April 8, 2012

Now and Then

Eckhart Tolle photo
Life is always now.  —Eckhart Tolle

It's time to talk about Eckhart Tolle. His name has popped up in about a third of the interviews we have done so far. The concepts that he presents in his lectures and books are remarkably simple and powerful, and have a direct bearing on our ability as creative people to keep our balance and navigate the treacherous shoals and reefs that lurk along the course of the lifestyles we have chosen.

We first encountered Eckhart when he conducted a ten week series of interviews with Oprah Winfrey back in 2008 for her Soul Series program.

As you might recall, 2008 was a rough year for the economy. It was the beginning of an extended period during which not only our Windhook building fund, but also our personal day to day finances went into free fall. It was a time of great anxiety and difficulty for us, culminating with the short sale of the house we were living in at the time. The discovery of Eckhart's ideas, and more importantly, the effectiveness of those ideas in helping us to keep our bearings through that time was remarkable. It felt providential. And while the economic situation has begun to settle a bit, the value and power of these principles is as remarkable today as the day we first heard them.


We want the world and we want it now. Now? Now!  Jim Morrison

Eckhart Tolle photo So what is this amazing thing? Quite simply, it is the realization that now is all there is. Not now in the sense of this day and age, but rather in the sense of this very moment. Everything you do, you do right now. You have never taken action in the past, and you will never take action in the future. Every experience you have ever had, or ever will have, occurred, or will occur, in the present moment. The past and the future are mental constructions comprised of memories and expectations. You cannot take action anywhere except where you are right this moment. We organize these concepts of past and future into what we call time. This organizing process is a necessity of the physical universe at some level, but the concept of time does not change the fact that you are always functioning in the present moment. This is not to say that past and future do not exist, or that they do not impact how we live our lives. But the place where they exist is entirely in our minds.

Introducing Mr. Ego

"OK, so what?" you ask. "How does this revolutionize the way I live my life?" The answer lies in the newest part of our brains, where the uniquely human logic centers operate. Tolle says that out of this complex of rational thought springs a tyrant that he calls ego. Tolle's ego is a bit different from Freud's ego. Tolle's ego is that part of your mind that wants to eliminate surprise and control outcomes. It is the part of your mind that lays awake at night imagining the future, certain that calamity can be prevented by worry and rehearsing the imagined scenarios. Ego is that part of your mind that searches the past for clues about the future, and obsesses over preventing possible calamity.

Ego is not really all that good at what it does. The logical processes of your brain operate at about the same speed as your visual processing, which is somewhere around 16 chunks of information per second. (This is why old 8mm home movies always seemed to flicker. 8mm movies were recorded at 16 images per second. Super8 movies were smoother, because they were recorded at 18 frames per second—slightly faster than you could detect the changes.) The logic centers in your brain are really slow, compared to the intuitive part of your brain, which is much older, shared more fully with the rest of the vertebrates, and can process almost limitless amounts of input virtually instantaneously.

But as inefficient and slow as our logic processes are, they are quite a remarkable development for living organisms. All of what we call human progress can be attributed to our large cerebral cortex and its advances in logic and conceptualization. This really is what sets us apart in the animal kingdom. The problem comes because of the fact that our big new brain, with its logical and conceptual capacity is aware of its own successes, and concludes that it is superior. It sees its accomplishments, and concludes that it is in control, and should be able to construct a reliable future based on the experiences stored in memory. There is a level at which this is true. We make and follow calendars, we plan, we predict, we consider our experiences and learn from them. But even so, we get it wrong more than not, and in the immortal words of Tom Petty, "Most of the things I worry about never happen anyway."

A Real Bad Actor

Tolle considers the ego to be irredeemable and incorrigible. It is hopelessly obsessed with its own superiority and infallibility, and causes us to obsess over what we cannot know about a future we cannot predict. Ego causes us to almost entirely miss the present moment, because we spend it combing the past for clues about possible problems in the future, and rehearsing all the permutations of our worries. This is what causes sleepless nights. I call it monkey brain.

