The Power of Always: Feeling Fine vs. Serving God

I stopped reading Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now before quite reaching the halfway mark.  I wanted very much to see what had electrified my son about this bestselling book that seems to have enthralled the elder brethren of his generation (it was first published two years after he was born, in 1997)… and, okay, most of what I thought I knew about that generation stands confirmed.  Its members are traumatized by crass materialism, deadend carnality, and much social and economic pressure to dive into the oily soup of career-chase.  They crave a truce, a few moments of peace: a bike ride in the park, a joint… a slug of pop-Buddhism.

I admit that the introduction Mr. Tolle appends to my edition did not prejudice me in his favor.  His obvious delight at being selected for Oprah’s book club gave me a pain—and not just because his liberating higher consciousness should be impervious to such delights.  Oprah is just another of our culture’s tiresome frauds, as her recent efforts at race-baiting on behalf of Stacey Abrams prove.  This man is not in good company.

More significantly, the theme of “we must save the world from imminent self-destruction—children should be taught my lessons in grade school,” also appears as early as the intro, if memory serves.  Now, I at once acknowledge that Tolle later condemns progressive utopianism for the ravages wrought by Stalin and Mao.  He’s not the fool for whom I had originally mistaken him (the fool, for instance, that we have in Oprah).  Licking one’s chops in anticipation of Never Never Land’s Golden Omelet merely elicits millions and millions of ruthlessly broken eggshells.  So glad you saw that, Mr. Tolle.

Nevertheless, as a fellow anti-utopian, I do not delude myself that the world may be massively redeemed through re-education.  Any guru worth his salt should know that enlightenment comes one soul at a time, and often one small ray at a time as spiritual sunrise chases away darkness over a period of years.  You can’t teach vast numbers of people to “think right” in a single programmatic undertaking—and you certainly can’t awaken these people while they’re still learning the fine points of toilet training.  This vein of messianism clouds the book repeatedly.  In someone who would appear to oppose the collectivist and the totalitarian, it looks as odd as a snake with wings.

And the Snake, you know, lies at the heart of the contradiction: original sin.  People don’t make others and themselves miserable through greed, envy, lust, scorn, and pride because their intellectual light burns too dim: they do so because of an essential attraction to wickedness insufficiently fought down.  The very surrender to the present which Tolle’s book recommends might readily be suborned to serve egotistical ends (an insight which, I’m very happy to report, my son accessed without help from me).  A person who refuses to be sucked into the rat race may have committed his life to higher things… or he may simply be displaying laziness, or even cowardice.  He may be taking a stand against vulgar, corrosive materialism… or he may be refusing to take a visible, vocal stand against immoral powers that deserve to be resisted.  The fox, with his clever capacity for rationalization, had no difficulty persuading himself that the grapes he couldn’t reach were sour.

Yet more than anything, the topos that became unendurable to me was the “no reality but now” claptrap.  To claim that the past has dissolved forever in vain memory and that the future is forever waiting to be born in its gilded haze is a truism worthy of a fortune cookie.  Is this really the face that sold a million books—a Charlie Chan’s mimicking Confucius with skeletally bare clichés?

From one perspective, the present is in fact the least real of our times.  “N” is already a memory before I finish pronouncing the “w” of “now”.  Nothing is ever truly present; time, a moving object, cannot be restricted to a single point.

From a more spiritual perspective, however—which should be the more appropriate one here—no act is banished from the present, though its date of arrival nestle far back in calendar time; nor is the future “not yet” to a person of vision and resolution, for he knows that he will stay the rightful course regardless of circumstance.  Linear time is indeed the great enemy of spirituality, perhaps the greatest of all.  As an athlete, my son knows that certain complex maneuvers cannot be performed if attention is awarded to each micro-motion: the whole sequence of connected movements, rather, must be thought of as one.  So for life.  The sense of things resides in an awareness that what you did before has meaning, and that what you will do must acquire meaning by conformity to a righteously chosen course.  This is the life of principle.  The course, naturally, may be adjusted.  Given the fallibility of us human beings, it must be so—constantly.  The adjustment is made on the basis of lessons learned from the past.  The principle, the transcendent goodness, rests eternally and immutably above our scrambles in a perpetual Now… but as an abstraction, it requires us to live in its moment by making an ongoing succession of twists and turns.

I consider God to be the source of that goodness, and my communications with it to be the operation of the spirit within me (or the Holy Spirit, if you prefer a translation into more orthodox terms).  I do not consider God or highest reality to be that “now” when I pause over my rake or shovel and study a flight of birds returning north for the spring.  Such an instant of spiritual “exhalation” (as in release from particular, very finite concerns) can undoubtedly be uplifting.  The intellectual orientation required for tapping into the inspiration of goodness must certainly include recognizing the puniness of specific endeavors.  (This can often be identical to a sense of humor.)  Living in the spirit does not end with releasing the strains that daily challenges place on our psyche, however.  A man might achieve such release after refusing to stand up and protest on behalf of his falsely accused neighbor.  In that case, he would not have liberated his spirit from worldly concerns, but enslaved it to worldly anxiety with the narcotic of self-hypnosis.

I applaud Mr. Tolle insofar as he has lured some hundreds or thousands of young people from a despair common in our post-believing society.  I should prefer, though, to see them exposed to a belief that valorizes their individual soul and gives direction to each new day rather than sedating them into an omphaloskeptic coma.  That the messengers of a profounder faith have generally not put their good news before this generation is, of course, hardly Eckhart Tolle’s fault.

