I was working this week with a client on how to overcome anxiety. This client recently discovered The power of now by Eckhart Tolle and asked me to help her put it into practice in order to overcome her overwhelming anxiety. So far we had been working on it using a combination of CBT and EFT and I was quite excited to add a spiritual perspective into our work.
I’ve been practising “the power of now” for a while now and it hugely benefits me in all aspects of my life. However, it has taken me a while (and still does sometimes!) to get my head around it, as sometimes the concepts presented in the book are not easy to grasp (our little ego is quite limited indeed!)
Having the opportunity to share my experience of it in a client session is therefore very exciting and instructive. As we were discussing the meaning behind that philosophy, I found myself explaining my understanding of it using an existential mindset and both my client and myself resonated with that approach. I’m curious to hear what your thoughts are about it.
Tolle explains that we are made of 2 parts: our Being and our Ego. The latter is driven by a need to define our identity based on a false sense of separation from everything else on the planet. From a spiritual perspective, that means that instead of feeling all connected, we forget our belonging to a greater whole and believe we are separated and disconnected individuals. Our ego then spends its life dealing with the anxiety that this separation creates.
How does it do that? It tries to define us and find reassurance through external possessions and achievements, through a strong sense of having to be right, through seeking validation and acceptance by our peers, through needing to feel important, good enough or even better than others, through trying to prove our worth – in a nutshell. Our ego also defines itself through identifying strongly to our problems and issues: you know that sensation of feeling alive when you are caught deeply into an argument or a problem to solve? When you defend your position and as a result get a strong sense of who you are? When you feel strongly justified in your opinion and stance (the “I know I’m right!!” feeling)? Even if those emotions are often negative ones, they are powerful and thus give us a strong sense of self (otherwise, why would we continue to engage in them??!)
As I was having this interesting discussion with my client yesterday, I realised however that some of the concepts in the book don’t resonate well with my model of the world, so I attempted to re-word them. That’s when the existential frame popped in.
My experience and understanding of the ego’s constant dilemma is that by being disconnected from our deep core Being we experience a strong sense of anxiety. I believe that anxiety is actually a reaction to the existential angst we face out of a lack of apparent meaning and certainty in our lives. We feel disconnected from our true nature and from a greater whole therefore we naturally experience fear in front of the unknown and the under current consistent uncertainty ; we then need to develop coping mechanisms to get a sense of control to release that anxiety. A way to feel in control is to find a strong sense of self based on achievements, possessions, status and power. From that emerges a lot of unhealthy behavioural patterns, such as power struggles in relationships, stress, fears, unhappiness etc.
Tolle then encourages us to reconnect with our deep sense of Self in order to let go of all those unhappy and negative feelings and emotions. By being present and learning to identify our ego’s mechanisms for maintaining its false sense of identity, we can learn to dissolve those patterns and reconnect with who we really are.
Now when he talks about our ego finding its identity in those unhealthy mechanisms, that’s where something doesn’t really hit home. Maybe it’s a language thing, but “identity” doesn’t evoke a great deal of sense to me: what is identity anyway?
My brain prefers another way to explain the entire ego thing: more than a way to define its identity, I think the problem is actually that the ego has an endless/addictive need for control. Once again, I believe its quest for control is to cope with the angst that uncertainty and the unknown bring into our lives – but in reality, there is very little we are in control of in this life. If you look at it, we spend a lot of time trying to control as much as possible, but we are completely helpless in directing ANYTHING outside of ourselves. And that encompass A LOT of things : from other people’s opinions, feelings and attitudes, to where will be the next terrorist attack and if you’ll be one of its victim. More than ever uncertainty is hitting us, and we have no control over it. No wonder why there’s so much anxiety going around and why our ego is overactive.
So what does the ego do to cope? It tries to control everything in order to feel safe. It tries whatever it can to try to keep you away from loss and death, and because it’s an impossible task, it never stops. And the most ironic thing about it all is that in the end, it ALWAYS loses. ALWAYS. So what’s the point of it all? What’s the point of spending our lives consumed in worry and anxiety, in damaging thought processes, in destructive behaviours – when in the end, it won’t save us from ineluctable death?
I know that sounds bleak, but I’m not saying that in a despair or fatalistic way. It’s actually the opposite. What I’m saying is the only way to feel at peace is to surrender to the fact that we have very little control over what happens to us. And the sooner we accept this, and the sooner we learn to be comfortable with uncertainty and the unknown, the quicker we’ll feel at peace. This is what Tolle’s presence is. Just being in the now, fully welcoming and accepting what is.
I’ve found indeed that the key to inner peace is ultimate acceptance. In the sense of instead of dwelling over things you don’t like, the sooner you accept and not fight what you don’t have control over, the more at peace you’ll be. It doesn’t mean you can’t change it – one of the step Tolle recommends in those situations is to do something about it immediately ; or remove yourself from the situation ; or if none of those options are possible, accept it just as it is. Without complaining about it, without feeling bad about it: just accept it. Here we can find strong similarities with the mindfulness approach: observe what is, and accept it without trying to change it. At first. Maybe in that remote state of observation you will discover that you need to take action. But it will be a response, not a reaction.
As for the identity that Tolle talks about, the way I translate it is that when we remove all the ego’s elaborate mechanisms to avoid feeling our inherent angst, once we sit in stillness and presence with ourselves we feel all the unresolved pain from our past. Not only do we face the existential anxiety of the lack of meaning and certainty in our lives, we also have to face all the pain we’ve skilfully buried under layers of distractions and avoidance patterns: to name a few, any type of entertainment distractions, social media, food, substance abuse, addictions, over working, over thinking and analysing, over anything. When we stop all this, sit in silence and stillness and connect with the layers beneath, we find our wounds, our pain, our insecurities and fears. And this is exactly what the ego tries to run away from. But once you allow yourself to go through those layers and reach what’s beneath that (and to be fair, this is not an easy nor short journey), then you find yourself.
Then you connect to your essence, who you really are below all those constructs you’ve build to avoid pain. Then you discover your soul. In there, you find Peace, you find strength and wholeness from within. And with it, when you connect to your deeper being, you change your sense of Self – what I believe Tolle means by “Identity”. You redefine how you experience yourself, how you feel in your core. And gradually, you no longer need your possessions, your success and your achievements to feel safe and valuable. You don’t need to engage in drama, in seeking validation, support and acceptance from outside. You don’t need to engage in conflicts, arguments or anything stressful. Because once you’re there, there’s no more fear ; the only thing that remains is utter Peace.