In our Eckhart Tolle group a member shared about someone who had recently retired, and rather than feeling good and free, he was extremely anxious because that person had nothing with which to fill his time.
This landed hard with me as I thought back to my last three years of dealing with similar feelings of being unproductive, but not grasping them fully until very recently.
Three years ago I was no longer in as much demand professionally and other circumstances forced me to cut back my own workload. Anxious and frequently tired, the long stretches of inactivity also made me feel inadequate, as my identity and self-image as a writer and trainer in technology became increasingly fragile.
As I became more and more confused, in the words of Eckhart Tolle, “I didn’t know who I was.” But instead of feeling fulfilled and congratulating myself, as he suggests in The Power of Now and A New Earth, I was disoriented and agitated.
But through my work with the Santa Monica Eckhart Tolle group and its leader Michael Jeffreys, I have developed several important new perspectives—including the fact that the voice in my head which sharply criticized my “self” for no longer working as much, earning as much, not being in a committed relationship, or ending one in the recent past—all of this needed to be reexamined.
What was this voice and where did it come from? And why did I give it so much credibility and importance? I learned a great deal from reading Tolle’s books among others, and in the group.
My first insight from Michael was that this voice was really no different than external sounds, like the birds, people talking or traffic. It just seemed to be happening in my head and it was the attention I gave it that made it seem so significant and important – and made it seem like it was “me.”
Through meditation and practice I began to disengage from the voice and doubt its significance, and even talk back to it on occasion, as Michael also suggested.
In time I even found its urging funny—it was the voice of my mother telling me to clean up my room, or my father telling me I had to get up in the morning and go to work or study. It became more and more obvious that these “programs” were deeply conditioned patterns, and were only as significant as I allowed them to become.
This growing gap or space made me realize that the “voice in my head” was in fact not me—but rather the conditioned patterns of criticism that I had absorbed over time—the “agreements” I had made with my parents to live “perfectly” according to their principles, which often were contradictory and unattainable.
(The word “agreements” refers to another great book, The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz, which discusses the “dream state” we live in when we act on assumptions and beliefs that we agree to unconsciously).
I found that as I detached from the voice in my head, and particularly when I forgave my “self” for mistakes or imperfections, life seemed to smooth out, and my anxiety lessened.
Still my inactivity (that I know many would envy) made me particularly anxious in the morning, when I anticipated long stretches of doing “nothing”–and listening to that critical voice in my head spurring me on to things I did not have the energy or desire to do.
The voice also made me physically uncomfortable, mainly with indigestion, and I spent months trying to “fix myself”—with medication, exercise, light therapy, yoga, tennis, supplements, acupuncture and anything and everything I could think of to change what my life had become.
But now surrendered, and took a different tack, and I just accepted all feelings and sensations, both good and bad. Fatigue itself was simply a situation in which I rested as I felt I needed, without creating a story about how this shouldn’t be happening or life should be different.
Similarly when experiences with other people, like women who weren’t interested in me and who did not return my calls, I again recognized that the problem was not the “situation”—the only issue was my own voice in the head that judged the circumstances relative to “me” and who I took my “self” to be.
If as Don Miguel Ruiz said, I did not take it personally, or if I did have feelings come up and they hurt, I simply allowed the pain to exist and then run its course without making a further judgment about “me,” and I found that life became a lot better and easier.
And that was really the key—as Eckhart Tolle expresses it—I did not “have a life” which required evaluation and judgment—instead I simply “was life” as it unfolded.
Sometimes things went seemingly according to my desires and other times not. There were better times and worse times. But everything changed except one thing: my awareness that I existed. And life always happened in only one place—THE PRESENT MOMENT.
This had also been my focus in therapy when I wanted my therapist to “fix” my anxiety. We spent hours focusing my attention on what was happening during the session—not the stories I had come in with nor the anticipation of future troublesome events. “What are you feeling right now?” she would ask.
Then, I also realized that my “critic,” the accompanying stream of criticism that made me anxious, was an automatic pattern in my mind—and so my discomfort was largely triggered by memories and often misconceptions or misinterpretations of things I remembered.
The bottom line was that the world was not the cause of my suffering. I had met the enemy, and it was “me.”
(Part 2 to follow)