Making Little of Spirituality with Eckhart Tolle

This week I’ve been listening to a series of talks by Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now and A New Earth.  And the most noticeable impact has been increased productivity in my work, and greater acceptance of my daily ills.  So who is Eckhart Tolle?

Eckhart Tolle
Image by Scott’s View of the World via Flickr

He’s a diminutive little fellow who on first glance is quite unimpressive, and whose voice can sometimes border on the tedious.  This only accentuates the power of the message, which in its essence is very simple: acceptance of what is.  Instead of reacting to the events and trials of life, instead of living in the past or the future, direct your attention squarely on the here and now.  Somehow Tolle managed to squeeze the essence of traditions dating back thousands of years into a very simple and profound teaching.

As a result, Eckhart Tolle is one of the world’s most popular spiritual teachers.  And yet he has slipped under the guru status due to his stature and message.  This is due to the fact that there is really nothing to believe here – beliefs are discouraged as ‘mental forms’ that obscure the pure essence of life.  There really is nothing to refute here, because there is no religion and no gods.  Eckhart does occasionally use the concept of ‘God’, but only as a reference to the nature of existence as one in being.

Theology, philosophy, and even spirituality tend to get one caught up in an endless loop of arguments and thoughts about the nature of reality.  What we really need today is a practical spirituality that cuts through all this and brings one with direct contact with life at every moment.  Tolle refers to the ability to take life as it is no matter what is offered as being ‘grounded in presence’.  At the same time, he sees all words as merely pointers to a reality that is beyond thought.

It was through reading his books that I got to the point of having nothing more to say in this blog.  Unfortunately, I had turned the message into my own form of spiritual belief system, even using the term ‘beyondform’ as my username, given that Tolle uses it frequently in his writing.  I held on to the concept as I have long had misgivings about my body, the ‘form’ that I live within, and took the idea as a reaction to rejection – in other words, a form of spiritual pride.  While the message altered my perception of life, it did little to change my approach – I still lived under the delusion of fear.

Fortunately, now that I have begun to live in a state of mindfulness and acceptance, concepts which are becoming huge in the world of psychology, I see that all my suffering, all my ‘mental noise’, can actually serve me in being grounded in the here and now.

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Enter The Mankind Project….

In a previous blog post I mentioned trying numerous avenues to address my foreboding psychological issues.  What I’m about to share now is explicit details of my interaction with The Mankind Project, which I have yet to share with a single soul due to their insistence of confidentiality. Now that I’ve seen the details I was called on to keep secret at, I feel free to express my own experience which many may find interesting, and which is quite a relief to reveal.

The ManKind Project
Image via Wikipedia

I first learned about The Mankind Project through a podcast that features interviews on topics pertinent to men, and mostly on issues of personal development and spirituality.  One episode featured a leader from The Mankind Project speaking about the organization and its flagship event, The New Warrior Training Adventure.  I was literally brought to tears as I heard him relate to an experience of becoming alive in his masculinity and being accepted into a brotherhood of men.  It sounded like a tribal experience, which is most likely why I reacted so emotionally, as I’ve visited Papua New Guinea and experienced tribal life firsthand.  He did not go into detail about the experience, only to the point of dispelling certain myths.  I immediately got into contact with him and local contacts within the organisation, and eventually signed up for the NWTA weekend.  I heard that it was going to be an intense experience, but I was not prepared for what was to come.

I was given the option to carpool with another attendee, so was picked up by this complete stranger.  We were both rather nervous and chatted right up to the venue.  Unfortunately, we were running a little late.  We were met by a stern fellow who gruffly remarked, “You’re late, take a piss over there if you need to a get going.”  We were shocked and wondered aloud if this was a taste of what was to come.

Attendees were then marched around like criminals, with possessions searched and removed.  I stressed my need to have my insulin available as I am a diabetic, and they relented.  I was then hoarded into a room and made to sit for what seemed like an hour in silence, while an angry man watched each attendee.  We were then hoarded into another hall, where a spectacle was made over a mistake one of the leaders had made in regards to an attendee’s registration.

