Thursday, October 15, 2009

Who I Am

Currently, I'm reading A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. I've always been curious about books that people claim have changed their lives. And, as you may remember, Oprah was a huge follower of Tolle several years ago. So I decided to see what it was all about.

I am generally a bit skeptical of anything overly spiritual. Although I consider myself spiritual in a sense, I am atheist. And, having studied the hard sciences (biology major) and anthropology in college, I prefer to find physical or rational explanations. That said, I do believe that individuals can affect the quality of their experience in life through thought. And I am always open to hearing how another human has made sense of life, how their thoughts shape their experience. I recognize how my range of thoughts are limited by my individual experience, and I like learning new ways of thinking that I would never have conceived of on my own.

So in this spirit, I started reading A New Earth. And what I found was something fascinating...about me.

First, for those of you who haven't read Tolle, I'll do my best to summarize his ideas as I understand them thus far (I haven't finished the book yet).

Tolle says that a person is comprised of an illusory self which he calls the "ego", and the true self, or "consciousness," which is the presence within you who is hearing the thoughts of the ego. The ego is the speaker who we often think of as "I". But, he asserts that "I" is an illusion because it is given definition through human constructs (such as words). He says, "the greatest miracle is the experiencing of your essential self as prior to any words, thoughts, mental labels, and images. For this to happen you need to disentangle your sense of I, of Beingness, from all the things it has become mixed up with, that is to say, identified with." (A New Earth, page 26.)

This makes sense to me. I have been aware that there is a part of me who can hear myself thinking, that there is indeed a presence separate from and beyond the thoughts in my mind. A presence that doesn't think, it is just aware, it just "is." So, this is my true self listening to my ego. I just didn't define the two so clearly as the "ego" and my "consciousness."

What has amazed me while reading is my realization that I was fully aware of my true self from a very young age.

I remember doing a worksheet in 3rd grade (I was 8) about self identity. We had to answer questions like "my favorite food is...," "my favorite color is...," and "I'm really good at...." It is my first memory of defining my self, comparing myself to others and seeing how I am different. It was my first organized effort to figure out who I am. And I remember having a strong sense of "knowing" things that I couldn't put into words. Clearly, my intuiting function was already well developed. For example, I knew which group of friends the new girl would join upon my first interaction with her. I knew how to change my behavior to fit in with different "types". I had clear visions of how everyone in my world was connected-- I saw the structure of the interrelationships. Some of this was the development of Tolle's ego-- defining myself and the world with words and labels. But I also "knew" that my true self wasn't definable, it just was. And a few years later, that awareness became very strong.

When I was about 14 or 15, I used to wander off into the woods. I had a favorite boulder where I would sit and think. Sometimes I brought a journal. Sometimes I was working through a particular issue in my life (the usual teen situations). And sometimes I just sat to "commune with life" (as I called it then). The forest was filled with white birch trees which I loved, and I would sit and feel like I was one with them. Though my rational mind thought I was a bit bonkers at the time, I was aware of a joy that is beyond description. It was the start of my Life is Beautiful motto. I chose not to analyze it, because it was a source of strength that I knew, even then, was uncommon.

So when I read something in Tolle's book, tears came to my eyes. I felt a sense of validation that I've never felt before. He talks about the "influx of joy" and "inner peace" that fills you when you first experience the separation of the ego self (your thoughts and the content of your mind) from the simple awareness of being. Thoughts are constructs that limit our perceptions. Awareness is not limiting. It just is. This experience "happens in such a subtle way that [people] hardly notice it." (A New Earth, page 30.) This same subtle joy and peace is what came upon me in that forest. The joy of Being can only be felt "when you get out of your head. Being must be felt. It can't be thought." (A New Earth, page 40.)

