We folks in the modern Western world are a pretty intense bunch. We rush to work, rush while at work, then rush home to feed our kids, read our emails, write our emails and squeeze in our favorite television shows. Add in dozens more of options for information and entertainment we are presented with daily, and we feel pulled in a hundred directions with no stable center in our lives.
To find relief from some of the craziness, many now look to the East for ways to ease what several Eastern philosophies call “monkey-mind”–mentally jumping from one thing to the next, rarely maintaining focus. One of the most popular Eastern teachings adapted and brought to us (by mostly Western teachers) is the practice of awareness in the present moment. Some are finding that the Buddhist practice of paying attention to the here and now in an open and non-judgmental manner helps them find peace of mind.
The last decade has produced numerous books for people who want guidance. If you type “awareness of the present moment” into the search space on amazon.com, you get at least 100 results that are directly related to the subject. At or near the top of the list you will find “The Power of Now,” by Echhart Tolle (235pages). First published over a decade ago, the book became a best seller not long after Oprah Winfrey recommended it in her magazine “O.” By July, 2011, according to Wikipedia.com, “The Power of Now” appeared on the list for the 10 best selling Paperback Advice books for the 102nd time. The success of the book is testament to a huge and appreciative audience, so in spite of having been around a while, it is worth a second look.
Tolle teaches that humans suffer because we identify ourselves with our mind and that we wrongly believe in the reality of time. Tolle says that if we learn to live in the eternal Now in a state of true consciousness, we will find peace and ultimately be guides for others.
The book is a lively stream of teachings stemming from Tolle’s own experience of “inner transformation.” By way of introduction, he explains that “Until my thirtieth year, I lived in a state of almost continuous anxiety interspersed with periods of suicidal depression.” One night he experienced an apparently spontaneous enlightenment. As he interprets it later, he felt that his consciousness had withdrawn “from its identification with the unhappy and deeply fearful self, which is ultimately a fiction of the mind” and that what was left “was my true nature as the ever-present I Am: consciousness in its pure state prior to identification with form.”
In his life afterward, “Everything was fresh and pristine, as if it had just come into existence.” He says, “For the next five months, I lived in a state of uninterrupted deep peace and bliss.”
For the reader, guidance into finding the power of “Now” comes in the form of question and answer between student and teacher. In response to one of the questions he explains that an important step to ending compulsive thinking is to start “watching the thinker.” We must become a “witness” of our own thoughts, just as taught by many Buddhists. The more aware we become of our own thoughts, the less power they have over us. He further explains that “Thinking is only a small part of consciousness.” By this, he means that consciousness exists as a universal reality, far superior to mere individual thought.
Other teachings explain the importance of not identifying with our “ego” and of understanding that the “pain body,” which is where our suffering resides, is not in the strictest sense real. Because it is not real, we should not let the “pain body” take over our thinking, Also, we must enter a state of acceptance of, not resistance to, our perceived reality.
Tolle’s teachings are not new, he says, but old: “in essence there is and always has been only one spiritual teaching, although it comes in many forms…(but) their spiritual essence has become almost completely obscured…” “This book can be seen as a restatement for our time of that one timeless spiritual teaching, the essence of all religions.” Most of Tolle’s core thoughts find there roots in Eastern teachings, even his assertion that the one truth is old and in danger of being lost.
If you feel comfortable with Tolle’s philosophies about a universal consciousness and the superiority of a timeless now over our day-to-day existence, you will be comfortable with the book, and may benefit much from his guidance.
You may benefit as well, if you are unconcerned about Tolle’s philosophical views and you are willing to hear his words less than literally, which he actually suggests. If you think of the book as poetry, you may find that the process of reading becomes a sort of meditation that helps re-form your thinking patterns for the better. (A rough parallel to a non-literal approach can be seen in the video on this web site, “Three Ideas for Centering Your Life.” The text in the video suggests that “Now is all there is,” in the hope that people will put more value in their here-and-now experience of life, not that they literally believe the present moment is all that exists.)
On the other hand, if you tend to read with a critical mind, you may find yourself arguing with many of Tolle’s statements. His teachings are more statements of belief than teachings of practice, let alone of verifiable fact.
If you like the idea of learning to be more conscious of the present moment but without adapting a whole belief system, look at “Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening,” by Stephen Batchelor (127 pages). In contrast to Tolle’s insistence that you simply believe what he says, Batchelor suggests that the reader should think for himself. He starts his book with a quote attributed to the Buddha. The quote begins: “Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures…” The words come from the Kalama Sutta which is opposed to blind faith and dogmatism and stresses that each person should rely on rational thought and personal experience.
Where Tolle roots his book in his own experience of enlightenment, Batchelor anchors his in a retelling the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment. He explains that the Buddha “…did not claim to have had an experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks,” rather that “…he spoke of having discovered complete freedom of heart and mind from the compulsions of craving.” After reviewing the Buddha’s story from this perspective, Batchelor offers real life examples of how to be open and aware and how to live a life free of suffering. For Batchelor, Buddhism is not about what to believe, but about what to do.
The abundance of books on the subject means plenty of additional choices for the reader. For example, if you want a short and practical approach to learning awareness, look at “You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment.” It is written by Thich Nhat Hanh (and others), who in the editors words “is, after His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the best know Buddhist teacher in the West.” In this gently worded and lovely book, Nhat Hanh’s meditative approach shows the reader how to live out practices that will center one’s life in the here and now.
If you want a more psychological and therapeutic path, still using Eastern thought, check out “Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha,” by Tara Brach Ph. D. Brach is a psychiatrist and a teacher of meditation. Her book seems aimed especially at people trapped in the desperate, lost thinking that Tolle himself exemplified before his transformation.
A great book for people who want to find lots of options in one place is “Meditation for Dummies.” Like most “Dummies” books, it is loaded with practical advice and is easy to assimilate.
If you want to look at more books, you may want to ask yourself: do I want a way to learn more about this aspect of life or do I want to answer the ultimate questions about my existence? If you want something practical where you make choices for yourself, something like “Meditation for Dummies” may be perfect. If you want a whole life-view system, look at books like “The Power of Now.”Share: by