I watched with great interest Eckhart Tolle’s webcast with Oprah Winfrey on Monday this week. I’ve been inspired by his spiritual teachings for a long time, and I was pleased to see that he now has such a powerful vehicle to convey his message to the world. Interestingly, I learned the most not from the words he said, but from the attitude with which he said them. When he spoke, I got the sense that he was completely free of shame about, and concern for how others would see him based on, what he was saying.
Two examples of Tolle’s freedom from anxiety and shame stuck out for me. The first came up when he was telling Oprah about the moment of his spiritual awakening. In that moment, he said, he felt what he calls his ego—the fearful, defensive part of his psyche—dissolve, and he saw for the first time the true beauty and aliveness of the world around him. When Oprah commented “that sounds like a drug trip,” Tolle cheerfully admitted he’d tried LSD, and that he understood why people saw the drug as capable of heightening spiritual awareness, but that acid didn’t give him an experience as peaceful or permanent as his own awakening.
Many people, I imagine, would have been too fearful or self-conscious to admit this if they’d been in Tolle’s shoes. Hundreds of thousands across the world were watching the show, almost certainly including journalists looking for opportunities to unfavorably portray Tolle. Potential buyers of Tolle’s books were also undoubtedly watching, and the more puritanical among them may have been turned off by his drug reference. But Tolle, with seemingly no concern for his public image, described his LSD experience with a warm chuckle.
How was Tolle able to have this discussion without shame or fear about the possible consequences? The answer, I believe, is that all of Tolle’s awareness was centered in—as he calls it—the Now, or the present moment. His mind was not occupied with memories of hurtful events from the past, or nightmare visions of how people might scorn or humiliate him in the future. His attention was entirely on his conversation with Oprah about the moment of his enlightenment. He was, in short, living the state of being he describes in his spiritual teachings.
Why do I think Tolle’s focus on the present moment frees him from shame? Because shame can only exist if our minds are preoccupied with the past and future. Shame is, in essence, the fear that a painful or embarrassing event from our pasts—often, our early childhoods, is going to happen again.
Shame arises, in other words, when we recall a difficult memory from the past and assume something like it is going to occur in the future. This fear of an old event repeating itself restricts us in what we feel we can say and do, and makes our behaviors inauthentic and defensive. As therapist John Bradshaw puts it in Healing The Shame That Binds You, “as shaming experiences accrue and are defended against, the images created by those experiences are recorded in a person’s memory bank,” and events occurring in the present “trigger these collages of shame memories.”
When our attention shifts away from our painful memories and frightening future scenarios, and rests in the present moment, we’re no longer paralyzed by the fear of repeating the past. We feel liberated to express ourselves, and to do what best serves ourselves and others in the moment, when our awareness is fully in the Now.
The second example that struck me occurred later in the show, when Oprah and Tolle heard from a caller. The caller asked Tolle about a passage in his book, A New Earth, in which he says that “a significant portion of the Earth’s population will soon recognize, if they haven’t already done so, that humanity is now faced with a stark choice: Evolve or die.” In other words, if humans don’t learn to live in the present moment and let go of the old ego-consciousness soon, they will likely destroy themselves.
Plainly on the verge of tears, she asked “do you mean that literally, which you might, or do you mean that metaphorically, which I hope?” Calmly and unapologetically, Tolle answered “when I say evolve or die, I’m only speaking of humanity as a species.” That is, he meant it literally—humanity must embrace the present moment or become extinct. He went on to explain that consciousness or spirit, the energy that comprises everything in the universe, cannot die and will continue to exist even if humanity does not.
I can imagine many of us feeling the need to tread carefully when confronted by a tearful woman frightened of her own death and the death of the human species. We might avoid the question, shade the truth by calling our statement a metaphor, or do something else reflecting a fear of further upsetting the caller. Many of us are accustomed to backpedaling, pacifying and dodging when we have conversations like this with sad or angry loved ones. But Tolle, without hesitation, simply spoke what he sees as the truth.
This example illustrates how expressing our feelings, asking for what we want, and setting boundaries with others happen automatically in a state of present-moment awareness. With our attention fully in the Now, our fears of upsetting others, and of not looking intelligent, attractive, or “cool” enough, dissipate. We can speak our truth unhampered by shame and fear.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we are insensitive to others’ feelings and needs when our awareness is focused in the present moment. It simply means that, when we live in the Now, our fear of reliving painful memories no longer controls our thoughts and actions. We respond to the circumstances right in front of us, rather than reacting as if long-gone events were repeating themselves—as if, for instance, we were vulnerable young children again and our parents were about to punish us.
Tolle’s response to the caller illustrates this point. Tolle’s mission is to bring present-moment awareness, and the end of suffering, to the world. He clearly harbors a deep love and concern for people, and this is why he sees it as so important to alert humanity to its stark choice between higher consciousness and death. If he’d reacted to the caller from a place of shame or fear, and softpedaled his words to make sure she didn’t get upset, he would have lessened the impact of his message—and his ability to manifest his love in the world.
Bringing our attention fully into the Now—to our surroundings, our bodies’ sensations, and the actions that best serve us and others, in the present—does more than simply give us inner peace. It also gifts us with a freedom to feel, think and act unrestricted by shame, fear, guilt and other forms of suffering arising from our obsession with the past and future. It liberates us to experience life’s fullness and beauty free of judgment and hatred. I’m excited to see teachers like Tolle helping to make this state of being available to more and more people.
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