My mother is at the end stage of her terminal illness. After being diagnosed with stage 4 gastric cancer almost two years ago, the chemo treatments stopped working and the cancer has spread all throughout her abdomen. The doctors said they don’t know how long she has left. Maybe weeks or a few months at the most.
My daughter and I flew to San Diego to see her while she was still feeling relatively OK. As we drove around town from the airport to the marina where my mom is living to my sister’s house nearby, my mind was filled with all manner of thoughts—what we would do to maximize our time there, how to handle certain delicate conversations, and the logistics for the weekend. My daughter, however, had something else on her mind.
“I love San Diego,” she said. “Look at how all the plants and trees are so different than in Denver. It would be so cool to live here.”
My first instinct was to defend Denver and remind her of why her father and I moved out of San Diego more than twenty years ago, but instead, another thought blossomed in my mind. Why was I taking her comment as a personal affront? Why not see what she sees? She was right, after all. The flora was different. Way different.
Until that very moment, I was taking the surrounding landscape for granted. I looked again through her eyes. Some trees had huge red blossoms on them and not many green leaves (I learned later they’re naked coral trees). There were yellow and purple flowers on the side of embankments and in the medians. Trees were bright and deep green with fresh leaves. Grass was lush and dense after a season of rain, a relief from years of drought and brown.
Everywhere we looked, we saw flowers. Rosemary shrubs and pepper trees were as common as ash trees and Russian sage back home. The air was fragrant and humid with an approaching rainstorm, a sensation seldom to be experienced in the arid climate of the plains of Colorado.
We spent the next two days observing all the new and wonderful things San Diego has to offer: a diving seal in the harbor, a manta ray coasting casually near the dock of the Midway Naval Museum, purple trees, slugs, eucalyptus trees, teal-blue coastlines. In the midst of our sad and difficult family visit, we did what we could to stay present to what surrounded us. We appreciated that life was beginning anew in San Diego after a period of drought and death. It was a momentary glimpse of something beautiful and perhaps, not necessarily enduring.
This attention to beauty kept us in a state of gratitude toward life, and indeed was a contrast to the decline and illness we had to witness.
When you have to face a sad reality in your life, is it possible to be consoled by nature’s seasons and beauty? Can staying present to nature’s cycles get you through some tough times? I think so, because you see the endurance of life and beauty after a period of harsh and difficult challenges.
The other day I was at a friend’s house for a little gathering and the subject of meditation came up. The women at this gathering discussed the many ways meditation had helped them, or what they thought were benefits of meditation based on what they’ve experienced from friends and family.
We all seemed to agree that meditation was a good habit, and that it was important to not get caught up in the idea that it has to be done correctly or for a certain amount of time. Any time you can just sit quietly, take a break, breathe and observe your thoughts, even if it’s for five minutes, was a good thing.
There is a common misconception that meditation is about suppressing thought. Meditation is not about “not thinking” but rather allowing the thoughts, observing them, and then going back to the breath. In this way, meditation is a way for us to let go of our attachment to the meaning we assign to our thoughts.
Detaching ourselves from the emotional triggers our thoughts create is one simple and very important benefit to meditation.
I’ll offer an example from my own experience with meditation. Many years ago I was taking an online meditation class at Naropa for my graduate degree. We were required to sit at least 20 minutes per day and journal about it afterward. I hadn’t done any serious daily meditation before. I’d meditated only a handful of times before and with a group. Never alone and never consistently.
I was ready to see what it’d be like to have a consistent practice. I prepared my space. I put down a couple of couch pillows on the floor. I set up a timer on my phone so I wouldn’t constantly be watching the clock. I got into a comfortable position and touched the “start” button.
The first few times I meditated I kept glancing at the timer, thinking that surely at least 20 minutes had passed, when in fact it had only been five or ten. It was excruciating to sit still doing…nothing. My thoughts started lining up.
My back feels stiff. What if I start fidgeting. Will that be wrong?
Back to the breath…
There’s a lot of dust under the entertainment unit. Ugh. I have to dust that later.
I can’t forget to make that appointment today.
Back to the breath…
Will I have time to get that project done and do this meditation, too?
I wonder what I’ll make for dinner? Not now, back to the breath.
