Tag Archives: Eckhart Tolle

The Most Life-Altering Concept in Philosophy

The human ego is an illusion. Breaking free from this illusion, at least periodically, is a critical step towards spiritual growth. The ego is nothing more than a mental construct, which identifies with ones thoughts; it is empowered when we believe we are what we think. The ego strings together past events and projects into the future. It is the part of ourselves that compares and separates us from others. For most people their sense of self is closely tied to the ego.

Human brain glowing lateral viewThe concept of self that I want to point out is a wider state of human consciousness. It is pure awareness in the present moment, independent of other experiences. The words enlightenment, awakening, transcendence and mindfulness have been used to describe something similar. I see self-awareness as a fundamental result of consciousness, while the ego is a mind created entity.

The illusion I want to point out is that when we define ourselves, more often than not, we are describing our ego. By doing this we are missing out on a more complete sense of self, one that numbs our subjective individuality in favor of an interconnected reality with the outside world.

The Illusion

I am only beginning to recognize the full deception of the illusion, and the power to be transformed by becoming aware of it. For me, it is still a work in progress, although I have already experienced a shift in how I see myself.

The idea that the ego is an illusion is difficult to explain. Even if it is understood in principle, it still has to be internalized and applied to one’s life. So convincing is the illusion of the ego that for some people the words on this page will be meaningless. They are totally convinced they are their ego (nothing more, nothing less). However, once the illusion is identified the implications can be profound and life changing. Realizing that the ego is not what it seems can be the first step towards spiritual transformation.

Our ego is derived by the continuous stream of experiences. Our memories and experiences are woven into a coherent story, the story of me and the story of you. The stronger the attachment we have with our story, the stronger the identification is with the ego. In addition, the story is also projected into the future. Contrary to popular thinking, someone with a large ego does not necessarily believe he/she is better than other people; they simply identify more strongly with their story (their past and future).

The ego identifies with the external world in different ways, and misinterprets the external reality for the internal reality. To the ego, we are what we do, have, own, make and look. Our sense of identity is tied in with possessions, money, status, occupations, roles, appearances, and the opinion of others. These are things mostly outside of us, and they become part of our story. But things we identify with are not who we are.

The Collective Ego

There is another aspect to the ego which is just as prevalent. These are the things we identify with as a group (the collective ego). Being absorbed by our ego creates a mental position that separates us from life and other groups of people. Collectively, these mental positions are strengthened and become even more destructive. The collective ego takes several forms, such as: nationalism, race, religion, politics, ethnicity, tribal and ideologies.

world war 2 tanks

As long as we can say: “We are right and they are wrong,” or “We are good and they are evil,” or “It’s us against them,” then the door is open for all kinds of abuses. The collective consciousness that completely separates humanity into distinct groups is the root of war and violence. Contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle writes in A New Earth:

“By far the greater part of violence that humans have inflicted on each other is not the work of criminals or the mentally deranged, but of normal, respectable citizens in the service of the collective ego.”

Breaking Free From the Illusion

Eckhart TolleEckhart Tolle has written several books on spiritual growth. Central to his message, in The Power of Now and A New Earth, is the human dysfunction associated with the ego. And that an enlightened state of consciousness is possible by dissolving the ego. This can only occur when we access the dimension of the present moment. The ego arises through the stories in our minds; fully focused on the present there is no story. The ego exists only as a mental construct, just like the past and future. In reality, only the present is real.

In the The Power of Now, Tolle recalls his experience of breaking away from identification with the ego. After a lengthy period of anxiety and depression, one simple thought completely changed his perspective of life. On one especially dreadful night he thought:

“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.”

The Transformation of Consciousness

Tolle realized that his suffering was caused by his identification with the ego. This was the ‘self’ he could not live with. He learned that by relinquishing the ego, his anxiety and depression would also disappear; his state of mind shifted to deep peace and bliss.

The core problem is the stress that arises in order to maintain the false self. The ego is never satisfied for very long, as it always needs to be built up. What arises in most people is a deep-seated feeling of longing, of never having enough or being enough. It is an endless game of striving, struggling, competing, fighting, arguing, and so one.

We all have an ego, a form of self-preservation I suppose. No doubt it evolved as a survival mechanism. A strong sense of individual identity must have been an advantage in a highly competitive environment. We still compete today on many levels, but for the most part it is not life or death. The key insight is to see it for what it is: an unavoidable part of the human condition that has to be kept in check.

Tolle also realized that the entry point towards enlightenment is the present moment. That is The Power of Now, the transformation of consciousness that emerges by letting go of our story, and living fully in the present. The true self is the conscious awareness behind our thoughts, the ego and our story. Living in the now, free from the grip of ego, is the simplest and most practical philosophy for well-being and mental health. That is the most life-altering concept in philosophy.

