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.