…and so on.
At first, I was totally “buying into” these thoughts. I would start to feel anxious, overwhelmed, disgusted even. I was a terrible house keeper. I had too much work to do. I wasn’t totally happy with my work because if I were, I wouldn’t feel so stressed all the time. Why was I so forgetful lately?
The meditation felt excruciating because I wanted to keep DOING instead of just “sitting there” obsessing over something.
After a couple of weeks of this, I noticed a pattern. I noticed that the same exact thoughts would come up, day in and day out. The noticing of the dirt and dust in the room as I sat with my eyes open with a soft gaze. The discomfort of my position because my core was weak. The sense of overwhelm about all the things on my to-do list that day.
That’s when things began to shift, ever so slightly. Instead of feeling anxious over the many things I believed I had to do that were pilling up and creating ever-increasing urgency, I began to look at the thoughts themselves with a little bit of irritation. Why was I so obsessive? Why was it so hard to relax for 20 minutes and let things go? The world (and my to-do list) wasn’t going anywhere for 20 minutes. Why was my brain making it so difficult for me to just sit?
I was really judging myself!
After another couple of weeks, I began to look at my irritation in a different way. I saw that I was resisting, but what I was resisting was the letting go. I wasn’t resisting taking 20 minutes away from my schedule to just sit, I was resisting the idea that I stopped buying into the idea that the thoughts themselves were all that important.
Was it really that important that the room had pockets of hidden dust that I hadn’t cleaned?
Was it really that important that I get everything done on my to-do list a week ahead of schedule?
Was it really that important that I be absolutely 100% comfortable at all times?
What I was witnessing was the ego having its little power struggle. As Eckhart Tolle would say, our ego wants us to believe that it is much more important than it really is. It wants to be in control. It doesn’t want to be released or gently set aside. Letting go of our sense of importance is really one of the most difficult things we can do, but it can be the most liberating.
And that is the one simple reason to meditate, in my opinion: To observe those repetitive thoughts and be able to unplug from them, and to be able to unplug from our ego’s sense of importance. This allows us to have more inner peace, because we are not always in some sort of competition with the world, our schedule or our ego’s idea of happiness and success
After several months of daily meditation, I was able to look at a thought that came up—about the dust or the to-do list—and chuckle. “Oh, right. You again.”
Yoga therapist, Sharon Alexander, and I went on a short walk along the Bobolink trail in south Boulder to demonstrate how to be mindful of the energy of your chakras while hiking. Even though the terminology is different, the concepts behind the earth, water and fire chakras are very similar to the concepts in the chapter about masculine and feminine energy in my book, Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range.
Masculine energy is about doing, striving, achieving. It is goal-oriented and direct. Feminine energy is about being, feeling, experiencing, sensing and receiving. If one’s energy is out of balance, problems can occur. Too much masculine energy in life can create burn out, as Sharon points out. Too much feminine energy can perpetuate a stuck state, or an inability to create inertia for change.
When you’re hiking, notice your energy. Are you focused on the goal, the summit, the point on the map that you’ve assigned yourself? Are you enjoying the moment or concerned about the end result of your hike? Are you dropping down into your feelings or are you checking off lists in your mind? This exercise isn’t meant to create judgement about what energy you’re projecting, only an observation. If you’re feeling burned out, you may consider balancing your energy with more feeling and sensing. Slow down, sink into your senses, don’t worry about how far you’re walking or how to elevate your heartrate. Use the yoga poses shown in the video to be mindful of your body.
If you’re frustrated by your lack of focus in life, and you’re feeling stuck, you may need to ramp up your energy and become more task-oriented. Set a goal for yourself for the hike (distance, time, destination) and achieve it. Balance is key.
“There is such a thing as old emotional pain living inside you. It is an accumulation of painful life experience that was not fully faced and accepted in the moment it arose. It leaves behind an energy form of emotional pain. It comes together with other energy forms from other instances, and so after some years you have a “painbody,” an energy entity consisting of old emotion.” –Eckhart Tolle
We all get triggered sometimes. Someone will say something, or act a certain way, or respond to you with body language that pushes your buttons and wham! you feel a surge of panic, anger or shame. This emotional pain that arises is what Eckhart Tolle calls the “painbody”. It is an old wound that has festered and perhaps laid dormant inside your psyche, and occasionally it gets triggered because of an incident that happens, rises out of the depths of your consciousness, and begins to grow and strengthen from the negative thoughts you feed it.
