My favorite insights from Eckhart Tolle’s wisdom-packed book about present-moment awareness.
There’s a reason Oprah decided to team up with Eckhart Tolle to create an unprecedented 10-week course to teach the principles in A New Earth to hundreds of thousands of people: It’s a remarkable book. And its premise — “that heaven is not a location but refers to the inner realm of consciousness” — is a huge one.
I am excited to share some favorite Big Ideas from this title, although I’m barely going to scratch the surface of the transformative concepts Tolle presents. So I highly recommend you take some time to curl up with this gem and dive deeper into exploring how we can transform our consciousness and create the better reality Tolle calls “A New Earth.”
Belief vs. Action
The opening quote about spirituality (at left) is powerful. It makes me think of my childhood. We went to church every Sunday. (I was raised Catholic.) I always found it extraordinarily odd that, after the service, my dad would be muttering or yelling about how poorly everyone was driving on the way out of the parking lot.
Tolle asserts that what we believe means nothing. How we act — which is determined by our consciousness — is what it’s all about. Noble beliefs are fine, but for them to have an impact, we’ve got to integrate them into our way of being in the world.
So how do we transform our consciousness? We need to start by understanding what’s getting in the way.
The Illusion of “My”
Tolle suggests that one of the biggest obstacles we face in creating a better reality is our limiting concept of personal ownership and attachment. For most of human history, he notes, we have created hellish circumstances for ourselves and others primarily as the result of three factors: “Fear, greed and the desire for power.”
“The reason why such acute suffering occurs is concealed in the word ‘my,’” writes Tolle. As in “My toy.” My car. My house. My spouse. My life. My, my, my.
S. N. Goenka, the teacher who led the 10-day Vipassana meditation class I took, had a story about “my.” Imagine someone else’s watch was stolen. Someone else’s car broke down en route to an important meeting. Someone else’s spouse cheated on him or her. Unfortunate, but not that big of a deal for you, right?
Now imagine this: My watch was stolen. My car broke down. My spouse cheated on me. It takes on a whole new meaning when we add the “my,” doesn’t it?
When we’re able to witness our reactions to things, to develop the ability to see ourselves as actors in this game of life and loosen our grip on all things “my,” we can start transforming our consciousness.
“Because of the human tendency to perpetuate old emotion,” Tolle writes, “almost everyone carries in his or her energy field an accumulation of old emotional pain.” Tolle calls this energy field “the pain-body.”
“Any negative emotion that is not fully faced and seen for what it is in the moment it arises does not completely dissolve,” Tolle explains. “It leaves behind a remnant.” That remnant can dramatically alter the way you experience reality, and it will tend to attract more painful, emotionally triggering experiences.
The key to dissolving old remnant pain? Accept what is. When we do this, we are able to see our challenges and suffering for what they really are: a form of evolutionary support designed to help us grow and heal at a deep level.
“Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness,” Tolle writes. “How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at this moment.”
I love that. It reminds me of Byron Katie. She says: “How do I know that the wind should blow? It’s blowing!” She adds: “I realized that it’s insane to oppose it. When I argue with reality, I lose — but only 100 percent of the time.”
Guess what? What’s happening is happening. We can fight it or we can embrace the opportunity to grow with it.
It’s always our call.
The Root of Suffering
“One of the ego’s many erroneous assumptions, one of its many deluded thoughts, is ‘I should not have to suffer,’” Tolle writes. “That thought itself lies at the root of suffering. Suffering has a noble purpose: the evolution of consciousness and the burning up of ego.”
How do you respond to your suffering? Do you say to yourself that it “shouldn’t” be happening? What if we could instead learn to trust and embrace our suffering as a process serving our enlightenment? Tolle focuses a good deal of attention on exploring this important question, and on illuminating suffering’s potential gifts.
In addition to helping us find the gifts inherent in our struggles, Tolle explains how we tend to project the problems we’d rather not face in ourselves onto other people instead.
He writes: “The particular egoic patterns that you react to most strongly in others and misperceive as their identity tend to be the same patterns that are also in you, but that you are unable or unwilling to detect within yourself.”
This idea — that what we find most annoying in others is an indicator of what we find (unconsciously) most annoying in ourselves — is a powerful one. Carl Jung called it our “shadow.” The fastest way to identify our shadow? Take a look at what bothers you most in other people.
Are you annoyed when people are impatient? Take a close, honest look at how you show up as an impatient jerk in your life more often than you’d like to admit, and your reaction to “impatience” may just dissolve. Annoyed when people are inauthentic? Greedy? Self-obsessed? Same thing: Look within. And watch your reactions dissolve.
The next time you’re upset, pause for a moment. Take a deep breath. Identify what it is you’re finding frustrating in the other person. Ask yourself, “How am I that?” Then examine how you can address this issue in your own life.
The Power of Choice
No matter how challenging life gets, we always have a choice about our personal consciousness and course of action. “If there is nothing you can do,” Tolle advises, “face what is and say, ‘Well, right now, this is how it is. I can either accept it, or make myself miserable.’ The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.”
This is another truth that’s echoed across cultures and millennia. From Epictetus: “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” To Shakespeare in Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” To Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
So what ways and attitudes will you choose? And what new realities will you create?
Brian Johnson is a philosopher and (professional) student of life. He used to build businesses. Now he reads a lot and has fun integrating universal truths into his day-to-day life. He also likes to hike, laugh, write, think, teach and hang out with his wife, Alexandra. Learn more at PhilosophersNotes.com.