One morning several years ago I was on a contemplative forest walk through the fall foliage around the Omega Institute in upstate New York. I was ambling mindfully along, just taking in the brilliant diversity of the morphing oak and maple trees, inhaling the air filled with peat and chill and doing my best to be fully present in the moment.
Suddenly, up ahead the figure of a man appeared from around a bend in the trail. A small jolt of adrenaline coursed through my body as my brain made a quick assessment that this was not some sociopath out for an early morning stroll while taking a break from the pursuit of enlightenment. But even if he was, my size and the walking stick in my hand would have most likely served as adequate protection. Wild Mind doing its best to protect me from a potential apocalyptic future.
As the distance between us closed and I began to make out the features of the man’s face, a sense of familiarity began to arise. We both slowed on approach, each moving to the right side of the path to allow the other to pass. Our eyes met for a brief moment as we intersected. His had a twinkly glint in them. They were the unmistakable eyes of someone I knew but had never previously met. Two or three steps later, his name flashed through my brain: Eckhart Tolle.
Shortly after his book, The Power of Now came out in 1999, I read it and liked it a lot. I found it simplified and reflected much of what Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and a whole host of other wisdom teachers advocated: life is best lived in the present moment. Simple and easy to say, not so easy to consistently enact. Until that inborn ability is conditioned out of us by anxious parents and a condemning culture, children frequently tend to have NOW mastered.
Trauma-Catapulting into the Present
One thing that’s interesting about Tolle’s journey is his description of how, after decades of depression, he came to be able to fully reside in … NOW. Here it is:
“I cannot live with myself any longer” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the “I” and the “self” that “I” cannot live with. “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.”
I was so stunned by this strange realization that my mind stopped. I was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Then I felt drawn into what seemed like a vortex of energy. It was a slow movement at first and then accelerated. I was gripped by an intense fear, and my body started to shake. I heard the words, “resist nothing,” as if spoken inside my chest. I could feel myself being sucked into a void. It felt as if the void was inside myself rather than outside. Suddenly there was no more fear, and I let myself fall into that void. I have no recollection of what happened after that.
Contrary to what the promotional copy says about it, I don’t quite find The Power of Now to be a “complete guide, a complete course in meditation and realization.” I don’t think any teaching solely consigned to print really has that capacity. The minute ideas are committed to print (or a blog post on a computer screen), they lose significant aspects of their vitality. They become … ideas. In part, it is for this reason, I think, that many wisdom teachings are best transmitted orally, not to mention repeatedly.
From my perspective as a brain educator, there’s one basic requirement to be able to live fully in the present moment: free up increasingly larger network bandwidth; this increasing capacity can then undergird the support scaffolding necessary to provide and sustain the energy required to observe and calm heart, brain, mind and body when distressing thoughts or experiences confront us. Oh, and one more thing: Wisdom teachers who have made this journey and built such foundations frequently claim that mental underpinnings can’t be sustained without the power of the heart infusing them – the heart apparently provides the rebar to keep the foundation all of a piece when placed under great stress loads.
Without the strength that the heart provides – without the refined, super subtle energy of love – the present moment becomes quite elusive in my experience. Neurologist Bob Scaer does a great job explaining why in his article, The Precarious Present. Tolle’s description above of his body-shaking and his mind going blank, would fit Bob’s theory of “freeze discharge” resulting in bringing back online a reservoir of neurons cordoned-off from earlier traumatic experiences. Harvard neuroanatomist, Jill Bolte Taylor further underscores Bob’s perspective in the piece I presented several weeks ago from her book, My Stroke of Insight. We each need an “energy presence,” an Executive Director overseeing the full catastrophe that continually unfolds between our ears. Healing personal embodied trauma and the strengthened network that often results seems to be an important essential step.
In future posts we’ll explore ways and means of recruiting that heart presence. Enlisting the heart to sustain the capacity to fully and fearlessly live in the NOW ranks as Job One for ourselves and our children.