Everyone’s painbody has its origin in a past painful event. One of mine was when I was 10 years old. My best friend, who lived across the street, betrayed me. I was invited to her house for a birthday party sleepover. Also invited were her cousins and other friends from the school she attended. I didn’t know anyone there except my friend.
At first the afternoon progressed as I expected, with the usual festivities—games, cake, silly antics. But after the adults retreated to the living room to watch TV, leaving us to play in my friend’s bedroom, the girls at the party turned on me. They began picking on me. They asked me about being Polish, and then laughed about how I was a “dumb Polack”. They made fun of me being “fat”, which was particularly hurtful to me. I didn’t have anything to say. I just sat there and took it. The more I sat there, the more they found things to make fun of and laugh about. Their laughter turned sinister, and my friend, to whom I turned in hopes she’d defend me, laughed right alongside them.
I had the presence of mind to get myself home, and since the party had been a sleepover, my coming earlier than expected that evening made my mother suspicious. She got the truth out of me, stormed over to the neighbor’s house, and promptly demanded that all the girls apologize to me. It was quite the scene. My friend’s mother was furious and apologetic. I’m sure the drama ruined my friend’s birthday party sleepover.
Afterward, my friend was no longer my friend. She became my neighborhood bully.
This is when one of my painbodies formed in my subconscious.
Today, whenever I trust someone and they betray my trust or reject me, my painbody is triggered. This can happen in all kinds of situations: at work, with my family, with my friends. I’m an adult with more than 30 years of experience and wisdom over the 10 year old I was then, but when something occurs that even remotely resembles that incident, I’m a little girl all over again, running home where she knows she’s safe.
This can cause tremendous pain and suffering. It can lead to misunderstandings, overreactions, and unnecessary drama.
One of the ways the painbody becomes stronger is that whenever we are triggered, we feed it thoughts.
“They don’t like me because I’m not as funny/with it/sociable as they are.”
“I guess I’ll always be the chubby girl no one likes, no matter how much I work out and diet.”
Of course, these are just thoughts and have no basis in fact. But we reinforce our pain by telling ourselves all manner of negative things about why something is happening or not happening. We make the painbody bigger and stronger, so the next time it is triggered out of dormancy, we react with more and more emotion. We become the painbody. After a while, we can no longer separate what is happening in reality with how we feel about it. It becomes our reality and takes us out of stillness and presence, because it takes over our mind.
While I don’t think we can ever fully eliminate or erase the painbody, there is something we can do to lessen its effect on us. We can stop feeding our pain body with thoughts. Whenever you are triggered, and you sense an arising of turmoil inside you, take a few seconds to become still and present. Just notice what is happening inside you. Notice where the pain body resides. Is it in your stomach? Your throat? Your belly?
Instead of focusing on where the discomfort lies in your body, focus on other parts of your body that still feel relaxed, like your feet or your hands. Imagine the pain body dissolving and becoming smaller as the other, relaxed parts of your body take over.
Before reacting to the situation, also notice your thoughts. What are you telling yourself about what just happened? These are just thought forms, nothing more, and they aren’t real, as much as you’d like to think they are.
By refraining from feeding the painbody, you may not eliminate it altogether, but you can diminish it. Over time, you’ll be able to easily notice when you’re being triggered, and you can just as easily let it go, without comment or complaint. That will allow you to be fully present to the moment and experience it as it should be experienced, instead of through the lens of your 10-year old self.
I am fairly confident that if I were to ask the 500 or so participants of the Eckhart Tolle retreat I’m attending at Asilomar, California, what they are hoping to get out of the experience, many would probably tell me that they’re looking for ways to achieve inner peace. I’ve only had a few conversations with the retreat goers, but I’ve gathered they’ve already been able to apply Eckhart’s teachings to improve the way they feel about their lives and interact with others.