Looking around, you could see the Native American influence, ranging from the drumming, animal names being used for one another, and various activities – if you have seen any portrayal of American Indian culture in the movies,  you know exactly what I’m talking about.  I didn’t find any of these activities inspiring at all, but I was assured that the best was yet to come.

None of us had eaten dinner yet, and we were looking forward to some seriously good food, especially since we had paid $950 for the weekend and were asked to bring along a meal to share with the group.  When we eventually found what was on offer, each attendee expressed disgust, though maybe not as much as I – for this was where the deprivation began.  A large pot of bland porridge and platters of fruit were all we had access to.  I was newly diagnose with Type 1 diabetes at the time, having only a limited understanding of my condition, but knowing that this would not be sufficient to ensure my wellbeing.  I expressed my disgust with fellow attendees and moved on.

After moving through more activities we played a game in the cool night air that must have stretched well past midnight, we wouldn’t know as all time devices were confiscated.  Then we hit the very uncomfortable cabins which provided no shelter from the cold night air, and where sleep was minimal for most.  I stressed my requirement for my insulin, which the begrudgingly made available.

In the morning we were forcefully awoken and told we must take a cold shower while other attendees timed us for 60 seconds.  I steadfastly refused, with most other attendees going along with it.  I was tired, hungry, and bitter.  The scent of a lovely cooked breakfast wafted down to the cabins, while we were marched again for the pitiful porridge and fruit.

The tone of the leaders became softer in the morning, as we were led through a variety of other activities, such as discovering your purpose and meditation.  I found concentration to be at a minimum which I suspect was due to blood sugar abnormality.  My ill feeling got worse and worse until finally I cracked later in the morning, calling to the leaders and letting them know that I was unhappy and wanted to leave.  They tried to accommodate me but what was on offer only really escalated the problem – peanut butter on white bread.  You see, I’ve adapted to the necessity of catering specifically for my needs for such a long time that I couldn’t cope with being completely dependent on others, so I just did not know what to do.  Once I explicitly decided to leave, they made arrangements for me to be taken back home.  This was no simple activity as the campsite was around 45 minutes away from town.

Unlike the author of the post I referred to earlier, I have no intention here of disparaging the Mankind Project organization.  All the leaders I met had the best of intentions, and the testimonials I’ve read and heard seem to suggest that the organization has made a tremendous impact on the lives of many men.  My greatest concern is that in large group seminars and retreats a one-size-fits-all mentality pervades, overlooking the intricacies of individual experience.  There is also the import of indigenous cultural practices that don’t quite translate well into a western setting, looking more like the games we played as children.  My experience was a failure because I had specific genetic and biological issues that could not be adequately addressed by the leadership of the event.

Given all this, I can’t recommend the event or the organization.  I now believe the underlying philosophy, as can be extracted from their website, is misguided.  While I acknowledge the distinctiveness of gender roles and the widening isolation for men in our culture, their philosophy is another example of black-and-white thinking, placing too much emphasis on how men should be, rather than allowing the free and distinct expression of individual action.

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Atheism in the Easter Spotlight

I really didn’t want to get into commentary and debate again, but a story in today’s newspaper compelled me to write.

Sydney, St.
Image via Wikipedia

The Sydney Anglican Church is renowned for its ultra-conservative evangelical stance, even to the embarrassment of fellow Anglicans.  Sydney’s Archbishop, Peter Jensen, began his tirade against atheism on Good Friday with the following:

“As we can see by the sheer passion and virulence of the atheist — they seem to hate the Christian God — we are not dealing here with cool philosophy up against faith without a brain,” Dr Jensen told the congregation at Sydney’s St Andrew’s Cathedral.

“Atheism is every bit of a religious commitment as Christianity itself.

“It represents the latest version of the human assault on God, born out of resentment that we do not in fact rule the world and that God calls on us to submit our lives to Him. It is a form of idolatry in which we worship ourselves.”

These comments are stupid enough to warrant no reply.  They are ill-informed and reflect an extremely biased view, and as such merely attract scorn.  It’s what followed that disturbed me.

An absence of faith invites an inward focus and undermines human relationships, Dr Jensen said in his Easter address at St Andrew’s Cathedral this morning.

“I have emphasised human loneliness this Easter because that is what expert observers of our society are saying is a real problem,” Dr Jensen said.

