March 10, 2008
For whom the bell Tolles
Why, for thee, of course.
DO YOU NEED YOUR MIND BLOWN?
Because it’s Eckhart Tolle Month. My precious friend Kendelyn and I watched a live web feed from his talks at the Marin Center in San Rafael this weekend. Eckhart Tolle, the sage of our age, was about to retire last year when he got a phone call, “Hello, this is Oprah.” Now, her Book of the Month club is featuring a world-wide “webinar” with around a half million participants, surrounding Tolle’s book A New Earth, Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, which has gone from thousands of copies in print to millions of copies in print. Just click on www.oprah.com to “reserve your seat.”
ARE YOU READY TO GET YOUR MIND BLOWN?
Kendelyn introduced me to Tolle several years ago. I recall sitting in the sun with her at my yard sale in Berkeley. She was selling her handmade “mouse pads,” little fabric pillows filled with catnip. Whenever Kendelyn brings me a gift, she doesn’t forget Zazu and Zzyzzy. There are half a dozen mouse pads strewn on my floor right now. The catnip has faded, but the kids still like to kick them around. So at this yard sale, Kendelyn said something that entered my head like a dart: “Has anything ever happened to you that didn’t happen in the now?”
Well I picked up a copy of The Power of Now, which my friend Oscarito carries around like The Bible, but I wasn’t prepared to absorb it, and put it on the shelf. A year or more later, having moved to San Francisco, I was passing that bookshelf on my way into the living room and spontaneously snatched it off the shelf. Some days later, on September 3, 2004, I wrote in my journal:
THE POWER OF WOW!
And now I share my friend Tom’s 9/3 birthday with him, I wrote, “for that is the day I was born. Again.”
“We go back to the place we came from,” says Virginia Woolf in “The Hours,” in answer to her niece’s question, “What happens when we die?”
“I don’t remember where I came from,” replies the niece.
“Nor do I,” said Woolf.
“I do,” I wrote on September 3. “I remember where I came from. I’m there right now.”“Words aren’t big enough.” I wrote, to write about the experience. Tolle says in A New Earth that when you have attached a word to something, you feel you know what it is. “The fact is: You don’t know what it is. You have only covered up the mystery with a label.”
THE WORD “I”
is one such label, one you have come to identify with, or as, yourself. But I have long known, definitely from childhood, that there is something behind all that, and that is that place of stillness you go to when you free yourself of attachments to things and ideas, concepts of yourself and your identity, even for a few moments—the “I” that doesn’t need words and forms to assert itself; it simply is.
Betty Edwards asks, in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, “what prevents a person from seeing things clearly enough to draw them?” Partly that “we have learned to see things in terms of words: we name things, and we know facts about them.” So rather than draw the shapes and volumes in front of you, you draw a symbol of what you call and know as a “nose.” This is what you think a nose looks like, but it is not necessarily as clear as the nose on your face, or your subject’s.
YOU THINK YOU KNOW
what you look like, you have a concept of yourself as fat, bald, old, beautiful, ugly, but you are not seeing yourself clearly, as a being who simply is. Can you see yourself without the words and concepts you identify with—that you have identified with, as Tolle relates—“a gender, possessions, the sense-perceived body, a nationality, a race, religion, profession. Other things the ‘I’ identifies with are roles—mother, father, husband, wife and so on—accumulated knowledge of opinions, likes and dislikes, and also things that happened to ‘me’ in the past, the memory of which are thoughts that further define my sense of self and ‘me and my story.’ These are only some of the things people derive their sense of identity from. They are ultimately no more than thoughts held together precariously by the fact that they are all invested with a sense of self. This mental construct is what you normally refer to when you say ‘I.’ To be more precise: Most of the time it is not you who speaks when you say or think ‘I’ but some aspect of that mental construct, the egoic self.”
“What a liberation,” says Tolle, “to realize that ‘the voice in my head’ is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that. The awareness that is prior to thought, the space in which the thought, the emotion, the sense perception, happens.”