How is this a strength? I have been told by several people through the years that I have a strength which they admire. In high school, my friends found my optimism curious. They joked about it, but I knew they also wished for the peace that I often felt. In college, my best friend told me I had an amazing "spiritual strength", which I chuckled at because I was on the verge of leaving my faith and embracing atheism. I hadn't considered my way of thinking a strength. To me, it was just the way life is. Just truth, as I saw it. Rational and realistic, not spiritual or some extraordinary ability to see through rosy glasses. And I didn't see myself as "stronger" than anyone else (I still don't.) I've got plenty of weaknesses. So what exactly is my "strength"?

Again, my heart stopped as I read Tolle's discussion on happiness. He says, "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." (A new Earth, page 96.) And furthermore, he says, "Don't seek happiness. If you seek it, you won't find it, because seeking is the antithesis of happiness. Happiness is ever elusive, but freedom from unhappiness is attainable now, by facing what is rather than making up stories about it. Unhappiness covers up your natural state of well-being and inner peace, the source of true happiness." (A New Earth, page 96.)

Yes! He has put into words something that I've "known" for all these years, but was unable to explain to others. We all have this ability to become aware of our true essence, by becoming aware of the presence behind our thoughts and emotions. And when we are aware of it, we can't help but sense a deep peace and happiness. Because happiness is our natural state of being, what "is" when we strip away all the thoughts and constructs that we have accumulated through thinking (the ego's function). This was the source of my "strength." I knew how to be free from unhappiness.

There was another reason tears came to my eyes while reading. I realized that at some time through the years I have woefully forgotten to separate my self from my ego. I have fallen into the ego's trap. I have been allowing my thoughts and emotions to define what is, instead of just "being". And as a result, I have caused pain, for myself and others.

So thank you, Eckhart Tolle, for skillfully using words to express what I could not. And for reminding me of who I am.


Unknown said...

:-) You got it sister.

Charles Gramlich said...

Here's how I think of it. The mind is like a committee. What many people call the ego, I just think of as consciousness, and it is the chairperson of the committee. However, the entire self is made up of the entire committee. Like any committee, there will be agreements and disagreements here and there, and there will be members of the committee that don't fully communicate with other members, or with the chairperson.

Aine said...

Catvibe~ :)

Charles~ Interesting! I don't think there are that many voices in my head. ;) But I can see how your description parallels neuroscience. Each functional component of the brain has a "voice" and the executive function often makes the final decisions regarding action.

What intrigues me is how different people perceive thinking in different ways. For example, I'm often a visual thinker, I see things. But I also clearly hear my mind's voice all day long. I know someone, however, who doesn't hear a voice most of the time-- his thoughts don't take an auditory form and he says he doesn't think in words. That fascinates me.

Unknown said...


I'm so glad you dropped by and found me. Tolle is amazing and is doing great work in raising people's consciousness. All evil done on earth stems from ego.

Your post was lovely and how lucky you found at an early age the peace and joy found in nature.

You are blessed. I'm following you now! You have made my day.

Much love!

love said...

Ego, my ego, and those other's egos are always in the way.

Nevine Sultan said...

I wanted to drop in and pay you a return visit, and I've been sitting here reading your discussion of Tolle's book and thinking "Yes!" I majored in psychology and I think that the one big thing that has stuck in my mind from that experience was what I learned about self-awareness, and awareness in general. It can be a rather challenging experience to one's ego to develop self-awareness, and this challenge is more intimately felt when we're trying hard to separate all of those stimuli that work on us. But challenging or not, if I don't know who I really am I'll never know in which direction I want to take my life.

Isn't it amazing how reading the right book can have such a profound effect on us? Like you, I'm not religious but consider myself spiritual. And when I find a book that has such an impact on me, I consider it a gift from nature.

That was a lovely visit! :)


Aine said...

Stacey~ My heart is so warmed to hear that I made your day! Thank you and welcome to my little piece of cyberspace. I'll be following your journey, too.

Sherrlyn~ Welcome! Yes--egos are so pesky, but useful. We need them to function and interact with each other. But we must not allow them to have control.

After a quick browse of your site, I think your photography is divine. Capturing the emotional beauty of a bride and the small moments that make a wedding day precious. I wish I knew you 18 years ago when Jason and I were planning our wedding!