“It is what we would expect to occur given the secularist philosophy we have embraced.

“This philosophy emphasises the individual and individual rights, it invites us to invent our own lives and it undervalues commitment to other human beings.

“It is a recipe for loneliness and the path to a very lonely old age.”

I’m no stranger to loneliness.  My experience of it is partly influenced by the existential crisis that came when I left the faith that I had spent most of my life constrained within.  However, it is far more complex than what Jensen suggests – I was lonely at the highest points of my time as a Christian believer.  Involvement in a church and belief in deities are no guarantees of happiness, despite what opinion polls tell us (just ask the multitude of ex-Christians).

Additionally, the very philosophy that Jensen derides was very much promoted within the congregations that I attended!  For starters, commitment to human beings took less priority than commitment to God and church.  The values of both the clergy and the congregation were identical to those in the general community, and in fact in my experience the congregation tended to be amongst the more middle-to-upper class in society, well-to-do by virtue of business, investment, and political interests.

So Peter, do you seriously expect me to believe that the cure for my loneliness is to join your church and take your faith?  If your god kept me locked in loneliness and depression over the years while I attempted to live my life by faith, how on earth will I be saved now?

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In the Tomb of Depression

Tomb door and window_2034
Image by hoyasmeg via Flickr

I look in despair
As I consider the events that have transpired over the last few days.
How I had put my hope in you
And now you are gone, taken away just when we were starting to believe
That you might just save us from our misery.
This stone tomb before me
Has within it my hopes and dreams
That are now forever lost, forever destroyed.
How can I believe in God now
When justice is nowhere to be found?
It seems my faith was entirely misplaced,
And all I have left is the sheer weight of your absence.
A disciple at the tomb of Jesus, circa AD33

I’m dabbling here in the theme of Easter, especially as I look back over the years that have transpired since leaving the faith. Being a rather emotionally sensitive individual, I didn’t take well to the existential crises that followed, and through my investigation I determined that I must be suffering from depression.

How I’m glad that the country I live in isn’t so enamored by the use of antidepressants as the U.S.A.!  I’ve read that antidepressant medication advertisements are all-too-common there, whereas they are rather strictly administered here primarily through psychiatric assessment.  I have a few times been prescribed antidepressants, only to look more closely and find that they do not deliver in most cases, and only end up adding grief through side-effects.  Now, I’m not suggesting they are completely ineffective, as I do believe there are uses for the medication in severe cases, but for those of us like myself who are generally despondent yet able to function I believe should steer clear.

The path to recovery has included many hours of counselling and reading a wide range of books.  In the process I’ve even studied two semesters of a psychology degree, as the subject matter interested me enough to consider pursuing a career.  From my study, I’ve reached the following conclusions:

The best view of depression is to see it as a sign that my life is off track in some way
Most of the books I’m reading pretty much centre on this theme.  Instead of seeing depression as a disease to be medically treated, it is viewed as the symptom of underlying life factors.

Depression occurs in the context of some form of relationship dysfunction
For me, I see the lack of loving relationships in my life to be the key factor that drives my depression.  It is an outgrowth of low self-esteem that was caused by traumatic life events and my early emotional formation.  I have fallen into a pattern of avoidance and withdrawal rather than approaching and engaging in life.

The way through depression involves a mindful approach
Instead of being enslaved to my behavioural conditioning, I can mindfully engage the present moment with a level of awareness that accepts what-is without judgment.  This meditative awareness, known as mindfulness,  is borrowed from Buddhist philosophy and now sits comfortably within Western psychology.

I’ve left my faith within the tomb.  There will never be a resurrection of the belief system that I once held, which is a good thing as I have grown to a more mature outlook.  At the same time, I’ve felt at a loss to comprehend life in a way that does not include the intervention of an almighty God.  

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The Fantasy of Easter

fan·ta·sy [fan-tuh-see, -zee] –noun

1. imagination, esp. when extravagant and unrestrained.
2. the forming of mental images, esp. wondrous or strange fancies; imaginative conceptualizing.
3. a mental image, esp. when unreal or fantastic; vision: a nightmare fantasy.
4. Psychology. an imagined or conjured up sequence fulfilling a psychological need; daydream.