“I CANNOT LIVE WITH MYSELF ANY LONGER”
is the thought, in the midst of a suicidal depression, that revolutionized Tolle’s life. Suddenly he “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,” he thought, “only one of them is real.”
And who is that real one? Words, as Tolle says, are only markers, pointers.
Rupert Muller, as I quoted last time, asks in his documentary, “Unknown White Male,” “If you took all [our] memories away, what would be left? How much is our personality—our identity—determined by the experiences we have, and how much is already there—pure us?” It’s that “pure us” that Tolle addresses.
YOU ARE NOT YOUR MIND
he asserts in The Power of Now. “Thinking is only a small aspect of consciousness. Thought cannot exist without consciousness, but consciousness does not need thought.” That consciousness—is the pure us that is left when you are stripped of your “life situation,” as Tolle calls it, or the story of your life—“the consciousness itself…the stillness underneath all your thinking…which has always been there, will always be there, because it is timeless,” he said, in San Rafael.
A reader wrote, “When I started reading your premise about the dude with the operating system reinstall…my thoughts were that our memories are everything, no memories = no gratification, other than the basic physical items until more input is received. But the more I read the more confused I became…so I’ve stopped thinking about it!”
The us that remains when we stop thinking about it, that is the pure us! The “normal” (dysfunctional) human condition, says Tolle, is to be trapped in a phantom conceptual universe that is dead, where mind and thinking are continually interfering and keeping us from experiencing the aliveness of the universe around us. Our primary purpose is to be “aligned with the now,” so that what you are doing is not merely a means to an end, because the doing itself is the end.
“You can never make presence into an object, a mind object, because presence is the subject, the eternal ‘I am.’ Underneath all the thinking is a vast realm of consciousness that you touch when the mind subsides for a moment, there’s a space between two thoughts, a gap, in which you are conscious, but not thinking.”
In this state of presence you can experience the aliveness of something, of a flower, of water, because the stillness pervading the flower is the same stillness pervading you, and you cease to be a “time-based entity called a person, sustained by continuous thought activity,” always telling yourself, “I mustn’t stop thinking because I won’t know who I am anymore. If I stop telling myself the story of me, and telling others so that I can get some feedback and confirmation that the story of me is real, if I stop telling the self-talk, if the self-talk that upholds my identity comes to an end…Who am I?”
WE TEND TO LABEL PEOPLE,
he says, as to how they fit into our story, or don’t fit in, how they might enhance our story, or threaten our story. In the meantime, people aren’t really meeting each other, reflecting each other’s stillness, and in that state, Tolle says, “people get married! They haven’t even met!”
In some meditative practices and spiritual teachings, he points out, the question “Who am I?” is used as a little mantra or pointer. “Who am I?” “That, of course, is still a thought,” he says, “those are still words, who am I. This can actually work if you are alert, and do not attempt to answer the question. Whatever answer you find, after you asked, who am I?—that’s not it. Who am I? The answer is in the space of alert, silence presence after the question. I don’t know! [Pause] That’s it. That’s it. You can’t grasp it, it’s the essence of identity.”
THE ESSENCE OF IDENTITY,
not the sandwich board sign I wear saying “I am a writer.” I am smart and funny and knowledgeable about this and that—I can lose all that with dementia, but I would still be someone, I would still be the pure me.
At one time or other, I have owned a four-bedroom house in Portland, Oregon, a fourplex apartment building and two-BR cottage in Berkeley, and a two-bedroom flat in San Francisco. Soon, in terms of real property, I will own nothing. Will that make me nothing? Hardly, mojambo. If I rid myself of my inventory of possessions, does that lessen who I am? It strengthens who I am. My friend asked for progress on how the flat sale is going. I said, “I don’t feel bad or good about it; it’s just what’s happening now.”
“LIFE WILL GIVE YOU,”
says Tolle, “whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.”
Just as the foundation on my Portland house failed, to wake me up to the faulty foundation of my life (owning property, working to support it), I am similarly shedding myself of my last big “possession,” to concentrate on myself, to simply be myself rather than having to maintain what I have.