 

References:

Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth (New York: Plume, 2006), 73.

Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now (Vancouver: Namaste Publishing, 2004), 4.

Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion (Canada: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2012.


 

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The Tao Does Nothing, But Leaves Nothing Undone

This is the opening line in the 37th verse of the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese book of wisdom. The Tao (pronounced dow in English) is an indescribable force that permeates all things. The Tao does nothing in the sense that it can’t be identified in precise terms, but leaves nothing undone in the sense that all things contribute in an interconnected way. And speaking of way, the word Tao is generally translated as the way. The way, meaning a path that one follows, which is in harmony with nature. Te is translated as power or virtue, and Ching is a book.

The Tao is a mysterious concept and its true meaning is almost impossible to express in language. The 1st Verse of the Tao Te Ching begins as follows: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

Some contemporary spiritual teachers have written and lectured about the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching. Although I am sure there are many, 3 influential figures come to my mind: Alan Watts, whose lectures from the sixties and seventies are still posted on You Tube. In recent years, Eckhart Tolle and Dr. Wayne W. Dyer have incorporated Tao philosophies into their teachings. In his book, Change Your Thoughts-Change Your Life, Dyer describes his interpretation of the concept that is called “the Tao.”

“The Tao is the supreme reality, an all-pervasive Source of everything. The Tao never begins or ends, does nothing, and yet animates everything in the world of form and boundaries, which is called “the world of the 10,000 things.”

The Legend of Lao-tzu

Loa-TzuLegend has it that a wise old man, named Lao-tzu, wrote the Tao Te Ching (sometime between the 6th and 4th century B.C.). Lao-tzu was the keeper of the archives of imperial China. He became frustrated with the unrest in the empire. He decided to leave and headed west, where he was recognized by a border guard. Lao-tzu was asked to write down his wisdom before he left, which became the Tao Te Ching. Afterwards, he left the kingdom and was never seen again.

There is, however, no way to verify if this is historically accurate. Lao-tzu actually translates to old master. It could be that the original text is a collection of proverbs from various sources, or perhaps what has survived is an incomplete version. Nevertheless, the book has been translated thousands of times in many languages. A few centuries later a movement began, which became Taoism. There is also some speculation that the Tao Te Ching may have influenced the birth of Buddhism.

Religion or Philosophy

The core concept of the Tao has led to the development of the Taoist faith. I use the word faith as opposed to the word religion, because Taoism is fundamentally different from other world religions. The Tao is not a God in the traditional western sense. The concept of God as a controlling figure is absent in Taoism. In the Tao, there is no controlling center; everything is allowed to be, and each component is viewed as part of a harmonious system.

Based on the Tao, there are no prescribed directions to follow; it is left to individuals to find their own way. The Tao Te Ching is a guide for living in harmony with nature, but it is not a manual. Taoism is as much a philosophy as it is a religion.

The Way of Nature

The flow of water is a powerful symbol for the Tao. Flowing water finds the lowest or easiest path. There is also the inevitability of the direction of the water. Take for example, the flow of a river; much better to go with the current than to try to go against it. There is a way to nature and the universe, but it is difficult if not impossible to pinpoint. The main goal is to experience the Tao by allowing and accepting nature as it is, not by trying to control it.

Ying and YangThe Tao Te Ching also points out the paradoxes of nature. Even polar opposites are viewed as working together. Hence the terms and symbols of yin and yang, which represent opposite forces in nature; they are seen as complementary and interconnected. For example, there is a balance between high and low, soft and hard, hot and cold and light and dark. Or one could say there is no light without darkness. Following the way is living in balance.

The Way Forward

We could do worse than adopt an open philosophy of life that aligns with nature. When we consider the immense problems caused by extreme and competing religious dogmas, and financial greed and inequality that disregard the well-being of the environment, it should make us pause: “Where are we going?”  If humans are going to find their way in such confusing times, we will have to incorporate principles that are compatible with nature.

waterfallI find it refreshing that ancient concepts contained in the Tao Te Ching are lining up with a modern scientific view. Science has discovered a multitude of interconnected parts that make up our world. Life is so interconnected that it is sometimes difficult to determine when one living system begins or ends. The whole planet (or even the universe) can be viewed as one system or organism. Everything that exists is compatible with the whole. If it were not, it wouldn’t be here. Alan Watts summarizes the Tao in the following manner:

“The whole conception of nature is as a self-regulating, self-governing, indeed democratic organism. But it has a totality, it all goes together, and this totality is the Tao.”

 

References: Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, Change Your Thoughts-Change Your Life (United States: Hay House Inc., 2007).

Alan Watts – The Taoist Way, Published on Jan. 13, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iv9zocKASsM

In Our Time Philosophy: Daoism (Dec. 15, 2011).