Panic Attacks: The Canary Stops Singing

Panic attacks, by definition, are irrational.  They tend to have a specific cause, at least at the beginning; but the element of panic becomes fully, painfully discernible when the merest mental movement in the direction of the “raw” area instantly elevates heart rate and sends up blood pressure.  Veins pound in the head, ears ring, breathing becomes almost as difficult as if one were suffocating… and perhaps the worst is the fear that lingers after the event passes; for, since the attack appeared from nowhere, it might reappear at any moment without notice.

These observations are not simply the fruit of browsing the Internet: they describe my own experience of attacks.  The odd thing is that I hadn’t suffered them for years… until the past couple of weeks.  They used to be almost crippling when, as an academic, I held tenure-track jobs and would grow aware (as I inevitably did, it seemed) that I was doomed to be turned out of house and home for causes over which I had no control.  (On two such occasions, for instance, I had rendered myself persona non grata unwittingly by publishing scholarly articles: small schools nourish large egos, and I had stolen a little sunlight from people who craved every beam.)

Why I should be revisiting this hellish terrain in retirement is somewhat mysterious to me.  I suppose the closest thing to a specific cause was my reflecting that I might be invited to jury duty one fine day—and then I would have to enter into elaborate and humiliating explanation of my inability to sit still for hours on end, thanks to a shrunken bladder.  (Yeah, I know: this is a natural part of aging—but I also tend to trace it to a period of overexposure to an ancient generation of computers that featured cathode ray tubes.  Those months catalyzed other nagging problems, as well, at which “medical professionals” sneered and scoffed… part of the reason why I stay away from doctors and treat myself with homeopathy.)

I don’t like being under the power of other people, for the very real reason that my experience of such relationships has taught me that they veer to the abusive, sooner or later.  I certainly see nothing in the world of politics that inclines me to reconsider my “problem with authority”.  Very nearly being saddled with a socialist governor last fall just after moving to the state of Georgia did nothing to calm my nerves; watching the movement to enfranchise masses of people who have entered the country illegally hasn’t pacified me; and trying in my own paltry way to assist a man serving three life sentences for crimes he didn’t commit has opened up a whole new vista of abused authority to me.

Add to that my ongoing battles to have FedEx, UPS, and the USPS deliver packages all the way to the end of my half-mile driveway… then the ever-present knowledge that my son now lives a thousand miles away in a city that wants to fund the heroin habit of its drug addicts… and, well, retirement hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses.  True, we can always find things to worry about; but when I was working, at least I had to ignore the horizon’s clouds for hours on end and address the tasks at hand.

I still have such tasks—and working on my garden or in my nascent orchard is, indeed, just what this doctor ordered.  As I lowered my shovel from an innovative type of raised garden bed yesterday, attracted by what I had long supposed to be turkey calls, I discovered a V of cranes making straight north… and then another.  The peace I felt at that moment utterly annihilated whatever serpentine shadows were coiling within me.  And even indoors, I can write, as I am doing now.

What I cannot do is, in a moment of foolish confidence, revisit the origins of the panic with a view to unraveling them rationally.  After every sequence of calm explanation and reasonable solution, a voice howls back, “But people are not reasonable!  Your behavioral autopsies have no relevance, no bite—people will do whatever their black hearts urge them to do!  Their hunger for power upon more power is insatiable, even to the point of self-destruction!”  And then another tailspin and another nosedive… all thanks to the attempt to be rational.

I understand why some sufferers cling to crosses.  I’ve tried that.  It may work a little bit for a while.  One really does have the sensation, you know, of fighting with the devil—with an assertive force of lunacy that wraps every effort at dispassionate analysis into an obscene adornment for his tail.  The Cross: “See this!  Stand back!”  It works better for hearts not so dominated by the mind as is mine.

At some point, my mind asked, “What does it work at all, even for a little?  What does the Cross represent that frightens this devil away?”  My son counseled me to live in the present moment and not allow questions about the invisible future to torment me.  He is all aglow with Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now (at least for now).  I began reading the book and, I confess, found myself immediately challenged to overcome the man’s aura of millenarian charism, his ecstatic “my light would transform the world if only the world could rend the veil before it”… his egotism.  At last, in a Tolle-like revelation, I toyed with the notion that living in the Now is precisely the wrong way to beat the devil—that the devil, in fact, enjoys the suffocating confines of Now and can cut the soul’s mooring very adroitly within them.  Or to say it from another angle: the true Now is Always.  The Cross is that Now, that Always within which a lifetime of struggles is but one moment.  To continue in the struggle, to insist upon the struggle’s purpose and ultimate success, to understand its victory as already secure merely by virtue of a struggle’s being made….  We win when we refuse to slide easily downstream.  We ride a rising tide that absorbs all streams into the great wide ocean.

Does Tolle reject that Now Is Always in his Always Now?  I’ll have to read the book through.  But the fact that my son has been able to allay his own devils with Mr. Tolle’s help advises me that young people in our aging and ailing society stand in grave need of a guru—a doctor who doesn’t simply laugh at their anguish and tell them that it’s imaginary.  To be sure, many gurus are false prophets: perhaps most.  Having such power over impressionable hearts is a heady drought, and few can resist its intoxicating effects.  None of that neutralizes the evidence that we were not made to lead the highly artificial lives that progressive technology has imposed upon us.  Though only two people in a hundred (according to Wikipedia) suffer panic attacks such as mine, I find it more than a little likely that our current political nuttiness is symptomatic of a collective panic.  What is the unhinged, hysterical insistence upon the planet’s impending meltdown if not the distorted cry of a generation cut off from its natural roots?

I wish these children of the iPod and iPhone were not so trusting of the very types whose lust for power could indeed render our lives unlivable—therein lies a major component of my own disposition to panic.  But I do understand the refrain of, “The sky is falling.”  Individually, we must strive to live in that completed moment when the sky has already fallen rather than, collectively, trying to build artificial staircases to the zenith.