One woman I met from Australia told me that she’s been able to get through a difficult period with her teenaged daughter with more presence and mindfulness. Another woman told me that she found it easier to care for her now-deceased husband who had Alzheimer’s because she was able to be present with his essence instead of focusing on the faculties he was losing over time. I have noticed that the people attending this retreat do seem to strive to be fully present, and they seem to be taking steps to cultivate more inner peace. They don’t bring their laptops to the meeting hall, they are comfortable with silence and meditation, and they don’t have their face compulsively glued to their cellphones. They’re relaxed, friendly, and unrushed. On the surface, it may seem that being present and experiencing peacefulness doesn’t seem to be as much of a challenge for this crowd as it might be for attendees of a, say, conference on economic or social media trends.
But all is not as it would seem. Judging from the quality of the questions being posed to Eckhart during the Q&A sessions, I doubt this crowd can claim to have actually achieved a lasting state of inner peace. People are still facing many challenges in their lives, both internal and external.
They want to know why they keep having compulsive judgmental thoughts about others. They want to know why they are so upset about a computer issue. They are still deeply grieving a loss and don’t know when they’ll feel like themselves again.
Despite all the spiritual “work” we may have done, inner peace is as elusive as ever.
Which made me wonder, do we really even WANT inner peace?
It seems like a weird question, but let me explain.
Eckhart says that some people are addicted to bad news (in the sense of the media and sensationalism) because it affords them a sense of aliveness they can’t otherwise access. Maybe some of us are addicted to chaotic people and situations or torrid emotions for the same exact reason. Drama, love, hatred, jealousy, infatuation, despair – these are all strong emotions that makes us feel alive. When we’re flustered after an emotional encounter, we feel our heart racing and we’re motivated to do something (write an angry letter or a love poem, for example). On the other hand, when life settles down into a kind of “boring” drone of not-much-happening, sometimes we consciously or even unconsciously sabotage our life in order to feel alive again.
We move to a new town…because we feel bored and uninspired about our life.
We have an affair with someone because we think we need to “feel more”.
We quit our job in search of a “better fit.”
We leave a relationship.
We pick a fight, criticize, complain and push people away.
We find a new cause to stand behind – something REALLY important (and usually something we think most people are ignorant about).
We aren’t even aware we are looking for that sense of aliveness. We believe we are overcoming challenges or making a change that will alleviate some kind of suffering. We wouldn’t call it a quest for aliveness. We would call it a quest for inner peace.
In this quest, we may even unconsciously want to do things that will turn our lives upside down, even though we would deny that we would ever willingly create unwelcome challenges for ourselves.
But we do.
That’s because what we really want is not inner peace, but to feel alive. This is perhaps why people who’ve had brushes with death or have been diagnosed with a terminal illness can finally find that elusive inner peace. They stop feeling restless and dissatisfied. They no longer focus on that which doesn’t matter. They know what it’s like to be facing the emptiness of unconsciousness, so they revel in the consciousness they have left. They effortlessly feel their aliveness, therefore they come to a place of inner peace.
What We Really Want & How to Get It
What can we do when we’re faced that those vague feelings of restlessness and dissatisfaction with life, short of plunging our life into chaos? One thing we can do, instead of seeking the next form of external emotional stimulation, is to try tapping into a sense of being-ness instead. One need not be gripped by euphoria or despair in order to feel alive. You just need to feel your own aliveness in every cell of your body.
Your aliveness is the part of the Universal consciousness that takes place as form (your body, for example). When you’re in the present moment, you sense your aliveness and your being-ness in the world. You are not lost in thought. You feel the ground beneath your feet and experience the spaciousness around you. Life is around and within you. You ARE life itself.
This practice is easier to do in nature, where it is quieter and you feel more relaxed and unencumbered by the demands of the external human world (“I should clean the house, write that e-mail, call that client, answer this person’s question”). But you can certainly do this at home while sitting on the couch, just breathing.
As you sit, sense the space in the room, or if you’re out in nature, sense the space around yourself, the trees, the rocks and the ground. Smell what life smells like. Listen to what it sounds like. Everything in the world is alive at the molecular level, everything is churning and changing and buzzing. Animals and plants and insects all share your consciousness with the world. Feel what it feels like to be conscious of life and of the Universe itself. Feel what it feels like to be you, without form and without any of the conceptual ideas you have about yourself.