Is the Easter story a fantasy, of the creative imagination of a primitive culture?  Or is it a real story that continues to demand our attention?  It’s Good Friday, and again I’m thinking about the whole idea of Jesus on the cross.  Actually, this is a particularly striking time of year, as it was around this time in the year 2006 when my faith came crumbling down. And that was not long after I had been through quite a ritualistic Easter experience.

Day 048/365 - Jesus Saves
Image by Great Beyond via Flickr

I particularly like that forth definition, as it gets to the very point I am about to expand on.  The brain requires completion, and goes to great lengths to fill in the gaps, so to speak.  Optical illusions are often the result of this tendency, with the brain creating an image that is not exactly corresponding with reality.

Today I realized that I had been caught up in the process of fantasy while attempting to gain people’s favour.  I had suggested that my Easter weekend was being wholly taken up in entertaining visiting family, when in reality much of it will be spent on my own (or reading, or posting to this blog!).  I didn’t want to present myself as a loner, and I don’t like to think of myself as a loner, yet if I gave a completely accurate description of how I am

spending my time, that’s exactly how I would come across.  As such, I expanded the small time with family to include the entire weekend, appearing then to be far more social than I actually am.  I created a fantasy in my own mind, which then translates to a fantasy in the minds of those I am trying to impress.

What I’m suggesting here is that self-deception and deception of others is something that can occur in the day-to-day process of living; as much as we want to be truthful, in order to maintain or advance our social positions we will inadvertently bend the truth in our favour.  Additionally, in the absence of understanding, we use our imagination to fill the gap.  Hence the pervasiveness of religion in our time, and the belief in the spiritual realm that has stretched back as far as recorded human history.

Easter for most Christians hinges on the afterlife: Christ died for our sins, and to be acceptable to God we must put our faith in him.  Afterlife is an unknowable entity, so we naturally reach for some kind of known through our imagination.  The fires of hell provide quite the fantastical persuasion to lead many to the conclusion that they must believe wholeheartedly in Christ, or at least participate in rituals such as those that are occurring in churches around the world today.  Even for those who choose not to believe, virtually everyone has been in some way touched by death, and the experience easily lends itself to the desire for an afterlife.

The fantasy of faith has a neurological explanation, and as such I cannot and will not judge anyone who chooses belief.  As I demonstrated, I often utilize fantasy in my social experience, and quite unconsciously most of the time.  It’s wonderful that I can wake up to this and therefore choose to be more authentic, but given the nature of brains I can’t guarantee perfection.

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The Dark Side

I’m now going to take you through some of the most challenging and dark times of my journey, which puts some balance on my perspective.

I’ve found walking away from Christianity to be an extremely lonely affair. It was my social life, the only avenue I had to connect with people. I was never all that great in the art of making friends, ever since traumatic experiences in school, and the suicide of a close friend. My social life, or lack thereof, is probably the single biggest concern I have. Numerous research suggests that loneliness can lead to a whole host of psychological and physiological conditions, and I certainly have my fair share.

I’m attempting, and have attempted, numerous avenues of assistance to overcome the various psychological factors that contribute to my experience of loneliness – self help, counselling, and live programs. I’ve even dabbled in the seduction community, made famous by a book called The Game by Neil Strauss, hoping that there might be answers to overcome shyness, meet women and other lonely men, and begin to enjoy life more.  Yet that avenue was just something I couldn’t tolerate.

I’ve found that the more I isolate myself, the worst I feel, and yet the tendency to avoid social situations simply keeps me in the same predicament.  The amount of times that I’ve set myself to do some kind of activity like attend a meditation group, only to back out at the last minute, is staggering.

I accept that I’m a rather eccentric fellow who doesn’t have much in common with a lot of people, so I need to seek out some of these esoteric groups and connect with them – but this constant self-sabotage really keeps me from doing so.  I’m also conscious of the fact that given so much time of self-reflection, I tend to be very selfish, with very little conception of the needs of others.  So consumed in my own little world, I find it difficult to relate to the world at large.

So there is a snapshot of the dark side of my journey.  I’m focusing a lot of energy and time and making improvements in this area, and hope that change is on the horizon.

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