“THE EGO IDENTIFIES WITH HAVING,”
says Tolle, “but its satisfaction is a relatively shallow and short-lived one. Concealed within it remains a deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction, incompleteness, of ‘not enough.’ ‘I don’t have enough yet,’ by which the ego really means, ‘I am not enough yet’…having–the concept of ownership—is a fiction created by the ego to give itself solidity and permanence and make itself stand out, make itself special. Since you cannot find yourself through having, however, there is another more powerful drive underneath it that pertains to the structure of the ego: the need for more, which we could also call ‘wanting.’ No ego can last for long without the need for more. Therefore, wanting keeps the ego alive more than having.”
When I returned from my last trip back east for the holidays, my favorite, perfect dinner-for-one bowl with the three little feet had disappeared. Someone had either broken it during one of h’s house parties, or taken it as a souvenir of my flat, perhaps with leftovers in it. Wherever it went, it is gone, leaving me petulant. I loved that bowl! It was the bowl of bowls. But I’m ridding myself of tons of stuff, what’s one bowl more or less? Well, it was not something I would have chosen to rid myself of, but I nevertheless lost it. Why did this happen? Why did life provide me with this experience? So I could wish someone else enjoys “having” or “owning” the bowl as much as I did, who perhaps, too, will someday lose something that will caution them not be so attached to things.
How about Jean Dominique Bauby, of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”? He was the editor of French Vogue until a stroke paralyzed everything but his left eye. Did he cease to be himself? Because he used that left eye, by blinking on the letter he wanted from alphabets recited to him, to write the book that became the movie about his life.
AND SO NOW, WHO ARE YOU?
SOCIALLY RETARDED OR SIMPLY SHY?
Was I a bit harsh on Mr. Would-be VP Gonzalez last time, calling him the poster child for social retardation? Because I too am a social retard. When I’m in a crowd of people busily telling their stories and not honoring the human bond beyond the bullshit, I’d just as soon keep my mouth shut, and I’d just as soon leave the crowd and go home where I don’t have to say anything at all. Matt and I have in common that we started talking rather late into our childhoods. My mom even took me to the doctor. But I do know how to say hello and goodbye.
One time I was coming out of a restaurant Matt was going into. I turned my head and was surprised to see him standing right next to me, so I said, “Hey! How are you? He said nothing at all and just proceeded into the restaurant. And how often have I heard told the story that someone was talking to him about whatever, when he just plain walked away without explanation. “Is it me?” people tend to wonder. “Was it something I said?” I say, no, you can’t take these things personally—he just never went to finishing school. He’s just, well, Matt. As Tolle would say, “Can I be the space for this?”
Most people, when his name comes up, have a story like that, but we let it go because of his other sterling qualities; there’s just something about that little Munchkin. Like my friend who keeps standing me up, me and everyone he knows, who stood me up for the Black and White Ball and I ended up going alone and having a blast with the black-and-white-painted French circus performers. You can be infuriated or you can put up with it because well, he’s who he is. He won’t change. And yet Matt, as h brown put it today, “has genuine charisma (you can’t box that shit, folks) and draws huge adoring crowds.” Quite a complex character and endlessly interesting. I’m flattered Matt removed himself from my list because I got some kind of rise out of the guy for a moment in time. h claims he likes my stuff, but I don’t know him that well, and I’m sure I’ll never know what he thinks about anything but electoral reform and NAFTA.
AN IDEA AROSE
over dinner with friends that America would be better off as a monarchy with a Prime Minister. For these posts I would like to nominate Gavin Newsom for King and Matt Gonzalez for Prime Minister. Gavin’s got the hand-shaking, ribbon-cutting flair for international diplomacy, and wouldn’t he look nifty in a crown? But when you want something done and done right you’d better call in Matt. He would be the Wizard behind the curtain.
Still don’t know who you are? Look behind the curtain.
A man who knows who he is.
The Wizard behind the curtain,
Now you know.
copyright Alexandra Jones 2008