews either praising or hating it. (Here’s mine.)
So in this post, I’ll skip the full summary and just focus solely on the number one thing I took away from the book: a super simple and practical tool that helps get me out of my head in stressful or anxious situations. To do that, let’s first get into some background for those who haven’t read the book.
You are not your mind
Tolle writes about what he calls “watching the thinker”, which is paying attention to the voice inside your head, but doing so as an impartial witness. Doing this allows you to recognize that you are not that voice, and thus you don’t have to entertain nor agree with everything it says.
So when you listen to a thought, you are aware not only of the thought but also of yourself as the witness of the thought. … You feel a conscious presence — your deeper self — behind or underneath the thought, as it were. The thought then loses its power over you and quickly subsides, because you are no longer energizing the mind through identification with it. This is the beginning of the end of involuntary and compulsive thinking.
When I’m in a stressful situation, whether I’ve just committed a social faux pas, or I’m dwelling on a personal failure, the common theme is that my mind will likely be racing. This very much feels involuntary and difficult to turn off.
So what’s to be done?
The single most vital step on your journey toward enlightenment is this: learn to disidentify from your mind.
This of course is a process that takes practice to master, but I have noticed immediate effects even from the first time I tried to witness my mind as separate from myself. It’s like being afraid of the huge monster until you see that it’s just a tiny bug’s shadow projected onto the wall. After that, you couldn’t convince yourself to be scared even if you tried.
One day you may catch yourself smiling at the voice in your head, as you would smile at the antics of a child. This means you no longer take the content of your mind all that seriously, as your sense of self does not depend on it.
There’s an important implication here that no matter how “enlightened” we become, our mind will always come up with negative, paranoid, or preposterous content. It’s not that this will change, but rather that we will no longer identify with it, no longer assume its validity, and will go as far as to smile at how outlandish it is.
You’re not your emotions either
Mind, in the way I use the word, is not just thought. It includes your emotions as well as all unconscious mental-emotional reactive patterns. Emotion arises at the place where mind and body meet. It is the body’s reaction to your mind — or you might say, a reflection of your mind in the body. For example, an attack thought or a hostile thought will create a build-up of energy in the body that we call anger.
Just as we easily identify with the thoughts our mind has, we also fall into the trap of identifying with how we feel.
I am angry. I am sad. Instead, we can frame it as merely an emotion we feel, not something we are. Feelings come and go.
So, here it is. With an awareness that you are not your mind, the next time you’re stressed:
Make it a habit to ask yourself: What’s going on inside me at this moment?
Take a moment and just observe. What thoughts are coming up? What emotions am I feeling? Is there any physical response happening?
An important note here is, “don’t analyze, just watch.” Maintain a separateness from your mind as an outside observer. Then “feel the energy of the emotion.” Remember that emotions are the body’s natural reaction to your mind. They are not to be judged, but merely observed. It’s okay they are happening.
This reminds me of a quote that was shared with me the other day:
It’s okay to have a meltdown. It’s okay that your mind will have negative, self-defeating thoughts. It’s okay that emotions will arise from those thoughts, and that you will feel physical discomfort sometimes.
Let me summarize the process. Focus attention on the feeling inside you. Know that it is [accumulated pain] . Accept that it is there. Don’t think about it — don’t let the feeling turn into thinking. Don’t judge or analyze. Don’t make an identity for yourself out of it. Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is happening inside you.
To be able to pause for a moment in a stressful situation and take an honest look at what’s really going on inside of your mind is to give yourself a real chance. If you can’t break the identification with yourself and your mind, you have no chance. You will be a slave to whatever irrational thoughts come up. You will reduce yourself to being your emotions.
Using this technique has completely changed my perspective. As someone who tends to over-analyze and worry, being able to step outside of that has been like opening a window in a smoke-filled room. I can breathe. I have hope. Everything will be okay.
Let me know if you try this technique and how it works for you!