Nevine~ Psychology major? Now you've got my attention! ;) I wish I had taken more courses, but alas, I was caught up in my pre-med/biology courses. And, other than psych 101, I only took courses in abnormal psych for my therapy training. So, now, in my midlife explorations, I've developed an interest (more of an obsession actually) in personality theory and neuro underpinnings of behavior.

I'm so happy to see you, and very glad that you enjoyed the visit!

Nevine Sultan said...

I wanted to stop in and say thank you for joining me. I hope you won't mind terribly if I do the same. I'll be seeing you...


Unknown said...

The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.

Which reminds me of what my mother always said, 'You make your own happiness. You carry it inside you; you will never find it out there in something or someone else'.

So wherever I am, there I find happiness. Because I have brought it with me.

laughingwolf said...

excellent thoughts, aine...

once i saw 'oprah', i just about quit reading [she's phony], but kept going cuz of tolle

you may also like dr. gabor mate's thoughts; he gave up on atheism after reading tolle, now has a new awareness and his own kind of spirituality

Ed Meers said...

Aine, this is one of the best posts that you have written and I can see how it resonates with rational minds. I think it was Freud who wrote about the id, the ego, etc. originally. Ultimately, there is this divisive nature in our psyche that meddles instinct with perceptions and emotions. More often than not, these factions of our being fracture, leading to inner turmoil and confusion. Our ability to understand how these elements play off each other is crucial, but they are lifelong battles when we seek to tame them. So many of our self-expectations are transplanted through those we know, how we were raised, what we have experienced, etc. To use your religious reference, how many people remain in the religion of their birth out of habit and a sense of obligation rather than belief and spiritual growth?

...and I believe that one can be spiritual and an Atheist. I don't believe in G(g)od(s), but I do believe that there is a life force that runs through everything and connects us (more like electricity than the divine). Those moments of experiencing extreme bliss like during love making or that sense of communing with nature on your boulder are all very spiritual things.

Anyway, I could ramble on forever here. Great bit of writing and I am so happy that you found this book.

Aine said...

Nevine~ Mind? LOL! Thanks for spending time with me here.

EOH~ Beautiful words of wisdom! I wish all mothers were as wise and all sons were as intelligent...

Laughingwolf~ Sorry for the Oprah fright! ;) And thank you for the intro to Dr. Gabor Mate. I look forward to reading more about him!

Minister~ Wow, thanks! I found myself struggling with Tolle's use of the term "ego" at first, because I am accustomed to Freud's definition. Though similar, there is a significant difference in how each uses "ego". Freud sees the psyche as composed of three equally important functions: ego, id, and superego. Tolle's ego is all three of Freud's functions bundled together as one component of the self (the component that has "form," as he calls it). Tolle's true self (or formless self) is actually more akin to your idea of a life force that runs through us all. That is why he calls it "Being"-- each of us is Being and all of us together are Being. And he challenges us to become conscious or aware of our Beingness.

See, you got me rambling, too. :)
But it sounds like you have already "awakened" according to Tolle.

laughingwolf said...

lol... mate is brilliant, like tolle

Tabitha Bird said...

It is always nice to be reminded of who we are. Perhaps even introduced to who we are sometimes :)

Thanks for following my blog :))

Vesper said...

“Thoughts are constructs that limit our perceptions.” I think this is very true. I would add “words” to this, because most of the time thoughts are words. I think that when we’re trying to define something, we’re also taking away from it.

I wonder what goes on in the mind of babies before we force on them our limited and limiting language. I sometimes long for that freedom that we’ve forever lost.

Aine, thank you for your essay. Immensely insightful.

Aine said...

Tabitha~ :) There's no place like home.

Vesper~ Exactly! Tolle starts his book with a thorough discussion of how words are man-made constructs which limit us. And, I think Tolle would answer your question by saying that babies are "aware"-- they are pure self, without all the layers of contructs which is ego. His message is that we can experience that freedom (by following his directions and becoming aware of ego).