Ego is also the place where we form and harbor feelings of superiority, of needing to be right, of resentment, and much more. Ego is the voice in your head that carries on a running monologue. And according to Tolle, your ego is not actually you. Your ego is more like Hal in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Ego is a toolkit run amok. Ego does not trust the present moment, because the present moment unfolds as it will, unpredictable, messy, beautiful, without concern for egos worries and fears and theories about how to manage a life. The present moment simply happens continually. It takes unexpected and unpredictable turns and presents opportunities and hazards that ego cannot manage. Ego, being a control freak, hates this. Ego prefers its fabrications. Ego misses out almost entirely on the present moment.

Ego's solution to the messy unpredictability of life in the moment is to try harder. Study the past more diligently. Worry more about possible outcomes, and in general, obsess. Ego is wary of intuition because Ego has no intuition and does not understand it. Ego is the seat of fear of the mysterious. Ego will risk calamity to avoid mystery. Ego is that voice of desperation that says, "I don't know what to do, but I've got to do something!" Ego believes that it is you, and as the voice in your head, it tells you so constantly. And if you are like most of us, until you understand this, ego is so loud in your head that you actually believe it.

Will the Real You Please Step Forward?

There is a real you inside there. The real you is not a control freak. The real you is intuitive, compassionate, calm, and unflappable. But since he or she is not a control freak, and only cares about what is real, and is not obsessed with anything, the real you rarely gets a word in edge-wise in the face of the incessant onslaught of the runaway freight train of your ego. The real you simply doesn't play ego games. It will recede into the shadows before it will do battle on ego's terms.

Killing the Monster

So how do you silence this toxic voice? How do you kill the monster? If you tell the voice to shut up, it ignores you. In fact, when you read this, ego embraces the concept and tries to manage it.  Ego will do everything in its power to convince you that it alone is best equipped to solve the problem. Ego loves self help programs. Ego loves processes and multi-step procedures. Ego is the seat of will power and new year's resolutions and dogged determination. Ego will jump right in and pay lip service to its own demise. But of course this is a ruse. If ego is talking in your head, it is not dead, no matter how good the rap.

The key to killing ego is observation. Simply stop and listen to the thoughts in your head. Ask your self, "what is ego going to say next?" Then wait and listen for it. Remarkably, ego cannot tolerate being observed by your true self. If you have never tried this before, it may be the first waking moment in your adult life that the voice of your own ego stops silent. When you focus on what the ego is doing, you have removed yourself from the worry mill. You have removed yourself from the insecurity and resentment and frustration of projecting onto the imaginary future. You have stepped into this present moment, where ego dares not go. The present moment is not always silent, but the ego voice will not speak when you are observing the present moment. Insights and tranquility live in the present moment. Whatever happens, positive or negative, you simply deal with it as it unfolds.

This became intensely obvious to me the first time I stopped to listen to ego. It simply shut up. But ego hates silence and quickly it began to chatter again in an effort to regroup and regain control. I listened more, and it shut up again. I was spending a lot of sleepless nights over my collapsing stock portfolio, and the implications for Windhook, back in those days, and that night, I lay down as usual. As usual, ego started in on the crisis, and what would probably go wrong, and what I should do about it. Of course, what I should have done about it was get some sleep. But ego cares nothing for sleep, so it had been ravaging my nights for most of my life, and especially now that real calamity was under way. As the worry mill got wound up, I turned my focus to watching the worries. There was nothing there. I became aware of the quiet of the room, and my breathing, and soon was asleep.

Asleep in the Chair

Again, I had an opportunity to practice this new experience dramatically when I went to the dentist a few days later for a routine cleaning. My dental hygienist has a fairly rough technique, and I considered these sessions to be torture. White knuckles, tension throughout my body, and a lot of marginally tolerable pain. As I sat back in the chair, I decided that I would focus on the actual sensation of every prod, poke, and scrape as it happened. It was remarkable. I became aware that most of the process didn't actually hurt. I became aware of exactly how each movement of the tool, and her fingers, and my mouth felt. I discovered that I could observe pain and discomfort without translating it into anxiety about what further pain would follow. By the end of the cleaning, I was so relaxed that I had dozed off several times.

