By Michael Goodspeed
Most medical doctors are more adept at treating an illness' symptoms than identifying and conquering its root cause. If a patient has strep throat, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics, and the symptoms will usually dissipate. But it is unlikely that the doctor will explore in depth why the person became sick in the first place. The patient might be "cured" of the strep throat, but he is still suffering from a compromised immune system. He had step throat yesterday, and tomorrow he'll have cancer.
This narrow field of vision also affects many in the field of self-help. Countless books have been written about the road to recovery from addiction and neurosis, but like the medical doctor who only sees the symptoms of a sickness, most of these authors do not identify the taproot of dysfunction. Even the 12-step program may be lacking in this regard. Participants are told to embrace a Higher Power, but they may be left to wonder, "Where is this Higher Power? How do I find it?"
But what if it is possible to identify a single taproot of all human suffering? Could we cut it out like a tumor and make ourselves well? Because the mind is a complex tapestry, the very notion seems naïve and simplistic.
Simplistic or not, one author not only succeeds in finding this taproot, but hands the reader an axe and instructs him to swing. The name of the author is Eckhart Tolle, and the book is titled, "The Power of Now." I've plowed through countless spiritual, new age, and mainstream therapeutic guides to self-improvement, but Tolle's words resonate with more fundamental truth than anything else I've read.
As its title suggests, "...Now" explores the transformative effects of living in the present moment. Tolle comments that the vast majority of humanity is ruled by the egoic, obsessive-thinking mind, which keeps us forever brooding over the past, and projecting into the future. The capacity for "higher" thought distinguishes mankind from every other species on Earth, but according to Tolle, it also keeps us in bondage with suffering. Tolle refers to compulsive thinking as an "addiction" and "disease," and states that the road to good mental health can only be found by "disidentifying with the mind."
Tolle draws a clear delineation between the terms "mind" and "consciousness." Although we are taught to believe that the mind is a necessary tool to function in the world, Tolle argues that mind dominance leads to compulsive thinking, i.e. a racing mind that continuously makes problems where none exist. The mind (according to Tolle) is a creation and tool of the ego, and in order to survive, it must convince its owner that the present moment is inadequate - that happiness can only be found in some elusive future reward. Consciousness, however, is not only superior to mind in creativity, but does not live in resistance of the present moment. Tolle writes, "Enlightenment means rising above thought, not falling back to a level below thought, the level of an animal or a plant. In the enlightened state, you still use your thinking mind when needed, but in a much more effective and focused way than before...No-mind is consciousness without thought."
Tolle explains that the mind creates a false and limited self - the ego -- that derives its (illusory) strength entirely from its external life situation, or life story. This of course creates tremendous inner conflict, as a person's "happiness" is subject to the inevitable rollercoaster of life's "ups" and "downs." The false self (ego) is incapable of living in the present moment, always believing that happiness lies in some external reward, which only exists in the future.
Resistance to the present moment creates what Tolle calls "psychological time." And Tolle argues that our "addiction" to time is perhaps the greatest plague our species has ever known. He writes, "You will not have any doubt that psychological time is a mental disease if you look at its collective manifestations. They occur, for example, in the form of ideologies such as communism, national socialism or any nationalism, or rigid religious belief systems, which operate under the implicit assumption that the highest good lies in the future and that therefore the end justifies the means...Not infrequently, the means of getting there are the enslavement, torture, and murder of people in the present...This is a chilling example of how belief in a future heaven creates a present hell."
According to Tolle, one benefit that comes from living in the present moment is that it empowers you to not be overwhelmed when things inevitably go wrong. He even goes so far as to state, "All problems are illusions of the mind." The reader is invited to participate in a very powerful exercise, where Tolle instructs, "Focus your attention on the Now and tell me what problem you have at this moment." I've done this several times, and never once have I discovered a problem.
Tolle elaborates, "...it is impossible to have a problem when your attention is fully in the Now. A situation that needs to be either dealt with or accepted - yes. Why make it into a problem?...The mind unconsciously loves problems, because they give you an identity of sorts. This is normal, and it is also insane."
Tolle attempts to give the reader the tools to be fully connected with the present moment. This includes simple exercises such as closing one's eyes, and observing the first thought that comes to mind. This constant reminder to silence the mind and live in the Now may seem overly simplistic, but as Tolle explains, egoic mind can never really be understood. Therapists spend years dredging up and analyzing their patients' pasts, but Tolle tells us to "die to the past" in every moment.
If there is a fundamental key to becoming present, according to Tolle, it is the act of surrender. The term surrender, in the minds of many people, has a negative connotation, meaning "resignation." But in the context of becoming more present, it is an act of courage -- to stop living in denial of what IS. Tolle writes, "Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the flow of life. The only place where you can experience the flow of life is in the Now, so to surrender is to accept the present moment unconditionally and without reservation...If you find your life situation unsatisfactory or even intolerable, it is only by surrendering first that you can break the unconscious resistance pattern that perpetuates that situation."
Although Tolle's words are timeless and cross boundaries of culture, race, and religion, I believe that the Power of Now has exceptional relevance for people living in 21st century America. It happens that the United States is home to more sociopathic and self-destructive pathologies than any other country in the world. The U.S. has born and raised 76% of the world's serial killers, even though we hold just 3% of the world's population; we sport the highest rate of childhood murders and suicides among the world's 26 wealthiest nations; the highest rate of obesity of any nation in the world; the highest incidence of the eating disorder anorexia; the highest rate of adolescent drug use of any industrialized nation; and the highest rate of adolescent pregnancy in the Western world.
In my opinion, serial killers, anorexics, drug addicts, suicide victims, etc., have one thing in common - they all identify excessively with mind. They live in constant resistance of the present moment, choosing to contract inward and create a false sense of self from intense fantasy worlds. Many serial killers have confessed that they value their private thoughts more than they value reality. So no serial killer - or anyone who does violence to another - has ever been truly connected to the Now.
The false self (ego) is actively bred and cultivated by the American culture. Competition - the key tenet of every aspect of our society - is driven by the belief that happiness can only be found in some future reward (victory). Even the exalted "American Dream" is based on a lie - that the future is more powerful than the present.
To be fully conscious in the present moment is to create a "psychic shield" against all attempts at manipulation by those in power - media, government, religion, and corporations. Indeed, YOU can't be manipulated at all - only your THOUGHTS can. When you disidentify with the mind, you become the OBSERVER of your thoughts, and they no longer have the power to overwhelm you. No attempt to trigger anger, despair, depression, or hatred will be successful if you have discovered the power of the Now.