But, between you and me, I still want to know exactly what goes on in a baby's mind... is it just a swirl of disorganized sensory perceptions? :P

Aniket Thakkar said...

I too am an atheist and thus avoid those spiritual books that relate everything to god. But am open to this. I loved The One a& Illusions by Richard Bach and his take on life. (And I couldn't read The Monk who sold a Ferrari beyond the first 3 chapters) This seems like a book filled with great thoughts and am glad it reminded you how wonderful a soul you are. We all are broken in our own twisted ways but then again, perfection was always over-rated. :D

Stay cheery and stand by your beliefs - Life is Beautiful!

Aine said...

Aniket~ Had to look up "The Monk"-- sounds like most of that book is stuff that you already know. ;)

Tolle does relate his ideas to God, but he also makes it clear that he's not necessarily talking about God as an outside entity. A reader could choose to define his use of "God" as that which humans and all things have in common (the stuff of life, perhaps). So it wasn't detracting for me. :)

Aniket Thakkar said...

"Stuff of life" now I like the sound of it. In fact I like it so much that I'll let you be the first person on blog land whom I tell the title of my first novel that I'm working on "Dragons & stuff".

As the name suggests its a Young Fiction kinda light humour story. :D

JaneyV said...

Aine - Wow. I read this post two days ago and I have set off on a journey that has been amazing. I have (so far - I will finish to day) watched the first 9 webcasts of Oprah and Eckhart in which they go chapter by chapter through the book and discuss all the teachings within. It's been like the lighting up of the national grid for me because it is helping to understand the constant feeling of dissatisfaction I've had. Who am I? What is my purpose? What is my path? I've been so focussed on the future, I have completely diminished the now. In the last couple of years - but particularly in the last 6 months I have felt the nagging of time pressing against me pressurising me to pick a path. I'm past 40. I don't have a career. I see the role of mother as being finite and one I have to relinquish. So who will I be? What will make me satisfied? Along with this I have left my religion. This was the right thing to do. I felt no connection to it any longer and its dogma just made me angry. I pared my belief back and I realised that I did not believe in God as "other". Our perception of the essence of Being has been cloaked in primitive notions of an all knowing king diminished what I knew to be god so completely that I could no longer buy into it just because it provided me with a community. So I started to disconnect with my spiritual self and become more rational. And I have felt so lost.

I still have no idea what I want to do - but I realise that this does not define who I am. I. Am.

That's incredibly liberating. So thank you. Thank you dear friend Aine. This post has been the most incredible gift.

On another connected (bit slightly different) note I want to suggest reading My Stroke of Insight by Dr Jill Bolte-Taylor. If you Google her name you will find a link to her YouTube TED Lecture which is fascinating. If you go to her website there's a link to Oprah's Soul Series where she talks about her book and her experience of suffering a massive left brain stroke. Given your interest in neuroscience I think it'll blow your mind. I've watched a LOT of webstuff in the last two days!!

Aine said...

Aniket~ I'm honored! And I can't wait to read it! Sounds like a fun novel to write. :)

Janey~ Oh, Janey!! I'm just beaming-- I feel the joy for you! Thank you for sharing your journey! :)

And thanks for pointing me to the New Earth webcasts and the book by Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor -- I didn't know about them. I started listening to the first webcast last night, after I read your comment. Good thing I don't have too many constraints on time this week, because I'm excited to watch them all, too!

I had a similar "aha" moment when I realized the truth of Tolle's idea that we shouldn't be seeking our purpose. Our purpose becomes clear when we are "present". Exactly what you said: I. Am.

And I love how clearly he explains the difference between religion and spirituality. I remember feeling the same struggles you seem to be feeling as a result of leaving religion. It was so validating to hear Tolle put those "truths" that I knew into words.

So, you're welcome!! And, thank you!!

Diwakar Sinha said...

wah! wat a beautiful post..
it was a good way to begin my sunday:)

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