The yoga teacher started off: “Empty your mind. Be simply present. Don’t think of the things you have to do today.”
Right. Guess what I started thinking about.
The power of suggestion can trigger habits, but it can’t stop them. Besides, emptying the mind is a wild goose chase. I tried for years. I lived with people who believed implicitly in it. Questioning it was taboo. There’s no room for exploration in the company of doubtless people, so I left.
Consciousness cannot be empty. Just as we can’t see without seeing something, we’re always conscious of something. Information floods in. We render it all — even our reactive sensations and feelings — into the symbols that make us distinctly human. All is impregnated with the dust of ideas, ordered according to the rules of language and cloaked in the illusion of objective truth. It’s oddly more comforting to believe that the order of the universe is a mystery than that we omnipotently create it. We invent one thing after another with such desperate compulsion that we long to stop. Sadly, the longing too is an invention.
Some things should make us feel angry, afraid or guilty
We crave an impossible sort of self-control. We may even sign up for a meditation course hoping that it will change everything. We are taught that simplicity is our birthright. We have only to let go.
But let go of what — negativity? The pursuit of pure positivity is a fool’s quest. Some things should make us feel angry, afraid or guilty. What binds us to cyclic thinking, repetitive patterns and general torpitude is the vain hope for happiness and simplicity. Spiritual teachers target our desire to be happy; it’s what we all seek, they say. They’re right, but if we expect them to lead us there, that’s our mistake.
Eckhart Tolle is not the first to claim that
history is heading somewhere lovely
Eckhart Tolle artfully blends insights that ring true with predictions that we deeply want to be true. Human consciousness, he tells us, is on the threshold of profound transformation. He wins our trust, then points us toward the great dream.
He’s not the first to claim that history is heading somewhere lovely. The end of days, the second coming, the day of judgement, the final renovation, the completion of the cycle, the end of suffering and the withering away of the state are all variations on this theme. These are the respective destinations of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Marxism. All portend the end of negativity and the fulfillment of our destiny. There’s a modern version too: according to scientific materialism we’re steadily growing more reasonable.
Foolish leaders promise an end to confusion and leverage the human failing of cognitive dissonance. In 1956, psychologist Leon Festinger showed that rather than testing beliefs against facts, humans will enthusiastically reinterpret the facts to fit their needs. If your beliefs are indistinguishable from your hopes, you’re probably doing that.
Reversing direction is tricky. We can’t stop thinking. We can clarify it, but no matter how straight our thinking, life is anything but. Still, clear perception in an open mind can reveal something of great value: the way we identify with our thoughts.
Ideas that seem important make us feel important. No matter how objective we think we are, we buy into belief systems and rationalizations from mostly subconscious motives. We may have good reasons too, but never in isolation. We forget that ideas are abstract approximations of experience, and that experience is multifaceted, interdependent and contingent. It doesn’t come in bite-sized chunks. It’s everything that happens to us. You can’t pinpoint such a moving target, especially since you’re part of it.
Thought is useful, though much of it is
as superfluous as a cloud of pollen
We resist this insight because it’s destabilizing. If we can’t rely on our own thoughts, what can we rely on? Again, the real question is hidden: why rely on anything? In this moment we are alive; we are conscious. Our need for that to be correct, or happy or simple is a prejudice. To the extent that we recognize this, thought is reinstated as a mere tool. We begin to think with a featherlight touch.
There’s no call to abandon reason. Thought is useful, though much of it is as superfluous as a cloud of pollen. Letting go means accepting nature’s prodigality, both in the world and in the teeming process of consciousness. There’s no stopping it.
Thought is essential, but incidental to experience. Imagining that ideas rise above circumstances to gain value of their own is superstition of the most primitive kind.
Teachers who claim to have emptied their minds or conquered suffering will always be with us. They voice a universal dream of the human race. They are a necessary stepping stone. Take their methods to heart, strive with uncompromising honesty, and you will break though the dream, find your own feet and know that you are competent.
The reality that lies beyond is not simpler. It doesn’t need to be.