Like many people, I have read and listened to Eckhart Tolle’s teachings for the past few years, finding them of great benefit to my own life.
Yesterday, I listened to a recent radio interview with him on YouTube. He talked a lot about his early life and experiences, and his responses seemed more personal than before. I could hear that, while he says he is basically surrendered to the ‘isness’ of each moment, there are still difficulties for him–his sudden fame, busy schedule and lack of time and opportunity to hold one-to-one sessions with individuals. He also said that he can cry over something he sees, a human mistreating another, for example, and still feel a deep inner peace beneath.
This makes sense to me, and it was nice to hear him divulge a little more about his own emotions and life experiences.
One thing he said which really resonated with me was with regard to his year or so of ‘sitting on a park bench’, after he had had what, in his case, seemed to be an sudden awakening and found himself firmly rooted in the present moment, filled with a deep sense of peace.
He said that he was so enthralled by this newfound joy and amazement at being alive and of the aliveness all around him that he did very little. He just sat and observed, soaked up the joy of being. I have heard him mention this before, but it always seemed to be painted as quite an idyllic picture–whilst his family and peers thought he was mad to give up a promising academic career for nothing, he was perfectly content and felt more alive than ever before. Deeply connected to life.
What Eckhart explained last night, however, was that he had to do that period of sitting on a park bench because he had no spiritual teacher–no-one to tell him ‘that that wasn’t necessary.’ It was interesting to hear him say that because, on one level, his teachings are about being rather than doing. About the fact that, no matter what you do or achieve in life, no external circumstance will make you truly happy, more at peace or more worthy. You are life itself, and so you are already enough. With that in mind, sitting on a park bench as opposed to teaching in a university doesn’t seem to matter.
Although the spiritual message is true and positive, I think it can lead, in some people, to disinterest or apathy in the everyday activities of the world. This is what Eckhart seemed to be suggesting, too. I have absolutely felt this myself and it’s an odd feeling. On one hand, it is of course a positive to realise that the constructs of the world are false and meaningless–that, if it were all stripped away, you would still be you, the most vital and essential part of life itself. This is the meaning of Eckhart’s teachings and also the goal of minimalism and meditation and many other practises that help people to discover the truth underneath it all.
But there is definitely a temptation, when we first begin to really feel the teachings take shape in our own lives, to become disengaged from the world around us. To view it as unimportant or detrimental to our own calmness and balance. I have certainly felt that way at times. As Eckhart jokes “I would be just fine if all of these people didn’t keep on bothering me!”
But the challenge is not simply to be at peace when we are alone and silent. It is to feel that presence and deep knowledge ‘I Am’ when we are surrounded by the hustle and bustle of physical life. While it may be important or even desirable to spend some time in solitude, it is not necessary in order to experience the power of being. We can experience wherever we are–in a church, in our living room, in the woods, in the mountains, in our office.
Wherever we are, there is life. Wherever we are, there is being. All are inextricably linked and cannot be separated.
I’m glad I heard Eckhart talk about this. Sitting on a park bench in solitude has its value. Indeed, I know that it is important to be comfortable and contented alone before it is possible to be comfortable and contented in the world.
But I think it is important, speaking from my own experience, not to use spirituality as a means of avoiding life.
It may sound like a paradox, but it can be surprisingly tempting to do so! You may begin to think “Well, I feel fine, perfectly content and peaceful–why do I need to go out tonight?” Or “That particular task really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Why bother?”
Worse still, we could start to see the people in our lives as less important. You may think I am taking it to the extreme, but I have seen this happen and even felt some of it myself. Just that subtle inward rejection of the world. Because, let’s face it, once we really start to look with open eyes and open hearts at the world, it can look like a pretty crazy, messed up, destructive place. A dark realm to inhabit.
My urge would be, as always, simply to notice your feelings and be honest about your emotions. I had to do this with myself when I realised, with all of the positives that Eckhart’s teachings were bringing to my life, that, at times, I was finding retreat in spirituality and becoming more insular and less concerned about the circumstances around me.
I had a period of reflection and began to realise that the point of spiritual practice–for me–is, yes, to be at peace with myself in my solitude, but moreover, it is about being able to relate to others, to be there for my family, and to carry out the job that I love, teaching, from a place of complete presence and open-heartedness.
It is about being able to love without fear and to let go without clinging. To accept the shifts and turnings of life without feeling quite so churned up inside. It is about giving generously to others without giving away any part of myself. About simply being still and present with myself whether I am in joy, grief or boredom, and being willing to do the same for others.
Once I realised this, things seemed much clearer for me. And hearing Eckhart discuss his park bench experience last night really clarified my thoughts.
There is nothing wrong with solitude. At times, it is necessary. But be careful that your spiritual practice has not become simply another escape–just a means of self-medicating, retreating, assuming a moral superiority over others whether consciously or not, or avoiding doing things that you don’t really want to do.
Be present and then share that presence with others. It is absolutely possible to be in the world, but not of it. To be in the midst of a big city and still be calm and peaceful in your heart. This is the real practice. The real test.
And, when you give another person your complete and full attention, with no judgements and no anticipating what they are going to say, impatient to get to your next point–when you truly listen and allow yourself to be that open, warm space for them, your life and theirs will change dramatically.
It has been said, and I believe, that the greatest you can give another person is your presence.
Once you have experienced its deep joy and the possibilities it allows in each moment, surely it would be a shame to keep it to yourself.