The Rubber and the Road

I could fill half a dozen of these installments of Outside the Lines talking about my experiences and understanding of the meaning of this simple process of unleashing your internal observer to snuff out the ego monster when it arises. But I will leave it at this: it works every time. It gives you a clarity and calm in any situation. It activates the real you—The intuitive observer—the part of you that can adapt and cope with any actual crisis that arises without spending a single moment worrying or obsessing over anything.

What we will focus on for the remainder of this article is how this applies to living a creative life of your own.

The western world is more entrapped by ego mania than most indigenous cultures. We are totally enthralled with science and technology and what we so fondly refer to as "economic progress," all of which are ego-friendly endeavors. The job market is designed to entrap us in a lifestyle dedicated more to the needs of the employer than the worker. If you are donating 1/3 of your time on the planet to the bottom line of a corporation, or the priorities of government agency, or any such entity that pays wages to get people to work, you are very likely listening to the voice of your ego. The workaday world can only survive because the vast majority of the working population has never taken a break from listening to the prognostications of doom emanating from ego. "If I quit my job I would starve/lose my house/loose my spouse/lose my healthcare insurance/lose my retirement/lose my boat..."

Of course all of these are possible, but remember Tom Petty: "Most of the things I worry about never happen any way." I'm not suggesting that if you still are in the job market you should just walk away right here on the spot. The ego is irredeemable perhaps, but the logical facility it springs from is still a very useful tool for exercising your creative humanity. It's horrible at making life decisions, but it can be pretty helpful for implementing them. And that is precisely the point. Most of us spend our whole lives letting ego make our life decisions.

Even when we step outside the lines and take chances with our own private brand of creative living, most of us still listen to ego. Probably all of us do sometimes. The business side of creative living is particularly troublesome. Sales, marketing exposure, creative integrity, and living on a shoestring budget are issues that most entrepreneurial free spirits tend to wrestle with. And to a great degree, the wrestling is ego at work. Whenever you are tempted to head down the spiral path of doom over how things have been going, or the implications of some new development for your future, stop and do a quick reality check. How are you doing right this minute? Has what concerns you actually happened, or is it in your head still? Whether or not it has happened, how are you doing right this minute? Are you hungry? If so, can you eat? Is it raining on your head? All of these calamities are possible, whether you live your life based on worry or not. But realistically, the vast majority of our worries never actually materialize as we envision them.

When we were forced to put our house up for a short sale, the ego inclination was to envision ourselves living in a car or under a bridge. Such things happen. But whenever these thoughts would come up, we simply did a reality check. In the moment, we had shelter, we had food, we had friends, we had Windhook, which while not complete, was debt free. We navigated the entire process with a minimum of stress. Our mantra was, "Right now we're ok." And we had learned that tomorrow will be different from whatever we expect. Life will surprise us. Jesus put this well in his celebrated Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?"

In summary, it's pretty simple. Observe the present moment. If ego is rampant, don't sweat it. That is the present moment. Don't fight it. That would be ego pretending to fight with itself. Just watch ego at work instead. Watching is a present moment activity. Nothing else works, nothing else is needed but to watch this moment in progress. And to reinforce your position in this moment, you can do a reality check. "How am I right now?" Once again, you are engaged in the present moment. If you will practice this every time you think of it, ego will vanish, and you will be in charge, able and ready to live your life your own way.

You can read more about Eckhart Tolle and his ideas at eckharttolle.com/, or in his books, which are excellent.

contact us
Have you got an idea for Outside the Lines, or question for us? Drop us a line!

Peggy Sonoda

Michael Reddell
PO Box 160
Cambria, CA 93428

See our website for more information about us.
You can find this issue, along with back issues and other resources here. The password changes each month and is posted in the journal posts for the current month.
The username and password are case-sensitive.

Username for all subscribers: artist
April 2012 password: moore
Copyright © 2011 Windhook®. All Rights Reserved.