Who are you, without labels and functions? As you begin to grasp this sensation, drop into it and try to stay in the experience without having any thought about it. Just stay present to what it feels like to be consciousness.
This is aliveness. This is what you’re “working” so hard to experience, every moment of your life.
It is the essence of inner peace, because it is the no-thing-ness of consciousness.
For the last four days, I’ve been a nobody surrounded by about 500 other “nobodies” from all over the world. We are all attending a retreat with Eckhart Tolle in a seaside conference center in Pacific Grove, California. The only two people I know at the entire event are Eckhart and his partner, Kim Eng. Everyone here knows these two are “somebodies”. They have expectations to uphold. They need to demonstrate their spiritual enlightenment to everyone. They need to say just the right thing, so we all go home feeling satisfied somehow.
I don’t envy them. I’m enjoying being a nobody.
Everyone here beside Echkart, Kim and my husband is a stranger to me, and I’m a stranger to them.
The other retreat participants and I meet three times a day at the dining hall, where we are randomly placed together around a table for the meal. Sometimes we speak to each other and sometimes we don’t. The first evening it seemed that everyone was eager to meet, and the conversations were animated. As the days progress, however, the introverts are asserting their right to silence and the extroverts seem to somehow find each other as necessary.
When I sense an openness and I’m willing to converse, I greet the person sitting next to me and we begin a light conversation. There’s no pressure, I can still remain a nobody. They don’t know what I do for a living (no one asks), they don’t know how much or how little I know of Eckhart’s work. They don’t know how much money I have or what kind of car I drive. They know nothing of my expertise and skills, or how much time I’ve spent learning what I know. They don’t know my history or the things I’ve suffered or accomplished. All they know is that I’m from Colorado, because everyone here is curious about the places in the world people are from.
I haven’t asked any person here these questions about their life, either. I allow them the space to tell me how much or how little they wish about themselves, and usually it isn’t much beyond what their home town and its residents are like.
I’ve never been such a “nobody” around so many people for so many days in a row.
It’s been liberating.
By being a nobody, I am free to be anybody. I don’t need to uphold some kind of egoic version of myself or defend my opinions. I don’t need to explain anything. I don’t need to prove anything. I don’t need to be a good example of the kind of person I say I’m supposed to be. Perhaps my attire and age narrow the possibilities, but not much, because everyone here has the same uniform of casual, warm clothing to repel the bone-chilling dampness that permeates the central California coast this time of year. I know that everyone here has to have at least enough money to pay for this retreat and what it took to travel here, but I haven’t seen any Rolex watches, overpriced technical clothing or flashy jewelry.
By allowing myself and others to be a “nobody” I am allowing the space to be instead be completely present to the essence of the other. I have sensed timidity, eagerness, preoccupation, agitation and openness. I have sensed high energy and subdued energy. I have sensed emotional pain lurking beneath the friendly surface.
In between sessions with Eckhart, or during longer periods of “free time”, we’ve escaped from the conference grounds to experience nature near the Monterey Peninsula.
Nature, in the form of the ocean breakers along the coast, the birds in the water and in the trees, the cypress grove, and the ancient redwood forest, accepts my presence. It asks nothing in return for my enchantment and sense of wonder and relaxation. Nature doesn’t care what I do for a living, or if I do anything at all whatsoever. It doesn’t even ask me where I’m from or whether or not I’m enjoying the retreat so far.
My experience of nature can be the same, whether I’m a famous spiritual teacher walking from my room to the meeting hall or just a hotel groundskeeper on my lunch break. In nature, I don’t need to worry about being judged or ridiculed or scoffed at. It doesn’t expect me to get anything done. I can be present with any emotion, I can scream and cry and stomp my feet, and it won’t matter. The trees won’t buckle or tell me to leave. The ocean’s roar is always louder. The birds will chirp no matter what story I tell them.
Nature allows us to be exactly who we are. This is why we may feel so at home in its presence. This is why, when we feel demoralized by life, we want to run to the woods and lose ourselves under the branches of a large tree. For some of us, not even a mother’s or a lover’s embrace feels quite as comforting.